Interviewing Sources about Traumatic Experiences

A flooded street and an emergency team on a boat filled with sandbags.
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Last year, I was assigned a feature on a new procedure to save the fertility of children and teenagers with cancer. It was a fascinating subject, but it raised a dilemma: How could I interview and write about these young survivors, who had only recently emerged from traumatic cancer treatment, without potentially causing them further distress? Doctors had warned me that insensitive reporters had hurt other patients in the past. For those under age, I would obviously seek parental consent, or if the child was very young, I’d only speak to the parents. But that did not take away the central problem. This would be a story about some of the worst and most frightening moments of their lives, at a time when they were still vulnerable.

For many journalists, asking people to recount a harrowing experience is a fundamental part of their job. War and crime reporting would not be possible without testimonies from trauma survivors. Science writers, too, report on trauma, and not just when their work involves a courtroom or conflict zone. Stories about new medical treatments, drug trials, environmental pollution, mental health issues, and natural disasters can all bring a science writer face to face with people who have suffered deeply, at times at the hands of scientists and journalists themselves.

Most journalists would probably like to think their interviews are empowering, lending a voice to those who would otherwise go unheard. But those interviewed do not necessarily experience it that way. Studies on trauma survivors suggest that some find contact with journalists distressing. In certain cases, interactions with the media worsened the trauma. Even reading media reports about the traumatic event can increase feelings of fear in survivors. When I researched my feature on fertility preservation, one doctor told me about a young patient who was bullied at school after appearing in a newspaper article under a sensationalist headline.


Gain Perspective

Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds, a British author and activist, has decades of experience with interviews—on both sides of the microphone. She was 11 years old in the 1970s when a journalist first spoke to her and her parents about thalidomide, a sedative that used to be prescribed for coughs, colds, and other ailments. It had since emerged that when taken by women in early pregnancy, the drug caused miscarriages or stillbirths, or severely harmed their babies, for example by causing damage to their limbs and organs. Moriarty-Simmonds, who was herself affected by thalidomide, has by her own estimate given more than a hundred interviews on the subject. She has also interviewed other thalidomide survivors on her radio program and for her autobiography, Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes.

“Unless these things are raised in the media, not with rubbish false news, but real, genuine stories that people need to know about, they often get swept under the carpet,” Moriarty-Simmonds says. “It needs to be accurate, and it needs to be a story from the actual people who are affected, rather than what somebody else thinks is the situation.”

Moriarty-Simmonds says her most enjoyable interviews were those conducted by well-informed and interested journalists, in comfortable, familiar settings. And while a journalist may think of an interviewee as vulnerable or traumatized, that may not be how they see themselves. In the case of thalidomide survivors, for example, Moriarty-Simmonds wishes interviewers were more aware of their achievements: “As a group, we changed legislation…. We’ve had a huge impact politically for disabled people. These things should be considered equally.”


Be Deliberate, Considerate, and Transparent

Interviewing someone in a balanced, fact-seeking yet sensitive way is not always easy. Asking about details of a traumatic experience may come across as intrusive or aggressive and cause fresh pain. A source may become tense or angry if they think the journalist is doubting their account, especially if they have been disbelieved in the past. Sometimes it may be possible to verify the person’s testimony independently, and substantiate the story without having to push them beyond their comfort zone. But for investigative pieces, especially when there are conflicting accounts of a situation, this is usually not an option.

Science journalist David Dobbs faced such a complex situation when working on an article about hand transplants for Wired. As part of his research, he interviewed the father of a patient who had undergone a transplant and later died after a series of health problems. Interviewing any grieving parent is difficult. But there was another complicating factor here: The patient had struggled with drug addiction, which could have affected her recovery from the transplant. And because there were some discrepancies between different sources’ accounts, he was also trying to obtain independent documentation, such as medical records. Dobbs had to ask the father about these painful subjects, not knowing how he would react.

Dobbs’s solution was to organize his questions along a timeline, a strategy he generally uses for sensitive interviews.

“A timeline is a reliable structure. You know where you’re going. You just start early, and you ask questions,” he says. Dobbs asked the father to narrate his recollection of events from the beginning, and to take his time. That way, the most difficult incidents naturally arose from the sequence. Right at the end, Dobbs explained why it was important for him to read the daughter’s medical records, and the father agreed to let him see them.

Throughout the toughest parts of this interview, Dobbs turned to another strategy he often uses: apologizing. In his view, an apology can take the sting out of a difficult question.

“I would say, ‘So some of these questions that I’m going to ask, they might seem outright rude, or prosecutorial, or suspicious. I’m sorry. I just need to get facts, and in some cases, I’m trying to resolve discrepancies between different accounts. It’s not that I think anyone’s lying, so forgive me for asking this,’” Dobbs says. “That phrasing works wonders. It sets people at ease. And it’s the true answer; it’s the true reason you’re asking.”

Explaining the reporting process, and being clear about one’s goals and motivations, allows the source to make an informed choice about whether they want to be interviewed. At the same time, as Moriarty-Simmonds points out, consenting to an interview does not mean consenting to answering all questions. A source may choose to skip certain questions, or a journalist may decide that it’s better not to ask them in the first place.


Be Flexible

Samira Shackle, a journalist who has covered a number of stories that involved difficult interviews, including one on Karachi’s ambulance drivers and another one on a drug that stops dangerous bleeding after childbirth, says that she sometimes deliberately holds back during an interview.

“It’s a kind of cost-benefit analysis that you’re doing all the time,” she says. She might for example ask herself if probing a person further would really add anything to the story, or just leave them “with this kind of horrible trauma reopened.”

During sensitive interviews, Shackle watches her sources for signs of distress and reminds them that they do not have to go on. She also tries to end on a positive note: “I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve left someone in a much worse state than when I started talking to them.”

Shackle has found it helpful to consult guides by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. However, when I was researching this feature, I noticed that there was generally relatively little specialist guidance for science journalists covering trauma. The material from the Dart Center and other organizations such as the Poynter Institute tends to be geared more towards reporters covering crime or conflict. When it comes to interviews that involve both science and a painful event, it can therefore be useful to look at other disciplines that cover these areas.

Ruth Blue is an oral historian who co-recorded interviews with thalidomide survivors for the Wellcome Library in London. Oral history differs from journalism; for example, Blue’s interviewees checked their transcripts before publication. But some of the techniques used by oral historians, such as letting a source speak freely for as long as they want, are worth considering for difficult interviews.

“If somebody was getting very upset, I’d suggest maybe we should take a break and then we could talk about it off the recording,” she says. Once the person was ready to go on, the recording would resume. Blue spent up to 11 hours over several sessions interviewing each source, more than the average journalist can afford. But even within the constraints of a deadline, slowing things down can help.

Daniela Ovadia, scientific director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Journalism, in Milan, Italy, recommends scheduling two hours for an interview with a patient, for example, to avoid rushing through their experience.

“Maybe they will tell you the story of their grandmother who was sick, too, or family stories, or the impact on their life,” she says. “And they have the right to tell their story, even if you won’t use this information to write your article.”

Ovadia suggests starting with open-ended questions: “So: ‘Are you able to tell me what’s happening to you?’ and not ‘How was it to undergo surgery? Was it painful?’ Don’t go straight into details that can elicit a traumatic experience. Just let the patient talk about their experience. And then, when you become familiar to them, when you show empathy, then you can ask specific questions.”

She also notes that journalists should consider the broader context and potential impact of their stories. Someone’s frank talk about their genetically inherited disease could, for instance, reveal that close relatives—who were not asked to consent to the interview—are likely to carry it, too.


Focus on the Facts—but Bring Your Humanity

A science journalist’s perceived expertise can affect the dynamics of an interview. Sources may ask them for help or advice, especially in situations where there is little access to information.

Before becoming a journalist, Seema Yasmin trained as a medical doctor and worked as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her training helped her keep safe when she interviewed Ebola survivors in Liberia, and she is currently working on a toolbox to help journalists cover epidemics and other public health crises. However, some sources still see her as a doctor and ask her about their medical problems when she interviews them. “Everything from a headache, to a swollen knee, rashes, and all sorts,” she says. “It’s completely understandable.”

When that happens, she refers them to a local healthcare provider. She draws a clear line between her roles: “I want to respect the law and the doctors who do work there. I don’t want to helicopter in as a doctor from America who is here to fix it. I’m not. I’m here to report on what’s broken.”

Reflecting on the many dilemmas and solutions that can come with interviewing people about traumatic experiences, I am struck by something Moriarty-Simmonds told me. When I asked her about that first interview she did as a child, she said it was good fun. The journalist was not even particularly experienced. He was a student writing for the university paper. But he had a friendly manner, interviewed her in the safety of her family and home, and his resulting article was hard-hitting. More importantly, it was accurate. This is a point she comes back to several times in our interview: Ethical interviewing is not just about what happens during the encounter. It is also about checking the facts before publication.

In the case of my feature on fertility preservation for cancer patients, speaking directly to young people and their families helped me convey the significance as well as the challenges of the procedure in a much more detailed, vivid and nuanced way. I heard what it actually feels like for a teenage girl to enter menopause and for a parent to decide whether to freeze a piece of tissue from their sick child. All the sources were offered anonymity to protect their privacy, but many were keen to be named so others in a similar situation could get in touch. Such personal stories are as much a part of science writing as research papers and statistics. They show the real-life impact of discoveries made in the lab, and they allow readers—be they patients, scientists, or the general public—to make more informed decisions as a result.



Sophie Hardach Courtesy of Sophie Hardach

Sophie Hardach is a journalist and novelist living in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, BBC online, and many other publications. Her latest novel, Confession with Blue Horses, is about a girl growing up in East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Follow her on Twitter @Sophiehardach.

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