No, you really don’t understand

Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about interviewing people in breaking news situations and how to think on your feet. These situations are difficult, but perhaps the most difficult of all is interviewing a person who is grieving the death of a close relative. When that death was sudden and violent, survivors may be experiencing one or many intense emotions.

Enter the journalist, asking questions. How do we do this? Why do we do this?

Our life stories at the Missourian bring us more positive feedback than almost anything we do as a news organization. These kinds of stories memorialize members of the community and help us come to terms with death. They help a community heal. But it’s easy to say “the wrong thing” or make incorrect assumptions in our interactions with survivors.We should never, for example, say that we understand how a grieving person feels. We don’t.

The answer is not to give up quickly or avoid the call (or pretend that you made it). Sometimes in my experience, bereaved people really want to talk. They just need to do it in their own way, on their own terms and at a pace they set themselves.

I came across this excellent blog post by a fellow journalism professor at another university. The guidelines in the post came from the grieving parents of a young woman who was killed by a drunk driver. They’re worth reading.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to No, you really don’t understand

  1. The linked blog post was not only a list of tips, but a story packed with emotion. I was hooked as soon as I began reading.

    The 12 tips at the end of the post are extremely helpful. I feel much more prepared in approaching this specific writing process just having read these guidelines, and I am anxious to learn more in class tomorrow.

    Some tips I find extremely worthy of note:
    -Tip number two tells you to CONVEY that you want to shed light on who the person was. I like that it shows the journalist’s intent is to create a meaningful story.
    -Tip number four kind of goes along with the previous one. I would think that if I were in such a situation, having the reporter asking me to SHARE the story rather than asking for an interview is more welcoming and creates a better relationship.
    -Tip number nine brought up a useful point, to ask for a photo. I don’t think I would have ever thought to ask for this, but I do believe it is helpful to know what the person you are writing about looked like. It puts the situation into perspective.

    It is scary being a journalist, and I will admit I am still nervous to approach my first life story. But this blog post really does help.

  2. Kelly M says:

    That blog was extremely helpful! I’ve interviewed people who have lost family members long after the fact but I’ve always been somewhat nervous to do so in the wake of the death. Professor Cornies made me think of the interview in a more human way-its okay to be human in a story that is so emotionally charged. I feel more often than not, journalists step into a situation too quickly, too mechanically…it feels like we step on the toes of those we expect to hear a story from. However, if you show you simply want to know what they are feeling, and if they are prepared to share that with you, the process runs more smoothly and the journalist’s presence is less intrusive and more organic.

    I wonder…what situations would you simply not feel comfortable walking into to interview? Or do you feel its okay to walk into everything?

  3. It’s interesting how simple changes in word choice can totally change the mood of the interview. Think of when a friend loses a family member. One of your responses is likely to be, “I’m here if you need to talk.” Talk. Conversation. This is what grieving people need, not a Q&A session for your deadline.
    I think Professor Cornies gave some excellent advice. I’ve never been in a situation such as this, but I now feel more prepared for when I am. I did have one question though concerning the tips. Number 5 says that if they wish to be left alone you should respect that, but number 12 says if you get a “no”, you should ask if you can speak to someone else. What is the difference here? I think I would feel awkward asking to speak with someone else if the family declined to talk.

  4. Wow…thanks for directing us to that blog. I agree–it was very helpful.

    I haven’t written a life story yet, and as strange as this may sound, I actually want to. I see it as another way to serve our readers, not only in what we print, but in the process of listening to those who are grieving. Sometimes, that’s what people need–someone who will listen to them. I see the life stories not only as a way to commemorate someone’s life, but also a way to reach out and serve the readers who are in the midst of grief. I can’t speak from experience, but it seems like going into a conversation about someone’s loved one with that approach would help.

  5. I wanted to say something about this in class…but sometimes I can be a little shy. Katherine, if I were covering the story that you were describing you had to cover I feel like I would get emotional myself. I’m kind of an emotional person….so I’m not exactly sure how to act if I did get emotional while interviewing a source. I know that it might be hard to give me exact advice…..but any advice? I just don’t want to cross any lines in covering a touchy subject such as this.

  6. I wanted to say something about this in class…but sometimes I can be a little shy. Katherine, if I were covering the story that you were describing you had to cover I feel like I would get emotional myself. I’m kind of an emotional person….so I’m not exactly sure how to act if I did get emotional while interviewing a source. I know that it might be hard to give me exact advice…..but any advice? I just don’t want to cross any lines in covering a touchy subject such as this.

    • EmokeBebiak says:

      I have done one life story so far, and even though I didn’t end up crying, I came pretty close to it. I think it’s okay to cry with the family members, that’s the only thing we can do for them.
      Crying might be good for you, too. When doing a life story, we’re getting intimately involved with a family’s life, and I think it affects us emotionally. Crying can help you release that emotional tension.

      • reedkath says:

        Emoke, I am going to respectfully disagree. I think there are times when the reporting that we do is going to force us to fight with our emotions. But I think that we have to try hard not to give into them. I think that it’s important to maintain a professional demeanor, which is hard to do while crying. Having said that, I think it’s hard to keep one’s eyes from filling with tears, at times. But I don’t think that crying with story subjects is all we can do for them. Listening carefully, asking smart and sensitive questions and writing well probably do more for grieving people. They cut these stories out of the paper or print them from their computer and slip them in their wallet or in a family scrapbook or wherever they keep things of importance. I’m glad that you managed to fight back tears when you did that life story and stay focused on your job. Later, we can cry as we tell our significant others about our day and the tough interview we had to do — to process it and learn from the experience.

  7. Dustin says:

    Liz told me something similar to your question Whitney. She was covering the death of a high school student who died skiing with his best friend on a spring break trip. He hit a tree as they were doing one last run down the mountain at dusk. She said the dad was crying and she was crying too, but she just kept talking and asking questions.

  8. rosiedowney says:

    I also have yet to do a life story but unlike the brave Kelley K. I am actually dreading it! I can be shy and have a hard time bothering people when I know they are going through something emotional. I think these tips are very helpful and I am going to bookmark this article on my computer so that I can bring it up at a moment’s notice. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  9. I also am dreading doing a life story. I consider myself very emotional and sensitive, so I’m really going to have to prepare myself every time I got in to the newsroom, because I know that it could happen at any moment. But at the same time, I feel like it will be easier for the person on the other end of the phone to know that I am trying to be mindful of how they feel, and I am just trying to do my job. I feel like it isn’t just what you say, but how you say it.

    If you can convey through your voice that this is something you care about and aren’t acting bored or insensitive, people will see that. It still might not change the fact that they absolutely don’t want to talk to you, but it makes it hard for them to say that we were just another rude reporter.

    So while doing a life story might absolutely drain me emotionally, I think I will be able to use some of my emotions to leave the conversation with some great information.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s