Understand that you don’t understand

Tomorrow, we’re going to begin talking 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, especially when the death was sudden and violent, or the person who died was young.

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.

So be flexible and patient. Don’t assume that because a person begins to cry, he or she doesn’t want to talk. Crying is a natural human function. But give the person time to collect himself or herself, if necessary, or arrange to call back in a few minutes.

We’ll talk more tomorrow about how to manage these and other kinds of emotional encounters.

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