Interviewing people who have experienced trauma

A market in Herat, Afghanistan (Lauren Bohn/GroundTruth)

This article originally appeared on Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. You can subscribe to Navigator here.

My GroundTruth colleagues Lauren Bohn and Beth Murphy recently traveled to Afghanistan for a reporting trip. Beth has reported an award-winning documentary on a girls’ school in rural  Afghanistan, and Lauren has reported on women’s issues in the Middle East, including from refugee camps.

While in Afghanistan, they interviewed a young woman who had tried to self-immolate. She was in one of the only burn units in the country recovering, and she told Beth and Lauren about the circumstances that got her there.

It reminded me that whether or not you’re a local reporter or a foreign correspondent, you will inevitably have to interview people who’ve experienced trauma.

I hope Lauren and Beth’s insights about how to ask these difficult questions while still being kind and respectful, will be valuable to you. After the tips, you’ll find a short essay by Beth shedding more light on her experiences conducting these interviews.

Six tips for interviewing people who’ve experienced trauma

1. Treat people with respect and gratitude

Ask yourself how you’d want to be treated if the roles were reversed, and treat your subjects that way. This includes respecting people’s decision not to talk to you. And it means thanking them for speaking to you. It may also ultimately mean choosing not to publish or broadcast a story.

“There are times when you should walk away from telling a story because — even if the survivor wants her story to be told — you recognize how enormous the trauma is, and how being interviewed is precipitating additional trauma,” Beth writes. “There’s no textbook for this, and it’s one of the reasons that interviewing people more than once and developing sincere, respectful relationships is so important in these sensitive situations.”

2. Be a human and express empathy

“It’s OK to say to somebody ‘I’m sorry you’re going through this,’” Lauren says. “[Show] people that you care.”

Beth advises that your whole approach should be “trauma-informed.” That means learning as much as possible about trauma beforehand, and when you’re in the field, being compassionate and sensitive. (If you’re working in a team, it also means making sure your team is trauma-informed.)

3. Respect boundaries and give the subject their agency

Take cues from your source about the direction of the conversation and treat them kindly. Give subjects the opportunity not to proceed if questions become too difficult. Let them have someone they trust with them, and if they stop the interview or decline to be interviewed, respect that decision.

“You have to give people a sense of agency and a sense of control,” Lauren says. “You’re ultimately the journalist, but when you’re interviewing people just check in: ‘How are you feeling, are you ok with these questions, do you want to move locations?’ … [Make the subjects] feel they have some control because so often in their lives they don’t.”

Beth says that part of giving your subjects agency means letting them know how the interview is going to be used, and when it will be published. “If you don’t know during the interview when it will be printed or broadcast, let your subject know you’ll be back in touch,” Beth writes, “And follow through.”

4. If possible, get to know the person before interviewing them about the traumatic event(s) they’ve experienced

“I spent time with some Syrian refugee women — I would go to their homes and get a better sense of how they were living. Of course, in Middle Eastern culture, sharing meals is such a strong bonding exercise and relationship building,” Lauren says. “It’s really just hearing them out and listening to them and trying to figure out the experiences they are going through, genuinely, so that it is not so transactional. It’s not like, ‘OK, please say this, I’m going to put it in my notebook and then I’m going to publish it.’ It’s spending time with someone and listening to them as a person and getting a better sense of their experiences and how they live their life.”

5. Don’t start an interview by asking about the traumatic event

The totality of a person’s life isn’t the worst thing that has ever happened to them.

“[Ask] them about their lives and mundane things…. usually they end up steering the conversation [to] the trauma or whatever challenges they have experienced,” Lauren says. “It’s genuinely wanting to know about the person’s life and about that person, and not just the horrific thing they have experienced.”

6. Take care of yourself

Journalists, like others who have to bear witness to the suffering of others, often get traumatized themselves. Lauren says she reaches out to her support system of friends and family, and encourages seeking mental health counseling if necessary. “You’re not going to be the best journalist you can if you’re not taking care of yourself first,” she says.

Additional resources:

DART Center for Journalism and Trauma has resources for how to interview victims of violence and resources about self-care for journalists.

The Evil Hours by David J. Morris

Tragedies and Journalists by Joe Hight and Frank Smyth

Covering Violence by Roger Simpson and William Cote

Thoughts on interviewing victims of trauma

By Beth Murphy

The majority of the filming and reporting I’ve done involves meeting and interviewing people — especially women and children — who have suffered trauma. I’d like to share some of the experiences I’ve had over the years and what I’ve learned from them.

No conditions

In 1998, I traveled to southern Sudan to document the modern-day slave trade and meet young women who’d been taken violently from their homes and spent months — in some cases years — being physically and sexually abused while living in domestic servitude. I’ll never forget meeting a 17-year-old girl named Akech who, after watching her entire family being murdered, was tied to a horse and dragged away into slavery.

As we talked through a translator, I explained who I was, where I was coming from, why I was heartbroken by her experience, and why I believed it was so important to share her story. The president of Sudan denied slavery existed, and had nearly defied journalists to come and find it. We did. And how else could pressure be applied to stop it without people knowing about it? Most important, I wanted it to be clear that the choice to talk to me was hers. But did she really understand that? That’s the question that ate away at me in the months following our interview.

I met Akech through Swedish humanitarian workers who were in Sudan with one mission: to work with “traders” to track down people who’d been kidnapped and pay for their freedom. Did Akech understand that talking to me was not a condition of her freedom? There can be no conditions and this should never be a gray area.

Because we rely so often on human rights workers for access to people and places, it’s easy to see how confusion could be sown in the minds of subjects. In the same way that some humanitarian aid has been wrongly politicized and militarized, journalists and filmmakers need to be careful that our work is not conflated with humanitarian aid. Can it serve a humanitarian purpose? Absolutely. And my goal is that it will, because our stories can — and should — contribute to a greater good. To make that possible, though, we have to be honest with our subjects (and ourselves) about our role, and we cannot make any promises — real or implied — beyond the scope of our storytelling.

Be Trauma-Informed

After my experience in Sudan, I sought the advice of a psychologist who specializes in diagnosing and treating trauma. She told me some things I found obvious — be sensitive, be compassionate, and make sure if you’re working with a translator that your translator is sensitive and compassionate, too. What I’m most grateful for is how she deepened my understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something I had previously only associated with war veterans. Trauma, she told me, is about losing power, and it is imperative not to do anything to make subjects feel more powerless.

This month, my colleague, Lauren Bohn, and I carried this advice with us into Herat Regional Hospital’s Burn Unit, Afghanistan’s only burn unit where victims of self-immolation are treated. There, we met Khadijah, a young woman who had set herself on fire three weeks ago to escape a husband who is now behind bars for abusing her.

It is hard to imagine a subject in a more vulnerable situation. Khadijah was lying in her hospital bed with burns over 70 percent of her body. Through a translator — a women’s rights advocate who had met Khadijah and to whom we had spoken for hours prior to meeting Khadijah ourselves — we explained who we were and that we hoped in sharing her story. We hoped we could shed light not only on her plight, but also on the plight of other Afghan women experiencing similar hardships — with an emphasis on the ways they are fighting back and reclaiming their lives.

For some people, knowing their story is contributing to a bigger meaning can help them have a power beyond themselves and their experiences. It’s one of the reasons I think it’s so important to focus on solutions. Khadijah, for example, is much more than “the girl who set herself on fire.” To portray her only as a victim would strip her of her dignity and ignore the truth. Her power, like so many survivors of trauma, comes from how she is now managing her crisis and working to change her future for the better.

For survivors, power also comes from knowing what is going to happen to the interview they’ve provided – and when. If you don’t know during the interview when it will be printed or broadcast, let your subject know you’ll be back in touch. And follow through.

Being trauma-informed is not something that happens once and is set aside. It’s an ongoing process.

Choose Kindness Over Story

During filming for my documentary The List, I met Nadia (renamed here to protect her identity) who escaped from Iraq after receiving death threats because of her work as a translator for the U.S. military and American news organizations. Prior to her escape, Nadia — a single mother — was on the run in Iraq when her 2-year-old daughter became so sick that just days later she died in Nadia’s arms. Nadia arrived in America alone and broken. We spent days together walking on the beach, skipping stones, collecting shells and talking. I interviewed her several times in person, talked to her on the phone, and shared letters. No matter how much she assured me she was ready to tell her story, I knew she wasn’t. And not a second of the 20 hours of footage I shot with her is included in the documentary.

There are times when you should walk away from telling a story because, even if the survivor wants her story to be told, you recognize how enormous the trauma is and how being interviewed is precipitating additional trauma. There’s no textbook for this, and it’s one of the reasons that interviewing people more than once and developing sincere, respectful relationships is so important in these sensitive situations. And when in doubt, choose kindness over story.