Tips for Journalists on Approaching People Affected by Tragedy

tips for journalists on covering tragedy

Covering tragedies is part of the job when you’re a reporter. It’s never something reporters like to do, but there’s no escaping it.

If there’s a fire, you cover it. If there’s a homicide or mass shooting, you cover it.

You’ll likely encounter relatives of the victim, someone who’s lost their home, or someone else whose life has just been turned upside down.

Speaking with people who’ve either lost loved ones, witnessed a tragedy or who were directly involved in some way — whether it be through a natural disaster, murder, fire, accident or something else — need to be spoken with carefully.

It’s something that fills you with dread, but it’s always part of the assignment. It breaks your heart.

You’re human, although some may feel you’re not since you have such “nerve” to ask someone who’s been devastated how they’re feeling and sticking a microphone in their face.

How should you approach someone who’s hurting?

Scott Sobel, a senior strategy and communications executive at communications firm kglobal and former major market and network journalist with several journalism awards, provided some advice:

  • Ask a friend, law enforcement officer or other mutual contact for an introduction to the grieving interview subject.
  • Always start conversations or interviews with the expression of condolences.
  • Mention any commonalities or empathy, as in, “I have kids, I can’t imagine what you are going through having just lost your child.”
  • Preface sensitive questions with a qualifying phrase, such as, “Mrs. X, I’m about to ask a very tough question about your loss, of course, you don’t have to answer. Do you mind if I ask …?”
  • If your question needs a linchpin answer, you might explain the social redemption aspect of the interview subject’s cooperation. This approach also can be used after you are first introduced and after you express condolences. Example: “Thank you for the interview, your help here will prevent other accidents in the future.”
  • Reconsider your interview request or questions when you see the subject becoming emotional, combative or physically unable to answer. The judgement is yours depending on circumstances.

Dr. Sheila K. Collins, a writer, keynote speaker, improvisational artist, and performer, also shared some suggestions. Her award-winning book, Warrior Mother: Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss and the Rituals that Heal tells of her journeys with two of her three adult children and her best friend through their life-threatening illnesses and deaths.

“How reporters approach victims of tragedy is a critical one,” says Dr. Collins. “The journalist becomes a model for the public as they encounter someone in their own neighborhood or network experiencing a tragedy. The most frequent comment I get from people about dealing with someone else’s grief is, ‘I don’t know what to say.'”

Here are some ideas from Dr. Collins to consider:

  • Police on the TV cop shows often begin their conversation with a family member of someone who has died with “I’m sorry for your loss.” Even though it can come off as scripted, the statement acknowledges that at this point, for the person, it is the loss that matters most.
  • It would help if journalists could be trained to recognize the signs of when a person is in shock so they can avoid bombarding such a person with detailed questions about what happened. For a person in shock, these are unanswerable questions and risk traumatizing the person further.
  • I would like to see more emphasis on questions that may serve the needs of the person being interviewed while giving information to the journalist and to the public. Lead-ins to such discussions might include: “Do you feel able to talk with me right now about what’s happened here?” “What would you like the public to know about this situation?” “Can you help me understand …?”

Regardless of whether you’re a new journalist or a seasoned veteran, covering a tragedy is never an easy assignment. Just remember who you’re dealing with, put yourself in their shoes and think of your approach.

For more, see 9 tips from journalists on covering traumatic events

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Evelyn Tipacti is a audience relations specialist at ProfNet. She is a former broadcast journalist with years of experience behind the television camera and radio mic.

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