A Loss For Words

Illustration by Christina Dommer.

Best practices for interviewing the general public in times of grief

By Tierney Grattan

The job of the journalist is to tell and share stories with the public. When a tragedy or loss happens that’s in the public’s interest a journalist is on it. The first instinct is to go talk to family members and friends to gain more insight but, this can be a difficult task, as a reporter you can never know how the family is going to react to your questions. Some will full out refuse while others can be extremely open about it. It’s such a vulnerable, emotional time for them and so journalists need to be respectful while still finding their story. Here are three journalists who shared their experiences with interviewing families in mourning.

Aaron McArthur – Journalist, Global Television (B.C.)
Best experience?

There are times where you knock on someone’s door or family members just show up. Then in there, they’re happy to talk. They get a lot out of it, It’s quite cathartic to talk to somebody about what just happened. I remember one case, in particular, a teenager was killed by a drunk driver in Langley. Her dad just came to the roadside where the accident happened, he was so mad and filled with such grief… he didn’t know what to do except talk to somebody. It was just terrible to listen to, but at the same time, you get a sense that he was trying to make sure his daughter’s life had a meaning, that she wasn’t just another crime stat. It was a really powerful day.

Nick Eagland – Reporter, The Province & Vancouver Sun
How should a journalist respond to a person’s story without overstepping boundaries?

Sometimes when that happens, I end up getting like teary-eyed too. I think that empathy kind of helps but, I’ve never reached out to someone to hug them or put a hand on their shoulder or anything like that. If they put a hand on my shoulder, I won’t say no, but, yeah. I just try to stay professional. Sometimes you’re, talking to people in the worst, most confusing moments of their life. So, try to stay professional, but if they need something… I don’t think you have to be inhuman about it.

Jim Pumarlo – Director of Communication, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce
What is something challenging about these situations?

I mean, it is because you’ve got to read [into it]: even though you never know how someone feels and you can say, ‘Oh, I know how you feel’. I mean, we all have losses and I lost my wife three years ago but losing someone to suicide or something is totally different circumstances. So, I think you just have to be prepared for that. One thing is to tread softly: When there’s an incident that happens and it’s just riveting and it just runs through the field, to the community out like wildfire. People hear about us and we think, hey, there’s something important I would say knowing how to coach the family.

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