Keep these seven lessons in mind when interviewing trauma survivors

Published on
March 1, 2019

Though I’ve had years of experience interviewing trauma survivors, my National Fellowship project on sex-trafficked foster kids presented a unique set of challenges. For one, the project’s focus was sexually abused children. Even if I could find children who were willing to talk with me, I knew that interviewing them might not be in their best interest, and could potentially be harmful. But as in all forms of gender-based violence, sex trafficking is driven by an abuser’s tactics of power and control — and traffickers disempower victims into silence. So it was important to me that the project include the stories and voices of survivors.

To deepen my understanding of this issue, I was grateful for the chance to observe and interact with child sex trafficking victims at juvenile court, during an undercover law enforcement sting, and throughout ride-alongs with a social worker and a probation officer. My favorite reporting experience was attending a ropes course designed to empower kids who had been victimized by the sex trade. Some had been free from their trafficker for a year; others had been sold by their exploiter the night before. But for that day, they all got to just be kids. 

Without these experiences, the project wouldn’t have been as immersive or meaningful — I scrawled in my notebook the entire time. However, I limited my official survivor interviews to young adults who had been trafficked as children. I felt more comfortable knowing that adult survivors I spoke with had some recovery, and that they could give informed consent to an interview. Still, because these adults were in the foster system before they were trafficked as children, the degree of complex trauma they had survived was staggering.

They were traumatized by the initial abuse and neglect that prompted child welfare officials to remove them from their caregivers, and they were traumatized during the act of removal. They experienced additional trauma while they were wards of the state. They were sexually abused by people who were supposed to protect them. Layers of trauma combined with placement instability, institutionalized group home settings, and a lack of connection with caring adults heightened their vulnerability to traffickers. And once they were ensnared in the commercial sex trade, they were re-victimized and re-traumatized by abusive traffickers and buyers over and over again.

These were some of the strongest, most resilient women I have ever encountered. (Yes, boys are trafficked, too, but they aren’t identified as often as girls and so the survivors I met through my contacts at various agencies were all women.) The road to recovery from commercial sexual exploitation is a long one, however, and most the survivors I spoke with were still grappling with the effects of their past. I was constantly aware of the potential for re-traumatization, so I did my best to ensure they felt safe and comfortable — and I made sure they knew they were totally in control of what they chose to share with me.

What follows are some things that I’ve learned through my experiences interviewing survivors. My hope is that these tips can help other reporters include the voices of survivors in their stories while following the most important maxim: Do no harm.

Let the survivor lead: Many people prefer to meet in person to disclose their personal story; others prefer the boundary a telephone provides. I always let survivors decide where the interview should take place. Some survivors I’ve interviewed preferred to talk with me on the phone before agreeing to meet for an interview. Others may request to have someone they trust present during the interview, such as an advocate or lawyer. I make sure survivors understand they don’t have to answer any questions that make them feel uncomfortable. And I let them know that if they want to take a break or stop the interview process at any time, I will respect their wishes.

Get informed consent: It’s crucial to make sure the survivor understands the purpose of the story, where the story will appear and when it will run. If a survivor chooses to remain anonymous, I reassure them that I will change their name and any identifying details — and then I make sure to protect their anonymity in the story. Some survivors feel empowered by speaking out and opt to use their first and last names. In that case, I applaud their decision, but I also make sure they understand that once a story is online it can potentially be searchable for the rest of their lives. This is tricky because I would never want to imply that a survivor has anything to be ashamed of — and I tell them this directly. Still, especially with young survivors, it’s important to explain that though they may be comfortable being identified as a survivor at age 20, they might feel differently in 10 years. Ultimately, it’s up to the survivor to decide.

Be flexible, understanding and persistent: I’ve been stood up many times while waiting to meet with a survivor. It can be frustrating when you’re on deadline and you don’t get the interview you need, but I try to be understanding. After all, this person is agreeing to talk with me about what is likely one of the most disturbing events of their life. They are under no obligation to tell me their story, and it’s understandable if they have second thoughts. In addition, survivors may have chaotic lives stemming from their trauma. It can be difficult for them to show up or be available for a phone call at the appointed time. In such cases, I try to be flexible, understanding and persistent, and do my best to schedule another interview. Though of course if a survivor decides they don’t want to talk with me, I will respect their wishes and let them know they can contact me if they change their mind.

Be a patient, empathetic listener: Interviewing a trauma survivor takes time, and it may require more than one interview. For one thing, it’s important to build trust before you can expect a stranger to tell you their painful story. In addition, trauma can jumble memory, and when survivors recount traumatic experiences, they may not do so in a chronological or linear way. I try to be patient and listen, letting them unfold their story in the way they choose. I ask questions in a gentle manner, with the tone of “help me to understand.” Afterward, if I’m unsure about the chronology of events, I echo back what I’ve heard, letting them know I want to make sure I got their story right and giving them a chance to clarify anything.

Humanity before story: At the start of my fellowship project, I obtained a signed petition from the juvenile court granting me permission to interview kids during a social work ride-along, as long as I received informed consent. But one of the kids I met was a 14-year-old who had been pistol-whipped and raped by her trafficker, then thrown off a balcony and left for dead. It was clear that the girl was too traumatized to give me informed consent, and I knew that interviewing her could potentially do more harm than good. So, rather than conducting an interview, I simply introduced myself, explained the purpose of my visit, and gleaned what I could for the story by conversing with her and the social worker, listening and observing. This seems like an obvious case, but anytime I’m reporting on victims of trauma, I prioritize the victim’s well-being first, the story second.

Have a list of resources handy: During an interview, survivors may disclose the most intimate, traumatic events of their lives — yet reporters aren’t trained mental health professionals. So it’s a good idea to carry a list of resources in your reporter bag, with contact information for services such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, counseling services, survivor advocacy groups, homeless services and community health clinics. When one survivor I spoke with confessed she was feeling suicidal, I was glad I could give her the number for the Lifeline. 

My last piece of advice is for after the interview:

Take care of yourself. Reporting on topics such as sex trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence can be emotionally arduous, and journalists aren’t immune to vicarious trauma. I do my best to maintain a network of colleagues, friends and family who I can rely on for support when working on a difficult story. But, at the same time, these stories can be all-consuming, so I also try to carve out time with friends and family where I consciously talk about things other than work. I find that taking breaks from reporting and writing to exercise, eat well and get plenty of sleep helps to maintain the stamina required to pull off a challenging story. This is important because the stories that are most challenging are often the most meaningful and rewarding in the end. 

Additional resources for reporting on trauma can be found at Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.