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Interviewing Patients: Follow the Golden Rule

Craft: Lessons From The Field

Interviewing Patients: Follow the Golden Rule

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I've worked in television news as a producer for 20 years, and I've found that it surprises my print colleagues to learn that we sometimes envy you. You can be so intimate. You arrive at a location, pull out a pen and paper, start talking to someone and-bingo!-you have good quotes at the ready. Sometimes you don't even have to leave your desk. You just pick up the phone, talk to someone, scribble a few notes, and your quote is there.

OK, we know it's not really that easy.

But in broadcast health journalism, asking people to talk on camera about their most intimate, and sometimes tragic, health experiences requires special finesse.

Years ago, I embarked on a months-long project focusing on families of ICU patients, who were being kept alive by technology. The families needed to make decisions about how much medical treatment these patients would want. Many family members I met were considering withdrawing treatment that had become futile, a decision that would end their loved one's life.

I had been working on health stories for many years when I started this project. But I'd never done anything quite like this. Health care professionals insisted no families would talk to me. But experienced health journalists I spoke to said this project was absolutely doable. I am grateful for their encouragement. Whether you are a print, online or broadcast journalist, I hope you will find it useful to learn about my experience. For print journalists who are now being asked to videotape interviews for the first time in their careers, the lessons I learned may be especially useful.

It sounds trite, but to me, the first step in asking a stranger to open up to you is to follow the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. In the case of my ICU families, I started out just visiting the ICU. (Full disclosure: This was pre-HIPAA privacy rules. Things have changed, but bedside interviewing can still be done.) I started out with a pad of paper and a pencil. I introduced myself, explained what I was doing, and asked if I could talk with them.

Then I listened. A lot. I occasionally asked questions, but mostly I listened. To the families I met, I was someone who would spend hours with them at the worst time of their lives. Overwhelmingly, these people seemed grateful to talk with someone who was neutral, yet caring. A handful of these families agreed to talk with me on camera, allowing me to document their decisions as they unfolded.

I did not press anyone who gave me an unequivocal "no" to reconsider. I moved on to other people. A few families were uncertain, but once they got to know me, through talking to me, they developed a sense of trust. (Given the subject matter, if someone had first said no, and then reconsidered, I would have omitted them from my story.)

Most journalists reading this are likely working on much tighter deadlines. But the same rule still applies, even when covering the most tragic, deadline-intensive catastrophes, and whether you are a print, broadcast or multimedia journalist.

Years after my ICU project, a close friend, a producer at a major newsmagazine show, was at work in Los Angeles when the Columbine tragedy erupted. She jumped on the websites for the Denver papers and, as stories were posted, looked for names of families of students who had died or were unaccounted for. Then she started calling these families.

Later, I told a non-journalist friend that colleagues of mine were working on the story. She was outraged that anyone would call a family at such a time. However, when I described how my friend had handled this situation, she reconsidered.

After several attempts, my colleague got through to a father whose son was reported to have been been killed. She did not ask how he "felt." First, she explained who she was and expressed sympathy for the events that had happened that day. She said that she was very sorry to be calling him. She waited for the father to indicate what he knew about the status of his son. (During rapidly unfolding crises, reported news can be wrong, even if it comes from quoted officials. In this case, my friend had read that this father's son had died, but she waited for the father to reveal what he knew.)

After he disclosed that he knew his son was dead, my colleague moved forward with her interview request. She said that the focus of news coverage was on the gunmen, but that she would like to hear about his son. "Please tell me about your son," she said. This father then spoke lovingly and movingly about his son. My friend listened. Then, once he had finished describing his son, my colleague asked if he might be willing to tell his story on camera. By this time, the man felt such a bond with my colleague that he agreed. He felt that he was in good hands and would be treated respectfully.

Most stories we cover are not as challenging as the public tragedy of Columbine or the private tragedy of a family facing the imminent death of a loved one, but many still require a thoughtful interview with someone who is affected. For most health stories, ask a health professional for help in contacting patients who might be good interview subjects. While your "helper" is finding patients, try to do as much research as you can on the topic, so that when you call the patients you are at least a little informed about their condition.

These phone calls, whether to doctors, patients or any other character in your story, are the pre-interviews. Be honest up front and say you are talking to a variety of people to gain an understanding of the topic, but you are not sure yet who will be interviewed on camera. If you're confused about some aspect of the person's disease, ask them to explain. I've found most patients are happy to educate journalists about an aspect of their disease or condition that we might not understand. I also find it relaxes people quite a bit to tell them that you are not recording this conversation, but will be taking notes.

Once you've talked to a handful of people, select your on camera interviewees. During the on camera interview, people sometimes forget something critical that you learned about in the pre-interview. Remind them of that point, and say you'd like to discuss it on camera.

Finally, if you are a producer and your voice cannot be heard in the story, ask your interviewee to be sure to speak in complete sentences or to incorporate some of your question into his or her answer so that you have complete sentences to work with as sound bites.

The path to an interview that resonates is first to listen, and then to ask thoughtful questions. Be respectful. Be honest.

When the camera comes out, remind people they won't have to look in the camera, they just need to talk with you. Some people freeze once the camera starts rolling, but most people ultimately relax and realize they are just talking to you.

Which is exactly what you want.

Lisa Aliferis, an independent video producer in the San Francisco Bay Area, worked for several broadcast news organizations, including Dateline NBC, from 1985 to 2000.

Photo credit: Dion Hinchcliffe via Flickr


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