Woman listening to interviewee
Credit: Alex Green on Unsplash

Few can fail to be horrified by the sexual violation of children revealed time and again through the series of investigative reports by IICSA, the Independent Inquiry in Child Sexual Abuse, that published its final report today.

Some survivors have chosen to give interviews. It is highly sensitive work, yet journalists remain largely untrained in how best to go about it.

Jo Healey, a journalist and specialist trainer in Trauma Reporting teamed up with Dr Danny Taggart, a lead psychologist with IICSA. They have produced media tips with the input and insight of 20 survivors from Angles, a project from charity OnRoad Media and from Louise Godbold, a survivor of Harvey Weinstein's abuse.

Media tips for working with survivors

Sexual violence is often profoundly traumatic. Working well with survivors is not just about what to do and what to say but how to be. Be human.

These tips offer guidance, but please ask your interviewee what works for them.

Some considerations:

  • Shame: they may feel ashamed of what happened, ashamed about people knowing, they may have been made to feel complicit
  • Guilt: they may feel they were at fault, to blame, could have stopped it, should have spoken out sooner
  • Belief: they may fear not being believed. They may have tried to disclose and not been believed
  • Stigma: they may feel humiliated, damaged, that people will look down on them
  • Fear: they may feel afraid of their abuser, of breaking up their family, of public opinion
  • Trust: they may have been betrayed by people, professionals and systems
  • Anger: they may feel angry with their abuser, themselves or with others for not helping them
  • Anxiety: it may take a huge effort to feel comfortable talking to you. They may be anxious about reactions to the piece

Before the interview

Remember power and control was taken from them during the assault. Enable them to take some control back:

  • Prepare: doing your research and knowing important details will signal your level of respect. You are asking them to trust you with life-changing experiences
  • Offer choice: they may wish to choose the location, where to sit, choose to have someone with them, choose what to share with you. Listen to and respect their choices.
  • Informed consent: manage expectations around your role and the process. Be honest. Be careful not to jeopardise any legal proceedings
  • Connection: treat people as individuals. Abuse and trauma affect people in all sorts of ways
  • Listen: Survivors may feel devalued because of their experiences, talking about yourself a lot can signal you are more important. Listen with compassion, rather than talk
  • Treat them with dignity and empathy, but avoid trying to fix them or being patronising.
  • Physical contact: respect their personal space. Ask permission before, for example, fixing radio mics
  • Acknowledge: they may have felt tense or nervous before meeting you. Be considerate and chat things through
  • Safety: is there anything that may activate fear such as shutting them in a room with you, crowding them, darkening the room, blocking the exit? If they do not feel safe, they may be in survival mode and struggle to interact. For some, fear can be easily triggered.
  • Anonymity: If you are filming anonymously, show them the shot. Be careful with distinctive features like hairstyles, jewellery, clothing, location, voice
  • Offer control: chat through the possible questions. Let them know they only need to answer what they want to answer, they can stop at any time. Always be clear if you are recording

During the interview

  • Body language: keep it open and unthreatening, sit at the same level
  • Avoid staring or being stony-faced
  • Avoid saying you know how they feel or what they must be going through
  • Be careful with accusatory ‘why’ questions or devil’s advocate questions which can imply disbelief. Avoid the language of blame. Be collaborative
  • Give them time and attention. Reflect back to show you have understood
  • Trauma can distort thoughts and memories, allow for this
  • Trauma is exhausting, allow breaks
  • Avoid asking them to describe intimate details of their abuse. This information is personal and painful
  • If they appear vacant or agitated, they may be re-living the traumatic event. Stay calm. Pause the interview to gently bring them back into the present moment. Ask what they can see in the room or hear
  • It is also important to pause if they become emotionally overwhelmed. Take a moment and re-establish that they are happy to continue with the interview
  • They are a survivor because they survived. Ask what helped them get through and acknowledge their identity beyond their trauma

After the interview

  • Thank them, they have given you a great deal. Be clear and honest about what happens next. Be realistic on timelines and keep them updated. Take care not to be dismissive or distracted
  • Sometimes survivors can feel a sense of pride about having spoken out but this can be followed by overwhelming shame. Check in with them later to ask if they are OK. You can offer resources for support
  • Check terminology: do they prefer 'victim' or 'survivor' or neither? Check the facts carefully and stick to them without sensationalising your account. Be clear this was sexual exploitation. Avoid words like ‘closure’ and ‘historical.’ For them, it can be anything but
  • These interviews can be impactful and you, as a journalist, need to look after yourself. Few of us escape trauma in our lives so be mindful of your own vulnerabilities when working with survivors

If you want to improve your journalistic skills, Jo Healey is running Trauma Reporting training sessions with Journalism.co.uk in April 2022.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).