Emotional interviews, Part 2

Back to our conversation from last week, about ethics and interviewing.

At Crossfield News, our interdenominational mission news agency, we’ve developed a set of ethical guidelines for reporting, based on three goals: We will observe without obstructing, we will report fairly and accurately, and we will do everything for the glory of God first.

Here’s the subtext under “Observe without obstructing”:

To report a story thoroughly, we get as close to a situation as we can without interfering with what’s happening. We will never knowingly compromise anyone’s dignity, ministry, or safety.

Too many relief agencies and yes, Christian ministries have been willing to compromise the dignity of those they serve, for the purpose of raising money to help those same people. Here’s an extreme example of what I’m talking about:

Playing to the audience’s base emotions certainly attracts attention. It’s the staple of a hundred awful reality TV shows. It’s also what has given journalists – mostly on TV – a bad name, even though those journalists would say they are only giving people what they want.

Let me suggest a different approach. Last fall in Jordan, Lincoln and I met many Syrian families driven from their country by war. Many were in dire straits and, with winter approaching, weren’t sure how they were going to keep their families fed and warm.

As we interviewed people (with an interpreter), we tried to keep their dignity at the forefront. First, that was asking them their names, where they’re from, what they did for a living there. Then it was asking them how they wound up here. To a person, they wanted to tell us their stories. Some of those stories were heartbreaking. Some were terrifying.

The key for us was, we let people tell us as much as they wanted to tell us. We asked gentle follow-up questions; but knowing what these people had been through, we let them set the pace.

In these situations, an interview is less an interrogation than it is just a guided conversation. That starts with respecting – and protecting – someone’s dignity and not playing their emotions for the sake of a sound byte.

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