Tips for Interviewing Survivors

Sexual violence appears in the news frequently. As journalists continue to cover stories related to sexual assault or abuse, it can be helpful to have a better understanding of how to interview survivors of these type of crimes. A thoughtful approach to the interview can help educate the public and support survivors in sharing their story.

Before the interview: do your homework

Prepare for the interview by reflecting on the goals of your story and the role the survivor will play in your interview.

  • Is the survivor’s experience a good fit for your story? Can they provide the insight you need? For instance, if your story is about the backlog of untested rape kits, it would be helpful to speak to someone who has had a sexual assault forensic exam, often called a rape kit.
  • Do you need an exclusive on the survivor’s story? Find out what restrictions you may have from your editor or publication. Has the survivor’s story been previously featured in local or national media?
  • Are there legal considerations? Does your media outlet require a report or conviction in the survivor’s case to feature their story? Does the survivor have any restrictions due to a pending criminal or civil trial?
  • Can the survivor remain anonymous? Many survivors are comfortable using their real name, while others may prefer to use a pseudonym or first name only. Ask the survivor if they have a preference and check with your newsroom’s policies on citing sources and anonymity.

At the start of the interview: set expectations

By providing the survivor with insight into your process, you can help them feel more comfortable, which can lead to a more productive interview.

  • Explain how the interview fits into the larger story. Fill the survivor in on their role in their story. Are they the main focus, or do you just need a brief soundbite?
  • Set a time frame. Give the survivor a realistic expectation of how long the interview will last. Is this an in-depth interview, or do you just need five minutes on the phone? Let the survivor know that they can take a break at any time, for any reason.
  • Provide an overview. Review the topics you’re interested in discussing at the start of the conversation. Are you focused on a specific aspect of the survivor’s experience? If possible, provide a few examples of the questions you may ask. If the interview is for TV, radio or podcast, explain to the survivor that you may ask the question a few different ways for the purpose of a soundbite.
  • Be upfront about editorial control. Does someone else from your team have editorial control? If it’s possible someone else could cut or take out parts of the interview, inform the survivor. Offer to share drafts of any edited quotes.
  • Talk about fact checking. Are there any steps in your editorial or review process that involve verification or fact checking? For instance, will you need to speak with the perpetrator, law enforcement, or other individuals who may be involved with the story? If so, let the survivor know before you start the interview. Be clear about these requirements up front, so they have an opportunity to decline if they are uncomfortable with the process.

During the interview: be respectful

Sexual violence is a complicated topic to understand, and can be even more difficult to talk about. If you’re not sure how to address a particular aspect of the interview, ask first.

  • Avoid generalizing. Some survivors may be hesitant to discuss certain aspects of their experience, while others may be more willing to share. Let the survivor share their story in their own words. While paraphrasing may be a helpful technique to understand the interviewee, it runs the risk of generalizing their experience.
  • Try not to make assumptions. Recognize that every survivor has had a different experience, and may be at different points in their healing process. Try not to assume something has already taken place, such as reporting to law enforcement, or that the survivor may feel a certain way.
  • “Victim” or “Survivor”? Ask your interviewee if they have a preference. For some, “victim” may be applicable to recent assault, while “survivor” may be more appropriate after a period of healing. Ultimately, it’s an individual preference.
  • Be mindful and respect boundaries. Ask if there is anything the survivor would prefer not to discuss. Let the survivor know that it’s OK if they don’t want to answer every question you ask.

At the end of the interview: show appreciation

  • Thank the survivor for sharing their story. Phrases like “Thank you for sharing this with me — I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for you,” or “I’m sorry this happened to you,” can go a long way.
  • Avoid giving advice. It’s natural to try to give people solutions, especially if you have dealt with a similar situation. Keep in mind that survivors may have already taken action, or may not be looking for another solution. Instead of saying, “You should report,” or “You should find a therapist,” take a more supportive approach by asking, “Would you be interested in resources that may help with healing and recovery?”
  • Ask for additional input. Ask the survivor if there is anything else they would like to share with you. Some aspects of their experience might not have been addressed as a direct answer to your questions. Give the survivor the opportunity to share any additional information.
  • Discuss next steps. Follow up with the survivor to let them know when the story will run. Email a link if possible.

When you’re writing

Stories about sexual violence have the potential to trigger difficult memories for someone affected by these crimes, or cause intense emotions for any reader.

  • Provide resources. If you have the opportunity, please include a resource like the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE and online.rainn.org y rainn.org/es) to connect your audience with the help they deserve. It could be as simple as adding the hotline to the bottom or side bar of your story, or to the chyron for broadcast.
  • Take care of yourself. It can be difficult to listen to survivor stories and to help those in need. Practicing self-care can help ease the stress that may come with helping others. Spend time with your own support system, such as loved ones or pets. Take time for the things you enjoy, such as photography, watching a funny movie, or running.

Questions? Contact RAINN’s press secretary, Sara McGovern at saram@rainn.org or 202.544.3075.

Want to learn more about interviewing survivors? Watch this video produced by Witness, an international organization that trains and supports people using video in their fight for human rights.

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