Friday, December 24, 2010

Disturbing victim interview on Today Show—Video critique

Five minutes into the Today Show this morning, the substitute co-host provided a stunning example of how not to interview a victim.

Karen Hernandez had just lost her home and virtually everything she had in the California mudslides. The Today host began a live interview, and at first Karen appeared OK. Then she suddenly fell apart.

The co-host ignored it. She proceeded with the next question on her list.

Don't ever do that.

In this special video installment of my Advice for Journalists series, I show the Today clip, and discuss what went wrong, and how the host could have responded.

More in the series. See the great Dart Center's site for many more resources for journalism with a conscience. (Dart is now part of the Columbia Graduate Journalism School, and I'm a fellow there. They do great work.)

Please do not use this as an opportunity to trash the show, or the host. I have seen her many times, and she does a fine job. But it's a valuable learning opportunity.

I frequently get questions from young journalists and students about how to interview victims humanely. I laid out some ideas in the posts linked above, but there is nothing like a real life example, to illustrate how quickly an interview can go off the rails.

I will add additional commentary later, but I'm packing up to fly to Chicago in the morning to visit my family. I wanted to get something up while it was timely.


  1. One of the things that has struck me, in interviews and those *awkward* conversations, is how often people ask, "And after this utterly devastating event, how did you feel?" Uh...devastated? It's a dumb question and very likely to bring on that hard-to-control flood of emotions. I found I could answer "Where were you? Then what did you do? What was your first reaction?" But "Once you realized how truly awful it all was, how did you feel?" was a nightmare to answer.

  2. I am inspired by this series, Dave, and plan to watch them all. I conducted interviews with Holocaust survivors for almost 8 years, and when I was ready to take that role, my first interview, I asked my mom's cousin - a therapist who works with abused women and their children - "what if I cry?" she told me it would be entirely inappropriate if I did NOT show emotion. It was not appropriate to lose my composure, but that the survivor would feel better telling the most painful details of their lives to someone who has compassion, not an agenda. The wisest words I ever took with me into every interview!

    I recall our training sessions; we viewed one trainee who glossed over a woman's tears and onto the next question...and it prepared me for my interviewing. I learned to say things like, "I'm so sorry," or "I know this is very painful for you...would you like to stop for a while?" I learned active listening - very often their responses, or emotions, fed my questions instead of my own notes (which I used as a chronological guide for my own sake and only consulted when the current topic had been exhausted - without exhausting the person in the chair before me).

    One woman, whose story included a harrowing cattle-car trip to Auschwitz, a death march, and the loss of her entire family, saw me take tissues from the box and tuck them into my pocket before camera started to roll. She said, "Oh, don't cry." I said, "Please understand, Mrs. L, your story invokes deep emotions and I just want to be prepared." She gave me a wry smile and said, "you don't understand. If you cry, I won't be able to go on."

    I did an interview of almost 5 hours that day, with her. I withheld my own emotions to the point of drinking bottled water by the litre (I was not on camera, only my voice was heard), and digging my fingernails into my palm. I returned home with a screaming migraine, but she needed that composure from me, and I did everything I could to make it as comfortable an experience for her as possible. (I have her tape - and have yet to see's ingrained in my mind)

    Paula - we were specifically told NOT to ask about how they feel. One gentleman was pulled into a basement, he was 8 years old, and the Nazis were invading their town. He was crammed into the basement, 37 people, in nooks and crannies. The boots came down the steps and shooting began. He passed out. When he came to, he was alone, and the sole survivor. The interviewer actually asked how he felt, when he realized everyone had been shot and he had to crawl out of his hiding place amidst the corpses. I shuddered when I saw that! I was watching that tape because he had come to us to have his interview redone, and I was the interviewer. Suffice it to say, I believe I showed him a lot more compassion (and common sense!) in this second go 'round!

    Sorry for the lonnnnnnnnng reply, Dave - but you've really given me, and so many potential interviewers, a gift. I'm no longer interviewing Holocaust survivors, but working in the field of researching cyberbullying, and in contact with many parents who have lost children to bullycide, I am honing my skills again. Thank you for this opportunity to sharpen my interviewing skills again, this is superb!

    PS - have a great trip to Chicago and a safe one!!

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  4. I agree that the journalist was wrong to ignore the victim's suffering. But I think the clip illustrates an even worse behavior in television journalism, which is that the journalist fully intended to provoke that response! It's clear from the way she asked the question--how she made sure to really hammer home that this was where the victim had raised a family for 18 years, and how she asked the victim to go back and relive that first moment, but this time to do it on camera so anonymous viewers could observe it--that her goal wasn't to report news but rather to trigger a raw human outburst.

    For relatively "normal" news stories like this one, where's the value, or the humanity, in provoking such a response to begin with? The journalist was not a friend, or a family member, or a neighbor, or a therapist, or a disaster aid worker, or a member of the victim's clergy (assuming someone like that exists). The journalist was a stranger who was only there to extract information from the victim and distribute it to the world at large.

    The journalist could have taken a more subtle approach with interviewing this victim in the first place. I think she tried to help create the news by forcing the victim to relive the moment, instead of staying out of the way and simply being a reliable witness and fact gatherer.

    - - I wrote my comment in a text editor and pasted it here, then saw that Paula Reed (above) wrote something very similar. I agree with her, except I think it's more than just a dumb question, because it's intentional and that makes it cross over into (in my opinion) unethical behavior.