Reaching Out To Family Members
For Interviews After A Tragedy
Reaching Out To Family Members For Interviews After A Tragedy
It’s a part of the job no one likes but we all know is coming…
“Hey, can you reach out to the family members to get their reactions?” “I wonder what the family is going to do.” That question from the boss, or suggestion from the producers.
There’s just been a horrific natural disaster, crime, loss, and you are the one they’re telling to go stick a camera in someone’s face and ask “How does that make you feel?” Well, for the majority of reporters, that makes US feel horrible.
So how do you do it? How do you go to that crime scene the day after a crime, what’s left of a house after a fire, or a vigil being held for a murder victim? I’ve been (and still am) the one going to those places and asking personal questions.
I’ve been to countless murder scenes, interviewed family members during court proceedings, kept up with year-of-death anniversaries, and so on. I’m also the one who teaches new reporters how to do that. Many of them struggle. But from what I’ve observed, it’s not so much the ‘how’ that I see that’s the issue for them. It’s the ‘why’ behind it.
Why are we doing these stories? Why are we asking these questions? And why are we talking to these people?
So often, we forget that when we interview people, we are talking to humans and that we… yes, even bitter, jaded reporters like you and me… are also human.
For many of the people we talk to, it’s the worst time in their lives. Try to realize the gravity of what they’re going through. They’re not just a SOT. It’s okay to have compassion. (You’ll get my point in a minute, just hang with me.) So, let’s break down a scenario that each of us could face in our careers.
There’s been a horrific murder. A very young girl was killed in her sleep by her mom’s ex-boyfriend who broke into the house. You are sent out to cover this story. After getting all the initial information and going live, or turning a package, the day is done and you’re off. But…you’ve got to go to work again tomorrow.
You know the question is coming. You’re dreading it but you have to do the story. The first time you contact a family member who’s going through a loss is difficult no matter who you are, how long you’ve been on the job, or who the victim is. It’s just tough. So this is where compassion comes in.
How would YOU want to be approached?
Let’s start with where to even begin to look. Social media. A lot of people air their grievances, share their grief, or call for action right on their own pages.
At this point, you’ve probably got a few names to go off of. So, you start looking for those involved. Look at what they’re posting and who is commenting. Is someone else being vocal about the tragedy and is tagging the family members and other family friends in their posts? Maybe you could reach out to them too, but it’s best to start with the closest relative first. (Example: the mother or the sibling of the person who passed away.)
Once you find them, remember that question… how would YOU want to be approached? I usually start with some sort of written message, because you won’t always have phone numbers. The goal is not to just come off as compassionate, but actually be compassionate. You could write something like this:
“Hello (use their name), This is (your name) from (your station.) First and foremost, I wanted to send my condolences. I’m so very sorry for your loss. I’m sure this is a terrible time for you, and I can’t imagine the pain you and your family members are going through. If you’d like to honor or pay tribute to (victim’s name) by talking to me, please let me know. My contact information is ___.”
Feel free to add, or take away, what you feel is appropriate, but by clearly leaving the decision up to them they may not feel as pressured. If you were to say something like, “I covered the murder yesterday so I know where you live, and I’ll come by at 2”….Well, just don’t. That’s aggressive, invasive, and won’t get you very far at all.
Another option is to look for some sort of memorial that is being set up to honor the victim.
This could be a few candles, a balloon, a large wooden cut out of their initials, etc. When you go back to a crime scene, look for these things. You’ll probably get b-roll of it anyway, but this can be a great way to start a conversation.
Sometimes, people will come up and put flowers or light another candle at this makeshift memorial. Talk to them. Again, start off by expressing your condolences. I’ve found that this will open the door to many meaningful conversations.
Another thing to remember: LISTEN. Don’t immediately go for your camera. Take time to really build that relationship with whoever you’re talking to, whether it’s the victim’s relatives or a neighbor that “just saw the girl playing in the yard the other day.” Let THEM do the talking.
Once you feel like it’s a natural time to ask, go ahead: “What you’ve said about (use the victim’s name) is beautiful. Would you mind if I filmed you saying that? It would be such a great way to honor them.”
Most of the time, you’ll get a yes. If you don’t, that’s fine. Don’t pressure them.
Again… how would YOU like to be treated if the tables were turned?
If they say no, you still have the beautiful words they shared. You may not have an on-camera interview but you have their sentiments. Express those in a stand up or in your live shot. If your boss or a producer gets mad, (I know what that’s like) then they need to do a little soul searching.
This is a part of the job that is arguably one of the toughest, but it’s equally as important.
It starts by changing your mindset. You GET to tell these people’s story. You GET to be part of how they will be remembered. Your name will forever be linked to theirs. Do right by them. 💜