Responsible interview techniques

Challenges for families and hostages

Returning hostages and their families are often suffering from the impacts of trauma. They may not be sleeping properly, they may be experiencing flashbacks, nightmares or intrusive thoughts about what has happened to them, they may be hyper-vigilant, feel angry, have a heightened sense of emotions, and might find it difficult to talk about what has happened. Some may be suffering from the serious effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Some former hostages and their families find it therapeutic to tell their story. It is part of processing what has happened to them, taking control of the situation, and finding a way to move on with their life. When they do wish to speak, it is vital they are treated with care, compassion and support and with an understanding of the way that normal interview techniques could have a detrimental impact on them due to their experiences.

Some former hostages and their families never want to speak publicly or privately to strangers about what they have been through. To force or pressure them to do so could have very negative consequences for their recovery.

Hostage UK’s priority is the welfare of hostages and their families. We do not seek to facilitate interviews with hostages and families, but recognise that engaging in such interviews is their choice. Where a family or hostage has agreed to an interview, it is important to prepare properly and act responsibly. To help you do this with an appreciation of the potential impact on your interviewee, we have put together the following guidance. See Looking After Yourself and Your Family and Dealing with Grief

Dos and don’ts for media and academics

Media and academic interviews with former hostages and their family members can force those individuals to relive their trauma. However, there are ways you can conduct yourself as the interviewer that can minimise this, and even produce a constructive and positive experience. The following guidelines have been adapted from those produced by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, drawn from Australasian and international research by Dart members, including journalists, journalism researchers and health professionals.

People who have experienced deep trauma or who have lost someone close in sudden and violent circumstances have a right to decline being interviewed, photographed or filmed. News and other media outlets need to respect that right. Please exercise the principle of doing no further harm.

Above all, be accurate and do not feign compassion, it can’t be faked. Offer sincere condolences early and in considerate and supportive terms. Use a supportive phrase like “I’m sorry this happened to you” rather than the more abrupt “How do you feel?” or the discordant “I know how you feel” which will immediately lose credibility.

Survivors are likely to be in shock, at least in the immediate period after the kidnapping of their loved one or their release, and may not be in a fit state to be interviewed, filmed or photographed. Indeed, they may not be in a position to give anything like informed consent to an interview, so it is important not to put them under pressure . Avoid “devil’s advocate” questions or questions that might imply blame or that they could have done more.


Often those affected by a kidnapping will be experiencing deep conflict and perhaps confusion. For news media to focus on that as-yet-unresolved mental or emotional conflict can be destructive to victims, survivors, witnesses, their families and friends as well as to unseen others who might have experienced similar or worse situations.

If you wish to request an interview, ask for it in polite way and do not coerce, cajole, trick or offer remuneration to get co-operation, and especially don’t thrust the additional burden of negotiating an “exclusive” onto grieving families.

Respect their choice to have someone with them or to appoint a family or external spokesperson or even a media advisor. Most likely they’re being bombarded with media requests and have little choice but to seek help with, or limit, demand.

Try to make your approach as respectful and gentle as possible, despite your pressing deadline or a newsroom impatient for your copy or images. Treat these people as you would like to be treated if the situation was reversed.

If you get a refusal, leave a contact card and tell them they can call you if they want to talk later.

Avoid, wherever possible, being the one to relay news of a death to an individual or family. You can do this by making sure the news has been delivered by the authorities before you mention it. Breaking such news is the role of the appropriate authorities and relatives have a right to receive such news in private. If you are asked for additional details about the tragedy that they may not yet have, consider carefully your response and try to think how you would feel if you were in their situation. Don’t repeat unconfirmed information.

Remember victims, survivors and their families and friends are struggling to regain control in their lives after a devastating experience, so allow them to have some say in when, where and how they’re interviewed or photographed/filmed. Include them in any decisions you can – for instance, read back their quotes or replay recordings, allow them to suggest which photo/s of a deceased or badly injured relative should be used, etc. Let vulnerable interviewees tell you when they’d like to take a break, whether they want you to put your notebook down or to turn off recording equipment so they can say something they don’t want used. Check whether it’s alright to ask a tough question or give them your list of interview questions in advance.

If someone breaks down, give them time to compose themselves before asking: “Are you ready to go on?” Resist filming or photographing individuals in a distressed or emotional state (even readers/ viewers with no connection to tragedies are critical of this clichéd technique). Choose powerful, reinforcing images to illustrate the story and the victim’s worth to their family and/or community.

These stories do not need added sensation – rely on good, solid, factual journalism and a healthy dose of sensitivity. Be wary of recycling particular images of individuals, especially graphic ones. Also, beware of choosing ‘tragic images’ as page or screen icons. Often this will be a family’s last image of a lost loved one and it may not be pleasant.

Thoroughly check and re-check facts, names, times, places, etc, because such errors are painful to these individuals, families and their colleagues and cause unnecessary stress.

Remember people you speak to in these circumstances are rarely media-savvy. Try to explain the media process and how your story, picture or footage is likely to be used. Also explain that it may be reshaped prior to publication, or afterwards, or not used at all. Be honest if you know something is likely to run more than once. Many will take steps to ensure vulnerable family members such as children or the elderly are informed of, or shielded from, such reports. Encourage them to ask questions while you’re there to answer them and to call you if they have a question at a later stage. See full text.

Looking after yourself when covering kidnapping stories

It is important to remember that interviewing former hostages and their family members can have an impact on you, too. There are a number of warning signs you should look out for, such as difficulties concentrating, unusual irritability or short temper, images or thoughts related to a project intruding at unwanted times, unusual isolation or withdrawal, disrupted sleep.

The following is a list of ways individuals may respond emotionally to a traumatic event, and which can indicate whether a person is suffering from acute stress reaction. Generally, six “yes” responses indicate the presence of acute stress.

  1. Upsetting thoughts or memories about the event that have come into your mind against your will
  2. Upsetting dreams about the event
  3. Acting or feeling as though the event were happening again
  4. Feeling upset by reminders of the event
  5. Bodily reactions (such as fast heartbeat, stomach churning, sweatiness, dizziness) when reminded of the event
  6. Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  7. Irritability or outbursts of anger
  8. Difficulty concentrating
  9. Heightened awareness of potential dangers to yourself and others
  10. Being jumpy or being startled at something unexpected

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has produced a guide for journalists covering traumatic stories, such as kidnappings. Read it here.