There are three books that influenced my interview style early on, as a journalist and researcher.
Elements of Crisis Intervention. James Greenstone, Sharon C. Leviton.
Greenstone and Leviton’s short but packed manual came out in 1993. I’d read the book for the first time around 2001. I was surrounded by friends in crisis constantly, and my grandmother loaned the book to me to help. Being able to tell where someone being upset ends and in crisis starts is valuable, way beyond when I interview people. But it helps me see red flags that I may be approaching a topic I didn’t know was difficult for someone to talk about. It gives me things to watch for that could be my cue to suggest talking to a professional counselor. When I was doing health beat articles that had me talking to patients and not researchers, I leaned heavily on what I picked up from this book. I had crisis line training before reading the book, and picked up other crisis training later in life. But this book was a big help as starting points go.
In terms of peer work: Journalists are not a substitute for a trained psychologist, not even for each other. But if more of us knew the signs of burnout, post-traumatic stress and decreasing psychological health, we’d be able to be there for each other as part of a support system.
Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Valerie Raleigh Yow.
I didn’t know how much I’d love this book. This book was the Bible in my college oral histories course. It was a sink-or-swim, application as soon as our instructor introduced new material kind of class. I loved it. In Yow’s book, she gives you a very clear guide on your duties as a researcher to your informants. If the word flags word for you, I raised my eyebrows the first time I read that. But it makes sense. When you interview someone, they’re informing you. In the case of oral histories involving non-dominant cultures, that’s where it really resonated for me. The people I was interviewing were my informants, teaching me about a culture I didn’t know, or only knew a small part of. When I was interviewing men about their experiences with mental health, they were showing me something I would have never experienced or seen without their help and information. The debt we owe to the people willing to speak on record is huge.
The other thing I walked away from the book with was an extra way I had to be mindful, particularly if my informants came from a cultural background I shared. It’s easy to get “inside baseball” with someone from your neighborhood, occupation, religion. But disparities of knowledge exist within and outside those cultural connections. Researchers have to walk a very specific line, where they make history accessible to those outside it, honor the experiences and knowledge of their informants, all while never over or under explaining the subject at hand.
Covering Violence A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims and Trauma. William Coté, Roger Simpson.
I came into this book with crisis training, crisis hotline training, a pile of psych credits from college, and I still learned. The skills I had from a crisis services provider standpoint were not a perfect match to the ones I’d need as a journalist. In many ways, those skills have at times given me conflicting feelings.
In Covering Violence, a strong ethical grounding is present in all chapters. Conduct to be observed on the scene, how to respect the needs of emergency responders, the legal places you’re allowed to go, recognizing trauma in yourself and others, multimedia content (when and what to take photos/video of), how trauma works on the human body, how to report on rape, handling stories that involve children, all that and more are Covering Violence’s toolkit for doing your job with empathy and great care on the worst day of your informant’s life. There are case studies of articles that were done with the intent to minimize harm to the survivors, but to inform the public. There are essays paired with them by the original journalists who broke their stories, explaining what it was like.
Was it upsetting and difficult to read at times? Yes. I also think it would be that way for others who are empathetic, not just survivors of traumatic incidents.
To know how to report humanely and with empathy, this is the kind of book people should read. To understand trauma from that context, as a member of the press there to inform the public, to add to knowledge and the greater good of the community. Journalists are not counselors, but that does not preclude them from being sensitive to the pain of others. The same goes for researchers.
I’m raising funds to collect an oral history of women in tabletop and live-action gaming. You can learn more about the project here.