10 do’s and don’ts on how to interview sexualized violence survivors
This is meant as an informal guide for journalists who cover sexualized violence or want to, mainly in an international context. Over the years I’ve consulted with dozens of experts: psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, doctors, NGO staffers, journalists who’ve long covered this topic, and many others. This is the fruit of those discussions. It is also the product of years of my own reporting in war zones. During this time, I’ve seen and experienced a lot of awful interactions between survivors and journalists, as well as some that have gone extremely well.
I’m sure there is much missing in my discussion here, so please note that this is an incomplete, and personal, guide. My hope is that it may help even one journalist better tell a story of rape, or one survivor confide it without being retraumatized.
Do go through local groups to find a safe survivor to speak to.
There’s an infamous story about a reporter who walked into a refugee camp in (I think it was) the Democratic Republic of Congo shouting, “Has anyone here been raped?”
I’ve been asked many times how to find rape survivors in a conflict situation. Obviously, the above is not how you do this. Every cultural context is different; the extent of stigma varies depending on what country you are reporting in as well as even in the micro-community you are writing about. The most effective and safest way to find people to speak to is to make contact with local groups that work with survivors. They will know who you should meet and will help you set up a protected way to do so. International NGOs are also a good source, but try local organizations first. They know the lay of the land best.
Local groups can also help you explain to a survivor why you are hoping to gather their story—what the point of telling it is, and why you hope they will want to cooperate and put their trust in you.
Do protect your source, digitally and otherwise.
In countries in which you know the government monitors communication (or even just in general), use encrypted communications to set up meetings, or do it in person. Use Signal for phone, and end-to-end encryption for email. Encrypt your interviews after the fact. Know that rape survivors can be targets still—and often their perpetrators are government officials or in the army. Further telling their stories can, for many, seriously endanger them and their families.
Remember that when meeting your source, your cell phone is broadcasting your location to whoever is monitoring you. Hence it is broadcasting your source’s location as well. And cell towers finding your phone is not the only possibility. Cell phones can be used as remote listening devices, writes the Committee to Protect Journalists: “Turning a phone off doesn’t guarantee that it can’t be used this way: for most devices, ‘off’ is really just a very low-power mode. The only way to be sure that a phone isn’t eavesdropping is to remove the battery or leave it behind.” If you absolutely feel you can’t leave your phone behind, buy a burner phone. Here’s more on protecting your communications.
In terms of protecting the identity of a survivor within your story, negotiate how to best do this with your source. Yes, we as journalists need names to give veracity to our stories, but when reporting on sexualized violence, sometimes you cannot use names. Would you rather get someone killed or tell the story with a pseudonym? I’ve never met an editor who objected to choosing anonymity when necessary. If you’ve done thorough reporting and can relay facts surrounding the case to your editor, it will work fine to conceal their identity. And be wary: It’s more than a name that needs protecting sometimes. Do not accidentally reveal a location, age, number of children, or other details that can allow people to sneakily identify them.
Do let your source lead the telling, but also reroute back to the details you need to gather in order to tell the story well.
A willing source will often be glad you are there to hear their story. You may be the first person who cared to listen. That can, however, mean they also want you to hear about many other things as well—for instance, some refugees hope you can help them with their living conditions, and by telling you all about their experiences they assume you can do that. Yet while carefully routing sources away from getting too off-topic, be careful to let them speak at length as well. Sometimes contextual details you may not have thought to ask about will come up.
At the same time, don’t be afraid to ensure that you ask what you need in order to effectively tell readers what was perpetrated upon them—that’s why you are there: to tell the world that a crime was committed so that, hopefully, there can be justice for this particular survivor and so that this will not be perpetrated upon others.
Do get context.
A survivor may not think to tell you background on the man or men who attacked them or why. Context can often be gained through careful questioning: Has this happened to others? Can the survivor help pinpoint who the perpetrator was?
Understanding the cultural context in which you are working can be just as important as interviewing survivors. Speak to local experts and officials. Speak to anyone and everyone you can to try to grasp what happened and whether it is part of a larger pattern. Always try to ascertain who the perpetrator may have been, and whether he (yes, men make up the vast majority of rapists) is part of a larger group committing acts of violence. Sometimes it’s the little things—were there military insignias on his (or their) clothes? Had anyone seen him before? With anyone else? Where? Etc.—that can give you broad clues that will change your story from “here is one woman who was raped” to “this is a larger pattern that included this woman I spoke to.”
Get legal context. What are the proceedings for such cases? How are survivors treated? Is justice at all common in these situations? Not only do readers want to know all this, but media stories can actually help justice move forward. Hours after I published a story about how the Congolese government had been negligent in bringing justice to a town called Kavumu, a member of parliament and 67 of his men were arrested for dozens of rapes of toddlers over three years. International media matters. So does having the support of your editors and media houses, as I did in this case from the Women’s Media Center.
Do follow up.
Find out what kind of response there has been to your source’s attack—with the police, legally, medically, and psychologically. Sometimes your inquiries as a reporter will make the difference between the person receiving help or not. A journalist’s eye on something this sensitive can spur people to act.
Follow up personally as well if it is possible to see how your source is doing. Show them your story after publication if you can. I’ve had stories translated into French, Swahili, and Arabic in order to allow my sources to read them. Help them know that they didn’t relive the painful thing that happened to them in vain.
Don’t rush a survivor.
When I was last at the Syrian border, I appeared to have been following in another journalist’s footsteps. This reporter, according to a number of sources I met, had wreaked havoc on a particular survivor I was trying to interview. The young girl had been raped by Syrian regime forces and was recovering in a nearby hospital. She would no longer speak to reporters though because of what happened in her interview with this other journalist, my sources told me. The woman had gone in, sat down, and rushed the interview in under an hour.
This was a young teen who had been burned with cigarettes and otherwise tortured, as well as raped. Pushing her to tell her story too quickly retraumatized her. Beyond that, however, there were relevant social differences. You need to take time in certain cultures to get to something as sensitive as rape—time to talk about many other things and adjust to each other. Sometimes you will be invited into a refugee tent and no one will speak until you’ve drunk a glass of tea. Be mindful of such cultural necessities. And know the harm you can potentially do by only doing what you need, and not what your source needs or what the cultural setting requires.
Don’t crowd them, and be respectful.
This is mainly for photographers and videographers. I’ve personally been witness to photographers who demand absurd poses from traumatized subjects, and who are disrespectful of their impoverished surroundings, shoving aside sleeping mats on the floor in order to get a shot. I’ve seen sources crowded and cowed by multiple cameras being pointed at them. I’ve seen women try to flee in fear. Yes, you need the story, but you don’t need it like this.
Don’t assume your source understands consent.
Over the years, I’ve had photographers offer me photographs of rape victims, faces showing. I always ask if the women gave consent, and the answer is always “yes.” But as I delve deeper, it usually becomes clear that there was no way the sources could have understood what they were consenting to.
A survivor at the Burmese-Thai border may not have ever had access to the Internet, or have the ability to understand how the Internet works. I’ve seen journalists tell survivors that their stories will only appear in certain countries (for instance, only in the United States, not in their home countries). But to promise such limited exposure these days is just a lie: Everything goes on the Internet, and everyone on Earth can find the story if they are looking.
Do your best to make sure the source is okay with everyone seeing the story, and knowing their name in connection with sexualized violence. Anything less is journalistic dishonesty, and potentially harmful.
Don’t undermine their understanding of consent but, at the same time, consider their safety.
A few years ago I reported on the story of a paralyzed woman who said she was raped in Syria. She told it from a hospital bed in Jordan. In the course of getting to know her, she asked that I use her real full name and show a photo of her face. It was a brave decision for a Syrian rape survivor: It may have been the first time anyone had chosen to do so, in fact. But I struggled with what to do. Revealing such information could have serious consequences beyond even just herself. It would potentially impact her family, who still lived in Syria.
I spoke with her doctors, who revealed to me that she’d been suicidal and was on heavy pain medication. (I say this now because the woman died a year after my story. She, in fact, as I subsequently reported, committed suicide.)
I spoke with NGO staffers and other journalists. The NGO people said to absolutely not reveal her face or full name, while the journalists said I had to—that this was the only way to put a face on this horrific issue. I struggled. While I wanted to protect her, I also didn’t want to take away her right to choose how she was represented.
When it came down to it, having that information from her doctors was what helped me make my decision: I would use her first and middle name and show a photo of her emaciated hands. Knowing she was depressed and impaired by medication told me she may not have had the capacity to recognize the danger in which she might be putting her children and family. In the end, I felt good about the decision, and she did as well. Her story got out and was impactful, helping to give a strong voice to what is happening to women in Syria—without putting others at unnecessary risk.
Don’t sensationalize—and that starts in the interview.
There is a lot of debate out there on how much we need to tell to make audiences care about rape. Do we need to detail the act itself? Some say it is enough to write that she was raped. Others say the horrific details are what push the world to pay attention. I’m somewhere in the middle. I think it’s important to reveal certain details for certain reasons. For instance, in Syria, our team uncovered that multiple women were being told by their attackers, “You want freedom? This is your freedom.”
Repeated phrasing is exactly the kind of thing that helps build international cases for human rights violations. Language can indicate whether mass rape has been coordinated and systematic. A U.S.-based group called AIDS-Free World successfully petitioned to have South Africa investigate mass rape allegedly carried out by the ruling ZANU-PF party in Zimbabwe against opposition supporters in 2008. Part of their case was built on the fact that they heard that similar phrases were being uttered during rapes across the country—women were called “traitors to Zimbabwe” or told they were being “sent a message.”
So I believe it is important to gather as much information as you can about particular attacks. But at the same time, you need to pay attention to the reaction of your sources. Be connected to whether they are starting to dissociate or cry, or anything else that may indicate a trauma response. Before you conduct interviews or approach new sources learn about the neurobiological effects and manifestations of trauma. Survivors often have fragmented memories, for example. They are often unable to create whole narratives in ways that traditional journalistic standards demand.
Know that sources will often keep talking because they want to give you want you want, but that doesn’t mean you should push them to continue. You can do more harm than good if you ask for too much about the attack itself, and it’s usually not even necessary to your story. Take time out. Allow survivors to stop and collect themselves and then decide if they want to continue.
I’ve always felt that reporting on sexualized violence is in many ways the opposite of other reporting: It can be best to let your sources lead an interview, rather than the other way around, which is what we are taught to do as journalists. If you’re not a trained trauma expert (which I am not) then know that you can’t fully understand the harm interviewing sexualized violence survivors can cause. These are very difficult interviews to navigate, but use your gut and watch your sources carefully for signs. Letting them take you through an attack the way they want to is best practice, as far as I’m concerned. Others may disagree, but decide for yourself what your objective is and how you can achieve that with the least damage to the person who is generously placing their trust in you.
Maybe it’s best to think of this kind of work the way doctors do theirs: First, do no harm.
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