This week’s revelation of a hotel surveillance video showing former NFL player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay Palmer (now his wife, Janay Rice) has many people talking about domestic and gender-based violence who don’t normally.

If you might be interviewing a survivor of sexual violence for the first time as a result of this story – whether you are an experienced journalist or a journalism student – we want to share some tips to ensure the interview is ethical and safe for your interviewee. These come from a resource we created called Conducting Safe, Effective and Ethical Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. While the guide was developed with a focus on interviews that would be filmed, many suggestions are applicable to any type of interview, whether print, radio, or video.

  • Stop to consider. The effects of sexual violence are varying and can be long lasting. When you approach survivors, treat their experience with compassion and respect their perspectives and boundaries.
  • Ask your interviewee if they need their identity protected. Stigma around rape and other gender-based violence is still widespread in the United States and survivors may also face repercussions for sharing their stories.
  • Prepare and test your equipment before the interview. Sharing stories of sexual violence is difficult. If you are recording either sound or video during the interview, the last thing you want to have happen is your equipment malfunctioning, your batteries losing power, etc. interrupting your interviewee at a sensitive moment, or requiring them to repeat a story that already may be challenging to tell. See more tips about creating a comfortable space for your interviewee here.
  • Ask open ended and ethical questions. Open-ended questions can help your interviewee discuss their experience on their own terms and avoids answers like “yes” or “no.” Avoid victim blaming by asking questions that imply they could have prevented, avoided or resisted the incident. Don’t intentionally ask questions meant to provoke an emotional response from your interviewee. See more tips in this video clip.
  • Be conscious of word choice. “Rape” is not “sex.” Also, does your interviewee identify as a survivor, victim, both, neither? Whatever they decide, respect this in the interview. See more tips in this video clip.
  • Obtain informed consent. Be sure that your interviewee understands that once they are interviewed and your piece appears – particularly if it will be published on the Internet- it could have a wide-reaching audience. See more about informed consent in this video clip.
  • Stay calm, be patient and respect limits. Don’t react with horror to your interviewee’s stories as it is likely to make them uncomfortable. Respect that it may take time for the entire story to be shared and be aware that there may be ‘gaps.’ This is a common effect of traumatic experiences. You can revisit the ‘gap’ but don’t push. Respect that it may be too difficult for your interviewee to share their story and reassure them that they can stop at any point, regardless of your agreement for the interview prior. See more tips in this video clip.

With respect to graphic video footage like that of the incident involving Ray and Janay Rice, consider whether or not it is necessary to include the video in your reporting.  Ask, did the individuals consent to the recording? Does it have the potential to cause further emotional, psychological, or other harm to a victim of abuse?

The sports ethics journalist Dave Zirin said in an interview on Democracy Now, “[T]his video also re-victimizes Janay Rice, because domestic violence counselors talk about how every time it is shown without her consent, it actually serves the purpose of hurting her.” It is possible to  report on the incident by describing what the video shows, without embedding or linking to it.

Obtaining the consent of individuals before sharing footage of them is not possible when that video was filmed by a surveillance camera, an anonymous eyewitness, or even a perpetrator (like this example of a Russian teen being beaten because he was gay in a country where it is illegal to be). That leaves it up to reporters to balance the public’s right to know versus the privacy, agency, and safety of individuals who appear in the footage.

Additional resources:

  • The entire six-part video series that accompanies our written guide can be accessed here.
  • Videos that feature interviews with survivors of gender-based violence can be seen on our website here.

Contributions to this article were made by Madeleine Bair and Jackie Zammuto. 

Featured image is a still from the WITNESS-produced video series Conducting Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-based Violence. 

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