It can seem hard for journalists to find people open to sharing personal stories about sensitive topics.
But they can be found just about anywhere that people gather, in person or virtually including on social media, Gofundme pages and grocery stores. But they need to be approached with sensitivity, especially those dealing with trauma who may be particularly uncomfortable talking to reporters.
“Most people have no idea what the news gathering process is like,” said Noah Levey of Kaiser Health News, so it’s important to explain the journalistic process and be patient. It pays off, he said. “With the right person you can convey the complexity of how people actually live.”
The panelists at the April 28 session at Health Journalism 2022 — Levey, Pam Belluck of The New York Times, Alexis Allison of the Fort Worth Report, and moderator Anna Medaris of Insider — offered tips for finding everyday people and treating them with sensitivity.
- Talk to strangers: Allison noted that she speaks to her Uber and Lyft drivers when she’s a passenger, to the barista when she’s ordering a coffee, and uses every opportunity to get to know strangers. “You don’t know someone’s story until you ask them,” she said. Casual “exploratory conversations” can become interesting leads, panelists said.
- “Go outside of health care,” to find people, Levey recommended. Financial advisers and housing advocacy groups, for example, often are counseling people struggling to pay medical bills, he noted.
- Think of doctors as multidimensional: Often reporters want to speak to clinicians just about the patients they treat. But doctors and therapists are also real people with real issues, and they may have their own stories to share, Medaris said.
- Look at the reviews at the bottom of company websites. This is where people often give their honest opinions about an experience, said Pam Belluck. Even more, people sometimes use their full names, which can be useful for a reporter trying to find an anecdote, she said.
While there are numerous ways to find sources, it is also crucial to remember the human experience, once you get someone to speak on the record.
Treating people with sensitivity
- Ask the right questions: Instead of asking someone who has just been through a traumatic experience, “how did that make you feel?” try asking, “what happened to you?” panelists suggested. That approach allows the source to explain the circumstances in their own words and preserves their autonomy over their own narrative.
- Be empathetic, the panelists said. Ways to show empathy include allowing the person to take a break if they seem stressed during the interview, informing them that they do not have to answer triggering questions and finding out, in advance, what their concerns might be with speaking to the press. “I don’t want them to be surprised,” said Belluck. “I want them to know when it’s going to run and what to expect.”
- But don’t be “too empathetic,” Levey said. He and others explained that you don’t have to walk in a person’s shoes or pretend to understand. There is a difference between experiencing events yourself and acknowledging someone else’s personal experience. Levey also said to report what is important, but to be mindful of too much detail. “Don’t quote everything about someone’s life,” Levey said. “It’s their story, let them have control over it.”
- Create an informed consent document: “You don’t always realize how much you’re asking of people,” Allison said. To make sure those who share personal stories are comfortable, she provides a document that explains if the conversation will be recorded, how much the person will be used in the story, and provides a basic timeline, among other things. “The better their experience, the more likely they are to be interviewed again,” she said.