International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

MEDIA MATTERS

Posted 1 July 2003 in StressPoints by Terry Clark, University of Central Oklahoma

The State of Oklahoma will try Terry Nichols on 160 counts of first-degree murder in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. So ruled a judge after a May preliminary hearing that reopened the trauma of that event for many of the victims and relatives of victims. Regardless of differing views on the merits of such a trial after the federal trial has been long since closed, the event has renewed interest in how media treats victims.

But there is another viewpoint that should be considered. A majority of Americans either misunderstand the media culture or are ignorant of it. When a traumatic event occurs, victims will be interviewed by members of the media. How do you prepare victims to deal with the media? What advice do you give them?

I recently was asked to help prepare a “Victims’ Cheat Sheet” for dealing with the media during the May preliminary hearing of Nichols, knowing that victims could be re-traumatized by both the testimony and reporters’ questions. I engaged the help of my University of Central Oklahoma senior journalism students studying media ethics, and together we compiled a list—the condensed version of the preliminary results follows.

Victims’ Guide to the Media
The media wants to know your story because you are a link with the tragedy, the news and other people.

  1. You will be approached by members of the media—newspapers, television and radio. It is important to be prepared for the questions you are asked. The following pointers will help you deal with and understand the media.
  2. Your comments will be some of the most interesting and important parts of a bigger story.
  3. Understand that the media is usually on deadline—if members appear rushed or rude, their tight schedule probably is the reason. They have to get a story in a very short time.
  4. Do not feel pressured to talk to the media unless you want to.
  5. Do not feel obligated to speak to anyone who presses you immediately in the wake of trauma.
  6. Understand that the information you provide can be useful in helping society know what has happened to you—and give insight into what has happened in society.
  7. If you are not comfortable giving specific details about what has happened, let reporters know ahead of time so they won’t ask questions that could possibly cause more trauma or distress for you.
  8. If you don’t want to be in the public’s eye, don’t give permission to be interviewed. You didn’t ask to be thrown into the tragedy.
  9. If you grant an interview, you can take control of it. The tragedy happened to you; let reporters know what you want to talk about—set boundaries.
  10. You can end the interview at any time.
  11. You can determine the setting of the interview.
  12. It may help if you have family or friends with you when you speak about emotional items. It might make you more at ease.
  13. Expect personal questions. The media is simply trying to create a positive personal profile of the victim—not pry into the victim’s life for entertainment purposes.
  14. Expect to be asked the who, what, when, where, why and how questions, plus details—so think ahead.
  15. If a question makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t feel guilty about not answering it.
  16. Take some time to yourself—however long it might take to quietly and fully gather your thoughts and gain composure.
  17. It’s OK to ask the interviewer to stop and be patient with you.
  18. Ask the interviewer to confirm your quotes. Make the interviewer emphasize accuracy.
  19. It is OK to terminate the interview if you become uncomfortable.
  20. Do not speak and then ask to be “off the record.” Anything you say may be used.
  21. It’s fine to say “no comment” to a question and ask for a change of subject.
  22. Though you are a victim, respect other victims by not speaking for them.
  23. Remember that once you speak, you lose control of what will be used, in print or broadcast. No matter how long the interview, TV has only two or three minutes for your comments, so they will be edited to “sound-bytes.” In print, your comments will be used where reporters and editors believe they are most appropriate.

Being prepared for an interview and establishing limits help a person provide useful information to the media while maintaining a level of privacy.

The Victims’ Guide to the Media is posted on the University of Central Oklahoma’s Web site at http://www.libarts.ucok.edu/journalism/journalism.html.