Victims of sexual abuse may not want to share their story – or even be approached. But without their voice, the greater story can’t be told. By using sensitivity and common sense, it’s possible to forge a connection with a victim without exacerbating the person’s trauma or violating his or her trust.
However, the best way initially to contact a victim may be through other channels.
Lombardi’s approach was to gain access to sexual abuse victims through the people they trusted – their lawyers, advocates and family members. The downside of this strategy is that it takes time since you are relying on others to relay your message.
Tara Mckelvey, a senior editor at The American Prospect, wrote a piece in 2004 for Nerve, an online magazine, about long-hidden sexual abuse in an Amish community. Mckelvey found out about the case while doing another story about Rumspringa – a coming-of-age tradition in the Amish culture. By then, reports of the abuse had appeared in local newspapers, and she pitched the idea to Nerve. Mckelvey, like Lombardi, made contact with the subject of her story through the victim’s close confidante. Gaining the confidante's trust took time, although, ultimately the investment paid off.
If using an emissary stalls or fails, Lombardi suggests writing a letter to the victim, explaining the angle of the piece and providing your related work. A follow-up phone call also helps so the victim simply can hear your voice.
The point is to give the victim a chance to learn who you are, and what he or she stands to gain (or won’t risk) from speaking with you. Lombardi sums it up this way: The key to securing the interview is to place the victim in the position of deciding if and when to contact you.
Dube's main challenge reporting her story was that she’s not ultra-Orthodox. In fact, she compares the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community – close-knit, insular and skeptical, if not hostile, to outsiders – to the Amish culture, in terms of "separateness." An outsider would have difficulty talking to members about most anything in the community, much less accusations of child sexual abuse.
So Dube’s approach simply was to talk to whoever was willing to talk – which in this case was sexual abuse survivors and a few mavericks within the community trying to raise awareness about the issue. She met the subject of her piece at a forum on sexual abuse, but held onto his contact information until she felt she had to tell the man’s story.
Making contact with the victim, for Mckelvey, turned out to be the easier part. She still had to break the nearly impenetrable fortress of the Amish community to find others willing to discuss the abuse. She wasn’t afraid of knocking on doors as much as she was of the dogs often patrolling a property. So instead, Mckelvey frequented the Amish markets, where locals sold everything from handmade dolls to earthworms. After buying a supply of worms from one vendor, Mckelvey stuck around and chatted. These casual conversations turned out to be an effective strategy for getting the people at the market to open up.
Mckelvey told the merchants she was a journalist before asking any questions. And she remained upfront and relaxed – making a point to joke around and compliment her potential sources. People love flattery, Mckelvey points out. And they want to know you know what you’re talking about. She showed up having read every document available, knowing everything about the community, its history, and its traditions and customs. Buying some earth worms is a nice start, but as Mckelvey says: You’ve got to make the most out of the 20 minutes you have with a potential source.
Gathering string by attending forums and panel discussions, hanging out in local haunts, collecting business cards or even worms, and jotting down seemingly random quotes, is a good way to test the strength of a story idea. And while it could take a while, you eventually could come across the one piece of information that ties it all together.
Robin Stone, a freelance journalist and author of “No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse” (Broadway Books, 2004), found an entirely different technique for reaching victims of sexual abuse. After Stone penned an essay in Essence magazine about being sexually abused as a child, potential sources wrote her to share similar experiences.
Connecting through a very personal, traumatic experience will not work for many journalists, but a comparable approach could be to establish a connection with the victim through a common interest or shared background. This initial bond can put the person at ease, and more apt to open up.
Stone says she also found survivors through state and local coalitions against sexual violence, where there are often member forums. She contacted private psychologists and churches, as well, and sent a mass email to friends and colleagues, asking for possible sources. Stone suggests another avenue – one not available when she was working on her book – are social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, where a number of member pages address sexual abuse.
"Interviewing Victims," Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma
"Interviewing Vicitms: Tips and Techniques," Sue Carter and Bonnie Bucqueroux, Victims and the Media Program, Michigan State University
"Crisis Reporting and Respectful Interviewing," Bob Steele, Poynter Online