Sources Share How to Respect Sources

By Anna-Catherine Brigida

In October 2017, I sat down with Salomon Estrada at a small, community-run museum in Guatemala City to talk about the forced disappearances of his two brothers, Felix and Cesar, by the Guatemalan state during the country’s civil war. The 36-year conflict ended in 1996, but the wounds are still fresh for most victims and their family members. At one point, Estrada choked up and his voice started to crack. I wondered if I had pushed too far.

Any conscientious journalist who has interviewed someone who has lived through a traumatic event—whether that be sexual assault, family separation, or the forced disappearance of a family member—has experienced at least one moment like this: a moment when our job as a journalist has seemed at odds with our humanity.

Journalists recognize the importance of personal testimonies and how they can help readers and viewers connect with a story. We are also increasingly aware of the harm that we can potentially cause by forcing sources to relive some of the most painful moments of their lives.

Organizations such as the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Justice Solutions and the International Journalists’ Network have all published guides to help journalists cover traumatic events with more care and concern for their sources. During the recent FASPE trip, discussions around how to avoid re-victimizing sources came up on numerous occasions.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people were forcibly disappeared during conflicts in the past decades. As many as 30,000 people were disappeared in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s, 45,000 during Guatemala’s civil war from 1960 to 1996, and between 5,000 and 10,000 during El Salvador’s civil war from 1980 to 1992. Forced disappearances are not just a repression tactic of the past. There is evidence that forced disappearances are on the rise worldwide, from Mexico to Egypt to China.

Journalists can bring this state-sponsored human rights abuse to light, but must do so in a way that respects sources and considers their emotional well-being. And the best guides to a thoughtful approach are the sources themselves.

I recently returned to several people I had interviewed about the forced disappearances of their family members in Guatemala and El Salvador to get their thoughts about how journalists might best approach them.

“In reality, an interview should help someone. It shouldn’t negatively affect them or re-victimize them, but rather free them in a way,” said Margarita Zamora, whose four siblings and mother disappeared during El Salvador’s civil war and whom I had first interviewed in May 2018. She works for Pro-Busqueda, an organization in El Salvador that seeks to find children who disappeared during the war, which first put me in touch with her.

An introduction from an organization or trusted friend can be key to making someone feel at ease with a journalist. “It’s important to coordinate through the institution so that they can find the right person, in the sense that the person has a preparation in some way so that he or she is ready to give their testimony,” Zamora said.

A psychologist with Pro-Busqueda, Ana Julia Escalante, often consults family members before they do interviews to prepare them. This prepping might make some journalists feel uncomfortable because it may seem like a form of censorship, but Escalante assured me that is not the case. “Preparing them doesn’t mean telling them what to say, but rather emotional preparation,” she said.

Estrada’s contact information came from someone he knows well and whom I interviewed for a story I was reporting on efforts to digitize Guatemala’s police archives. The documents in these archives hold important information that can help family members find their disappeared loved ones. That introduction made Estrada feel more comfortable sharing his story with me. “It’s important to have a friendship that instills confidence in us, so that we can talk about the subject,” he said. 

The state-sponsored repression during the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala has led to an enduring culture of distrust. Both countries remain polarized by conflicts fought between leftist guerrilla rebels and U.S.-backed state forces. Some people fear that talking about their past could lead to repercussions. Understanding this dynamic can help journalists appreciate some of the reservations that their interviewees might have.“There was a lot of fear of expressing oneself or speaking out [during the war],” said Zamora. “Even today, there’s fear of talking about what they were and what they did, because they think that in some way they could be judged or singled out. There are still many people with these fears.”

Estrada reiterated these concerns, adding that some national media outlets still cover the topic insensitively, expressing doubt about victims’ stories.

Both Estrada and Zamora have spoken to media outlets repeatedly over the past few decades through their work with organizations that focus on historical memory. They understand the importance of doing so. But that doesn’t mean it’s a painless experience.

“It might seem like life gets easier for people to live as time passes between the moment of trauma and their day-to-day existence, but when you sit down and ask them to center themselves on the worst thing that has ever happened to them, that is never going to be easy,” said Jina Moore, a journalist who has extensively covered conflicts in Africa and frequently writes about ethical issues. She prepared the Covering Trauma Training Guide for the nonprofit organization Search for Common Ground. “The rules of care that a journalist should try to follow to minimize harm are the same regardless of whether this experience happened three weeks ago or three years ago,” she added.

And despite their apparent openness towards media, Estrada and Zamora don’t necessarily want to tell all parts of their story.

“The demeanor of a journalist should be friendly, supportive, and respectful,” Estrada said. He finds it off-putting when journalists “insist and insist and insist,” particularly about personal details about his family relationships. “It’s something that as a human being I lived and this memory is very difficult, particularly when they ask you things like, what were you doing and where did you go,” he said. This forces him to remember details that are painful to recall, he said. 

“Why weren’t you with them?” is a common question that upsets Zamora. She often blames herself for what happened and the question “reaffirms that part of me,” she said.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma recommends avoiding any question which might “imply blame or that they could have done more.” If it is important to know where she was, journalists can ask in a more direct way.

Allowing sources to avoid questions or keep details to themselves is not censorship, as some journalists might think of it, but rather it is a consideration for a person’s privacy and dignity. Moore has learned this in her own reporting. “I’ve asked you to share your story with me, but that doesn’t make me entitled to every piece of your story and I think that’s an important thing for journalists to keep in mind,” said Moore.

If journalists don’t feel comfortable navigating the nuances of these situations as they come up, Escalante recommends enlisting a psychologist or another trusted by the source to sit in on the interview. In the many times she has done so, she has rarely had to intervene, but finds that her presence signals that the journalist cares about the emotional wellbeing of the source and helps the source feel more comfortable.

Escalante recommended a slow pace for interviews, allowing time for sources to recover if they become emotional, and being clear at the outset that a source can end the interview at any time. She remembers only one instance of a journalist treating a source disrespectfully by asking personal questions even when the source became visibly upset. The woman had been a victim of torture and sexual violence and Escalante had to intervene to stop the interview. “In most cases, the journalist is attentive. Sometimes they look at you to ask, ‘Do we continue or not? Is this ok?’ And you say, ‘Yes, go ahead,’” Escalante said.

What happens after the interview can be just as important to ensure that sources feel they were respected during the process. It can be as simple as sharing an article, even if it’s not in their native language, to show that the interview was eventually published. “When I saw that you published something about my story and my friends in the U.S. told me that they saw a story about me, that lifted my spirits,” Estrada said. “But when journalists don’t do it, it seems like they just used our testimony and then they weren’t interested.”

“Sometimes people say, ‘They’ve interviewed me so many times and what purpose does it serve?’” Zamora said. “There have been so many cases where family members have done interviews and then have never known what became of it. To see it from their side, it’s not that they want to be paid, but rather they just want to see what was the fruit of the interview.” 

When done in a conscious and respectful way, the journalist-source relationship can be symbiotic.

“Journalists have to ask the questions that touch hearts and soul,” Estrada said. He recognized that some questions are “necessary in the end.” Even though it can be painful to remember his brothers, he’s grateful to have a platform to share his story. “[Journalists] have helped us to be able to tell our testimony,” he said.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a difficult relationship between the journalist and the person being interviewed,” said Escalante. “Rather it can be a harmonious relationship in the sense that for the victim, many, although not all, need to speak. They need their stories to be known.”





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