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Tact is crucial in interviewing victims of rising street violence

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Tact is crucial in interviewing victims of rising street violence

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Almost a year ago to the date, as I was working on my California Health Journalism Fellowship application, I was tallying up Merced County’s homicide numbers for 2014 to be included in my project proposal. I counted 29, and by the end of the year, the county had recorded 32 homicides. That was a record number for the Central Valley county, which has a population of a little more than 263,000. Today, I sit here adding this year’s homicides, and again, I count 29. December, our crime reporter tells me, is a hot month for homicides. He wouldn’t be surprised if violence reaches a new high this year. Without a doubt, the county is experiencing the bloodiest time in its history, and residents are losing hope.

The three-part series published in the Merced Sun-Star in late August and early September focused on the health of community members who have directly or indirectly become victims of Merced’s rising street violence. When I first started research for this series, I naively planned to explore the impacts that community violence can have on mental health. I soon realized that the aftermath of violence manifests itself in more than just mental disorders. Physical and emotional health also had to be accounted for.

The curse and blessing of tackling this topic is that is not unique to Merced County. The relationship between violence and health has been covered quite a bit in recent years, especially in urban communities. Bu from what I’ve seen, less reporting has been done from smaller, rural communities, such as those in Merced County. With the rise in violent crime, however, I thought it was the ideal time to start this conversation among our local readers.

I wanted the series to focus on local residents. For the first part, I talked to parents who have lost children to gang violence. They shared what their lives have been like since their loss. They expressed concerns about depression, insomnia and anxiety, among other conditions. The second part told the story of a former gang member and her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. The third gave a voice to youth and people in the community who are trying to do something to reduce the violence and create safer neighborhoods.

In gathering information, I came across a few challenges. Talking to the parents and former gang member produced extremely emotional interviews. That I expected. These people required lots of patience and compassion. But there was also a lot of anger. One mother, I learned, had been holding onto a great deal of emotion — emotion that was made apparent during one of the interviews.

Here are a few tips for other journalists who may find themselves reporting in similar situations:

Expect the unexpected: It seems almost common sense in this field of work. But when dealing with such a sensitive topic, you learn that simply having a list of prepared questions isn’t enough. The parents I spoke to had not sought professional help, but were obviously still dealing with a lot of resentment and pain. One mother shared that she preferred not to speak to family or friends about her nightmares relating to her daughter’s death because she did not want others to feel sorry for her. It was obvious that the interview also became a much-needed venting session for her. While the situation provided real, raw emotion, as a reporter you also have to keep control of the interview. You give the subjects time to gather themselves, but must continue to lead the interview onto to the next question.

Start with a simple conversation: After the experience of speaking with some of these parents, I came to believe that it’s often best to keep the first face-to-face encounter casual when dealing with delicate subjects. No cameras, no recorder, no notes. Leaving these out can help the subject feel more comfortable. It also gives the reporter a better sense of the person and allows you to tailor your questions to fit the interviewee. You also learn how much the subject is willing to share. This is what I practiced when I spoke with the subject of the series’ second part, a 29-year-old former gang member who witnessed her first murder at 12. A conversation before the interview made for a smoother on-the-record experience.

Engage readers as you prepare the series: Introducing readers to your fellowship project grabs helps gain interest. I write a weekly column titled “Let’s Talk Health” that is published every Saturday. The week before the series was published I used the column to tell readers what would be coming their way. That weekend I received numerous emails and calls from readers who also wanted to share stories about their encounter with street violence. They had suggestions, questions and ideas. During the information-gathering process, I had attended community meetings organized by the Merced County Sheriff’s Department and United Way of Merced County, in which residents spoke freely with the sheriff about their concerns regarding neighborhood safety. They raised questions and concerns that inspired some of my research. Sharing the project through my column was similar to another forum, but with an even larger audience. Based on the column’s response, I wish I had written the project’s introduction earlier on, so that I would have given myself more time to meet with readers who called and emailed me.

Other assignments can lend insights: In months following the fellowship training, I made an effort to cover any assignment that I felt might help me better understand the topic of violence in Merced County. Every year, for example, the District Attorney’s office puts on a Victims’ Right Ceremony, in which the community remembers those who were killed in violent crimes. Most were victims of gang-related homicides, others were domestic violence-related deaths. Covering events such as this one gave me the opportunity to meet victims’ families. Most of these families were still seeking justice in the death of their loved one. Families were open, willing to talk, and knew other families going through a similar situation. Taking the lead on other assignments is one way to make connections and find community members you might not otherwise meet.

The timing of this series was interesting. It came as many local nonprofits and youth programs were working together on the issue of rising violence. The answer, many community organizers believe, lies in giving youth more opportunities than the streets offer. Merced County is currently seeing a large movement in community organizing to increase funding for youth programming. It’s a possible long-term solution, organizers say. An epidemiologist and public health professor at UC Merced, who I spoke to for this series, is also in the initial stages of a new study that will look into the consequences of living in toxic, violent environments, with a focus on Merced County and the San Joaquin Valley. I plan to keep reporting on this topic as progress is made in these efforts, and as researchers continue to probe the links between the experience of violence and health. Amid another year with violence again on the rise, a follow-up is probably due soon.

Read Ana Ibarra's stories here.

[Photo by Andy Kuhn/Merced Sun-Star.]


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