Thanks to Skype, mobile phones and email, it's easy to interview soldiers in the field and track families at home. A journalist and military spouse sheds light on how to do it.
"When Veterans Come Home" — a conference sponsored by Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the McCormick Foundation and the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program in Atlanta Jan. 7 through 8, 2010 — explored the challenges journalists face covering returning soldiers. These tips were spurred by the workshop.
Interviewing military personnel deployed overseas is a specialized task for a journalist, requiring scrupulous preparation, detailed understanding of the realities of life in the field and sensitivity to the constraints under which soldiers operate. It also requires sensitivity to the needs and issues of military families waiting out their loved ones' deployment.
These days, it's not uncommon for deployed soldiers to blog or post Facebook updates, be available for interviews via mobile phones or Skype and to keep in close touch with family and friends. This new communications landscape is a reportorial gold mine — but along with the reward, there is some risk.
Here are tips for interviewing deployed soldiers and their families.
Most important tip from my husband, an Air Force Senior Master in Afghanistan on his fourth deployment: “Respect when the military member says he or she cannot discuss something due to military restrictions.” If the item you are asking about falls under operations security, then he or she will not talk to you about it. (Of course, if you are grilling a leading general at a press conference … that’s a different story.)
If you are conducting an interview by phone with someone deployed at a forward operating base or a combat outpost, do your research in advance as much as possible (get the basics from the spouse, mom, dad, the base back home, the person’s blog, previous articles, etc.) The phone connection may be terrible, with Pakistani music bleeding in and out of the conversation, and the line may go dead with no warning. You want to be as prepared as possible because you will have to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
Also keep in mind the deployed person probably gave up his or her call home in order to talk to you. Giving up a chance to speak to your spouse or kids back home is a big sacrifice.
Whether you are the reporter or an assignment editor sending a photographer to take photos of the family of a military service member who has been killed or injured, it is imperative that you give that photographer some basic information about the story. I was present once when a local TV photographer was sent to interview an injured service person; the photog knew nothing about the story he was sent on, and this resulted in an unnecessarily difficult and painful interview both for the photog and the soldier.
Understand the different phases of grief. Interviewing a family member immediately after he or she has lost a loved one is different than if you do so after some time has gone by. People can say things that they might regret later or you might misinterpret. Make sure your quotes are accurate and give grieving families the space they deserve.
Understand survivor’s guilt and survivor’s families’ guilt. When someone dies, it’s very hard to be the one who survived or a family member of someone who survived. It is particularly difficult if service members from the same unit or same hometown were in the same battle or IED explosion, and one died, and another survived.
If someone says they are speaking for a bereaved family, make sure they actually are. A good place to start is the Public Affairs officer for their military base or the pastor of the family's church. Funeral directors are often very helpful as well.
When interviewing injured military personnel, go through the public affairs office. Even if you have the service member’s direct cell number, if the service member is at a military hospital, you need to respect the protocol and get the proper permissions from public affairs. Many families are open to sharing their journey of recovery if approached in the right way. Quite often a letter or an email will work much better than a cold call. (If you want to follow someone’s surgery or ongoing treatment, ask early so the family has adequate time to consider the request and work with public affairs for access and approval. Asking in the last days leading up to the procedure is not likely to be productive, because the injured person and his or her family will have so many medical appointments and legal papers to attend to.)
Reporters will often ask to follow someone home from the reunion at the airport when the service member returns from deployment; this is an especially common request from local TV reporters because they need the visuals. Here is my husband’s advice: Be respectful, give the deployed person space and wait for him or her to be ready to talk. Trying to invite yourself over during a very private and sometimes tense homecoming probably won’t work. You can ask, but be sensitive — and don’t insist if the answer is “no.”
Don’t miss a scheduled phone interview with a deployed soldier and then ask to reschedule for later the same day. My husband once stood in line for an hour and a half to get a turn at making a call to a reporter only to find out the reporter wasn’t even in. He is not likely to stand in line again and take the chance that the reporter is not available. If you want the interview, keep your cell phone on and available at all times so you don’t miss the call.
Understand time differences. The difference between Afghanistan and Eastern Standard Time in the U.S. is 9.5 hours. Emailing at 2 p.m. EST is too late, because the service member is likely already asleep. (Never mind how long it takes to get public affairs to grant permission.)
Not everyone deployed has traditional email and Skype access. My husband has paid anywhere from $50 to $90 per month for personal Internet access for his B-hut or tent. At times the service has been good, but most times it has been slow and unreliable. Many younger service members can’t afford this luxury and have to use MWR computers (computers of the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command) — those normally have a long line and time is restricted to 30 minutes. The 30 minutes begins when you sit in the chair; sometimes it can take 20 minutes to simply log in to see your messages.
When you cover someone who is or was deployed, take the initiative to understand the conditions under which they served. Spending a year at Bagram Airfield is not the same as being at a forward operating base (FOB) or a combat outpost (COP). FOB's and COP's are often very remote and austere. Service members live in tents with no phone or Internet and bathe by pouring bottled water over their heads.
Don’t fall in love with a predetermined narrative. Make sure you consider all aspects of the story and talk to as many sources as possible. Especially where a service member's extended family is concerned, some stories are not what they appear to be.
Be sensitive to the vulnerability of the family back home. One article about my husband’s deployment described me as living alone during the deployment and then proceeded to include the name of the street we live on and a description of the neighborhood. There was no need to call attention to the physical location of our home, and doing so made me feel extremely exposed.
Family situations can be messy, and it takes time to collect all the facts. Military families are just as messy as regular families. We have ex-wives and ex-husbands, half-sisters and brothers, parents and siblings who are part of our lives or absent or too active in our lives. When someone is killed in action or injured, many people not active in the deployed person’s life will come forward. If you are assigned to do a story about someone who died or was injured, make sure you are talking to those truly closest to the person.
Don’t promise something you can’t deliver. Don’t promise copies of the video story, audio story, photos or other items unless you know for a fact that you will be able to give those to the military family. If you promise to fact-check the article before it runs, do call the family and go over the factual information to make sure it’s correct.
Return any documents or photos you borrowed to produce your story ASAP and in the same condition you received them. These materials can be priceless and often are irreplaceable.
Don’t just interview officers. Enlisted personnel make up the bulk of the military and all too often their voices are not heard.
When you seek comment or help for your story from a deployed person’s spouse, be sensitive to his or her workload and stress level. Spouses often work full-time, run the entire household by themselves, care for the children and live with constant fear of loss or severe injury. Some also work for employers who are less than supportive of the deployment situation. If they agree to the interview, discuss how much time you will need and don’t overstay your welcome. And be sensitive in your questioning, especially when children or other family members are present.
Liisa Hyvarinen Temple is a journalist based in Tampa, Florida working in print, broadcast and online. She is also adjunct professor for print and broadcast journalism at University of South Florida and University of Tampa.