How do I, as a reporter, tell the story of a student being bullied?
September 13, 2013 2:41 PM   Subscribe

The question came up in a thread on the blue linked within and it was suggested that I come here. How do I tell the story of a disabled student's fight against bullying? How do I not make her a victim while still making an impact?

Another reporter and i are working on a long-form story about cyber-bullying. We are TV reporters, but thankfully we are given free rein when it comes to features. We want to do several stories about current victims of bullying, those inflicting the bullying, and past victims and how they're coping.

Our first story is focusing on a disabled teenage girl who is a victim of IRL and cyber-bullying. Much of this is borne out of a story on the blue yesterday: link to the blue here

Thanks to His thoughts were red thoughts for directing me here. I will try my hardest not to threadsit, though please remember that while journalism may look SUPER easy on the surface, there is probably a lot you are not considering; please don't let your assumptions about process color the discussion.

Tomorrow I am meeting with the 16 y/o bullied girl, who has severe, and stress-induced, epilepsy and has been bullied to the point of multiple suicidal attempts because of it. I would like some feedback on the questions I plan to ask her, as well as ideas about more questions. The interview will be off the record unless she specifies otherwise -- my usual process for that is when I hear an OTR answer I want to report, I will say, "Can I say that you said that? I will write it down and put your name on it. Is that okay?" If they say no, I don't. Otherwise, this will all be background.

I will lead off with:

"None of your answers to these questions will be in the report unless you tell me it's okay. Some of these questions are going to sound insensitive, and I am sorry, but I need you to be honest. If you don't want to answer them, you don't have to, and we can just move on to the next one you're comfortable with. Please don't feel like you have to answer any question."

* How long have you lived here?

* Did you make friends?

* When did this start?

* What do they say to you?

* What are their names?

* Are there other people they say these things to?

* Do your teachers ever notice?

* How has your principal reacted?

* Are your phones taken away in school?

* Does your mom check your internet use (FB, etc) or read your texts?

* When did your sister start getting these texts?

* Were any of these girls your friends before the bullying started?

* What social networking apps do you use?

* Are they targeting you on any of them?

* What did they do when you tried to fight back?

* Are there any activities or places you feel safe?

* Do you plan on going to college?

* Where do you want to go? What do you want to study?

* If there is another person in a situation like yours, what would you want to tell them?

* In five years, what do you think you'll say to your 16 year old self?

* Where do you see yourself in ten years?

* What kind of social networking do you think will be a thing in 20 years?

* How would you tell your kid to handle it?

(Yeah, part of my goal in asking this girl where she sees herself in the future is asking her to acknowledge she HAS a future ... is that too transparent?)
posted by none of these will bring disaster to Education (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Given that she's actively suicidal, I'm not sure she'll have great answers for any of the future stuff. I don't think it's too transparent to ask her about her future, but I would back off quickly if she started acting uncomfortable.

Maybe ask about any allies or successful strategies she might have -- Has anyone been helpful? Has anything you've done, or that other people have done, helped?
posted by jaguar at 2:49 PM on September 13, 2013

To start off, you should probably declassify this girl as "disabled". She has epilepsy, which is a neurological disorder. Disability terminology is going to frame this in a way you probably do not want.
posted by phunniemee at 2:50 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd like to assume that - due to her age, the fact that she is actively suicidal, and that she is currently targeted by cyber-bullies - you'll have parental consent and take action to obscure her identity (false name, blurred image/voice if used on air). I'm also assuming her parent/guardian will be present for the interview? I'm not sure I'd personally consider a 16-year-old, particularly one under such stress, capable of giving informed consent around being quoted, etc.

To clarify, do you mean that epilepsy is her disability (see what phunniemee says above), or does she also have a physical/mental disability? If she has a mental disability, I would be doubly concerned about my assumptions above (hoping I'm correct in them).

All that said, your questions seem like good ones, and I'd be interested in her answers myself.
posted by pammeke at 2:58 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

These questions make me uncomfortable just reading them. I'm sorry, but you're not her therapist--it's not your job to counsel her on whether or not she has a future. And even asking the 16-year-old for consent on going public like this makes me uncomfortable; teenagers generally don't possess the best long term thinking, particularly when suicidal and there's a very real possibility that her targets might be able to suss out that the article is actually about her from the details given even if anonymized. Details might be used to target her more intensely. Bringing this to the public might not have the effect that you (or her mother) hopes for.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:02 PM on September 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

If I* was interviewing a kid in this position I'd also ask what she thinks the school policy should be re: behavior like this. Or what adults should/could do in general. What does she think parents, teachers, school administrators should do about bullying, if anything? Would she like to see any laws made about it or any police involvement? That kind of thing. I think it can be hard for kids to imagine the future, especially when school sucks so hard every day and that's just so present in their lives. But asking her opinions on policy would also be a way of respectig her experience beyond simply feeling bad for her.

*I don't usually call myself a reporter but I'm a writer and do some reporting sometimes. I was also made fun of constantly throughout school.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:03 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure about your two statements about "victim". Are they contradictory?

How do I not make her a victim while still making an impact?


Our first story is focusing on a disabled teenage girl who is a victim of IRL and cyber-bullying.

What do you mean "not make her a victim"?

The way you tell the story is through her. Therefore another good question you should ask is what does she thinks have been the failures of adults around her (parents, teachers, etc.) to prevent or stop this from happening. I feel this is a more open-ended question than many of your other questions which feel more narrow and specific.
posted by Dansaman at 3:05 PM on September 13, 2013

Are you on a tight deadline? If not, I'd say for a long-form story that you might want to just hang out with her for a while, no note-taking or anything, and come back a few times before you ever take notes. If she's going to be a major character in your story, I would think the rapport would need to be established first.
posted by megancita at 3:07 PM on September 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

Maybe these are my "assumptions coloring the process", but a lot of these questions seem like playing therapist e.g. "do you have a safe place?" and "what would you tell yourself if you could travel back here from the future?". Biggest clue: "part of my goal in asking this girl where she sees herself in the future is asking her to acknowledge she HAS a future " You're a reporter - I thought your goal was to report the news.

You don't mention if this is the case, but I think it is inappropriate for the interview to take place outside the presence of her parent or legal guardian. I think that person's judgment needs to be deferred to in all respects.

Instead of a list of questions, I join in megancita's answer.

Also, her epilepsy in itself does not necessarily make her disabled. (it may or may not, depending on the state of her condition) In either event, think very hard about what relevance, if any, her medical condition has to your story.

Lastly, I note that you are tv reporters. Please be aware of the fact that if you broadcast the interview and the interviewee is not anonymous, you may be giving fodder to her tormentors. Word still may get out even if you do anonymize her.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:18 PM on September 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

Having worked with kids in similar situations just listening and letting her tell her story from her own perspective and in her own words will not only likely answer all your questions but write your piece for you!
posted by Middlemarch at 3:25 PM on September 13, 2013 [8 favorites]

Two questions for her that occur to me:

- Has anyone, either an adult or another kid, said anything to you that's helped you at all with this situation?

- Has anyone done anything that's helped you, even only temporarily?
posted by amtho at 3:40 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you could focus more on what actually happened, rather than her (or your) interpretations of events or forecasts of future impacts. The more you embellish, the easier it will be to dismiss what you write as biased. The facts should speak for themselves.
posted by jon1270 at 3:51 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like you're trying to strike a careful balance between wanting to make light of the situation while at the same time allowing the subject of the piece to "tell her own story" rather than having you reporters tell it for her (which is how I interpret your desire to "not make her a victim"). The thing is that you need to have her start out telling the story in her own words of her own volition rather than trying to pry information out of her, which is a lot like you demanding that she relive the experience for your benefit. I am not sure that a lot of these prying questions are really helpful. Why not just let her tell her story and then go over with her what she would like included in the piece?
posted by deanc at 4:10 PM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

How do I tell the story of a disabled student's fight against bullying? How do I not make her a victim while still making an impact?

- If I were to watch an interview of a bullied teen, I would not want to see any so-called reporter remotely ask questions such as this directly to the teen involved in this: "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" or try to make conclusions from that, especially if this is a teen that is vulnerable as per a psychiatric assessment. What I would rather hear in relation to any topic about that part of the equation is a brief interview of a psychologist/psychiatrist who actually does have several publications evaluating bullying and/or support about the possible impact on teens and how bullies/bullied could be treated to mitigate/prevent these problems.I would not have the specialist comment on the case in particular but as a general comment on these type of cases.

-If the question is about making an impact, what about asking questions (this may or may not include the person that is being bullied) about regulation of these social apps? Go beyond that and see if other changes have been suggested, too, and what have these social apps/platforms done/not done and why?

Don't really watch TV news, especially American TV news, so I may not be your target demographic audience and this approach may not be used at all; if so, please disregard.
posted by Wolfster at 4:26 PM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't think the hypothetical questions about the future are, per se, bad, but I do think that by nature, they're going to lend themselves to nebulous answers, which, by nature, are going to be less interesting than details about her life today.

The girl you're talking to isn't an expert in social media, or child psychology - what she has direct experience with, and thus can share more effectively than anyone else - is what it feels like to be targeted. She's already been the victim. To whatever extent she's willing to talk about it (and obviously, her comfort level here is really, really important), she can be a storyteller and an advocate for people who've been through the same thing, which can be very powerful. I think some of your questions are on the right track to accomplish that. But before drilling down so hard on the granular details, I'd aim for asking questions that are more story-oriented, e.g. ask her to narrate a typical day, or a day that was especially bad or good. In what specific ways has her life changed based on the bullying? How does she see herself? Then, you can fill in any blanks as needed.

I haven't worked with many minors, so that's absolutely something to take into account here, but one of the main things I've learned from doing difficult interviews is that, no matter how well-meaning, it's presumptuous to assume what people will and will not feel comfortable talking about, to dance around the questions you're really trying to ask, or to come across as overly pitying. I've had people willing to disclose incredibly detailed descriptions of their health or finances but absolutely refuse to tell their age. If you let her guide you as to what she wants people to know, and make it clear that she's free to divulge as little or as much to you she wants, I think that's the most respectful approach.

Another note: If you do use identifiable details, I'd warn her and her family in advance to lock down social media, and either turn off or pre-approve commenting wherever it's posted online. Not like you need the reminder, but the Internet can be jerks sometimes.
posted by eponym at 4:27 PM on September 13, 2013

So, I gave you some advice in memail, but you're going really hard on the closed questions, especially ones that are kind of irrelevant, e.g. "What social networks are you on?"

What you want is a couple of things, depending on the kind of story you're after, but most of all is rapport and to connect viewer's emotional throughline with the girl's. So, you want to ask broad things like, "What happened?" before you can ask for clarifying detail, and get into verifiable facts (which you're going to have to check). Asking questions like, "How did that make you feel?" and "How do you feel now?" will help the emotional connection come through.

You're going to need a couple of different interviews to go through, transcribe, and come up with more questions. And things like, "What were you wearing? What were they wearing?" for in-person stuff will give you a lot more to work with when building the story, since those are feature details.

And more importantly: You have an editor or an assignment producer or someone else whom you can ask questions like, "How do I get this right?" Have you watched other stories about bullying? What do they get wrong or right?
posted by klangklangston at 4:27 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is her therapist on board with it? She is under care, given the suicidal ideation? If so, maybe the subject could work with her therapist on what is healthy to reveal
posted by angrycat at 5:45 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Before interviewing the girl, I think I would start by talking to experts on cyber bullying among teens, finding out what good school districts do to intervene, finding some stories of successful intervention. I would not want to bring this girl into public scrutiny without having some clear sense of what can be done that would be effective to improve her situation longer-term.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:29 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Might ask her -

- has the school done any general anti-bullying workshops/assemblies/etc, and does she feel like that stuff helped at all? Does she have specific things she thinks the school could or should be doing?

- does she have specific things she thinks the social media sites could be doing to stop this? did she, or does she know of anybody, who has tried to report bullying to the sites?

- does she know of other students who have been bullied like this? Is it the same group of bullies or different groups?

- what does she think adults don't understand about it?
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:38 PM on September 13, 2013

Some other positive ones - I do think your impulse to end with positive thoughts is a good one.

- Who are your heroes, who do you really admire?

- What helps you to stay strong?
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:46 PM on September 13, 2013

If this is for print, are you planning on quoting her directly or paraphrasing her replies? I think you should have her just describe a typical day, rather than try to get therapy-style responses, as has been noted before. I'd also avoid any yes or no questions. I don't think there any way around the fact that she was a target--victim might be a loaded word, but it's not like she sought out these attentions.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:08 PM on September 13, 2013

Call the folks at the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, who have done real research into minimizing harm and reporting fairly on trauma victims. They've done at least some work related to bullying.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:27 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I would nix a lot of those questions. If you want to tell the story of someone who suffers from disabilities and bullying, find out what that person's story is. Meaning, ask much more open ended questions. Ask her what she thinks the story ought to be about. Shadow her for a day, or let her shadow you for a day. Off the record, no agenda. Just develop a rapport. THEN schedule a more formal interview.

I would also back way off on the future based questions. Someone who is suicidal probably doesn't have answers to those questions, and being put on the spot to answer them could be dangerous. How does she stay strong? Do you have any friends? Someone who is suicidal probably feels like they aren't strong and don't have any friends. Do you really want to reinforce those negative feelings?

And I also agree that dancing around the word victim is not helpful. She IS a victim of bullying. Failing to acknowledge that may well ring false to her. She knows she is a victim; that's part of the reason she feels bad.
posted by gjc at 4:48 AM on September 14, 2013

Response by poster: Culled the therapist questions. Thanks for the help!
posted by none of these will bring disaster at 4:54 AM on September 14, 2013

I don't have any ideas about questions to ask I'm afraid. However it might be interesting as part or one of the pieces to look not at their victims but rather at the bullies. Perhaps learn about the psychology of the perpetrators. Why are they bullying? What is lacking within them to make them feel the need to bully. What reasons are behind bullying? Is it fear, frustration, ignorance, power, a desire to inflict on others what they've experienced etc... So much about bullying is on the person suffering, yet very little is heard about the bullies.

I'm not talking about glamourising bullying, quite the opposite. You could try to use this opportunity to shine a light on how pathetic people who bully must be. You could actually use the peer preesure that can lead to bullying to decrease it a bit. For instance in the UK very few people ever picked up their dogs mess, yet by altering the culture by showing the negatives of leaving dog mess and showing owners who didn't pick up in a negative light, most people now pick up after their dog. Yes it's not ideal, but it worked, as people didn't want others to think badly of them. So perhaps by showing bullies in a poor light it might cause a small shift that would make people likely to bully stop and think.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 7:25 AM on September 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

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