Ask a Mentor is a collaboration between J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists. The goal of the section is to provide advice to journalists and journalism students who may not have direct access to a mentor or subject matter expert on a particular topic.
Kim Bolan is an award-winning reporter for The Vancouver Sun, where she has worked since 1984. Bolan has covered the biggest criminal cases in B.C. history from the Air India bombing to serial killer Robert Pickton to the Surrey Six gangland slaying. She is currently covering the high-profile Surrey Six gang murder trial in B.C. and runs the anti-gang blog, The Real Scoop.
It can be extremely difficult and delicate to speak to families of victims and to victims of crime themselves. In the almost 30 years that I have been a daily news reporter, I have had a wide range of reactions, from having doors slammed in my face to being invited into a home and treated as an honoured guest, just because I asked to tell a loved one's story.
My first piece of advice to a new journalist would be: don't be afraid. It's a part of your job, no matter how uncomfortable it might feel to make that call or knock on that door. The worst that can happen is that someone will hang up on you or close the door in your face. The person you are reaching out to is already experiencing far worse than that.
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I still think it's best, wherever possible, to knock on a door. It's amazing how much more sincere a reporter can be standing face to face with someone. And you'll have a much better chance of getting that person to talk to you or at least agree to call you later on. I still try to reach people through social media and email when I have no other option, but personal contact almost always leads to a better interview and a better story. Be prepared to talk to someone even if they call after your shift is over or on the weekend.
Don't be pushy. Offer your condolences sincerely for whatever has happened. Explain that you know it's a difficult time for them, but that you want to give them the opportunity to tell their story or their loved one's story. Even if you are talking to someone who has had a criminalized family member killed, you can say that you know people have many sides to them and perhaps they would like the side of their loved one that was not publicly known to be represented.
I never make promises I can't keep about the prominence a story will get or the angle that I'll take. I do promise to quote my sources accurately and give them a fair shake. I also always explain that having a photo will help get the story better play.
It can be easier to talk to a victim of crime that may want a public issue aired that they feel contributed to what happened to them, though that’s not always the case. If charges have been laid, there may be legal reasons why the person can’t speak to a reporter initially, but continue to check in so you can eventually tell their stories.
If family members don’t want to speak out in the aftermath of their tragedy, I check back with them weeks or even months later. While as journalists, we’re always interested in getting as much information as quickly as possible, I have also written compelling features by going back to people well after the fact and getting them to open up.
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