How to Approach Someone Who is Grieving

Rusty Ray is the morning anchor at WBTW in Myrtle Beach, SC. He’s been in the market more than a decade.

It’s likely the worst part of our job—to try to interview someone who has lost something or someone that is special, meaningful, and close to him or her. He or she is devastated. He or she does not want to share anything with someone strange, and does not want to be on TV anytime—especially now.

But we have to ask.

That’s what we do.

It’s not sensationalism. It’s coverage of events that matter to the community, and loss is something that matters.

I believe our job is to provide information that should ultimately help our viewers make decisions about their own lives. So if we are to talk to someone who has experienced great loss, and that person can impart wisdom that only comes from that pain, then we are doing our job.

How do we approach this? How do we even begin to act like we are something important for that person who is grieving to consider?

I have adopted the following approach, and, though it’s been a good long while since I’ve been in the position to cold-call someone who is experiencing extreme grief, I have met with some success (of course, a relative term in these circumstances, but you know what I mean) in the past.

First, I leave the camera in the car.

Well, let me back up. Literally and figuratively.

I don’t call. I go.

Yes, the face-to-face encounter, cold and unannounced, increases the chances that you will get a door slammed in your face, or told where exactly you can stick that microphone (words used exactly in one case for me), but I think it also may show genuine care and professionalism. There is no masking what it is we do. There is no way to sweet-talk ourselves through someone’s door without standing in front of that door first.

So, leave the camera in the car.

I knock on the door, and the first words out of my mouth after “Hello, I’m Rusty Ray with News13” are “I apologize for bothering you during this difficult time, and I am very sorry for your loss.”

Don’t say it if you don’t mean it, though. You HAVE to mean it.

Then, if the door is still open, gently explain what it is your doing. Not what you want, but what you’re

“I’m working on a story about so-and-so and what happened. I have talked to the police/firefighters/military/investigators about what happened…but I was hoping to talk to someone here about so-and-so, to tell his/her story. Would that be a possibility?”

That’s the key. We’re not here to unravel how he/she died. We’re here to introduce him/her to the world and tell the community about someone special who is no longer here.

That’s it.

It works. Sometimes.

Sometimes, it doesn’t.

But transparency, care, compassion, and honesty go a long way to accomplishing our goal. Our goal should always be to tell and share stories that make people care, and help them with their lives.

One thought on “How to Approach Someone Who is Grieving

  1. Rusty’s approach sounds very similar to my own, which I picked up from watching other, more experienced reporters go through the same process.

    I went so far as to take an unmarked car (not always possible) to try to mitigate the image of the sleazy TV reporter parking an advertisement at the home of a grieving family member. I recall driving to church with my mom back in Hartsville and passing the home of someone who’d died in a tragic accident. The news car was parked right out front. I understood, but Mom made a remark about how tacky it was. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but if you have the means, it might help.

    People grieve in different ways. Some (understandably) tell you to buzz off. Some welcome you in, knowing that you have a job to do and that talking on camera might be the last chance they’ll have to tell the public who their loved one was and what kind of life they really led. That was usually my pitch, if I got that far: All people know right now is what police/officials have told us – you have a chance to tell (their) story yourself and tell the world what he/she was really like.

    If you get the chance to interview someone, make sure you’re technically up to speed and conduct the interview with the minimal technical footprint. Don’t roll into a grieving person’s home and realize you don’t know how to white balance or that you left your batteries in the car.

    You’re meeting someone on what could be the worst day of their life. Remember – a year or two down the road, whether you got an on camera interview or not won’t matter. Try to remember you’re human and that you represent a much larger industry (that could use some help with its image). People will remember how you act.

    And yes, this IS the worst part of the business.


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