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public editor

You’ve seen journalists in news conferences, asking tough questions of political leaders. A few of you have complained the questions are too tough, even those posed to the Prime Minister, but that is a journalist’s responsibility, to hold decision-makers to account.

The Prime Minister, business executives and other leaders are media trained in getting their message out. Part of that training can be skating around embarrassing or revealing facts, so journalists need to press hard because there is always more behind what they want to say.

What you don’t see is the myriad of other encounters with people who are not in power, who may be distrustful of authority, vulnerable or in shock.

One of the principles in the The Globe and Mail Code of Conduct holds that “in dealing with people who are emotionally vulnerable and unaccustomed to talking to reporters, The Globe and Mail will take care to respect their dignity and feelings.”

I asked a few reporters who frequently deal with emotionally vulnerable people to explain their practices.

Patrick White, The Globe’s national crime and justice reporter, said every situation is a little different. “My main goal is to do no harm. Few stories are worth retraumatizing someone.”

He starts with getting the interview subject to agree to talk, never pushes and welcomes a support person. He says he leaves lots of time and doesn’t interrupt. “I try to do as little of the talking as possible. If there are any tears, I stop.”

Mr. White said his approach is based on his experience. About 10 years ago, he interviewed a residential school survivor, Leo Nangmalik, about living in Nunavut. “For several hours, I sat with him in a ramshackle cabin heated by propane lanterns and listened to stories of how he’d been abused in residential school and then went on to perpetuate the same torment against his own family. He sobbed throughout the interview, and we lost contact afterward. Two days before we published a story about Leo, he died by suicide. He had an outstanding warrant on an old criminal charge, his family told me. Rather than go to jail, he decided to end his life. Still, I had to wonder if our interview had anything to do with his decision. I still do. While I can never know the answer, I can take steps to prevent something like that from happening again.”

Geoffrey York, the foreign correspondent in Africa, said he often interviews people who have suffered severe trauma – refugees, war victims, those living in desperate conditions. “Often they simply want to be heard – they want their stories to be told. They feel that the world has forgotten them, and they pin their hopes on international aid. It’s crucial for me to listen carefully and sympathetically, to let them tell their stories without interruption or paternalism.”

But he also said he needs to consider whether they are at risk in telling those stories. So he asks himself if he is protecting their identity sufficiently.

And he must be clear about what he can and cannot do. “In conflict zones where foreigners are often assumed to be doctors or aid workers, am I properly explaining the role of the media itself, so that they understand the indirect way that the media spotlight can sometimes bring help to them, without exaggerating our role or giving false hopes?”

As a national health reporter who specializes in the issue of drug dependency, Andrea Woo said that while elected officials have an obligation to provide answers, people with mental-health or drug issues or suffering trauma “not only owe us nothing, but have often been poorly served by the media. It is understandable why people in these groups would not want to speak with a reporter, but their voices and perspectives are crucial to a fairly and accurately reported story.”

She noted the mantra “Nothing about us without us,” a phrase used among people who use drugs and people with disabilities to emphasize that no policy affecting them should be drafted without meaningful participation from them. Ms. Woo said this also extends to journalism.

“Interviewing people in vulnerable circumstances is completely different from interviewing a politician. It takes time, it takes trust-building. It takes empathy and care. Drug use and mental illness are still heavily stigmatized, and there are potential consequences associated with speaking publicly about these issues, which you should make them aware of. A person who agrees to such an interview is trusting you with some of the most difficult details of their lives, and that is not a responsibility you should take lightly,” she said.

A key message from these three and other journalists who deal with vulnerable people is that it is their story and journalists must put their welfare first. It’s a good reminder, especially in these times, to be considerate.