A few months ago, a journalist and old college friend of mine asked if he could interview me for a profile in the monthly lifestyle magazine, PHOENIX. I was reluctant, at first, dreading the idea of rehashing the criminal behavior that sent me to prison more than 11 years ago. But I changed my mind because I was told the story would be less about my downward spiral and more about my recovery from compulsive gambling. Plus, I trusted the writer to be fair.
The story came out in April and—though it wasn’t the story I would’ve written (nor the photos I would have used, especially my mugshot)—it wasn’t terrible. In fact, I received positive and encouraging remarks from nearly everyone in my community who read it. So, in order to help other people who are system-involved get the best results possible when being interviewed by reporters, I decided to jot down a few tips that might be of use.
1. Research the reporter. Before my college friend interviewed me, another reporter had been assigned to write my story. When I learned the reporter’s name, I Googled it and found all sorts of content that I found problematic—sensational true-crime content that villainized every person who had allegedly committed harm. After I decided to not be a Nora Roberts-style tell-all, I told the editor I wouldn’t do the story unless he assigned it to a different writer. His deadline was fast approaching and he needed the story, so he gave the assignment to someone else whom I was far more comfortable speaking with.
2. Ask the reporter about the scope of the story. No credible reporter will let you see the story they’ve written before it’s been published, in order to avoid all sorts of conflicts of interest. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask them to be upfront about their objectives in telling your story. What’s the focus? What kinds of questions will they ask? What’s the length of the story? (Longer pieces will allow you to have more input than shorter pieces.) If you don’t like the direction the reporter is leading you, well, see below.
Establishing parameters is best for everyone involved.
3. Set boundaries. You don’t have to answer every question a journalist wants to ask you. It’s best if you make it clear upfront which topics are off-limits, so that the reporter knows what they’re writing about and, more importantly, you don’t feel pressured to talk about things that make you uncomfortable. For me, I knew it was best if I didn’t talk about old news coverage of my crimes (being defensive isn’t a good look), prior relationships (no need to drudge up the past for people who are no longer part of my life), or about my children (who have nothing to do with any of this). Establishing these parameters early on is best for everyone involved.
4. Don’t tell the story you’re supposed to tell. Tell the story you want to tell. Remember that you don’t have to be outwardly contrite or repentant. You’ve already done your time. And yet, because we all know that many in our communities believe our punishment should never end, we try to make ourselves sympathetic in order to win them over. Don’t. You don’t have to pathologize yourself. You’re not required to divulge abuse. Discussing traumatic events or sharing addiction stories could trigger unhealthy behavior. So, practice self-care and stay away from telling parts of your story that could upset you.
If you’re someone who’s been directly impacted by the criminal punishment system—either formerly-incarcerated, convicted, charged, or arrested—and you want to advocate for reform by engaging the media, contact us at AFSC-Arizona by emailing Reframing Justice project coordinator Grace Gamez, or myself.
—By Joe Watson, AFSC-AZ Research & Social Media Consultant