Coffee with Cait McMahon

So it is round three of the challenge to have coffee with experts on social networking site Linked In.

This time we met Cait McMahon who is manager of trauma and resilience programs at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Cait McMahon, Melissa Haber and Bev Wilkinson at the ABC canteen
Cait McMahon, Melissa Haber and Bev Wilkinson at the ABC canteen

I decided to invite one of my journalism interns Melissa Haber from Swinburne University to meet Cait and learn how to interview war veterans from an expert.

Words cannot describe how exciting it was to score an insight into the world of journalism at the ABC.

We were so lucky, that Cait decided to give us a tour of the ABC and we got to see a newsroom in action.

It is funny the studio looks so big on television but in person it is a small space, kind of resembling the studios, which the students use at university.

I loved that we got to see where the reporters worked and even the cameramen having morning tea before their next job!

Soon we were headed to the canteen where we ordered our coffees and found a comfy spot to chat.

I started to explain the student internship program, which I created three years ago to document stories of seniors.

Then I chatted about the war veteran’s project, which involves journalism students around Australia documenting stories of veterans from the past, present and future.

Cait stopped me and asked, “How are you funding this project?” I replied I’m the main funder; this is something that I’m really passionate about, because I get to use my university degree and most of all mentor journalism students.

Inside the ABC office Melbourne
Inside the ABC office Melbourne

Then Cait mentioned one of her friends who may be able to help with potential funding or even advice on interviewing military personnel.

Anyways Cait started chatting about the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma and mentioned some great resources such as the News, Media and Trauma video which showcases a wide range of Australian journalists recounting experiences and lessons learned while covering traumatic stories.

It is such a great video that covers real life experiences of journalists in the field and how they coped with situations such as horrible car accidents. Some of the journalists had no idea how to deal with the trauma and instead of talking about their experiences drowned their fears at the local pub.

We got chatting about creating a comfortable space for the veteran to be interviewed in. Cait told us to make a plan, make sure the interview is set up to ensure the veteran feels in control, it is the simple things that matter such as making them a cup of tea and explaining in detail what the interview will involve. Even asking the veteran where they would like to sit develops a form of trust.

Sometimes the best thing to do is set an interview up for success ask if there are no go zones and any concerns about what will happen during the meeting.

One of the fears from students is what to do if the veteran starts crying or becomes angry during the interview, which is very relevant as some of the memories being brought up may be quite distressing.

Cait’s advice is to simply ask if the veteran would like to stop, some veterans may find it a relief to cry and let it all out.

If it gets too distressing, Cait says to ask if the veteran would like to call someone to help.

Sometimes being angry can open doors, if you ask simple questions such as “I can see that your angry, I’m sorry for your anger, would you like to tell me about that?”

Make sure you keep in your role and acknowledge that we are all human with feelings and emotions.

In regards to what happens after an interview, Cait says to always fact check before you publish. It sounds obvious but if you publish an article with the wrong information, it may cause offence to the veteran you interviewed. Journalist Sharon Mascall-Dare has created a great Anzac Day Media Style Guide as part of her PHD, which covers interviewing veterans in detail, this guide may come in handy if you are concerned about military lingo and history.

Some of the ethical issues may be if the veteran zones out and starts talking about something they may wish not to be published. Even though they have agreed to an interview, they may not realise that this information will be shared on a large level.

Sometimes it is best to send a copy to the veteran so that facts can be checked and if there is something in there that they wish not to share with the public, then they have the ability to say so. Even better is if you can meet up over coffee and discuss the article.

Cait mentioned Story Corps, which is an American project that aims to inspire people to record their story in sounds. Story Corps is such a great initiative and the website has some fantastic questions that can lead to amazing content.

All and all it was amazing to meet Cait and learn of the great work she does at the DART centre, I can’t wait to pass on these important tips to students involved in the Celebrate Living History internship program that’s for sure!

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