Interviewing a Murderer: Eight Ethical Considerations that Save Lives – by Óscar Martínez (Blog de la Red Ética Segura, FNPI)

~ This blog post was originally published by the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano ~


To interview and write about murderers is a clear example of how a close relationship between ethics and professionalism is key when telling rigorous stories that are in the public interest and that may save lives, including that of the journalist.

Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez coordinates the Sala Negra project team for the digital newspaper El Faro. Sala Negra focuses on telling stories about the culture of violence, organized crime and the problems of gangs and prisons in Central America.

Based on his experience, Óscar shares some ethical, practical and professional advice for what makes serious, responsible, safe coverage about those issues. For Óscar, the quick response to many of these dilemmas is “to produce a well written and reported investigation.” But, obviously, this responsibility is heightened when trying to write about journalists. That’s why he’s sharing this advice with us:

  1. Nobody tells an interesting story if they don’t know anything about it. Nobody is going to reveal secrets, fears, and motives to the typical journalist who begins interviews with the stiffness of a TV presenter: “State your full name, please.” Nobody is going to describe their sadism to the naïve journalist that gets close without understanding a thing about the logic of criminality that surrounds that person: “So, in the Mara 18… Oh, you aren’t mara… Ah, only the Salvatrucha are mara? So what are you? Oh, a gang. And what is the difference?” I think – and I think this is more important in the case of criminals – that nobody gives a good interview if they don’t feel a little bit threatened by the interviewer’s knowledge. That threat is at times an affront (you lie), sometimes it’s a legitimate complicity (both know that things aren’t like that and smile knowingly at each other) and sometimes the interviewee feels pressure when the response is silence or an insult. As a journalist, one knows what makes for the best response.
  2. Don’t ever interview anybody if you think that the conditions of the interview (time, place, the people who are there) won’t allow you to reprimand the interviewee. In the case of a murderer – for obvious reasons – the obligation to reprimand needs to be measured. To reprimand a legislator in his office is not the same as reprimanding a murderer in his or her house. And it’s an ethical responsibility to reprimand both.
  3. The tone of what happened must also be the tone of what is published about it. On many occasions, journalists translate what happened in the interview into a tone for publication that presents the interviewer as braver, wiser and more direct. Where they said: “sorry, but there are people that say that it wasn’t like that”; they render it for publication as: “you lied. It didn’t happen that way.” Evidently, being in front of a murderer weakens one’s desire to pose some questions in a particular tone. One can sometimes have a bad interview. But if you then go from the bad interview to imposing a tone for publication, not only are you not following a professional rule but you are putting yourself at greater risk. There are few things more dangerous for a journalist than a criminal who feels scammed. In my experience a criminal – who might come off looking bad in the publication – will respect what is published if the conversation was clear and direct, if one didn’t invent it. One thing is editing an interview so that language is understandable to the reader and so that it fits in the publication. But it’s a different thing altogether to write up a conversation differently from what occurred just to favor oneself.
  4. Everybody in his or her place. Sometimes it makes us feel comfortable in interviews when we allow the corrupt person, the drug trafficker, the murderer to forget that we are interviewing them because they are corrupt, a drug trafficker or a murderer. Sometimes it seems convenient to make them into a victim, to condescend to them so that they talk freely. We play the role of well-meaning listeners and the murderer takes up the cathartic role of victim. This is, in part, an ethical error, a stupidity. When a murderer abandons their role as murderer and feels like a victim and nothing more while he remembers his past, it’s important to remind him that he is being interviewed as a murderer, too, not just as an abandoned child. An intelligent reminder, taken up during the conversation, is something that the journalist must raise through common sense and so there are no formulas to give. Without these reminders, what we will hear will be a simple version, without nuances, a one-sided story. We will probably hear about the motives and not about the consequences.
  5. The uncomfortable reminder. Murderers don’t have agents or press offices so sometimes agreements falter and fade. As with conversations that occur in mountains, at the margins or in prisons, sometimes it seems that everything coming from their mouth can be ours. Sometimes, as if one hadn’t talked with them once but four, five or twenty times, it seems that the initial agreement that everything is publishable is set in stone and every word said is a reminder of the agreement. In my interviews with murderers, I have had to remind them time and time again that the conversation we have while drinking in a brothel is an interview and what he says there I might publish if it interests me. Their capacity to forget this agreement over and over again is surprising.
  6. Who told you that you were ready to cover these issues? There ought to be ongoing doubt – like the persistent drips from Chinese water torture – but this doubt needs to be more recurrent in the journalist who has just set out. Could you interview the mother of a murderer? Do you have the strength to not be seduced by the murderer? Why do you want to cover this? Does it interest you to describe a bloody act? Is there a backdrop that explains describing that violent act? If you don’t have answers for yourself, it is very likely irresponsible that you should cover these issues.
  7. I think you need to have a very clear idea if you are going to dig into a long-winded issue where there are murderers, violence and narcos. I say long-winded because that’s where the greatest number of ethical dilemmas arises. I think that if you don’t know how you are going to tell a story about something bloody that you shouldn’t tell it. Because if you do it without having an answer, your response is: why is this bloody thing morbid. I think that the clear idea about what you are going to show about this violence is a paragraph that always needs to be beside you on your desk. It is a synoptic paragraph that you return to time and again. And you read it whenever you give voice to the violent. And then you will discover if that works in the sense about how you are trying to show it or if it only pleases you, fascinates you, and then you write it up.
  8. Don’t do anything without an editor. Echoing the messages of drug traffickers is perhaps the least of your worries. You could kill somebody. You could absolve somebody. But don’t do it without an editor in whom you trust. And, if you don’t have an editor in whom to trust, do it clandestinely and give it to somebody in whom you can confide. Your decision-making will not be good after you have pulled yourself from the mire. You’ll need – more than ever – somebody who is not muddied.

 Three Non-Negotiables When You Agree To Interview a Murderer

  1. The outlaw must not determine the agenda of things to discuss.
  2. That the conditions they impose don’t put you at an irrational risk (because there will always be risk).
  3. The fugitive must reveal the interview location (time, place, on or off record) and it mustn’t be a secret right up until the time of having the conversation.

More about Óscar Martínez: Journalist. Coordinator of the Sala Negra project of dedicated to in-depth journalism about issues of violence in Central America. He is the author of the crónicas Los migrantes que no importan, co-author of the crónica, Jonathan no tiene tatuajes and his stories have been included in important anthropologies. In 2008 he received Mexico’s Premio Nacional de Periodismo Cultural Fernando Benítez. He has reported from Colombia, Mexico, Central America, the United States and Iraq.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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