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Anonymity, privacy and sensitivity when negotiating difficult subject matter

It may be an obvious point, but when you’re putting together a radio documentary, sound is essential. So what happens when the subject of your documentary limits your ability to capture those sounds? That's the challenge I ran into when I pitched the idea of putting together a documentary about a support group for mothers with children in jail.
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It may be an obvious point, but when you're putting together a radio documentary, sound is essential. Whether that's the voices of those you interview, ambient noises recorded on location, or evocative sound effects that create a sense of action — most docs use all three, plus voice over narration, to tell the story.

So what happens when the subject of your documentary limits your ability to capture those sounds? That's the challenge I ran into when I pitched the idea of putting together a documentary about a support group for mothers with children in jail (called MOMS).

Mothers on the outside looking in: the pain of dealing with a child behind bars

They call themselves the MOMS — Mothers Offering Mutual Support. Each woman shares a defining characteristic: all have, or once did, a kid in jail. They share practical information, talk about jail conditions, but what they talk about most is what it's like to be a mother on the outside looking in. Listen to the documentary →

Having now spoken with many of the women in the group, I can say they are brave, intelligent, tough and caring people. I also discovered, they place a high value on their privacy.

There are a few reasons for that. Past stories about the crimes committed by their children have had a direct impact on their lives and the lives of their families. They fear being burned by media coverage again. For those with children still behind bars, there's also fear of the murky consequences of speaking out.

Most importantly, MOMS (Mothers Offering Mutual Support) is about helping each other through a difficult time. For these women, that means creating a safe space, where things can be said in confidence, and without fear that it will get into the wrong hands.

All this translates into a significant challenge when you're making a radio documentary. I had to work with what the MOMS were comfortable with, and it wasn't always what I expected.

From the beginning, it was a process of negotiation and building trust. After a few stops and starts, four women agreed to speak on tape, using only their first names. I was also able to record sounds from the support group — but only before the meetings formally started, and not the actual content of those meetings.

Here's what I learned along the way:

  • Sometimes an interviewee's hesitation isn't what it first appears to be. Going into the interviews, I thought I understood the concerns these women had about speaking out, but each had her own reasons for being nervous: from how her voice sounded, to being unsure of what to say, to how to protect her child's privacy. I listened hard and tried to understand specifics. I explained as much as I could about how the interview would fit into the larger documentary. I tried to impress upon her that I knew she was putting trust in me by participating, and that I took that trust seriously.

  • Anonymity is not a simple thing, nor is it binary. Some potential interviewees requested that their names not be used, or their voices be masked as a condition of participation. CBC policy dictates that reporters identify the person being interviewed except in "exceptional cases and for serious cause." Coming to an agreement regarding what level of identification was appropriate involved negotiation, explanation, and clarification both for the person being interviewed, and my CBC bosses.

  • Place and time are important for a good interview. Before heading out, my project mentor gave me this advice: meet your interviewee in a place where she feels comfortable, at a time of day when she feels relaxed, and with the understanding that the interview will take a while. This helped both of us concentrate without rushing — and listening to the interview afterward I can hear the conversation becoming freer over time.

  • Finally, use the material you have, because it *is* the story. When the MOMS told me I could not record their meeting, I worried the piece would be missing its core. I felt I'd be unable to convey the importance of this group to its members, without including some of what it sounds like when they gather. But as I listened to their sad yet hopeful stories, each MOM going through the same thing, each struggling with lack of support from family and friends, each using the word "lonely" again and again to describe their experience before they found the group, I realized this was the heart of the story. Their solitary voices, without a backdrop, conveyed the value of the MOMS group far better than a recording of a crowded room ever could. My mentor and I worked to explain the private nature of the group in the introduction of the piece, so that listeners wouldn't be surprised by what was coming, turning a potential pitfall into a powerful statement on the intimacy of the stories ahead.

This was my first long-form documentary, and it's a scary thing to try your hand at something new. But in my view, it was even scarier for those whose voices you'll hear. They were going public with their story for the first time, revealing how they struggled with what's happened to their family. It was important to respect that bravery. I hope I have. 

About the author

Christine Maki
Christine Maki is an award-winning radio producer who has been with the CBC nearly a decade. She began with a four-week stint at CBC in Quebec City and ended up staying three years. She then made her way to Toronto, where she worked on both local and national programming, including Cross Country Checkup and The Current.

Christine now helps produce the morning show in Ottawa, where she's been called on to cover everything from politics on Parliament Hill, to the growing popularity of a Norwegian sport called skijoring.

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