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Ethical considerations for oral history interviews

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This is Part 2 in a series of articles that provide oral history guidelines for those who share our passion for collecting American fire history before it is lost to the ages.

Interview styles

If there is a contemporary interview style that you could easily identify with and effectively adopt, it might be that of a mental health care professional. A psychologist, or psychiatrist, will first establish a safe environment for the interviewee and provide an appropriate atmosphere for a person to tell their story. The person being interviewed is thoughtfully allowed to tell the story with carefully crafted follow-up questions asked by an attentive interviewer.

As an interviewer, you should never exploit the person you are interviewing or their story. An interview example that many of us see on television is the technique used by investigative reporters. But this type of interview technique is not the best example of how to conduct a historical oral interview! Investigative reporters are all about their story — regardless of who gets hurt in the process of getting to the "truth."

You are not an investigative reporter. The story you record will not be on the six o'clock news. As an interviewer, you have a moral and ethical responsibility to respect and protect the rights and dignity of the people you interview.

Modern media provides another interview technique that we should avoid — that of a criminal defense attorney. Once again, this is not the best example of a historic interview technique. You should not ask questions that would hurt the feelings of the person you are interviewing or probe into their motivations or attack them personally.

"Off-the-record" means just that

You also need to respect any information that you are asked not to share. Confidential and off-the-record comments and remarks should be kept off the record. There is no crime that you are trying to solve or real mystery that needs to be unraveled. Your effort should be simply to record the historical information retold by someone who lived it.

The best protection against abuse of an individual is to transcribe the interview and allow the interviewed person to read and correct the transcript before you finish your own fact check and analysis, and before it is published. This is also a good time to ask the interviewee if they would like to expand on their information.

Written permission to publish

The person being interviewed should understand, at the outset of the interview, why you are collecting their story, and what you intend to do with it once you are finished. To this end, it is important to get written permission through a copyright release form to archive and/or publish the story. The release form should also include any material collected during the interview such as:

  • Interviewer notes.
  • Audio tapes.
  • Video recordings.
  • Personal photographs.

In Part 3 of this series, we'll discuss preplanning for your oral history interview.

Preplanning your oral history interview
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  • The National Fire Heritage Center
  • Address: 17701 Creamery Road  Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727
  • Phone: (210) 380-8364
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