How to address sensitive issues on air


There are many types of sensitive issues that broadcasters could deal with on the radio: social issues, agricultural issues, gender equality issues, and many others. This document talks mostly about sexual and reproductive health and rights, which includes, for example, HIV and AIDS, male and female circumcision, and domestic violence or sexual abuse, amongst others.

It is important to remember that what may seem like a normal, everyday issue for some may be a highly sensitive issue for others. Often, this sensitivity relates to culture, religious background, gender, age, class, education, etc.  Because of this, it is important to take listeners into account and develop programs that address their needs in a way that makes them feel safe and allows them to participate freely in programs. But it is also our responsibility to ensure that we do not perpetuate or condone harmful behaviours and attitudes.

As radio presenters working on development programs, we cannot ignore sensitive issues and hope that they will just go away. It is undoubtedly a challenge to talk about sensitive issues in a way that is interesting and informative, holds an audience's attention, and offers helpful and healthy suggestions. Few radio presenters are trained to deal with difficult issues, and we therefore need to develop the skills to help us address sensitive issues on air. If we don’t handle these topics well, it could result in conflicts and in driving wedges between groups with opposing viewpoints, as well as the perpetuation of harmful and dangerous behaviours.

How can effectively dealing with sensitive issues help me serve listeners better?

  • It helps to build trust and listeners feel comfortable engaging in discussion on the air.
  • It helps listeners build the confidence needed to ask questions about topics where they need more information or guidance.
  • It can help listeners expand knowledge, understand attitudes and behaviours, and then adapt and adopt positive changes.
  • It can encourage listeners to seek advice from community health professionals and other experts.

How can effectively dealing with sensitive issues help me produce better programs?

  • It helps to build credibility with a network of professionals working in the health and social development sectors, people who broadcasters can rely on to contribute to their programs.
  • It helps establish a loyal base of listeners who are willing to contribute to the improvement of the radio station.
  • It encourages participatory programming, where listeners are actively involved.
  • It encourages partnerships with schools, government departments, and local NGO partners, and promotes varied and balanced programming that uses a variety of sources to address topics.
  • It can help broadcasters align themselves with regulatory bodies, especially when communicating with teenagers and young children on highly sensitive subjects.

How do I get started?

  1. Understand the concept of power dynamics and how it impacts the way we discuss sensitive issues
  2. Know your audience: understand their needs and wants
  3. Know your subject: research the topic well and ensure that program content is relevant to your audience, shares a variety of perspectives, and does not perpetuate harmful behaviours and attitudes.
  4. Collaborate with experts and explore various points of view.
  5. Be respectful and mindful of the language and terminology you use.
  6. Be prepared when dealing with conflicting opinions and differing perspectives, including your own.
  7. Create a safe and positive environment for learning.
  8. Ensure that the program format is educational and engaging.
  9. Know the confidentiality processes and procedures for guests, including minors and survivors.

Understand the concept of power dynamics and how it impacts the way we talk about sensitive issues

Understanding power dynamics when discussing sensitive issues is key to avoiding common pitfalls, including perpetuating stereotypes, blaming survivors, and giving harmful advice.

Power is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events. It is important to note that a person who has power in some instances might not have power in other instances, which means context is everything.

Power dynamics are the ways in which power is distributed and used among individuals and groups. Power dynamics can be both positive and negative. They are not fixed or static, which means that negative power dynamics should be questioned. A negative power dynamic, for example, might be an adult using fear and shame instead of encouragement as a way to get their child to change their behaviour.

Power can come from several sources, including financial, physical, educational, cultural, and social factors, the ability to set values and norms, independence, etc. For example, someone from the city might have more influence or power in the political sphere than someone from a rural setting.  But, this same person in a rural setting might have power and influence in their home and community. Context is important when determining the source of power and who has it in any given situation.

In some cases, power is visible and obvious, but in other instances it can be hidden and even invisible, but this does not mean it is not present. Some examples of visible power include formal rules, procedures, defined work relationships, etc. Hidden power may be the way in which these rules and procedures are manipulated. Invisible power relates to how the belief systems of the people in power influence behaviours and decisions. For example: A law might give women the right to own land (visible power) but the elders in her community are not applying the law because they believe men are supposed to be the heads of their households (invisible power).

A third layer to the concept of power is the realm of power. It can be public, private, or intimate. The public realm relates to people’s jobs or their role in their communities. It is everything that relates to their public life. The private realm is everything related to family, marriage, friendships, etc. Finally, the intimate realm is related to a person’s self-esteem and confidence.

Power is something that can be obvious, like someone with authority over someone else (e.g., a doctor and a patient, or supervisor and employee) but it can also be less obvious, like someone who has more sexual experience than another person. This is why knowing what power dynamics are and how power may have been used or manipulated in certain situations helps us to better understand and discuss sensitive issues.

When thinking about who holds power in a certain scenario, ask yourself:

  • Who is the authority figure or group?
  • Who is more educated?
  • Who is more stable financially?
  • Who is able to give consent?
  • Who can influence or change the other person’s life?
  • Who can limit or give access to something?
  • Who has advantages because of the norms and structure of society?
  • Who is typically socially presented as a trustworthy group or member of the community?
  • Who can offer rewards for certain actions or behaviours?
  • Who is in a position to judge or evaluate the other person or group?
  • Who has control over options available to the other person or group?
  • Who has control over the physical safety of the other person or group?
  • Who can control the narrative of the interaction? Who will be believed when they describe what happened?

Depending on the answer you give to these questions, you can determine where power lies.  This should influence how you talk about sensitive issues, the types of questions you ask during interviews in your programs, what types of advice or what types of behaviours are encouraged during programs on sensitive issues, etc.

Remember that you hold a position of power because you have a microphone, you control who is able to speak on your programs, you hold a position of trust with your listeners, and you can limit or give access to different types of information. Understanding that you have power and using it responsibly is very important.


Know your audience: understand their needs and wants

It is important to understand that different people learn and absorb new information in different ways. For some, new information may simply reinforce existing knowledge or opinions and the learning process will be fairly simple and easy. For others, the topic will be completely unfamiliar to them, they may disagree or have various kinds of objections to it, and they will need to make sense of it first within their own spheres of reference before responding to it. It’s a good idea to repeat information in different ways throughout the program to hold listeners’ attention while at the same time providing an opportunity for people to engage with the information at their own pace.

Generally, the more sensitive a subject is, the more time you will need to explore various issues and allow listeners the time to make sense of information before they can articulate their thoughts and questions. Listeners can become extremely frustrated when key issues are skimmed over and there is not enough time for meaningful discussion. The more contentious an issue is, the more time is required to air all the voices, particularly the most marginalized—for example, women, girls, people with disabilities, refugees, and children.

Know when your target audience is most likely to be listening and schedule your program accordingly. Who is the target audience? When is the best time to broadcast in order to have the most impact? What is the most convenient time for them to tune in? Audience research will inform this process and ensure that quality programs meet listeners’ needs and achieve the desired outcomes.

Where possible, it may be appropriate to run focus group discussions with groups of listeners to gauge their comfort level around various topics and explore how best to approach producing programs on those topics. It is critical to take into account opinions and perspectives from as wide a group of stakeholders as possible and not to take for granted that people share the same opinions on all subjects. What may seem like a minor issue to some may well be a very important issue for others. This is particularly relevant when discussing issues relating to adolescent sexual and reproductive health. It is also important to remember that your listening audience is not limited to your target audience. For example, while your key messages may target teenagers, other key role-players may also be tuned into the program, including parents, guardians, schoolteachers, religious leaders, and others. Your comments could positively or negatively impact different members of your audience. It is therefore important to take into account listeners’ recommendations and suggestions and use them to guide your on-air discussion.

It is important to get the support of station management before discussing sensitive issues, particularly issues that might result in complaints, harassment, or even violence from community members. Some vocal audience members may object to your discussion of sensitive issues, particularly if they feel it contradicts their beliefs. This shouldn't deter you from discussing these important issues, but you will want the approval and support of station management. Discuss with your manager what topics you plan to address on air, how you are handling it with respect to the various viewpoints, and how you and your colleagues should handle any backlash from the community.


Know your subject: research the topic well and ensure that program content is relevant to your audience, shares a variety of perspectives, and does not perpetuate harmful behaviours and attitudes.

Always be prepared by researching your topic well. It is important to “triangulate” your information to ensure accuracy. This means that you need to check your information and corroborate it with at least three reliable sources to ensure that it is sound. If a listener asks a question and you are unsure of the answer, it is much better to admit that you are unsure and commit to finding the correct information and continuing the discussion in a future episode. If listeners were to follow incorrect information, it could cause inconvenience at best or be dangerous at worst.

There are several ways to do your research:

  • Desktop research (reading articles, reports, and research studies) can provide a broad understanding of and perspective on the subject and help educate and clarify issues that the presenter is unaware of.
  • Face-to-face interviews with experts can provide direction, get a sense of how the issues play out in the local area, and help the production team decide which approach the program will take.
  • Site visits to community-based projects provide insights into people’s lives and allow the production team to empathize with the real issues on the ground.

For example, if you are developing a program on teenage pregnancy, you will need to use all of the research methods above to help you develop a well-rounded series of episodes. These episodes will cover the background statistics on the issue as well as dealing with the human angle by highlighting and addressing the experiences and needs of young women and girls. Expert opinion will help to present options for pregnant teenagers and young mothers, and provide support and guidance to grandparents and other family members, particularly young fathers. In an episode on teenage pregnancy, it would also be necessary to underline the importance of access to contraception, as well as how sexual activity may increase the risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. It would be equally important to highlight ways to enable and empower young mothers to further their education in order to secure their future. It is unlikely that all of this information can be covered meaningfully in an hour-long program. It may therefore be more valuable to produce a series of programs that respect the number and complexity of issues facing young women.

When producing the program, it is essential to take into account the views and perspectives of the broad range of people who make up an audience. Based on their lived experiences, people from different backgrounds may have different understandings of a topic. For example, ethnic origin, education level, age, and gender identity all influence how people respond to a topic. The production team should carefully bear in mind these differences in the potential audience when developing program content.

The importance of trust, credibility, and building sound relationships cannot be overemphasized. If the community does not believe that they are getting information from a reliable source, they will not act on it. If you are a new presenter or are new to a station and have not yet developed a relationship of trust with your audience, it may take some time to develop a rapport with your listeners. Building trust is not an overnight process. But sharing factual information and exploring a variety of perspectives on issues will show your listeners that you are working hard to produce a good program for their benefit.

It is also important to establish trust with the people you are interviewing, particularly if those individuals have lived experiences with the subject and / or are minors. It can take time to develop this trust so that the individual feels comfortable being interviewed on air. Some individuals will feel more comfortable if you explain the interview process and the questions you will ask ahead of time. Others may feel more comfortable with a friend or trusted adult with them during the interview. Be sensitive with the questions you ask.


Collaborate with experts and explore various points of view

Try to build strong relationships with key stakeholder partners who represent various aspects of the community and can share a variety of perspectives. This can include subject-matter specialists, government officials, organizations working on these issues, politicians, activists, and community or religious leaders. They should represent a diversity of gender and age, and include minority groups. You cannot be expected to be an expert on every subject, but if you have done your research well, you will know which questions to ask and to whom. And you will know which specific issues require direction from people who work in the sector you are addressing.

As a team, develop strategies to facilitate balanced and reasoned discussions that take into account the views and perspectives of a diverse group of people, including, for example, different genders, age groups, ethnic or cultural backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, religious and community leaders were integral in promoting masking, social distancing, and the vaccine.


Be respectful and mindful of the language and terminology you use.

Be mindful of the sensitive nature of your subject matter and use language and terminology that is respectful and appropriate. Some common terms might marginalize or harm certain groups or survivors, and as a communicator, it's a good idea to confirm you are using the best words. Language evolves, and what was considered appropriate in the past may no longer be encouraged. Do not use terms that might be considered vulgar or offensive. Do not use language that perpetuates myths and stereotypes.

For example, the word “victim,” used regularly by many, implies that someone is primarily a sufferer, target, or object. People living with HIV may not perceive themselves as victims, and somebody who has been raped may prefer to be called a "rape survivor" than a victim. “Victim” implies a sense of helplessness, and a lack of agency. This does not help the healing process of those who are trying to take back control of their lives.

There are many examples of slight changes you can make to the way you speak during your programs that can have a big impact on your listeners and their behaviour and attitudes toward these sensitive issues. These are topics that should be treated seriously, and normally without laughter, although at times, a light-hearted approach might keep your interviewee and audience at ease.

Avoid expressions like “boys will be boys,” “don’t be a sissy,” “it’s a woman’s job to look after the children” or using any type of derogatory terms that contribute to harmful stereotypes, prejudice, and sexism. Not only are they in poor taste, but they also perpetuate the notion that women are the weaker and/or less equal gender and that violence against them is acceptable.

Be conscious of “victim blaming.” Do not look for reasons why a survivor deserved, invited, or encouraged the harm that came to them, the illness that has affected them, etc. Try to be more solutions-oriented and supportive of survivors, addressing how they can access support services and how individuals can stay safe and healthy.

Your research will give you the opportunity to understand what terms to use when discussing issues, but you may also need to ask subject-matter specialists or the individuals you interview to help you understand how certain words might be interpreted in the local context or what the right word is in a certain language.

It should be noted that many times the individuals you interview on air will use other, perhaps more common and possibly inappropriate, terms. This includes expert guests, those with lived experiences, and audience members. Model using the appropriate term, choosing to only use that term yourself, but allowing others to express themselves as they will. Of course, if a guest uses hate speech*, vulgar language, makes derogatory comments towards an individual or group, or otherwise contravenes your station's editorial standards, you will have to respond.

Ask yourself these questions when thinking about language and terminology: In which language do listeners prefer to receive information? What are the key terms with regards to this topic in this language? Am I unclear / uncertain of my understanding of any terms? How will I define and explain these terms in my program?

Try not to use pre-packaged material spoken with a different accent or in a different language. Particularly with sensitive issues, listeners want to be able to identify with people who have gone through similar experiences and (preferably) speak the same language as them.


Be prepared when dealing with conflicting opinions and differing perspectives, including your own.

Don’t be judgmental. Your opinion is not necessarily correct, even if the majority of people agree with you—and it's not the only possible opinion. Always be respectful during interviews with individuals who have lived experiences, but particularly keep this in mind if you’re covering a topic you are uncomfortable with or if you disagree with an interviewee’s perspective. Remember, you can always bring in a guest host or reporter to help develop the episode if it's on a topic you feel you will not be able to do justice to.

Preparing for a program on a sensitive issue requires broadcasters to do thorough research and prepare questions that will help differentiate facts from value-laden perceptions.

Facts are information that can be observed or calculated—for example, statistics, historical dates, location, etc. They are statements that are known to be true or can be proved to be true, and they do not change regardless of who presents them. Value-laden perceptions, on the other hand, are informed by personal beliefs and/or widely shared viewpoints.

Female circumcision or female genital mutilation is an example of an issue where facts and personal or widely-held social perceptions can diverge—even the different ways of naming the practice demonstrate that it is a controversial issue. In this case, the clash is between cultural traditions (values), and evidence of the physical and psychological consequences of the practice (facts). Presenting practitioners with the facts of its impact has convinced many that the practice needs to be changed and/or eradicated. Hearing stories from survivors about how circumcision has impacted their lives is also a powerful way of bringing about changes.

Do not allow guests or listeners to make disparaging comments or be disrespectful. The role of the presenter is to facilitate open discussion and to provide a platform for learning and exchanging ideas. Even if you, someone on your program, or a listener calling in strongly disagree with a participant, it’s important not to allow emotions to drive interactions or interfere with your ability to facilitate an open and honest discussion.

There are, however, times when a presenter needs to intervene and not simply accept opinions—for example, if survivors are being blamed for the violence they have endured, if violence is being promoted or hate speech* is being used, if disinformation or propaganda is being shared, etc. If this happens, the presenter needs to take decisive control of the discussion. To promote a culture of learning, the presenter should explain why the comment is considered offensive and unacceptable. By doing so, the presenter sends a clear message that language and opinions of this nature will not be tolerated.

Your primary role as presenter is to facilitate discussion amongst various people and groups and to create a platform for learning and sharing of ideas. You can do this by asking probing questions and directing the discussion in particular ways. When a presenter does provide comments, they should always be fair, accurate, and provide an educational role. No matter what your personal beliefs are, you are not on air to represent your family, religious, ethnic group, or even your own perspective. Try to remain calm, state the facts clearly, and ask clarifying questions. Remember also to be clear on your station’s editorial policy and regulatory guidelines.


Create a safe and positive environment for learning.

When discussing sensitive topics, it is imperative that listeners feel safe enough to share their experiences and opinions, and to ask questions without ever feeling judged, embarrassed, humiliated, or threatened. Particularly with phone-in programs, it takes a lot of courage to voice an opinion or share a story. Always make participants feel welcomed and thank them for their contributions.

It's also important to speak in a manner which is easily understandable and not to use terminology or medical/ scientific jargon that some listeners won’t understand, or that makes the listener feel uncomfortable. The presenter should always assist and encourage the caller or interviewee by asking clarifying questions and allowing the person sufficient time to express themselves. The presenter should also ask expert guests to explain or give examples if guests use technical language or jargon.

It is also good practice to have a disclaimer at the start of the radio program so that the audience is prepared to hear the sensitive issue discussed and know if parental guidance is necessary.  Subjects such as rape and sexual abuse can be extremely sensitive. Particularly for women, topics such as these could trigger memories of their own personal experiences and therefore need to be handled with empathy and understanding. This disclaimer can be repeated regularly, such as after ad breaks. You could, for example, say: “The following program includes discussions of rape and could be difficult to listen to. It may not be suitable for everyone.”

Ensure that the program format is educational and engaging.

Part of the planning process is identifying the best format for the issue you will present and discuss. At their best, talk shows attract the audience to listen and also stimulate listeners to discuss what they are hearing. Good talk shows require diversity, spontaneity, and flexibility. Thus, there are no absolute rules about how to discuss sensitive issues on radio. It is worthwhile to consider using a variety of radio formats to share and exchange information about sensitive issues.

Here are a few examples of formats you can use and their benefits:

  • Jingles or spots (with or without music): They are easy to remember and can be played often. Good to cover one specific and focused message.
  • Dramas: They are good at presenting especially sensitive issues that might put people who have actually lived this experience at risk. Listeners have the benefit of learning about sensitive issues through fictional scenarios.
  • Documentaries: They are a great way to show the real-life experiences of people that the audience can relate to.
  • Interviews: They are the cornerstone of our radio programs. Both information and storytelling interviews are great for sharing statistics, practical steps people can take to get support, experiences and thoughts on specific issues, etc.
  • Panel discussions: They are a great way to hear a variety of perspectives or experiences with a specific issue.
  • Phone-ins: They are a great way to encourage listeners to ask questions or share their lived experiences.

At the end of each program, you and your production team should evaluate the episode to identify its strengths and weaknesses and assess how future programs can be improved.

It may also be worthwhile to develop a checklist to remind yourself of the key things you should be doing when planning and implementing your program. Especially if broadcasting on sensitive issues is new or unfamiliar to you, this could help you develop confidence and establish a routine to plan procedures and timelines. 

Know the confidentiality processes and procedures for guests, including minors and survivors.

When discussing some sensitive issues, it can be important for a source to be anonymous, particularly if they might experience negative consequences for sharing their experience on air, such as harassment or violence. These sources should be allowed to share their experience anonymously. Before going live or recording the interview for broadcast, discuss with the individual what information they are comfortable sharing. It is best if they share as many details as possible to give the story authenticity, but not enough so that they are identifiable. If the individual feels that even their voice would make them identifiable, consider using the tape talk format, where a reporter recaps the story they learned from an interview. If you have the technology, you can change their voice to mask it. You can also create a re-enactment of the interview and have a voice actor answer in the place of the actual person. In each of these situations, it is important to tell the listening audience that someone is responding anonymously, that it is an interpretation of an actual interview, or that a voice actor was used. Transparency is important.

On the other hand, as a journalist, you should be cautious about allowing people to share information or opinions anonymously on your radio program. Guests should never be allowed to share hurtful or disrespectful opinions under the protection of anonymity.

When individual youths are younger than the “age of majority,” (which is often 18 years old, but varies by country), it is essential to obtain permission from the youth's parents or guardians before allowing them to participate in radio programming. Informed consent also requires that you inform youth participants that they may be recorded, that their voices will be broadcast, and that many people in their communities and beyond will hear them. Never disclose the identity of youth participants without their permission. Youth’s personal information, for example, their phone numbers, social media handles, addresses, or email addresses, should never be disclosed.

Where else can I learn about how to deal with sensitive topics on air?

  1. Farm Radio International. Addressing sensitive issues. Learning module.
  2. The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), 2019. FEMNET SRHR Media Training Manual.
  3. Arbee, N. 2021. What to avoid when reporting on marginalized people. IJNET.
  4. Healey, J., 2020. Trauma Reporting: A journalist's guide to covering sensitive stories. Routledge
  5. Healey, J. undated. Do your job, do it well, do no harm. Ethical Journalism Network.
  6. Howard, R., and Rolt, F., 2005. Radio Talkshows for Peacebuilding: A guide. Second edition. (451 KB)
  7. Ipas, 2019. Creating fair and balanced stories: Tips for journalists covering sexual and reproductive health and rights issues. Downloadable at:
  8. Luce, Ann, 2019. Ethical Reporting of Sensitive Topics. Routledge.
  9. Mammadzada, N., 2023. Navigating sensitive reporting: A journalist's guide. Empoword Journalism.
  10. Miller, N. S., 2022. Trauma-informed journalism: What it is, why it's important and tips for practicing it. The Journalist's Resource.  Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
  11. National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2017. Reporting on Sexual Violence: Tips for Journalists.
  12. Nkuna, M. S., Mandla, and S. Nkuna: Radio Production Toolkit, published by the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism. (Hard copy only)
  13. Radio Regen, 2005. Community Radio Toolkit.
  14. Sonke Gender Justice and Health E-News, 2017. Reporting on Gender-Based Violence: A guide for journalists and editors.
  15. Yahr, N., undated. Why Should I Tell You? A Guide to less-extractive reporting. Center for Journalism Ethics. University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Hate speech: Hate speech is speech that attacks, threatens, or insults a person or group on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, colour, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.


Contributed by: Gail White, Independent Community Health Specialist, Cape Town, South Africa

Reviewed by: Vijay Cuddeford, Managing editor, Farm Radio International, Sylvie Harrison, Radio Craft Team Lead, Farm Radio International, and Caroline Montpetit, Regional Program Manager, West Africa & Gender Specialist.

This resource was produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the “Promoting health, sexual and reproductive rights, and nutrition among adolescents in Burkina Faso (ADOSANTE),” project, the "Innovations in Health, Rights and Development," or iHEARD, project, and the "HÉRÈ - Women's Well-Being in Mali" initiative.

The ADOSANTE project is led by a consortium including Helen Keller International, Marie Stopes-Burkina Faso (MSIBF), Farm Radio International, the Centre d’information de Conseils et de Documentation sur le Sida et la Tuberculeuse (CICDoc) and the Réseau Afrique Jeunesse Sante et Développement (RAJS).

The iHEARD project is led by a consortium of: CODE, Farm Radio International, and MSI Reproductive Choices and implemented in Malawi by FAWEMA, Farm Radio Trust, Women and Children First UK and Maikhanda Trust, Girl Effect/ZATHU, Viamo and Banja La Mtsogolo. // Cette ressource est réalisée avec le soutien financier du gouvernement du Canada, par l'intermédiaire d'Affaires mondiales Canada, dans le cadre du projet iHEARD (Innovations en matière de santé, de droits et de développement). Le projet est dirigé par un consortium composé de : CODE, Radios Rurales Internationales et MSI Reproductive Choices et mis en œuvre au Malawi par FAWEMA, Farm Radio Trust, Women and Children First UK et Maikhanda Trust, Girl Effect/ZATHU, Viamo et Banja La Mtsogolo.                                       

The "HÉRÈ - Women's Well-Being in Mali aims to improve the sexual and reproductive health well-being of women and girls and to strengthen the prevention of and response to gender-based violence in Sikasso, Ségou, Mopti, and the district of Bamako in Mali. The project is implemented by the HÉRÈ - MSI Mali Consortium, in partnership with Farm Radio International (RRI) and Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) with funding from Global Affairs Canada.