It can be hard for adults to see children as complex people, with legitimate emotions and stories of their own. That’s why UNICEF, which has been working with children for almost 70 years, advocates that as members of the media, we need to learn to let children speak for themselves, while at the same time respecting ethical principles and protecting their identities when appropriate. (Read their full “Guidelines for The Media and Children’s Rights,” here.)
It takes time, trust and patience to let a child tell us their story. It also means being extra thoughtful because we have a greater responsibility to protect our young sources. “In some instances reporting on children places them or other children at risk of retribution or stigmatization,” states UNICEF. We have to deal with stories involving children carefully, especially when the kids in question have been or are currently dealing with trauma.
“It’s all too rare that journalists capture the real voices, the real images of children, or the view of the world from their unique perspective,” says LynNell Hancock, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, who has dedicated her career to reporting on education, child and family policy issues. “When they do, it’s almost always powerful. Note the overwhelming response to the piercing photos of Dasani in the NY Times recently.”
We’ve put together a few tips and words of wisdom from journalists who have extensive experience covering stories about children. If you are planning on a story that relies heavily on reporting with kids, UNICEF’s detailed guidelines for ethical reporting on children is a must-read.
GET CONSENT FROM THE CHILD’S GUARDIAN & BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR INTENT
It is imperative that you get consent from the child’s parent or guardian when you want to tell their story. It is a good idea to carry release forms for the child’s guardian to sign. It’s an extra step in your workflow but can save you a lot of headaches in the future. (See this CV post on Release Forms)
- “There are many things to consider, and you may approach an upbeat story differently to a story about a painful topic or experience. But in all cases, I’d recommend that you clearly identify yourself as a journalist, showing your press ID to any adult who is accompanying or supervising children before you photograph. Some stories will require consent forms signed by a parent or legal guardian. But even in situations when consent may not be legally required— for example, a story about springtime in which you may visit a park or other public place to photograph —it is important that people in the community understand who you are and your purpose. You don’t want to cause any anxiety or fear on the part of parents who may learn later that a stranger was photographing their children, and you want to be sure to protect yourself from any misunderstanding about your motives.” –Donna DeCesare, Documentary Photographer and Associate Professor, University of Texas
DON’T FORGET THE CHILD’S CONSENT, TOO
- “Children generally love to be photographed, but I always ask their permission even when I have permission from a guardian.” –Donna DeCesare
BE EXTRA PATIENT
- “Journalists often fall into the trap of using children as ornaments to the story, emotive afterthoughts, rather than central characters. It takes a little more time, and a smidgen more patience, to build trust with a child, to help them reach the point where they can tell their own story, not the one they think the adults want to hear.” –LynNell Hancock, Journalist and Professor, Columbia Journalism School
GAIN THE CHILD’S TRUST
- “It depends on the story, but I try to make some of my images at the child’s eye level, which may mean that I need to sit or squat down. This helps to build a rapport, and it often helps to be playful or collaborative if you are making an individual or group portrait.” –Donna DeCesare
- “Explain why they should allow you to put their personal information on TV or online. Explain why their story matters. Convince the child that they can trust you and that you won’t embarrass them; teenagers especially are always worried about what their friends will think. Use humor. Be honest.” –– Jason Trahan, Investigative Producer, WFAA-TV8 ABC
- “When working with groups, inclusivity is important. If you see that a child is being left out, seek a way to disrupt that pattern without being obvious. Enlisting a child’s help with equipment or with arranging the group may give a vulnerable child a sense of control that will help to change the dynamic.” –Donna DeCesare
THINK CAREFULLY ABOUT ON CAMERA INTERVIEWS
Before going for an interview, ask yourself if you need it and what the purpose is.
- “First ask yourself why you are doing a story on kids. You need to be clear on what the bigger issue at play is before you do an interview. During interviews, use children’s vocabulary but do it with your interviewing techniques. Don’t ask yes and no questions. Make follow up questions and open ended questions. ” –Tom Farrey, Reporter, ESPN
THINK ABOUT THE INTERVIEW ENVIRONMENT
- “If possible, do the interview with family members, and in a familiar space so that the child feels comfortable. It also helps to film interviews because kids communicate with their body language more than with words. For example, sometimes, they want to give you the “right” answer and you will see that in their facial expression.” –Tom Farrey
- “Interview kids in the middle of two people they trust. That will encourage the child.” –Jason Trahan
THINK ABOUT ANY POSSIBLE ETHICAL DILEMMAS
Sometimes children don’t have adequate guardians, or any guardian at all. Though you are not a social worker and you’re not there to save anyone, you do have moral and ethical responsibilities, so you need to be clear about how you will deal with certain situations if they were to arise.
- “Think about every possible ethical dilemma that could arise. What are the worst things that could happen? How would you react in that instant? Sometimes, bad things happen very quickly, so it’s important to know how to respond in the moment. For example, in Orphans of Addiction, the Los Angeles Times photographer witnessed Theodora’s boyfriend using Theodora’s toothbrush to clean Tamika’s teeth. Theodora is HIV positive. The photographer, regrettably, didn’t intervene. Some angry readers sent me toothbrushes in the mail.” –Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, The Los Angeles Times
- [In the case of abuse], “If a child has visible injuries for example, ask on camera about the injuries. See what the kids and the parents or guardian have to say. Use two cameras and catch both reactions It’s a form of polygraph. If you identify abuse, you’re not going to solve their situation, but you should contact corresponding authorities.” –Jason Trahan
- To Trahan’s point, many states have laws that criminalize failing to act when there is suspected abuse of a child. If you are working with a child who you suspect is being abused, in most cases it is illegal not to report the situation to the authorities. Know the laws in your area to protect the children you work with, and yourself.
PROTECT THEM EVEN FROM YOURSELF
- “Keep in mind that children are not necessarily little adults. They deserve our respect, but also our understanding. Some of the journalistic rules we follow in our work with adult sources need some adjustment when children are involved. We need to step in and shield them from ourselves more often. For example, young children may not always think through the ramifications of their words or photos in the media. They may not think to ask for anonymity in some instances, or they may not realize they can say no to a photo or a particular question. Human beings are suggestible creatures – and we should remember that the younger the child, the more suggestible he or she may be. So I think one of the best things we can do is to get out of the way with our cameras, our notebooks, our leading questions.” –LynNell Hancock
- UNICEF’s The Media and Children’s Rights
- UNICEF’s guidelines for ethical reporting on children.
- Reporting Guidelines to Protect At-Risk Children
- Child Rights and Journalism Practice
- The Media and Children’s Rights Manual