What’s a Reporter’s Responsibility to Young Sources?

In a sad twist of fate, the Education Writers Association webinar that I had signed up to participate in this Tuesday, “Interviewing Children: An EWA Guide for Reporters”, became even more relevant with the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week. Interviewing young people during or after a tragedy is a particularly difficult situation for a reporter to find themselves in. A writer’s objective is to deliver a well written, accurate, and compelling article to their editor as quickly as possible, a goal which may directly conflict with a young child’s developmental stage or emotional state.

Three experts, Sarah Carr, LynNell Hancock, and Bruce Shapiro, shared their various perspectives on the practical and ethical implications of interviewing young children and teens. They all agreed that interviewing minors can be much trickier than interviewing adults, for a variety of reasons. For one, readers and viewers are quickly turned off b y a journalist that they perceive as bullying a child or forcing them to discuss or confront something they’re trying to avoid. Additionally, kids may not clearly understand the concept of “on or off the record” so they may need more leeway in terms of requesting anonymity or being allowed to retract a controversial statement they made. This s a particular issue for teenagers who, as the conversation progresses, may begin to view the reporter as an ally or even a friend who is unequivocally on their side, rather than an objective interviewer. Carr observes that in her experience, it’s best to err on the side of caution and assume that most children, no matter how tech-savvy they are, don’t have a clear sense of how the media actually works. Given this, if she’s concerned that a particular quote might boomerang back on a young person, she’ll read it aloud to them to make sure they’re comfortable with the way it sounds. She also cautions journalists to remember that others in the online community may not be as concerned about the child as you are and may even publically attack your child source’s expressed views or statements.

Hancock emphasizes the fact that young children process facts in a much different way than their adult counterparts. She cautions that it’s important to remember that young children are highly suggestible and that reporters need to be flexible, patient, and not condescending towards the kids they’re speaking with.

In trauma interviews, journalists should be trying to give a sense of power and control back to their young sources Shapiro, the Executive Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University in New York, explains. He also strongly advocates having an adult the child knows and trusts standing nearby and, if at all possible, not rushing the interview and allowing the family to contact you when they’re ready to speak publically about what occurred. The tone of the questions should never imply blame, he stresses, and the child’s sense of privacy should be respected, both in print and in any visual images that accompany the article.

This webinar reinforced to me that it’s important to realize that different standards may need to be used for children and adults when conducting an interview about a difficult topic. Of course you should treat all of your sources respectfully. However, when speaking with children it’s also crucial to weigh the importance of what they can contribute to the story against the risk of their being traumatized a second time by your questions. As with adults, reporters should thoroughly fact-check everything a child says , so that myths, misunderstandings, and misinformation don’t become facts in readers or viewers minds. As Shapiro so aptly remarked, “The neurology of what we remember under stress in fascinating”.

You can learn more about interviewing children in crisis at the Dart Center’s website http://www.dartcenter.org


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