Covering Local Tragedies
Ochberg Fellowship Program
Children are inherently vulnerable. When they are caught up in traumatic events – terrorism, violence, natural disaster, crime, grave illness – they depend on the good judgment of adults to keep them from further harm. In the news judgments they make every day, reporters, photographers, editors and producers should be mindful of the responsibility they bear to report the truth with compassion and avoid subjecting children to the additional trauma of insensitive or exploitative coverage.
Here are best practices to follow when the suffering of children becomes news:
Seek the informed consent of a parent or guardian before interviewing or photographing a child. That means explaining to adult and child why you want to talk with them and how the interview will be used.
Work together to set ground rules for the interview. Be clear about what is on the record and off the record.
Be sure that a parent or other responsible adult is present. If that is not possible, obtain an adult's consent before publishing or broadcasting the interview.
Make it clear that you are a journalist reporting the news. Take care not to act as a friend. Do not make promises to help that you cannot keep.
Find a quiet place for the interview and do what you can to put the child at ease. Strike a tone that is sincere. Don't talk down to the child.
When the interview is complete, clear all quotes you think you will use with a responsible adult.
Avoid interviewing children at the scene. They are very likely in shock and need comfort, not questioning.
If an on-scene interview is possible, find a quiet place to talk away from the chaos of emergency personnel and other victims.
Avoid publishing photographs of children without prior permission from a responsible adult. A photo of an injured child is dramatic and heart-wrenching but can also be hurtful and embarrassing to the victim.
Ask open-ended questions. "What happened next?" Avoid self-answering questions, like "Were you scared?"
Traumatized people often make poor decisions. Be prepared for adults or children to change their minds once the interview is complete. If this happens, don't use the material.
Be willing to wait until the parents and child are ready to talk, even if that is weeks or months after the crisis. You will likely get a much better interview.
Emphasize that she or he can choose not to answer a question or ask you not to use sensitive information.
Keep your notebook or recording equipment in view so your interview subjects can see how their words are being recorded.
Be aware that children might say what they think you want to hear rather than being honest.
Ask open-ended questions. “What was the hardest part?” is better than questions that deliver their own answers, like “Were you scared?”
Find out as much as you can about the incident before the interview by talking to parents, counselors, teachers and medical professionals. Obtain documents such as police reports and court records outlining the facts.
Ask parents and others if there are topics or details that are especially difficult for the child to talk about, and be sensitive.
Let the child and parents pick a familiar setting for the interview.
Don’t talk down to children, no matter how young they are. Respect their feelings and their way of recounting what happened. And be prepared to be surprised: Children may not grieve the way you expect them to.
Reflect back what a child is telling you and give her a chance to correct errors.
Educate yourself. Talk to counselors, attend education programs, research child trauma through authoritative websites. Consider what questions are appropriate for different ages—e.g. a younger child won’t be able to recall chronological details but can likely describe what toy he was playing with when the hurricane hit.
Children younger than 13 should not be relied upon to provide detailed factual accounts. Use documents and other sources to corroborate whenever possible.
Don’t ask questions that imply blame, such as “Weren’t you wearing your seatbelt?” or “Do you always walk alone at night?”
Be aware that retelling a traumatic event can trigger intense emotions in your interview subject, even years later. Be prepared to deal with strong reactions, or have someone there who can provide support, such as a trusted family member or counselor.
Keep the interview to age-appropriate lengths: thirty minutes for those under age 9, forty-five minutes for children between 10 and 14 and one hour for teens.
Take breaks if a child gets bored or distracted. That may be a child’s way of telling you he is emotionally drained.
Don’t use information that would embarrass or hurt a child — even with her permission. Kids will tell you just about anything, but that doesn’t mean you have to print it — for example, bed-wetting problems or illegal drug use (unless such detail is central to the story.)
Check back with parents and older children after the interview and let them know how quotes will be used and when your report will run. Send them copies of your final report.
A Spanish-language version of this tip sheet is available here.
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The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.