Covering Children and Trauma

No matter what the topic, different ground rules apply when interviewing children. Children’s vulnerability means they have a right to greater privacy even if such heightened protection is not provided by law. Journalists must respect that right despite the competitive pressures of news coverage. Protecting child victims from further trauma should take precedence over getting a good quote.

General interviewing guidelines:

  • Seek permission from a parent or guardian before interviewing or photographing a child. If that is not possible, try to contact an adult for permission before using material. Exceptions to this, such as breaking news involving a child whose parent can’t be located or an interview with an older teenager who can give consent, should be discussed with an editor.
  • Informed consent means explaining to a parent and child what the story is about and how the interview will be used (e.g. front-page story, inside feature).
  • If possible, have a parent or someone the child knows present during the interview.
  • Find a quiet place for the interview and do what you can to put the child at ease. Be prepared to spend time gaining kids’ trust by chatting about their hobbies or interests. With young children, get down to their eye level, talk to their stuffed animals or play a game.
  • Tell them your name and explain what journalists do in language they can understand. A camera crew or photographer can show a child their equipment and demonstrate how it works.
  • Make it clear that you are doing a job. Take care not to act as just a friend.
  • Explain why you want to talk to them, how the interview will be used and when it will run (e.g. a daily report appearing the next day versus an investigative series that may not appear for months).
  • Remind them that their names or photos will be in print or on TV. Tell them that not everything they say will be in the story.

Give the child as much control as possible over the interview:

  • Emphasize that she or he can choose not to answer a question or ask you not to use sensitive information.
  • Keep your notebook out so your interview subjects can see you are writing down their words.
  • Tell them they are the experts on their own lives and that there are no right or wrong answers. Children will try to please you and may say what they think you want to hear rather than being honest.
  • Ask open-ended questions, such as “What was the hardest part?” rather than questions that deliver their own answers, like “Were you scared?”
  • Thank the child for helping you with the story. Let her know her contribution was important.

Interviewing children at the scene of a crime or disaster:

  • Avoid interviewing children at the scene. Realize they are very likely in shock and need comfort, not questioning. “Children are not necessarily OK after a bad incident, no matter how they might appear,” said Roger Simpson, Dart Professor of Journalism & Trauma at the University of Washington, in an article in the Columbus Dispatch in October 2000.
  • If you decide to do an interview, try to talk to the child in a safe place away from the chaos of emergency personnel and other victims.
  • Identify yourself and try to have someone the child knows there.
  • Try not to publish photographs of children without their permission and that of their parents. A photo of an injured child is dramatic and heart-wrenching but can also be hurtful and embarrassing to the victim.
  • 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.

Interviewing children about previous trauma:

  • 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. Jane Hansen, a projects reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recalled how she handled an interview with an 11-year-old rape victim. Hansen asked to see the boy’s bedroom, where he showed her his Beanie Babies. She shared how her son also collected the furry critters. Then they sat side by side on the hallway floor so he wouldn’t have to look at her as he described his adoptive father’s sexual abuse.
  • 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. CNN editor Kathy Slobogin described in a March 2005 article on the Casey Journalism Center website how a group of kids she was interviewing chatted happily about memories of a young friend who died on a plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11. When the cameraman suggested the children’s mood didn’t fit the somber topic, Slobogin told him to keep shooting: “‘They’re children,’ I said. ‘This is what they do.’”
  • 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?” That can make a child feel guilty or expose him to public humiliation.
  • 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—e.g. bedwetting problems or illegal drug use (unless such detail is central to the story).
  • Ask if the child has any questions before you leave. Thank her for her help.
  • Check back with parents and older children after the interview and let them know how quotes will be used and when the story will run. Send them copies of the story.

After a violent incident, everyone is reeling. Remember that sometimes even parents don’t know where to draw the line.

A Seattle TV station ran a news report in February 2005 about a young girl who’d been mauled earlier that day by a pit bull on a playground. The report included footage of the injured child curled up on her couch at home, sobbing and saying she thought she’d be killed. Her father stood nearby and had clearly agreed to the interview.

Compelling footage? Certainly. But the child was so obviously traumatized that it raised questions about the wisdom of putting her on camera. Remember: Parental permission does not absolve journalists’ of their responsibility to use good judgment and the highest professional ethics.