Covering Children and Trauma

The biggest hurdle when covering tragedies involving children is getting access to information. Stricter confidentiality laws govern everything from their school and hospital records to court and child-welfare files.

Overcoming this is especially important because some of the worst violence kids endure happens at home or in institutional settings. Children have no voice of their own. Journalists face the daunting challenge of finding ways to report on child abuse and neglect without causing more harm to the victims.

  • Learn to use state and federal public-disclosure laws. While police or state child-welfare agencies will redact identifying information, documents are invaluable for providing context and establishing patterns in stories on everything from teachers abusing students to teen rape.
  • Challenge confidentiality rules that do more to hide institutional malfeasance than to protect children. Get your employer’s attorney involved if necessary.
  • When it’s not possible to interview a victim, work around that by tracking down and interviewing everyone else in the child’s life. Talk to parents, teachers, neighbors, friends, police officers, child advocates.
  • Be willing to talk to sources as “background only” as a way of gaining a deeper understanding of the problem. Sometimes it’s the only way to find out crucial information.
  • Interview other children or families who have suffered similar trauma in the past but can now talk more freely (e.g., adults who suffered child sexual abuse; foster children who are now adopted).
  • Talk to experts who can put a violent incident into context. For example, find out if child abuse rates are going up or down or how many school shootings have happened in the previous five years.
  • Be clear about your newspaper’s or station’s policy for withholding the names of child victims or juvenile offenders. Most don’t identify child abuse victims except in special circumstances. Juvenile crime suspects are also usually not named unless a defendant ends up in adult court. Explain those rules to sources.
  • Identifying a child is not always an “all-or-nothing” decision. Sometimes children and their parents will be comfortable with a first name only or a middle name. Consider taking “non-identifying” photos that can help tell the story. Such photos, while far more difficult to shoot, can powerfully convey a victim’s struggles to a reader/viewer.
  • When a victim and the parents/guardian agree to be identified, clarify exactly what that means. Explain to them the possible ramifications of such a decision.
  • Just because a victim agrees to be named doesn’t mean you should do it. There may be circumstances where the potential harm is greater than the benefit. In the case of the 11-year-old boy who had been raped by his adoptive father, Hansen, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution decided not to name him or use identifying photos, even though both the child and his mother said it was OK. The newspaper decided it wasn’t fair to the boy to subject him to publicity about the graphic abuse—something that could follow him into adulthood.

The bottom line: Treat kids like you’d want a reporter to treat your own children.