When Subjects are Young, The Rules Change

This tipsheet, building on the 2011 Dart Center workshop "Out of the Shadows: Reporting on Intimate Partner Violence," reviews how to navigate the challenges of reporting on youth.

Stories involving children and young adults stand among the hardest to frame, research and tell. Reporting intimate partner violence involving young people poses  unique ethical, legal and practical challenges. Working with children — and the obligation to protect young protagonists — turns many traditional journalism rules upside down. It takes special skills to interview children, and tenacity and time to overcome the obstacles involved in gaining access, obtaining permissions, and sorting through complicated histories.

Despite the obstacles, these are critical stories in need of journalists’ attention. Children and young adults may witness violence in their homes, and they may later experience abuse or become violent in their own intimate relationships. There is a clear connection: watching abuse among parents is the strongest risk factor — stronger than low income, for example — for children to become abusers themselves. Intimate partner violence is a learned behavior. It passes from parents to children.

In the United States, one in ten high school students has experienced dating violence. In fact, teens are two times as likely as any other group to report abuse by an intimate partner. This means that in adolescents, dating violence is almost as common as obesity, on par with driving after drinking, and more common than smoking.

In the late 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control began analyzing large data sets collected to study how so-called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) impact people later in life.  The results were beyond what many involved in the research had considered possible: Some form of childhood abuse such as neglect, witnessing abuse, or being abused is far more common than anticipated, the study showed, affecting between 50 and 60 percent of the population. Further, these stressors have considerable short and long-term consequences. They drive people to unhealthy life choices such as alcoholism or smoking, and increase the risk for mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. (Watch CDC researcher Robert Anda's presentation on the ACE study.)

Jan Hoffmann, a staff writer at the New York Times, and Elaine Korry, a contributing correspondent for National Public Radio, have reported extensively and in innovative ways on these and other findings and trends. Both agree that reporters have to get close to the youngest subjects in stories about domestic violence to show that abuse is not just an abstract statistic - it is real and carries significant consquences for individual children, for families and communities.  This journalistic mission, however, comes with significant responsibility to protect the most vulnerable individuals a reporter is likely to encounter.

Here are some tips on what helps them navigate the challenges of reporting on youth, culled from longer presentations, archived in video online, from Hoffman and Korry.

Jan Hoffmann, staff writer, the New York Times

  • There will always come moments in your professional life where you have to figure out what I call the 3:00 a.m. rule. What will keep you up at night; keep you sleepless because you feel like you may not have done the right thing? One of the hardest things about making decisions in your reporting, particularly when you are writing about kids who are vulnerable, is to make sure you protect them. You’d be shocked at some of the information I did not put in some of my stories. At the end of the day, each decision is made by the 3:00 a.m. rule. I try to err on the side of caution.
  • Young people love to talk to you. They want to trust you. They live in a media culture where everybody is a star. When they see you with a microphone, they think you’ll make them a star. You have to be very specific about what you are doing. The worst thing you can say is: Trust me. You have to earn their trust.
  • The rules we use in journalism change for what I call vulnerable people: I do not want to get a kid in trouble. I do not want them to get slammed for something they said, not knowing the consequences of saying it to a journalist. This does not necessarily translate to adults. I have what I call a sliding scale of informed consent. Adolescents are not in a position to truly give you informed consent. Again: you have to protect them.
  • I interview young people off the record, give them a chance to talk freely. Then I sort through the material and get back to them once I have decided what I would like to publish. I talk to them about what’s ok to use and what not.
  • Reporters should never re-victimize youth; and we don’t have to. Instead of focusing too much on one case, we can go to the larger narratives, put individual stories in context.
  • Once you are in the reporting process: Question your assumptions. Toss out received wisdom. She light on complexity. Get as many points of view as possible. This is so crucial when we cover young people.
  • Remember that not all victims are noble. That’s where it gets complicated. That’s good. We honor the story when we show it is complicated. It will be a better story.
  • At the NYT, we never use a false name. If someone does not want his identity enclosed, we’ll write the reason into the story. Make sure you know your news organization’s policy and communicate it clearly with your subjects. Setting expectations straight is key to not waking up in sweat at 3:00 a.m.

Elaine Korry, Correspondent, National Public Radio

  • I do a lot of reporting with children and adolescents who live in foster care. First thing to know is that these stories take time. They spread out over months. Make sure your editors understand that.
  • One thing that’s immediately clear is that these children start with high ACE scores; virtually every kid I have ever met in foster care has been exposed to violence. At age six, seven, eight, they have horror stories to tell; they bring that into their relationships as they get older.
  • I agree with Jan’s 3:00 a.m. rule wholeheartedly; I call it the eye-contact rule. I need to be able to look them in the eye and not flinch, be embarrassed or ashamed about what I am doing.
  • I find it important to interview even very young children. Not for content but to show that these are real people behind the stories. Especially on radio, it is good when people can hear the voice of the person you are talking about. Even if it is just a small child showing me her Hannah Montana poster in her bedroom. That’s how she comes alive.
  • As they get older and you interview teenagers for content, the most important thing to know is that teenagers are physiologically incapable sometimes of anticipating the consequences of their behavior. This is true for all adolescents, in foster care or intact homes. It helps explain why otherwise bright kids sometimes do these incredibly unfortunate things. They act impulsively. They act out.
  • As a consequence, you have to be very careful. You have to explain a few times what it means to be on the record. I can sit there with a microphone and they may still think they are on television. I show them the tape recorder, I break it down, I explain what it means to have your story broadcast on radio.
  • You have to let them know in advance what the point of the story is, and what you are looking for in an interview. Young adults often think you only want to talk about the positive aspects. Prepare them that you are interested in the whole story and that you will ask about what didn’t go so well, too.
  • As soon as they hear you are doing a radio story, kids will want to hear it; and they’ll want their parents to hear it. They have to know in advance what they will hear about themselves. Make sure your news organization is ok with you playing back audio. 
  • One thing that makes our lives easier is that foster children have very clear privacy rights. If minors are in the state’s care their records are sealed. In California you have to have a court order to be able to interview a foster child, and you are precluded from identifying at least the last name, sometimes the first name; or even providing identifying information. This saves you some sticky conversations wit your editor about naming or not naming.
  • Sometimes, I find it hard to stay out of it; to keep the boundary between journalism and advocacy. In one case I was interviewing a 15 year-old girl who was five months pregnant. She had no high school degree and no job and hadn’t considered an abortion or adoption because the father of the baby didn’t want her to. He was 28, and in jail.  I was not in a position to tell her she was making a mistake but I decided to talk to the social worker. As journalists, we can not get involved but I have to make sure the people who are the minders of the kids in foster care are at least setting them in the right direction.