Best Practices in Reporting on Children, Families, and Caregivers

This tipsheet was drawn from a panel discussion focused on best practices in reporting on refugee children and families. The discussion was part of a 2019 Dart Center reporting institute called “Reporting on Refugees and Migration Through the Eyes of Young Children.” 

The panel was moderated by Dart Center Early Childhood Development expert, Karen Brown. The speakers were:

Sarah Stillman; Journalism professor and New Yorker staff writer who focuses on the intersection between human rights, the criminal justice system and migration. 

Ginger Thompson; Chief of Correspondents at ProPublica and Pulitzer Prize winner who has reported extensively on migration. 



Don’t over-simplify children

Stay away from binaries in your reporting on migrant children and families. Don’t oversimplify, or look to depict children as exceptional. Instead, be nuanced and empathetic and convey that the traumas often associated with seeking asylum or migrating can have an effect on all types of people – normal families and those that could be deemed exceptional. 

Inform your reporting with observation

Reporting necessarily involves asking questions. But try to supplement this part of your role with skills borrowed from other disciplines, like ethnography and anthropology, for example. Spend time with people; observe how families interact and go about their day-to-day lives. Watching and taking notes of these quieter moments can offer journalists profound insights and can allow stories to focus on moments of strength, resilience and living alongside trauma and suffering. 

Consider what informed consent means in the context of reporting on migration, and on children and families 

It’s not enough for someone to agree to an interview: they need to understand the implications of speaking to you and appearing in your piece. Discuss in depth if there is anything that might damage an asylum claim. Explain that your piece will likely be available online, and could be translated into different languages. If you’re interviewing a child, think about what informed consent means in relation to their age: most of the time, it means securing it from a parent or caregiver. Think about consent over a long period of time: you may be given information that a child or caregiver agrees to, but will the child want that information existing on the internet when they are older? 

Don’t overpromise; know your limits as a journalist

Journalists have power, and vulnerable sources might believe that if they speak to a reporter, that reporter might be able to help them change their situation or improve their circumstances. When covering migration, you should make it very clear to sources that this is not the case, and you do not know what impact your story might have. This responsibility becomes especially acute when you are interviewing minors. Additionally, make it clear to sources from the start that their story, if they choose to share it with you, might not appear in the final edit of your piece. 

Think about what stories don’t need to be told; what questions children don’t need to be asked

When writing about children, it’s best to engage as much as possible with the responsible adults in their network: parents, caregivers, pastors, community leaders. Spend time gathering information from them about a child’s story and any surrounding context. This will help you to avoid asking a child unnecessary questions — and running the risk of causing further harm or distress. When you are gathering information, think about what you need to find out – but also what you don’t need to know; what questions you don’t need to ask. 

Stories Referenced and additional resources mentioned in this discussion