How to respect children's identities when reporting on migration

This tip sheet was drawn from the second webinar in a series focused on Early Childhood Reporting, part of the Dart Center’s Early Childhood Journalism Initiative (ECJI).

The webinar was moderated by journalist and Dart senior advisor Irene Caselli, and the speakers were:

  • Ismail Einashe, award-winning journalist and writer, Lost in Europe 
  • Sally Hayden, award-winning journalist and photographer, author ‘My Fourth Time, We Drowned’
  • Luis H. Zayas, chair in mental health and social policy, UT Austin

Consider cultural differences around safeguarding. Think of different ways to tell stories. Protect identities amid a landscape of changing technology. Don’t just tell the story of trauma.

Learn the difference between stress and trauma

Journalists distill complex scientific research into digestible language for their readers. So, take the time to learn the basic science of trauma. For example, understand how stress and trauma (which are often conflated) differ: Trauma always involves stress, but not all stress is traumatic. In fact, exposure to some stress can be important for the development of resilience. 

Understand how trauma can impact brain development

Trauma can impact and shape children's brain development – and their responses vary with age. An infant responds differently to trauma than a 10-year-old might, for example. At around age 10, excessive stress and trauma create lasting imprints on a child, and set the path for future development. 

Everyone, including children, responds differently to stress and trauma. Responses are shaped by a complex interplay of factors, which include things like physical constitution; someone’s subjective interpretation of their experience; the intensity and duration of the experience – for example, responses to one high-intensity episode will differ from responses to a moderate, ongoing level of stress. 

Be aware of political debates about age

When covering the experiences of migrant and refugee children, be aware of broader political tensions surrounding age and definitions of childhood. For example, in Europe, unaccompanied teens from African countries are sometimes not believed to be children. Their counterparts from other countries are often more easily classified and treated as minors, thus receiving corresponding support and social services. 

Consider cultural differences around safeguarding 

When interviewing a traumatized child (see more tips on this here), journalists need to identify their caregiver. In a refugee context, this might not be their immediate family. For example, in Eastern Africa, caregivers might be aunts, uncles or religious leaders. 

Additionally, when working across different cultures and contexts, be mindful that safeguarding rules and conventions may vary. 

Publishing names and images of minors

Editors sometimes apply pressure on reporters to name sources and identify them in pictures. However, when working with children, try to keep them anonymous. Children have a right to be forgotten, and you never know what the consequences of including them in your story might be in the future. 

Additionally, think about imagery in the context of emerging technologies, like facial recognition, that are increasingly being used to monitor migrants.

Images of people can certainly forge connection with readers, but there are other ways to create that connection. Use innovative graphics, for example, to tell stories with depth and humanity.

Think deeply about informed consent

What qualifies as informed consent in the context of migration? First, consider the context that you are trying to seek an interview in: is it in a refugee camp? Are people waiting for their asylum cases to be approved? All of these factors will intersect with power dynamics between journalist and source.

Second, remember that you aren’t interviewing a public figure, but a young source who is potentially vulnerable. Consequently, be clear that you are a journalist, and not an aid worker or a police officer or a potential caregiver. Describe your role as a journalist, explain what the story is about and, when appropriate, share examples of your work. 

Don’t overpromise. Potential sources might think that speaking to you could help their asylum applications or otherwise directly improve their circumstances. Explain that this is not the case, but that sharing their story might help the public understand their situation.

Additionally, don’t patronize children. Displaced children often ascend prematurely into adult roles: they are making life and death decisions, and may well be capable of deciding whether to talk with you.

Think of different ways of telling stories

What happens if you can’t get informed consent to interview a child, but you still want to understand and depict their situation? There are many other ways to tell stories which don’t require an interview.

For example, you could consider watching kids play, or draw. Both can give great insights into their behaviors and modes of expression.

Don’t just tell the story of trauma

Journalists cover stories of trauma. But remember that children and young people are very resilient. Make sure your reporting reflects how children survive and thrive amid hardship, too. 

You can find out more about the Early Childhood Journalism Initiative webinar series here