Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists

Involving Children and Families in Reporting

Friday, May 29, 2020

Guest: John Woodrow Cox, Enterprise Reporter, The Washington Post

In April 2020, John Woodrow Cox’s published a story in the Washington Post about the children of healthcare workers titled "What Happens if You and Daddy Die?” One family Cox features  in the piece lives in Washington State. The mother is a pediatrician, and the father manages the medical office where she works. To learn about this family, Cox did on-the-ground reporting and spoke with the couple's four children via Zoom. Zade, 6, said something profound in their conversation, directed at his mother: "When you leave for work, and you told me that you have an exposed patient. I worry that you are going to die."

Zade’s concerns echo the fears of people of many ages. Zade worries about what will happen as the pandemic continues, and about what he risks losing.

Reporting on childhood trauma: Start with the adults

Speak with the parents first. This will give you the opportunity to gather information to inform your conversation with their child. Ask parents if there are trigger subjects for children that you should avoid bringing up. It’s helpful also to know what kinds of conversations parents or caregivers have already been having with their children, and what kinds of questions children have been asking.

If possible, show parents your story before it publishes. This doesn't mean you have to offer to change anything, but this technique can be helpful in writing about young children as it helps avoid surprises.

Give kids the power

Tell kids who you are very carefully. Ask them if they know about the media outlet where the story will be published. Describe what you are working on, and explain why you want to tell their story. Show them work you have done in the past to convey what it is that you do.

Always get a child's permission. Don't press them to talk if they are reluctant. Be prepared to return another time, or to not return at all.

Check to see if children have themselves written anything about their experience. Is there a journal entry, or a letter? Always asks permission from children and their parents to use this material.

Sit on the floor during in-person interviews, instead of standing over a child like an authority figure. Zoom can be more complicated. But with patience, children can become more comfortable speaking at a distance.

Make space for chaos

Reporters who interview children – like the four young kids Cox spoke with on a single Zoom call – should be prepared for some mayhem. Per Cox, Zade and his siblings would talk over each other at times, eager to be the center of attention. But waiting it out paid off.

Reporters who are only going to speak with one family should consider multiple interviews with children, both as a group and separately.

Lean on your reconstruction muscles, especially from a distance

Cox says he always asks families for descriptions of what's happening. And he says, to create a fully-formed scene, queries should be concrete:

  • Tell me about a time when your child expressed fear or anger.
  • What did you say? How did you respond? What did they say next?
  • Describe the room. What was going on while you spoke?
  • What did it smell like? Where were you standing? What time of day was it?

This, Cox says, is often why his readers empathize with his stories – he narrates carefully to give readers a chance to understand the experience. In a way, the reporter's job is to mine memories. Speak to multiple people who were in the room, and work to get the big picture by drilling down for details.

Do a huge amount of pre-reporting

The time and energy required to carry out enterprise reporting can unfortunately come out of a reporter's personal life. Cox says he's spent many nights and weekends working on stories before he was able to prove to editors he could do this kind of reporting.

Pandemic urgency or other deadlines can shorten the amount of time reporters have to finish a story. In cases like this, where a reporter might have just an hour to do field reporting, it's imperative to show up completely prepared.

Even when you don't have a tight deadline, do as much advance reporting as possible. Track down basic information from all stakeholders, including parents.

In some cases, it may be beneficial to do much of your pre-reporting, including all of your conversations with adults by phone, so that in-person and Zoom interviews can be reserved for conversations with children.

In the published story, children's voices should come first

Stories featuring children should begin with children.

Cox says that whether in person or remotely, he thinks of his reporting subjects as being reporters themselves. t’s his job to interpret and add context, but ultimately to tell their stories – at all times, and without distortion, to let people's words speak for themselves.