Tips: Involving Children and Families in Your Reporting

Get consent. Be transparent. Rethink your definition of “family.” Be flexible. Give children agency. Be precise and avoid cliché’s. Ask sensitive questions. Beware of simplistic binaries. Find the paper trail.

Editors note: This tip sheet, compiled by Karen Brown, was inspired by presentations given by Ismail Einashe and Sarah Stillman at the Dart Center’s 2019 reporting institute in Amman, Jordan: “Covering Children and the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” Watch the full video here.

Get consent from families, and explain what you are doing.

Be clear about who you are. Describe your role as a journalist. Explain what your story is about and what you’re hoping to do with it. Why does the story matter?

Don’t overpromise the benefits of talking to journalists – there may not be too many. It's important to recognize – and ensure your sources understand – that you are there in your role as a journalist, not as a therapist or aid worker.

Think about what “informed consent” truly means in the context of children – from young to older. How does vulnerability/exposure to trauma impact that calculation?

Rethink your definition of “family.”

What exactly constitutes family in these volatile contexts? The definition and structure of families can change in extreme circumstances. Maybe a sibling has become head of the family. Maybe other community members have taken on that role for young children.

Learn about the notion of “gatekeepers” – think about the social eco-system around that child, from child to parent to teacher to social community and beyond. Who are the trusted interlocutors in that community? And what are their needs?

To reach the family, try approaching a community gatekeeper – like a pastor – to explain what you’re doing, and why you’re there. They can then talk to the family on your behalf.

Pay attention to the environment and conditions when interviewing children, especially those who’ve been through trauma.

Location is key. Find a place where the child feels safe and comfortable, where they are not afraid to talk. Make sure they have support around them, including a trusted adult.

Pay attention to the “in between” moments, those that take place when you’re not in a formal interview setting. Sometimes the simple act of walking alongside someone, being there for mealtimes or showing up to go grocery shopping with mom, can be less threatening and more fruitful.

Focus also on play and non-obvious communication. Look at art, poems, or letters they’ve written. Watch them interacting with technology or iPhones that they may be using to help process loss.

Give the children as much agency over the process as possible.

Let them lead the story with their own experience, and don’t force them to fit into a narrow or clichéd narrative. When possible, travel to where the people and the communities are, and meet them in their own territory. Think about where they live, their surroundings, and work on building trust.

Be prepared for unusual flow of conversation, and be flexible.

Children might start talking nonsensically about false memories or dreams; be prepared for that, and sensitive in how you handle it. If a child is having a very hard time in an interview, you may need to stop (but oftentimes, if you stay in touch, they will come around later, and with more trust in you.)

In many cases, children’s memory works differently than that of adults, and they can get confused or discombobulated. Try taking a break and giving them a chance to tell the story again. Spend time on a chronology – figure out the timeline of the events in question. Also use a culturally-appropriate lens, since different cultures remember or catalog events and moments differently.

Be culturally sensitive.

Do the cultural research before you arrive. For instance, be aware that some cultures don’t think about birthdays the same as Westerners do – so asking about age or birthdate may not make sense in every context.

Framing is critical; be aware that journalists have their own cultural lenses, for better or worse. Try to avoid cultural or reporting tropes when covering refugees.

In some cases, being from a country in strife can make it emotionally wrenching to report on what’s happening there – but your own experience and “pathos” also provides a critical and often helpful perspective.

If using an interpreter, make sure they’re trauma-sensitive.

Ask sensitive questions and make sensitive comments.

Don’t say “I understand how you feel” – because you may not.

Avoid asking pointed “why” questions – stick to open-ended questions that allow them to take the lead. If they are not comfortable talking about strictly personal experiences, put it in terms of how they interacted with the “systems” – like police or immigration officials.

Pay attention to past stories of trauma – you may not be able to get the story of a very young child, but you can excavate that later in life. How does a story from early childhood lead to someone's story today?

Language matters.

Be precise and avoid cliché’s, especially the harmful kind. For instance, stay away from terms like “flood” or “swarm” when referring to people. Keep in mind that “refugee” is both a legal and descriptive term, and should also be used in the context of their experience. Consider using the term “people on the move” – which is less loaded, and more descriptive.

Be aware of how people with a political agenda will use terms to further that agenda – terms like “migrant” can be overused to dehumanize people or suggest they are not deserving.

Have nuanced conversations about the refugee experience – and avoid buying into the “hierarchy” around suffering, and who’s most deserving of help or even just respect.

Beware of simplistic binaries.

Avoid the tendency to only show the hyper traumatized child or the hyper exceptional child. It’s problematic to always look for the anomaly. Look for patterns and common experience. Think about the everyday – not just the sensational.

Find the paper trail. (It’s not all about the interview.)

Look for letters or drawings, legal documents and witness testimonies. What is a child writing? Or being asked to sign?

Find immigration or deportation records to prove or disprove what the officials claim. From there, use the paper trail to find individuals to interview. If you are frustrated with the data that's out there, create your own database, or do so in collaboration with colleagues. 

Consider the option of NOT doing a story.

Try to find a mediator or a local gatekeeper, but ask yourself: Are there stories you shouldn’t report? Boundaries you shouldn’t cross?

Sometimes you need to put the story off – wait until the subject is ready to talk. Think ahead to an “Act Two” story, and reach out again in the future. You may have developed trust by not forcing someone to talk before they’re ready.