Principles for ethical reporting on children
Reporting on children and young people has its special challenges. In some instances the act of reporting on children places them or other children at risk of retribution or stigmatization.
UNICEF has developed these principles to assist journalists as they report on issues affecting children. They are offered as guidelines that UNICEF believes will help media to cover children in an age-appropriate and sensitive manner. The guidelines are meant to support the best intentions of ethical reporters: serving the public interest without compromising the rights of children.
The traditional focus on opposites in images of children – cute vs. starving; happy vs. sad; positive vs. negative; solution vs. problem; even colour vs. black-and-white - needs to be broadened for two major reasons: to better address the specifics of complex issues and to shift photographic depictions of children to the vast middle ground where most children actually live out their lives.
In this way photographs can still be both original and informative.
FIRST the best interests of the child - a real child, even if only known through imagery – and that child’s right to dignity, respect, protection and participation are the guiding criteria that determines which images should be used and how they should be used.
Embracing the unknown ‘other’
A useful guide in the process of making appropriate images is the question: If she/he were my child, how would I want her/him portrayed? Asking this question eliminates the tendency to treat child subjects in photographs as objects used for temporary advocacy or fund-raising needs. Children are people who are in our care and deserve to be represented fairly.
1. The dignity and rights of every child are to be respected in every circumstance.
2. In interviewing and reporting on children, special attention is to be paid to each child's right to privacy and confidentiality, to have their opinions heard, to participate in decisions affecting them and to be protected from harm and retribution, including the potential of harm and retribution.
3. The best interests of each child are to be protected over any other consideration, including over advocacy for children's issues and the promotion of child rights.
4. When trying to determine the best interests of a child, the child's right to have their views taken into account are to be given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity.
5. Those closest to the child's situation and best able to assess it are to be consulted about the political, social and cultural ramifications of any reportage.
6. Do not publish a story or an image which might put the child, siblings or peers at risk even when identities are changed, obscured or not used.
Guidelines for interviewing children
1. Do no harm to any child; avoid questions, attitudes or comments that are judgmental, insensitive to cultural values, that place a child in danger or expose a child to humiliation, or that reactivate a child's pain and grief from traumatic events.
2. Do not discriminate in choosing children to interview because of sex, race, age, religion, status, educational background or physical abilities.
3. No staging: Do not ask children to tell a story or take an action that is not part of their own history.
4. Ensure that the child or guardian knows they are talking with a reporter. Explain the purpose of the interview and its intended use.
5. Obtain permission from the child and his or her guardian for all interviews, videotaping and, when possible, for documentary photographs. When possible and appropriate, this permission should be in writing. Permission must be obtained in circumstances that ensure that the child and guardian are not coerced in any way and that they understand that they are part of a story that might be disseminated locally and globally. This is usually only ensured if the permission is obtained in the child's language and if the decision is made in consultation with an adult the child trusts.
6. Pay attention to where and how the child is interviewed. Limit the number of interviewers and photographers. Try to make certain that children are comfortable and able to tell their story without outside pressure, including from the interviewer. In film, video and radio interviews, consider what the choice of visual or audio background might imply about the child and her or his life and story. Ensure that the child would not be endangered or adversely affected by showing their home, community or general whereabouts.
Protecting Sexually Abused Children
The need to protect the visual identity of sexually abused children is more easily understood than that relating to other kinds of abuse. Nevertheless, many media still commonly reveal the faces and names of sexually abused children. Often, the need to protect children has not occurred to anyone. Or, media representatives are initially unwilling to acknowledge the exploitative aspect of doing so.
Most people, however, are receptive to reviewing these assumptions. A critical question to help discussion is: If your child were sexually abused, would you permit her/his identity to be revealed with this information? Publishing the identities of sexual abuse victims exposes an intimate suffering, often deepening the sense of powerlessness and humiliation caused by the original abuse. In most communities around the world, it also results in victims being stigmatized and may even increase their risk of future violations.
Still, effectively denouncing sexual exploitation requires documentation of its pervasiveness. It is also now known that cultural taboos against publicizing sexual abuse increase the risks for potential victims and give them little recourse when it happens. Professional photographers who demonstrate respect for the sensitivity of this issue and can secure children’s confidence and ensure their privacy have helped to refine the process of photographing sexually exploited children while protecting their names and visual identities.
Most often, the children participate in the act of protection: turning away from the camera or covering their faces. The result, far from being banal or evasive, tends to underscore their need for protection while also preserving their dignity. The use of black bands across the eyes, or pixelation of a child’s face, is not recommended as these techniques tend to ‘criminalize’ or depersonalize subjects.
Note to Journalists/photo reporters: Identity Protection in High-Risk Situations
Your participation in this UNICEF-organized media visit is important to us and will help draw much-needed world attention to the difficult situation facing many children and women around the world.
Many of the children or women you will see during the course of the media visit, if identified by name or in photographs, will be put at risk of reprisals or rejection by their communities. This is particularly true of children associated with military groups or girls/women who are victims of sexual or other gender-based violence or exploitation. Additionally, if children are suspected of having participated in or reported on atrocities, they could face additional violence. Girls and women who are suspected victims of sexual or other gender-based crimes could suffer further violence or exclusion from their communities for life. Likewise, children and women who are identified as HIV+ or who are accused or convicted of a crime may be subject to additional stigmatization or other reprisals.
We request your cooperation and agreement as media professionals to apply global standards to protect all children and women from such reprisals. The UN child rights and women rights conventions are the legal bases for our position on protecting children and women. National and local laws in many countries also uphold these rights.
We therefore ask that you agree to the following conditions when writing articles or using photographs of children/women during this media visit:
- Unless specifically released from doing so, use false names, or no names, and protect the visual identity of children/women in images that otherwise identify them as former/current soldiers, victims or perpetrators of sexual violence, trafficking, HIV+, or accused or convicted of crimes.
- Do not link children/women in images to a specific story that identifies them as being subjects or perpetrators of sexual violence, trafficking, current/former child soldiers, accused/convicted of crimes, or HIV+.