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Children and the media

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Interviewing children

Understanding how young people see the world around them and transmitting that vision to the public is one of the most challenging tasks facing journalists, yet they are rarely trained to deal with children. They have a responsibility to portray children fairly, without doing any harm to them in the collection and publication of information.

Balancing the journalistic obligation to tell the truth with the need to protect children is fraught with difficulties and ethical questions. Should reporters intervene in the lives of endangered children? Should journalists interview children after they have been involved in a traumatic event? Under what circumstances is it appropriate to fully identify, or obscure the identity of children?

It is generally recognized that young people's privacy should be given greater protection than adults, but this isn't always the case. In many countries there are no laws prohibiting using the names, words or images of children who have consented to be interviewed in a public space.

When making judgements about how to proceed, the best interests of the child should be an overriding consideration. Journalists should aim to minimize harm to the child, both in the circumstances of the interview and with regard to the likely consequences of what is published.

Safeguarding the welfare of children and young people need not run counter to sound journalism practice. All journalists need to do is ask themselves some basic questions.

• Are under-age children being interviewed with the consent of adults? Is there a legal context in which interviews of children may take place?

• Has the interview been conducted in a child-friendly manner, including allowing sufficient time and a comfortable environment?

• Have the potential consequences of the child's comments, both short-term and long-term, been considered and explained to the interviewee?

• Have arrangements been made to ensure that children are protected after publication, and that support systems are in place should other children contact the publisher?

• Are children told what will be done with what they say and are they permitted to see the finished product?

With the advent of 'realtime' news coverage, simple rules for working with young people are vital for staff working under tight deadlines. The CNN newsroom has developed a list of half a dozen factors to consider when deciding whether or not to interview children for breaking news stories. These include their age and maturity, the degree of violence involved, the child's connection to any victims, the presence of parental permission and whether the footage is taped or live.

Children are used to providing adults and authority figures with what they think they want, which is not always the same as what children might really want to say. Research shows that children provide more accurate information when they are given the time to narrate their stories freely, rather than when they are being asked direct questions. Indirect questions may provide a margin of safety for the child.

While it may be wise to ensure that adults known to the children are nearby when interviewing them, the most authentic information will be obtained when children are in an environment with their peers. Nevertheless, it is generally important to obtain the consent of an appropriate adult (parent or carer) if possible.

• Canada's Media Awareness Network has devised a Media Toolkit for Youth, with a section for young people on Knowing Your Rights, with advice when they are being interviewed by the press.

• The Poynter Institute in the United States has posted guidelines on its website as a free service to all those interested in how to work responsibly with young people.

Save the Children UK has published a booklet, Interviewing Children. A guide for Journalists and Others offering sensible guidelines on how to interview children. Researched with children from around the world, it is useful for print and broadcast journalists, newsrooms and other media outlets.

• The booklet has been used in conjunction with the International Federation of Journalists and the UNICEF / PressWise handbook The Media and Children's Rights as part of a training module delivered worldwide by the UK-based media ethics charity The PressWise Trust. Notes on interviewing children appear in four languages within modules posted on the homepage of the Trust's website.

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