When is it acceptable to use children as sources?

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In his November 16 column, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt examined two instances of the paper’s use of young people as sources. In the first, political reporter Jodi Kantor, trying to find information about Cindy McCain for her profile of the candidate’s wife, reached out to sixteen- and seventeen-year-old classmates of McCain’s daughter, Bridget, through Facebook. In the second, a Times stringer turned to a twelve-year-old witness of alleged police brutality in a New York City subway station.

“How a newspaper like The Times should deal with minors — as news sources and as the subjects of articles — is a continually troubling issue,” Hoyt wrote.

Facebook, MySpace and other such public windows into personal lives have made the issue more complicated. But the fundamental ethical questions remain the same: When is it appropriate to ask a youngster for information? When is it appropriate to quote a child on the record? When is it O.K. to name a minor involved in a crime or other news event?

Hoyt concluded that “children don’t have the life experience to understand what can happen when a reporter comes calling, and a responsible news organization owes them protection whenever it is possible.”

In Sunday’s column, though, Hoyt published a challenge to that maxim. “I would not want the reading public to think that minors are off limits when in fact we need to talk to them in a variety of situations,” James Smith, a veteran newspaper editor, wrote. “Frankly, I have found that young people are more honest about what they see and hear and care about than adults can be.”

In light of that, we return to Hoyt’s original questions: When is it appropriate to ask youngsters for information? How do we define ‘youngsters’ in journalism’s context, anyway? And how should reporters and editors balance a respect for the limitations of information children provide—indeed, a respect for children themselves—and their obligation to their stories?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.