Conducting interviews with kids: Do’s and don’ts

Image via Pexels.

The surge of student-led activism that was born in the wake of last month’s devastating school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has brought the powerful voices of teenagers and children to cable news reports, newspapers, and digital and magazine outlets across the country in a major way. Theirs are voices that have traditionally been discounted and overlooked as thoughtful sources in the media, but as they organize massive student actions like this week’s national school walkout in protest of gun violence, reporters are increasingly turning their mics away from experts and talking heads and toward the kids. And they have much to say.

Such a shift in attention comes with questions about the ethics of using kids as sources in stories that often have national audiences and cover serious topics, such as politics, gun violence, and trauma. When is it appropriate to approach a child for an interview? Do journalists need parental permission? School permission? And how old is old enough for a kid to consent to a potentially sensitive interview?

ICYMI: New York Times columnist lands in hot water

For education reporters, working with children and navigating these tough questions reflects the daily demands of the beat. Children are not passive witnesses to the politics, conflict, and culture on which journalists report. They are active participants, and they are as impacted by current events as adults. Stories like this New York Times report, about standardized testing seen through a Brooklyn fourth-grader’s eyes, or California Sunday Magazine’s recent teen issue offer an example of how to successfully incorporate the voices of children into complex political stories without condescension, and in a way that does not devalue their experience of the world.

In the aftermath of major tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook shooting, political and other journalists tasked with the difficult job of breaking news coverage involving very young kids have often conducted stressful, sometimes live, interviews with kids moments after a terrible crisis that are absolutely cringeworthy. Whether you’re covering a breaking story or working on a longer feature, here are some best practices that education reporters keep in mind when approaching kids for quotes.

 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Do no harm

Before interviewing any child about any topic, remember first and always that they are children. You should avoid re-traumatizing a child at all costs.

Your tone, the type of questions you ask, and even your posture (don’t talk down to kids, for instance, instead kneeling to their level) can have a negative impact on kids. Wherever possible, find a private, quiet place to conduct your interview. Do not interrogate them, and avoid jargon, using age-appropriate language. It’s a good idea to offer a child breaks during long, difficult interviews; understand that they may tell a story of trauma or abuse to you out of chronological order. Don’t put words in their mouths, and take extra care not to ask leading questions, especially to young, impressionable kids who might feel compelled to tell you what they think you want to hear. Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, offered the following example during an Education Writers Association presentation on interviewing young people: Instead of asking a child if they heard bullets, ask them what they heard. Or, quite simply, ask what happened, and let them lead the conversation from there.

LynNell Hancock, a veteran education reporter and professor at Columbia Journalism School, says it’s worth considering whether it’s a good idea to interview a young child immediately after experiencing trauma, even if you have consent from a parent or guardian. If you can’t do the interview with tremendous care to not further the damage they’ve already been subjected to, you should consider not doing it at all.

If you do make the decision to interview a child who has been traumatized, the Dart Center recommends that you abandon your normal interview routines when talking to sources about trauma. This flexibility is especially crucial when talking to kids. Allow for a parent, counselor, or even a friend be present if it makes the child more comfortable. Don’t challenge the facts of a child’s retelling on the spot, the way we are trained to do with adults—corroborate the details later.

And make careful decisions about what quotes to use in your story, even if it was all obtained during an on-the-record interview.

ICYMI: How hacked emails and a yacht in Monaco ended my career at The Wall Street Journal

 

Get parental permission

Always seek permission from a parent or guardian before interviewing an elementary-aged student, even if the school makes them available to you without it. Middle schoolers exist in a gray area; once kids hit about the age of 13 (and for stories not involving sensitive or personal information), some education reporters feel comfortable foregoing parental permission, especially if they’ve been given formal access to a classroom by a school or teacher. Others will continue to ask for parental permission before doing any interviews (and some schools will require it if you’re on campus). But use your best judgment, and remember that many kids have never interacted with a journalist before and may not understand the consequences of their words becoming public record. Seeking parental permission offers you a chance to adequately explain what you’re working on and how the child’s thoughts will be used, so that families can make an informed decision to consent. During the interview, be flexible, and offer kids reminders that if there’s anything they want to tell you that they don’t want in the story, that’s okay.

For high schoolers, the general rule is that parental permission isn’t required. But again, for sensitive stories, parents can sometimes be powerful advocates for their children and, by extension, a major asset to you throughout the course of your reporting. Perhaps the best advice, though, comes from veteran education reporter Sarah Carr: Even after you get parental permission, don’t forget the basic step of asking a child, regardless of their age, if they want to be interviewed. (Read her detailed, excellent guide here.)

 

Know your district’s policy

Most school districts have a formal media policy and ask parents to sign release forms at the start of a new school year. The content of these releases varies widely, but typically they clear students to be interviewed and photographed for school-affiliated media, like brochures or on a school’s website. These releases may not address interviews with news media, but it’s a good idea to be aware of their contents anyway. Many districts post copies of their policies online.

Conducting interviews on school campuses can be sensitive. There are a couple of routes you can take to arrange a classroom visit or interview at a school. Most education reporters suggest you spend time developing sources, especially teachers and parents. Earn their trust, and often you’ll be granted access without having to delve into the bureaucracy of a school district. If you end up making a formal request through a district, invested parents who already trust you can be powerful allies during that process. Every school district has a communications office, and how willing that office will be to help connect you with kids (and how clingy it will be once you’re on campus) can fluctuate from one community and one story to the next. Reach out to parents (contact the PTA, or check social media for parental support/interest groups) if you’re looking to talk to kids off campus.

If you’re short on time and looking to talk to older kids, spend time near an after-school hangout. But exercise caution, especially if you’re working on a sensitive story involving private information. Carr suggests setting up a more formal (and private) interview when talking about such topics as sexual activity, drug use, academic failure, or, lately, violence.

Social media can also offer reporters easy access to kids when on deadline. Despite the fact that teenagers are so-called digital natives, don’t assume that every child understands the public nature of their online behavior, and be sure to explain the consequences of their consent to an interview with you in an online setting, the same way you’d do in person. Just because it’s easy to send a message to a teenager on Twitter doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care to approach them with compassion and professionalism. In moments where the student might be in immediate danger, inquire about their safety and wellbeing first—and consider whether it’s appropriate to make requests of a person who may be facing physical harm in real time. Carr also recommends checking with your editors about any newsroom policy that might govern how you approach sources online.

 

Be aware of who gets to tell their story

The students from (wealthy, largely white) Parkland, Florida, have enjoyed widespread support and praise from both fellow students and the press in the month since 17 of their classmates and teachers were murdered. But there have been valid criticisms about how similar activism—often from students of color living in poor communities plagued by gun violence—has not been received with as much enthusiasm from the general public and, in particular, the media. Consider the (warranted) attention Parkland students have received, compared to the relative inattention to school shooting deaths like that of Courtlin Arrington, a black teenager who was shot and killed on school grounds by her classmate in Birmingham, Alabama, on March 7, or that of the recent Marshall County High School school shooting in Kentucky, in which 18 students were wounded and two killed. Think about how the Black Lives Matter movement has been covered, or about how appeals for change that come from black and brown teenagers protesting the shooting deaths of unarmed men and women at the hands of the police have been framed.

Reporters invested in offering their readers honest, diverse coverage of a complex issue will not ignore the racial and socioeconomic dynamics that govern how we make both conscious and unconscious decisions about who we approach for interviews, what activist movements get coverage, and how that coverage is framed. Journalism and journalists are a reflection of society, and that means we are not above the bias that treats trauma unequally. If we are intentional, we can correct those imbalances.

Click here for more guidelines on interviewing kids, from the Education Writers Association.

ICYMI: “People ask me how I stomached watching so many [Kellyanne Conway] interviews”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at The Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.