Children: coverage, images and interviews
- How should we handle reporting about children who are accused of committing crimes?
- What about children who are the victims of crimes, or witnesses to crimes?
- Is a parent’s permission necessary to interview a child? Is it different in an urgent situation?
- Should anonymity rules be different for children?
- How else should journalists protect children’s safety?
Feelings often run high among journalists, parents and the public about interviewing and photographing children and teens.
Sometimes local laws limit photographing or reporting on children. But more often the issue is one of ethics. Here are some common situations where ethical considerations apply:
Children accused of crimes
The age of the child, whether he is being tried in adult or juvenile court and the severity of the alleged crime are often factors in deciding whether to identify or photograph a child charged with a crime. Some news outlets are more comfortable identifying a 17-year-old than a 10-year-old. Whether other news outlets are identifying the child can also be a factor. The arrest of a child may also be more newsworthy if the parents are prominent people. Some organizations see a difference between identifying a child by name and running her photo; others consider them the same thing.
See the separate article on naming criminal suspects.
Children who are victims or witnesses of crimes
Most news outlets tend to respect a request for anonymity for a child crime victim or a child who was witness to a crime, even if the name is given in court. However, if a child “goes public” in interviews, or a parent identifies the child publicly, the name is frequently used.
In the absence of a legal requirement, is a parent’s permission required to interview or photograph a child (or to run the material afterward)? Many news outlets make every effort to get parental permission. Some are more flexible, depending on the situation. For instance, in interviewing children about a simple matter like their favorite video games, some news organizations feel asking parental permission is not necessary, though a reporter may give the child her card to give to the child’s parents afterward.
When a story is breaking quickly — for example, a shooting at a school — it is often impractical to get parental permission for photographs of children running out of the building or being escorted by police. Many outlets feel that in such a case, the exceptional nature of the story allows them to proceed without parental permission. Still, many seek such permission to actually talk with students, especially in traumatic situations.
Some organizations instruct their reporters and photographers to explain to a child what their news outlet is and where the material is likely to be used.
An organization may have special anonymity rules for children. In stories about children doing something illegal or the problems marginalized children face, it may be even more reasonable to grant confidentiality.
The Associated Press’s guidelines for interviewing children include these additional points on safety:
Even if a story includes a child’s name and age, consider whether it is absolutely necessary to say exactly where the child lives in the story or photo caption. Even when the story topic has not been particularly sensitive, there have been instances when people with questionable intentions have contacted the families of young people who’ve appeared in AP stories and photos. If it doesn’t compromise the story, consider leaving out the name of a young person’s school, where he works or the specific suburb where he lives.
Photographers and video journalists also should be careful how and where they photograph and film young subjects. (In the cases above where families received unwanted contacts from readers, one girl had appeared in an AP photo lying on her bed reading a magazine, and another was photographed in a way that emphasized her short shorts. Other photo treatments would have been equally effective in illustrating those stories.)
We do not have to have parental permission to run a child’s photo if we have obtained the photo and rights to it elsewhere, but parents’ feelings and the effect on the child should be considered. (In the case of a Cleveland man accused in 2013 of kidnapping women and holding them in his home, photo editors decided not to use a photo of the young daughter of one of the women, who was held with her mother. Our policy is not to identify minors who have been subjected to abuse.)
Decisions about using written material that a minor posts online — tweets, blogs, status updates, etc. — need to balance news value with the potential for harm. This includes giving minors’ online “handles.”
When interviewing young people, be diligent about verifying their names (asking to see their driver’s licences is a good idea, if they’re old enough). Adolescent boys, in particular, have pranked journalists many times by claiming names with sexual meanings, such as “Heywood Jablome.”
The main author of this section is Thomas Kent.