Journalists carry the heavy burden of reporting the news in an accurate and ethical way. It is their job to educate the public on what is going on around them, and they are expected to cover sensitive topics, such as mass shootings. Sometimes these sensitive topics involve juveniles, and there are no clear laws on how to protect juveniles involved in news reports. For example, while I was in high school, there were many incidents involving violence and, after the incidents, journalists were lined up just off of school grounds, waiting to interview the students. Most children attending this urban public high school for grades 9 to 12 were under the age of 18 and parents were not present, so there was very little knowledgeable consent given to these journalists.
Although it is difficult to know how witnessing or experiencing tragic events will affect children long-term, researchers have found that “Common effects include post-traumatic stress symptoms, anxiety, depression, and/or behavior disorders” (Collins 202). By experiencing or witnessing traumatic events, children are already at risk for developing mental disorders, so it would be unethical to increase that risk by interviewing them after a tragedy. In “Using Children as Sources” from the Columbia Journalism Review, Elizabeth Stone discusses the 1998 school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and the ethical dilemma of interviewing minors after the event. After the shooting, a TV reporter asked two students questions that might have given the children the impression that they were at fault for the shooting. Richard Lieberman counseled many students in Jonesboro after the shooting, including the two students interviewed. He commented on the two children in particular, stating that “These kids were consumed with guilt and shame, more so than the others. They had been given the idea that they should’ve done something” (qtd. in Stone 33). Although there is research on the effects of juveniles witnessing violent events, there is no research on how being interviewed after the event affects them. However, it is clear that interviews have a negative effect on juveniles who are in shock to some extent.
The current guidelines for interviewing juveniles, from the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), are unclear and very generalized. Reporters can easily find loopholes in the guidelines to justify their reasons for interviewing juveniles (Fullerton 513). This matter raises an important question: Are the current guidelines for interviewing juveniles effective in protecting their rights and privacy? This paper examines the effectiveness of the existing guidelines for interviewing juveniles through a comparative content analysis of the RTDNA and SPJ codes of ethics.
Definition of Terms
The RTDNA and the SPJ specifically use the term “juvenile” in their guidelines for interviewing minors and their code of ethics. Although not explicitly defined, the RTDNAuses “children/child,” “kids,” and “young person/people” in its guidelines as synonyms of the word “juvenile.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a juvenile as “a young person, often specifically, an individual who is under a fixed age by law (such as 18 years).” The Legal Information Institute of the Cornell Law School explains that 18 is the legal age set by almost all states as the age of an adult (Wex Definitions Team). Therefore, in this paper, the word “juvenile” is defined as a person under the age of 18.
According to its website, the RTDNAis the “world’s largest professional organization devoted exclusively to broadcast and digital journalism.” They have been promoting “responsible journalism” since 1946. The RTDNA has issued the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award to “outstanding achievements in broadcast and digital journalism” every year since 1971. Similarly, on its homepage, the SPJ defines itself as“the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization dedicated to the free practice of journalism” and promotes “high standards of ethical behavior.” The SPJ was founded in 1909 and has about 7,000 members that “inspire and educate current and future journalists.” These organizations have a long history and have been recognized and accepted in the field of journalism for their excellence; therefore, their reputable codes of ethics were chosen for this descriptive research.
I conducted a preliminary content analysis of the RTDNA’s and the SPJ’s codes of ethics regarding interviewing juveniles to take a look at the language used, find what each includes, and what each omits, and examine how effective they are in protecting the rights and privacy of juveniles. First, I highlighted keywords and phrases such as “juvenile,” “parental consent,” and “journalistic duty.” From these keywords, I used inductive reasoning to identify themes present in the RTDNA and SPJ guidelines. There was a second reviewer that helped confirm and code themes to begin the process of inter-rater reliability. Finally, I conducted a comparative analysis to examine the similarities and differences between the two sets of guidelines.
In the RTDNA’s code of ethics, there is a section that covers specific guidelines for interviewing juveniles entitled “Guidelines for Interviewing Juveniles.” The organization acknowledges that hearing from juveniles can be valuable in helping to understand how they view certain events, while acknowledging that caution should be taken when interviewing them. Breaking news is an especially difficult circumstance to interview juveniles in because “juveniles may not be able to recognize the ramifications to themselves or to others of what they say” (RTDNA). When interviewing juveniles live, it is difficult to control and edit what gets shown to the public. It is the journalist’s responsibility to “seek the truth and report it,” while minimizing the possible harm that could come to a child included in the news report.
The guidelines are quite brief, as they are only two pages long. The guidelines contain sections on “Journalistic Purpose and Quality of Information,” “Minimize harm,” “Exploring Alternatives,” and “The Golden Rule for Interviewing Children.” Three out of the four sections are in question format, which leaves lots of loopholes for journalists trying to push a story, and makes it seem like the steps mentioned are optional and a journalist can make the decision to interview a juvenile completely on their own.
As shown in Table 1, the word “juvenile” was used 19 times, yet was never defined. Additionally, “young person/people” was used 4 times and “child/children” was used 8 times, nowhere near as many times as juvenile; they appear as random synonymous choices, since they are used interchangeably and none of the words are explicitly defined by the RTDNA. This may not have been intentional, but rather a lack of close attention to detail. These terms could mean something different to everyone, so it is important to define them for clarification. For example, a “child” might be considered someone “between infancy and puberty” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), which can mean infants to 12 or 14 years old, or can be someone considered not of legal age. Hence, to some, a child can be someone significantly younger than 16 or 17 years old.
Inductively Coded Themes of the RTDNA “Guidelines for Interviewing Juveniles”
References to parents or guardians and parental consent
“How can you include a parent…in the decision to interview a juvenile?”
Use of “child/children,” “kids,” “young person/people,” and “juvenile”
“interviewing a child on camera?” “include this juvenile in your story” “hearing the views of young people can prove valuable”“Do unto other people’s kids as you would have them do unto your kids.”
Use of “minimize harm,” “protect/protection,” and “special care/careful.” Mentions of harm and consequences as well
“Journalists should exercise special care” “minimize any harm that might come to a juvenile” “Juveniles should be given greater privacy protection”
Circumstances and Breaking News
Mentions of situations where a journalist may want to hear from a juvenile
“live coverage is more difficult to control”
Any mention of the journalist’s duty to report the news
“journalistic duty of seeking truths and reporting them”
It is important to note that the “Minimize Harm” section follows the “Journalistic Purpose and Quality of Information” section of the guidelines. The “Minimize Harm” section includes questions for the journalist to ask themselves about how they can include parents and protect the children involved, and the “Journalistic Purpose and Quality of Information” section covers the reasoning behind why the interview is necessary. This placement makes it seem as though protecting the juveniles involved in the news story is a secondary concern for the RTDNA.
The theme of “Journalistic responsibility” shown in Table 1 is addressed 3 times in the guidelines, and it refers to a journalist’s duty to report the news no matter what it covers. The guidelines state that a “journalist must weigh the journalistic duty of seeking truths and reporting on them” when deciding whether an interview with a juvenile is appropriate or not. The journalist’s responsibility here seems to be minimizing any possible harm to the child involved.
One recurring theme in the RTDNA’s guidelines is asking the journalist to put themselves in the parent’s shoes. For example, the RTDNA wants journalists to ask themselves questions like, “how would you react if you were the parent of this child?” The RTDNA suggests that the journalist view the situation in the same way a parent would when deciding whether or not to interview or include a juvenile in a news report. In fact, “The Golden Rule for Interviewing Children” section only includes one recommendation for journalists, and it is to “do unto other people’s kids as you would have them do unto your kids.” This statement implies that all journalists know what it means or how it feels to be a parent. How are journalists supposed to put themselves in the parent’s shoes if they are not parents themselves?
The RTDNA does recommend asking for parental consent when possible, but they phrase it as if parental consent is optional. They ask questions like “how can you include a parent or guardian in the decision to interview a juvenile?” Phrasing the question in this way makes it seem like parents do not need to be included in the interview process, but it would be helpful if they are. The last bullet point of the “Minimize Harm” section starts with, “if you conclude that parental consent is not required,” implies that there are times when parental consent is completely unnecessary. This can be contradictory and confusing because the RTDNA just encouraged journalists to ask themselves “how [they] would react if [they] were the parent of [the] child” and then they disregard the parent’s voice by saying that consent is not always necessary.
The SPJ Code of Ethics does not have a section specifically dedicated to guidelines for interviewing juveniles, so I examined their guidelines for “Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims” and a brief bullet point from the “Minimize Harm” section of their general code of ethics. It is important to point out that the SPJ seems to have skimmed over juveniles, by leaving out distinct guidelines for interviewing and including them in news reports. The guidelines for “Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims” and “Minimize Harm” combined are just under four pages long and contain a bulleted list of “common sense principles” for journalists to follow.
As shown in Table 2, the term “juvenile” is only used once in the SPJ’s guidelines. There is no other reference to juveniles made throughout. The guidelines warn journalists to “use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles.” In the same line of caution the SPJ groups juveniles with victims of sex crimes and sources that are “unable to give consent.” Mentioning all of these types of sources in one bullet point seems odd. Juveniles and victims of sex crimes are sensitive sources that are very different from each other, and deserve their own specific guidelines for being interviewed. There was no elaboration or any other mention of juveniles anywhere else in the “Minimize Harm” section or the “Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims” section.
Inductively Coded Themes of SPJ’s “Minimize Harm” section of the Code of Ethics and of SPJ’s Guidelines for “Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims”
“Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles…”
Use of “minimize harm,” “sensitive,” “sensitivity,” and “compassion”
“approach victims with sensitivity” “Be sensitive” “Show compassion”
Use of “responsibility” and “right,” “purview,” and “obligation”
“journalists’ purview – some may even argue obligation” “Journalists often advance their ‘right’” “journalists have a responsibility”
Use of “ethics” and “responsible”
“SPJ Code of Ethics”“journalists must be responsible”
Use of “tragedy,” “grief,” and “victim”
“reporting on grief and victims” “news of grief a tragedy”
Mention of obtaining consent from the interviewee
“subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent”
Table 2 shows that the topic of “Consent” was only touched upon once in the SPJ’s guidelines. The only mention of consent refers to people that are “unable to consent” to interviews and does not even mention how important it is to obtain consent before interviewing someone.
Although there is very little mention of consent, the SPJ does recommend approaching interviews with victims of tragedies with “sensitivity” and “compassion.” The SPJ wants journalists to consider the individual involved and how reporting on this event may affect them. The problem with using this type of language is that “compassion” and “sensitivity” are subjective. Everyone has a different idea of what it means to be “sensitive” and “compassionate.” A journalist may think they are acting in a way that expresses compassion, but to others, it could come off as insensitive. It is also important to note that the bullet point for showing “compassion” appears before the bullet point for being “sensitive.” While it is important to show compassion for those affected by tragedies, it is more important to approach them with sensitivity in an effort to minimize any possible harm that could be caused to the victim.
According to the SPJ, sensitive issues that concern “grief,” “tragedy,” and “victims” are the type of news that should be reported on and journalists are “obligated” to report on it. They say that citizens expect to see these reports if they have an effect on their community. While people have a right to know what is going on in their community, it is important to make sure that the information that is being reported is collected in an ethical and responsible way. The theme of “Ethics/Responsible” refers to the way in which journalistic ethics organizations expect journalists to act when collecting and reporting information. Journalists should accept full responsibility for the news that they share and any details they include in reports. The theme of “Journalistic Responsibility” refers to journalists’ responsibility to report on current events. “Journalists must be responsible both in how they gather and present the information in words and photos” (SPJ). SPJ makes it clear that journalists following their codes of ethics are responsible for approaching stories including interviews in an ethical way. This may be a challenge considering the fact that there are no specific rules for journalists to follow when conducting interviews and it all seems to be up to their discretion.
Comparative Analysis of RTDNA and SPJ
Although the RTDNA has specific guidelines for how to handle interviews with juveniles and the SPJ has guidelines for interviewing individuals after tragedies, these sections are where they both offer guidelines on minimizing harm when dealing with juveniles during breaking news and tragedies. Both guidelines use passive language. The RTDNA guidelines format their guidelines as questions and the SPJ formats theirs as suggestions. Recommending that journalists ask themselves certain questions and proceed from there is not a concrete way of ensuring that juveniles are interviewed in an ethical way. Both sets of guidelines use phrases such as “consider” and “should.” These words cause the guidelines to come off as optional recommendations that the journalists can take or leave. Guidelines are supposed to act as a set of standards for people to follow when carrying out certain practices, and the practice of journalism is no exception. It is important to take note that the SPJ and RTDNA defer to the policies of the journalists’ employers. While certain employers may have their own set of standards that may or may not include guidelines for interviewing juveniles, as reputable journalism organizations the RTDNA and SPJ should provide better, clearer standards for interviewing juveniles.
The language used in these guidelines is also up for interpretation and will mean something different to whoever is looking at it. “Good taste,” “compassion,” and “sensitivity” are shown in different ways by different people. Some people may think that interviewing a juvenile right after a school shooting without parental consent is showing “good taste,” while others may clearly see what is wrong in doing so. It is impossible to know whether a journalist is acting with “good taste” even if they believe that they are, because everyone could have a different idea of what it means to show “good taste” when interviewing a juvenile.
The RTDNAand SPJ completely leave it in the journalist’s hands to decide whether to interview a child or not. Asking them to ask themselves questions and answer as if they were the child’s parent leaves many loopholes in the interview process. The problem with putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is that you never truly know how you would act unless you really were them or in this case, unless you were or are a parent in real life. Not every journalist has children, so they may not think the same way a parent would when they ask themselves if it is okay to interview a child in a certain circumstance. You may not know how protective you could be or how it could affect you or your child if they were used as a source in a public news report. Therefore, asking journalists to put themselves in the parents’ shoes is unreasonable and unethical. Stone’s conversations with about 10 journalists showed that, in fact, “many of the journalists questioned on this subject say they would never let their child be interviewed, and the rest say any interviewing would have to be done in their presence” (Stone 34). Journalists know how to get information out of kids and there are few that have strategies for making the relationship between the journalist and the child clear (Stone 33). This is also assuming that all journalists always have juveniles’ best interests at heart. The journalists’ motivations for conducting the interview could be distorted. Journalists could be motivated by getting publicity for publishing an article that covers an important event and will do whatever it takes to get that interview. They may not take no for an answer if they ask for parental consent and try to persuade the parent to say yes even if that is not really what the parent wants. Or they could decide that parental consent is not necessary and not seek parental consent at all, since the guidelines state that journalists could decide that parental consent is not needed in some cases.
Parental consent is not foolproof, but it is a step in the right direction of making sure that juveniles are protected in interviews. In “Covering Kids: Are Journalists Guilty of Exploiting Children?,” Romayne Fullerton, a journalism professor and journalism ethics researcher, brings up how parental consent may not always work with the child’s best interest at heart (512). Just as journalists could be motivated by the wrong thing, who is to say that parents could not have ill intentions when consenting to an interview for their child? Parents may want their child to say something in particular or lie so they can get air time or be written about. These concerns are not explicitly mentioned in the journalistic codes of ethics. The journalist is not instructed to seek assent from the individual being interviewed after the parent gives consent. The guidelines completely omit asking the child if they understand and agree to be interviewed after the parent has consented.
Another important factor that is completely disregarded in the guidelines is the apparent power imbalance between the journalist and the child being interviewed. It has been noted in research that explores the potential risks of interviewing juveniles that “the power imbalance between a researcher and the respondents prevents children from speaking in a relaxed and free manner” (qtd. in Nishiyama 553). The child may not feel comfortable making comments to an adult that they consider to be a stranger. Or they could feel like they have to say something to please the interviewer in order to get it over with quickly. Before the interview even takes place, the child could be easily persuaded to participate in the interview without parental consent. Since it is up to the journalist to decide whether it is appropriate or not to conduct the interview, they may push the child to feel like they have to participate in it even if the child does not want to. This could lead to interviews with children against their will and their parent’s will.
Generally, children do not fully understand how what they say on record can affect themselves and others. Jenn Mackay, another journalism and ethics professor, believes that part of the problem is that most juveniles are not familiar with the newspaper and how it works. Their “privacy potentially is at risk simply because of the youth’s inability to anticipate the consequences of talking with the media” (Mackay 130). Parents can also lack an understanding of the “media and media literacy” in general (Tenor 7). They may not understand how their child will be portrayed in the news and consent to an interview. By allowing parents to consent for their children, they are transferring some of the “journalistic agency over to the parents” (Tenor 7). Now the parent is responsible for the interview taking place or not.
On the other hand, juveniles in their mid to late teenage years, such as 16- to 18-year-olds may want to have their voice heard, yet have it silenced by their parents. How does a journalist decide when to override the parent’s choice and let the juvenile’s voice be heard? Parental consent for juveniles on the younger side, such as under the age of 13, should always be obtained, since it is difficult for children to understand the effects an interview could have on them. Even if a young child seems eager to participate in the interview, it is ultimately up to the parent because adults typically have a better understanding of how things could negatively affect their children. As teenagers near adulthood, they should be given some room to voice their opinions. If the parent has widely different opinions from their child, this could lead to the juvenile being silenced. While journalists would never want to keep people silenced, there could be ways to interview the juvenile (if the juvenile feels strongly enough about having their voice heard) after the parent refuses consent, but these scenarios are not addressed in the guidelines. With that being said, “there’s almost never a journalistic reason to interview kids, especially those who are likely in shock” (Molloy). “It feels bizarre (and) exploitive … to put microphones in the faces of young witnesses, even if their parents — also likely to be in shock — agree to interviews in the moment” (Molloy).
Relating back to the structure of the RTDNA’s and SPJ’s guidelines, the organization of the guidelines is just as important as what they contain. The RTDNA placed the “Journalistic Purpose and Quality of Information” section before the “Minimize Harm” section of their guidelines. The SPJ placed journalists “right” to information above showing compassion for the interviewee. Organizing the sections in this way could cause journalists to view the safety and privacy of juveniles as less important than reporting on the event.
It has been shown that “children are represented mostly in negative stories” and “predominantly represented as victims” when they are included in news reports (qtd. in Foley 56). Therefore, specific well-thought-out guidelines for interviewing them are necessary in order to truly “minimize harm.” As highly respected journalism ethics organizations, the SPJ and RTDNA should review their codes of ethics and make the changes necessary to better protect juveniles being interviewed.
A few changes that can be made to the guidelines include changing the passive language, providing definitions of terms like “juveniles” while providing sample scenarios, and changing the format of the guidelines. In an effort to make guidelines on including interviews with children in news reports more consistent, the passive language must be changed. Journalism organizations must use direct language in their guidelines. Replacing words like “should” with phrases like “strongly recommended” in the guidelines, would make actions like obtaining consent and assent seem less optional and more like required steps for journalists to follow. Likewise, the word “juvenile” must be clearly defined as well, to clear up confusion and eliminate possible loopholes concerning age. Different scenarios with juveniles of different ages should also be considered in the revision of the guidelines. Additionally, typically the most important standards come first, yet the SPJ placed “Journalistic Responsibility” above “Minimize Harm.” The “Minimize Harm” section and bullet point on “compassion” should be placed before the rest of the guidelines, to show that the primary concern is the juveniles involved in the news. Event coverage should never be more important than the well-being of others. Overall, reviewing, changing, and coming up with new guidelines for interviewing and including juveniles in news reports would be an excellent start to make sure that juveniles’ rights are protected in the news. Afterall, protecting juveniles from an increased risk of the possible effects of witnessing or experiencing trauma, such as “post-traumatic stress symptoms, anxiety, depression, and/or behavior disorders” should be the top priority (Collins 202). And journalists should do their part to minimize the guilt that juveniles might have of not having done enough to stop a violent act (Stone 33) by respecting their privacy and not interviewing them immediately after a tragedy.
Parents/guardians and journalists should push for journalism ethics organizations to change their guidelines to be more specific with their rules for interviewing juveniles. It should be clear to the journalist, children, and parents/guardians involved that consent is in fact necessary for interviewing juveniles. It is important to receive consent from parents of juveniles and from those affected by tragedies before you interview them or use them in a report. There have not been many studies on how juveniles being interviewed after tragedies affects them, short-term or long-term. We know that juveniles can be affected physically and mentally by the traumatic events that they witness and/or experience, but we do not know exactly how interviews after those events affect them mentally. This is a topic that still needs further research and would be a significant next step in the process of protecting children’s rights when being interviewed by journalists. Since we do not know the possible harm that interviews with juveniles after traumatic events could cause, there needs to be a universal set of guidelines for journalists to follow, to ensure that juveniles are not negatively affected by these interviews.
Grace Ehle is a rising sophomore at Fordham Lincoln Center, majoring in journalism. She grew up in Connecticut, where she discovered her passion for writing thanks to one of her high school English teachers. She enjoys being a head copy editor at The Observer and teaching little kids dance on weekends. This essay was inspired by her high school experience.