The Ethics of Interviewing Kids on Camera


Art Linkletter was right: "Kids say the darndest things!"

When I initially learned about  Chicago TV station WBBM editing  an interview with a 4-year-old boy last month to make him sound like an aspiring gang-member when he actually said that he wanted to be a policeman, I decided to pass. I try to avoid making obvious observations, and nobody could defend the conduct of the station’s editors, who intentionally truncated the child’s remarks to the interviewer to make them sound chilling. The larger question of whether the child should have been interviewed at all, however, is more challenging. We see kids being interviewed on TV all the time, and it is far from certain that reporters are doing so ethically.

In the wake of  the WBBM incident, journalistic ethics expert Al Thompkins reprinted his guidelines for interviewing juveniles on the Poynter site. I’m an admirer of Thompkins, but I found his guidelines almost as chilling as the distorted interview itself. Here is his guidance on the issue of interviewing kids, with my reactions:

“There are circumstances where hearing the views of young people can prove valuable in our understanding of how they see the world around them. Adults need not be the only ones who express worthy views of news events. It is the method journalists use to collect the views of young people that raise the most challenging ethical questions. Journalists should exercise special care when interviewing juveniles. Especially in breaking news situations, juveniles may not be able to recognize the ramifications to themselves or to others of what they say.

Comment:  “May not?” How about “do not and cannot”?  Heck, most adults do not and cannot recognize the ramifications of talking to a reporter on the air, but at least they are accountable for their own ignorance.

“Journalists should be especially careful in interviewing juveniles live, because such live coverage is more difficult to control and edit.”

Comment: Is it ever ethical to interview a child live? An outburst or ill-considered remark will be on YouTube forever, and could be a continuing source of embarrassment and even ostracism. Thompkins assumes that interviewing a child live can be ethical. I would argue that it never is.

 “Juveniles should be given greater privacy protection than adults.”

Comment: Yes, but what does this mean?

“The journalist must weigh the journalistic duty of seeking truths and reporting them as fully as possible against the need to minimize any harm that might come to a juvenile in the collection of information.”

Comment: Is there any doubt how that balancing exercise will come out? I do not believe that a reporter, whose bias is naturally in the direction of getting the story and making it compelling, should be the one to make this call. The reporter has a conflict of interest, and cannot be trusted to put the child’s interests first, which is where they belong. Thompkins’ guidelines don’t put the child’s interests first; he has them competing with mission of journalism.

When interviewing juveniles, journalists should consider:

“Journalistic Purpose and Quality of Information…

•    What is my journalistic purpose in interviewing this juvenile?
•    In what light will this person be shown? What is their understanding or ability to understand how viewers or listeners might perceive the interview? How mature is this juvenile? How aware is he/she of the ramifications of his/her comments?
•    What motivations does the juvenile have in cooperating with this interview?
•    How do you know what this young person says is true? How much of what this young person says does he/she know first-hand? How able are they to put what they know into context? Do others, adults, know the same information? How can you corroborate the juvenile’s information?
•    How clearly have you identified yourself to the juvenile? Do they know they are talking to a reporter?”

Comment: Almost all of these guidelines are the same as the ethical considerations in interviewing adults. As applied to juveniles, however, the standards are especially unrealistic or even disingenuous. In what light will the interviewed juvenile be shown? Well, you can’t tell that before the interview, as the Chicago incident proves. How mature is the kid? How could the interviewer possibly know that? How aware is the child of the ramifications of his comments? Easy: assume he isn’t aware. Does the child know he is talking to a reporter? Maybe, but does a child really know what talking to a reporter means? General McCrystal didn’t understand what talking to a Rolling Stone reporter meant, and he’s no kid. I don’t think a reporter can ever conclude that a child understands the risks and consequences of talking with a reporter, and nothing a reporter can say or do on the scene can alter that.

“Minimize Harm

•    What harm can you cause by asking questions or taking pictures of the juvenile even if the journalist never includes the interview or pictures in a story?
•    How would you react if you were the parent of this child? What would your concerns be and how would you want to be included in the decision about whether the child is included in a news story?
•    How can you include a parent or guardian in the decision to interview a juvenile? What effort has the journalist made to secure parental permission for the child to be included in a news story? Is it possible to have the parent/guardian present during the course of the interview? What are the parents’ motivations for allowing the child to be interviewed? Are there legal issues you should consider, such as the legal age of consent in your state?
•    If you conclude that parental consent is not required, at least give the child your business card so the parents can contact you if they have an objection to the interview being used.

Comment: I’m sorry, Al, but the standard has to be that parental permission is required, up front, all the time, and the parent has to be present at the interview, no exceptions. How old? Sorry again: any child under 18 should not have to cope with a reporter’s questions unless a parent or guardian approves, and is present.

“Explore Alternatives:

•    What alternatives can you use instead of interviewing a child on camera?
•    What are the potential short-term and long-term and consequences of this person’s comments?
•    What rules or guidelines does my news organization have about interviewing juveniles? Do those guidelines change if the juvenile is a suspect in a crime and not a victim? What protocols should your newsroom consider for live coverage that could involve juveniles?
•    How would you justify your decision to include this juvenile in your story to your newsroom and to viewers or listeners, to the juvenile’s parents?

Comment: All of these considerations, seen and executed through the biased prism of a reporter’s desire to get a compelling story, are unlikely to protect the child. What are the short and long-term consequences? Thompkins doesn’t specify whether he is referring to the child, the reporter, or both. If the short-term consequence to the reporter is seen as a promotion and a raise, I venture to say that nothing else will matter much.

The third bullet point is a nod to compliance over ethics. Your news organization has no guidelines on interviewing juveniles? Great! You’re in the clear, then—go for it! And the fourth: the proper question is “Could you justify—not rationalize, but justify—including the juvenile in your story using ethical rather than non-ethical considerations?”

“The Golden Rule for Interviewing Children: Do unto other people’s kids as you would have them do unto your kids.”

Comment: One of the problems with The Golden Rule is that it is usually interpreted as a subjective calculation: what would I want if I were in their position? That’s not how the Golden Rule works. The proper standard is to ask, “If I were the parent of this child, with that parent’s life, feelings, background and beliefs, and a responsible parent as well, what would I want?” Thompkins version of the Golden Rule is self-serving and pre-biased. A reporter is likely to be more trusting of journalists than non-reporters. The fact that a reporter might have no objection to a fellow journalist interviewing his child without permission or oversight shouldn’t play any part in that reporter’s decision whether to interview someone else’s child. I don’t want the drunk down the street serving his teenaged son and mine liquor because he wouldn’t object if I served liquor to his kid in my home, even if his Golden Rule for Getting Other People’s Children Drunk is “Do unto other people’s kids as you would have them do unto your kids.”

The ethical rule for interviewing minors on camera should be this: get a parent’s permission and have an unbiased adult present during the interview, or don’t do it. As for live interviews on camera: never.

2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Interviewing Kids on Camera

  1. Jack’s reasoned responses to Thompkins’ “guidelines” were cogent, educational and worthwhile — for any journalist who may read them.

    But honestly, reporters (possible exceptions are a select group of columnists/commentators and newspaper ombudsmen) have only two objectives: “Get the story,” and “Get the ratings.” They accost and interview people to get good film footage, to embarrass people, to have absolutely the most sensational coverage they can connive to get, to shock viewers, to trap and twist the words of those they disagree with politically. We’ve all seen it and heard it and read it and we know it’s true.

    Thompkins’ guidelines and other “ethics of journalism” pieces are rationalizations and mental masturbation for the journalists themselves. They are personally driven to succeed in a ridiculously competitive environment, and that success is their motivating force. Journalistic ethics, in a word, is bullshit.

    The ethical guidelines for interviewing children can be reduced to three principles: 1) Don’t do it 2) Don’t do it 3) Don’t do it.

    • Both you and Jack are right on the mark, Elizabeth. Journalists who have no standards, personal or professional, will be guided by the Grand Principle of “What’s in it for me?”. And, since children are considered to be nothing special these days (“little adults”, as they say in Hollywood) then why should they be given any more consideration than adults… who are often given none themselves?

      As to “why children?”; I’d reply that it’s for the same reason that kids are exploited in films and television. It’s what I’ve called the “Pathos Effect”. When you desecrate children by word, deed or image- then wrap it in the excuse of “raising awareness of the issue”- you can not only exploit them mercilessly (to your advancement and their ultimate detriment) but you can proclaim your virtue for having done so! Neat trick. All you need is financial backing, a miscomprehending audience, no parental guidance and absolutely no morals whatsoever.

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