Children need freedom of speech but also protection
The Central Union for Child Welfare, the Finnish Union of Journalists and the Finnish Periodical Publishers’ Association with their respective partners have produced a guide on the ethical and practical questions involved in interviewing and photographing children and young people.
In Finland, little has so far been written about the relationship between the media and children under the age of 18. Producing the guide was seen important as journalists and photographers encounter situations in the midst of their daily work where guidance is needed. These include, for example, questions like at what age a young person can be interviewed without a parent’s consent, and how to interview children or young people in the middle of a crisis situation.
The guide also looks at interviewing children in alternative care, children in stories involving crime and court cases, the practical challenges caused by a range of family structures and the duty of confidentiality, for example. The guide also presents existing standards, instructions and international best practice.
Instructions for practical problems
The guide brings together practical experiences of journalists and photographers in problematic situations and focuses on these in particular. Young people in alternative care have also been consulted about their experiences of the media. The author of the guide has 25 years of experience as a journalist in newspapers and magazines and as a freelancer.
The guide draws on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Guidelines for Journalists of the Finnish Union of Journalists, Journalistin ohjeet, and decisions of the Council for Mass Media in Finland. The Guidelines for Journalists (Journalistin ohjeet) act as professional standards for Finnish journalists and photographers. Together with the interpretations of the Council for Mass Media in Finland they form the basis of media self-regulation in Finland. The material in the guide is not, however, intended as a magic bullet or as official instructions but as a basis for journalists’ own ethical considerations and as support in their day-to-day work.
Children are more vulnerable than adults
The key thread running through the guide is the idea that children and young people should be interviewed and photographed in a manner which takes their needs for protection and their freedom of speech into account. However at the same time the media should be able to perform their own job of conveying information, filling in the background to events and fostering social debate.
The presentation of children and young people in the media requires more considered discretion by journalists as children have greater privacy. Children are also more vulnerable to publicity than adults, as children are not necessarily capable of evaluating their own privacy or knowing what should be kept secret about their own lives or the lives of those close to them. Nor are they necessarily capable of evaluating the effect of what they say on their own lives and those around them.
Journalistic discretion is crucial
In practice, journalists and photographers should ask the child and his or her guardian for permission to conduct an interview or take photographs.
Journalists working at hectic pace evolving news stories often ask at what age children and young people can be interviewed and at what age photographs can be published without the permission of parents or guardians. It is impossible to give unambiguous guidelines on the question of age as the child’s level of development and the subject on which he or she is being interviewed will have a bearing on the issue. Journalistic discretion thus becomes crucial.
In the Finnish media, for example, the nation-wide newsletter Helsingin Sanomat, the public radio station Yleisradio and the news and picture agency STT-Lehtikuva apply the age of 15 as a watershed – however, with discretion exercised on a case by case basis. Journalistic discretion must be exercised more carefully the more important or sensitive the subject in question is, and the more far-reaching consequences it could have on the person him/herself or the people close to him/her.
It must also be ascertained that the child, and possibly the adult with him or her, know that they are talking to a journalist and understand in which context the child’s words or photograph will be used. This must be established particularly well in cases where the interviewee and the interviewer do not share a common language in which they are both fluent.
If possible, in interview and photography situations, an adult whom the child knows should be present to ensure that the child feels safe. The adult should not, however, be allowed to dominate the interview.
The journalist and the photographer must be prepared to spend more time than normally to gain the child’s trust and for interviewing and photographing the child. Children should also be given sufficient time to respond.
Writing the story must not cause harm to the child, nor expose the child to threats of violence, bullying or discrimination.
The Central Union for Child Welfare has received positive feedback for producing the guide, particularly from journalists and representatives of NGO’s working in the field the work carried out for the guide has been found extremely necessary and valuable. The guide provides a basis for shared and well-considered guidelines, an important question in this kind of work. The guide is also praised for its wide- range and practical approach. This means that the guide serves its purpose and genuinely assists journalists in their daily work. The guide is available only in finnish.
The International Federation of Journalists provides guidelines on interviewing and photographing children:
The journalism organisations of 70 countries produced joint principles on journalism and children’s rights at a meeting in Brazil in 1998. The principles were approved in Seoul in 2001.
The MediaWise Trust has published handbooks for journalists on children’s rights and the media.
Mike Jempson & Denise Searle (1st edition), Charlotte Barry & Mike Jempson (2nd edition), The
Media and Children’s Rights. A resource for journalists by journalists. MediaWise & UNICEF
1999, 2005 and 2010.
Mike Jempson & Bill Norris, Information and Child’s Rights – The Challenge of Media Engagement. International Survey of Journalistic Standards Established for Reporting Children’s Issues. The PressWise Trust & International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) 1997.
Several child protection / welfare organisations have produced their own guidelines.
UNICEF’s website includes general principles on children’s rights, instructions in interviews and dealing with children’s issues.
Save the Children UK has published the book Interviewing Children. A Guide for Journalists and Others. Read more
The international crisis journalism portal Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma provides practical and in-depth instructions on approaching child and adult victims in various crises, how to write about traumatic things, how to photograph them and things to consider in crisis journalism.
The Finnish website for the guide can be found at: www.lskl.fi/lapsetmediassa