Interviewing Children: Paul Benedetti's Dilemma
He understands why we do it, but Paul Benedetti is having second thoughts about the ethics of interviewing children and youth. Benedetti is an award-winning columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and program co-ordinator for the graduate program in Journalism at Western University. He’s struggling to put his finger on exactly what’s making him uneasy – but he says his sense of unease is growing.
Lately, I have grown increasingly uneasy about journalists’ use of children and youth in their stories.
I’m not sure why that’s the case. When I read, watch or listen to the pieces, I completely understand the journalistic impulse to include the voices of children. And, as a reporter, I regularly interviewed young people and wrote them into stories where I thought it was necessary or appropriate. I like to think that I did this with some measure of caution and consideration, but I have to admit that, like most reporters, mostly I was just trying to do my job well and hit my deadline.
But now, with a little more time to reflect (and more often being part of the audience), I have found myself sometimes squirming uncomfortably when I encounter a young person in a story.
Last December, I was in the car listening to The Current. Anna Maria Tremonti, a smart and incisive journalist, was doing a special report on poverty in Canada. Like a lot of CBC Radio, this was good stuff and Tremonti was interviewing people across the country about what it was like to live on the margins in a mostly affluent nation. It was riveting, solid journalism with a powerful human face – or voice in this case.
On one part of the show a young mother talks about the reality of living in poverty. It’s a powerful interview. Then, her eight-year old daughter is interviewed by Tremonti. It’s at this point that I begin to feel uncomfortable.
The child being interviewed is one member of a struggling family in Nova Scotia. The year before the family had agreed to be part of an NFB film on poverty and the son, then eight years of age – was the focus of the film. On this day, his younger sister is in the CBC Halifax studio with the filmmaker. The child’s mother is not with her. For anyone who has had the nerve-wracking experience of doing a live CBC interview, the thought of an eight-year-old facing the task without a parent present gives pause. The subject is poverty as Christmas approaches (I have left the child’s name out of the exchanges).
Tremonti, a skilled interviewer, asks some very pointed questions:
Q: Do you feel that you are different from other kids, that you don’t have as much as them?
A: …Yes, I do feel different because it’s like, everybody at school, are like, they have money, and my family, our...our family is so cold. They can’t pay for our student fee or anything because it’s so poor and we just don’t have a lot of money.
Q: What do the other kids have that you don’t have?
A: They actually have money that they can buy things with and we don’t really have that much money to get anything.
Q: So, do you see other kids getting new things when you can’t. Things like that? Like clothes and toys and things?
Q: How do you feel about that?
A: I feel really sad.
Q: Are you excited about Christmas?
Q: What would you like for Christmas?
A: I’m not trying to think about anything expensive.
Q: Mmm ... Are you thinking about anything at all?
A: Some things, but the things I want are really expensive, that’s why I’m thinking about new things.
And at the end...
Q: Do you sometimes go grocery shopping with your mom?
Q: What do you think of the food you eat?
A: I think it’s pretty good, but when we’re done eating everybody is still hungry and the only thing my mom can give us is like snacks....
Q: Is your lunch different than some of the other kids?
A: Yeah....They bring like pizza and sometimes they bring apples. And all I bring is a sandwich.
Tremonti asks the mom about the upcoming Christmas which she says may be “the worst” because they could not use lay-away plans and the kids will not be getting many gifts. She says she feels badly about all this. The child is listening to the mother. The interview closes with this exchange:
Q: What do you think about what your mom is saying?
A: I don’t really feel good with mom and everybody struggling. I feel bad that she’s saying everything like that.
Q: Do you think about what you want to do when you grow up?
A: No, not that much. I know something that I want to be but I don’t really like to talk about it.
Q: How come?
A: Because I really don’t feel confident talking about things like that.
Q: Well, you don’t have to if you don’t want to. That’s okay.
Asking an adult to appear on a national radio show to talk about poverty is one thing, but how does one gain the permission of an eight-year-old? Obviously, the CBC would consult the parents and get their permission by proxy, so to speak. The CBC standards and practices document wrestles with the issue of interviewing children, acknowledging that in most cases the parents can provide consent. The CBC defines children as 15 and under and youth as 16 or 17. The document acknowledges the uncomfortable reality that, “Children and youth do not necessarily have the experience to weigh the consequences of publication of their statements.”
We presume, sometimes incorrectly, that most adults understand the implications of being in a national magazine or newspaper or to appear on radio or television where potentially hundreds of thousands of people or more will read about them. Actually, I would argue that outside of a thin layer of senior executives, public servants and politicians, most people have no idea how the media works or what happens to you when you agree to be part of a story. Nonetheless, adults can give informed consent and reporters would not have much to do unless they did. But, it’s generally accepted that journalists cannot interview a child without the permission of her parent or parents. The CBC also recognizes that sometimes the interests of the parents are not necessarily aligned with the best interests of the child. The guideline correctly notes, “However, in some cases a parent can abuse his or her authority and fail to act in the best interest of the child or youth.”
I think there’s no debate that the interview with the eight-year-old child living in poverty was terrific radio – illuminating and emotionally powerful. But it’s also clear that all the information the child provided could have easily been given by the mom. Knowing how a little kid “feels” about being poor is important, but one might ask, “At what cost?”
As I listened to it in the car, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Would I allow my eight-year-old to appear on national radio talking about the pain she feels for her parents and their plight?”
My answer: Not a chance.
And I wondered how many reporters at the CBC and at other media outlets would allow their young children to be interviewed about highly personal family matters? How many would be comfortable with these remarks being archived online forever?
The answer: Probably none.
I know that exposing the pain of issues such as child poverty, teen suicide, molestation, bullying and homophobia is important. But I sometimes wonder whether in our daily (and now hourly and minute-by-minute) rush to get the story and boost audience and please our editors, we sometimes kid ourselves that we are always working for the greater good.
In 1996, The Society for Professional Journalists issued a code of ethics, a section of which was titled “Minimize Harm.” The authors conceded an uncomfortable truth, that “gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort” and that we should always be “sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.”
All reporters know that sometimes we must weigh the hurt we will do to some, for the greater good we achieve for all. It is a fine balance. And often a painful choice. People and their lives should not be “collateral damage” for our stories.
Maybe, each time we approach this kind of story, we should ask ourselves a simple question: “Is there a way to do this story and do it well without exposing a kid to harm?”
Paul Benedetti is the Program Coordinator of the Master of Arts in Journalism Program at the University of Western Ontario. He was a reporter, arts writer, columnist, feature writer and investigative reporter at the Hamilton Spectator and also has extensive experience in the online world, including a position as executive producer www.canoe.ca. He continues to write and last year he won a National Newspaper Award for Short Feature. He lives in Hamilton.