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Children in journalism: The ethical dilemmas

Photo by Francisco Osorio

A journalist not only tells our stories but also decides what follows us around for the rest of our lives.  

Journalists face various ethical concerns every day, but children involved in traumatic situations are often considered a sensitive subject.

While an adult can be interviewed and understand the implications of their words being published online, children often cannot, according to the Child Rights International Network.

Alea Chedekel, who has been a camp counselor for four years, believes that a child’s ability to be interviewed depends on the child and not their age.

She works with children up until age 8 and believes that their brain development has not advanced enough to understand the implications of the events happening around them.

Sara Carpenter, who teaches at Bayfront Charter High School, thinks that while a child is able to understand and verbalize trauma by the time they are 8 years old, they cannot understand what it means to have their trauma published online.

The CRIN guidelines state that the child being interviewed needs to be aware of the context and reason of the interview, as well as be accompanied by their parent or guardian.

“It’s difficult for a young person to grasp the complexities and the vast scope of publication,” Carpenter said over email. “A child has limited idea what the benefits or consequences of an interview or photograph could be.”

Chedekel attributes the vulnerability of children due to the fact that they can be easily influenced in their environment.

“You see famous people or really intelligent people get tricked by journalists, so I think that the idea that a kid could be is not far-fetched,” Chedekel said.

Chedekel recalls working with a child who had gone through an abusive situation and was unable to verbalize the experience. She believes that forcing a child to tell the story or to have a journalist telling it for them can be extremely psychologically damaging.

The CRIN’s ethical guidelines outline that journalists should not allow a child to be exposed to additional trauma by reliving it through the story. When a child’s safety is unclear, journalists are advised to tell the general story and not focus on the child entirely, no matter how important the story may be.

“It’s very easy to internalize when you’re reading it on a screen and you know that everyone can see this about you,” Chedekel said.

Research done about the moral judgment of 99 professional journalists showed that while they were more concerned about the child’s safety than adults, they did not use higher levels of moral judgments for them.

They also did not choose to withhold photographs of children any more than they did for adults in difficult ethical decisions.

Jessica Vogel, a senior psychology student at American University who has worked with children with special needs, feels that children should be protected by journalists, no matter the importance of the story.

She believes that children can begin to comprehend the longevity of digital media at sixteen, but that anonymity should be used as much as possible.

“Children process traumatic information differently than adults do,” Vogel said. “Sometimes they easily get over it because they don’t understand what’s actually going on but having that documented can drag them along further on in life.”

Vogel feels strongly that children process traumatic events differently and need time to understand the events in a safe space. Having the events published online and possibly even go viral could affect the child for the rest of their life.

“People need to remember that even if they are experiencing adult situations, they are still not adults,” Vogel said.

There are instances where journalists may feel that the story is worth publishing online to communicate the matter the best, such as the photo of Alan Kurdi, which went viral and sparked outrage around the world about the refugee crisis.

In those cases, Vogel feels that the most should be done to protect and consider the implications for the child. She does not believe in the importance of including the name of children who may be involved in traumatic news stories.

“When a name is attached, the story can stick with them through life,” Carpenter said. “There are countless other detrimental side effects that can come along with it.”

This article was written for Jane Hall's Advanced Reporting class in the School of Communication at American University.