Journalists share tips on interviewing children about sensitive personal issues

Published on
July 20, 2023

Children are a driving factor in the choices many Americans make. They have needs and rights. Yet they are often left out of news coverage of decisions that affect them. This is in part because reporters may find it difficult to know best practices for including children’s voices, especially on sensitive topics like mental health, evictions and money. 

Three former USC Center for Health Journalism fellows shared tips this week with the Center’s 2023 National Fellows on how to tackle these reporting challenges and tell powerful stories for and with children at the center. 

Ginny Monk, the housing and children’s issues reporter at the CT Mirror, has spent the past year diving into the impact of evictions on children’s physical and mental health, with support from the 2022 National Fellowship and subsequent engagement grants. Her community-centered reporting led her to create a children’s coloring book that helps parents and caregivers explain evictions to children. Following her series of stories, Connecticut legislators moved forward on eviction reform bills.

Another 2022 National Fellow, Kristen Taketa, an education reporter with the San Diego Union-Tribune, investigated the broken child care system in California that often leaves families with no affordable options while underpaying child care providers. Through her reporting, she discovered that millions of federal dollars dedicated to helping parents afford child care were not used due to lack of outreach and a high barrier for receiving aid. 

Blanca Torres, a producer of KQED’s Forum and a 2022 California Fellow, talked about her project on child mental health a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel was moderated by Jacqueline Stenson, the Center’s manager of projects.

The panelists shared the following advice for reporting on the well-being of children: 

The rules may look different

Torres said that while interviewing children about mental health she had to take an entirely different approach than she used to as a former business reporter. 

“Consent, for me with this project, I just treated it very differently than other reporting,” she said. 

When interviewing adults, she typically doesn’t shy away from the questions they tell her not to ask. But when she interviewed children, she stayed away from topics that parents, caregivers or health care providers asked her to avoid. She said a parent or caring adult was present during most of her interviews with children. 

“I was like, ‘Absolutely, you know, whatever rules that you think are appropriate.’ because I’m going to talk to this kid about her suicidal ideation,” Torres said. “I don’t want to traumatize this person.” 

Pay attention to the details

Children often don’t have the language to identify what they’re experiencing, but they can explain it in their own terms, the reporters said. 

“Kids, particularly really little kids, communicate their feelings in a different way than we would. We have the words in our brains to be able to say ‘I feel anxious,’ but little kids often don't,” Monk said. “When they say, ‘When I think about leaving my house, my tummy hurts,’ or things like that, they're trying to communicate to you an emotion even if what they're saying is a symptom of depression.” 

Torres said she learned that children experience trauma and healing differently than adults, so they describe those experiences differently, too.

End on a positive note

Monk and Torres emphasized the importance of not leaving a source in a dark mental space when wrapping up an interview. 

For Monk, that usually involved keeping track of the time and making sure she left around 15 minutes for light-hearted conversation. 

“For example, often with adults, I’ll be like, ‘What did you do for your last Christmas holiday?’ And then we’ll talk about all the fun they had with kids,” she said. “Or asking kids, ‘What did you do at recess?’ or ‘What is your favorite troll from the Trolls movie?’” 

Monk also suggested having a game or activity for children during or after the interview. She said she kept the game Uno with her for most interviews. 

“I played a lot of board games,” Monk said. “...If they feel nervous, it really helps kids to have an activity or something fun when you're talking to them, particularly about things that are not fun to talk about.” 

Torres added that thanking the children for their time and validating the feelings they shared can go a long way toward building trust and making sure the child feels heard. 

“It’s also [about] tone and validating them, too,” Torres said. “Giving them some respect.” 

You don’t have to be a child care reporter to write about children

Taketa, who reports on education, said she decided to look into child care issues after reading a study about unspent funds that were supposed to help low-income families afford child care. 

“It's too expensive, not enough of us can afford it and at the same time, child care providers are hugely underpaid and under-compensated and many are living in poverty,” Taketa said. 

While her series looked at the negative health impacts of not having access to child care, she also highlighted how the costs of child care affect people’s financial decisions. It illustrates that this topic can be covered from a myriad of angles. 

“I feel like child care is definitely something that I think health reporters or anyone can write about,” Taketa said.

But reporting on the welfare of children is often difficult, and Torres emphasized the importance of self-care in the process. 

“I got very emotionally invested in the end, which I think is okay,” Torres said of her project. “Looking back, I think I just would have maybe tried to handle, maybe pay more attention every week, to how stressed I was.”