Reporting Ethically on Children's Physical and Mental Health

Published on
March 8, 2010

When I began interviewing 17-year-old "Cindy," she was reading a mystery while answering my questions. Then she put the book down, took her baby pet python from around her boyfriend's neck, and placed it inside her bra to warm it up.

Snakes were not a focal point when I was considering the challenges of interviewing teenagers. I saw pretty quickly, though, that the pet python comforted Cindy. It may even have been a deal breaker for the interview if I had freaked out and ran out of the house.

Even though I haven't lived with teenagers, I've spent enough time with them to know that it's difficult to predict their interest in talking to adults. Beyond the challenges of reaching across a generational divide, I had some special considerations. I was writing about a new mental health court for minors with mental health problems who break the law. Cindy, who lived with her mother, sister, and pet snake, was a client of the mental health court.

While I was preparing for this reporting project, I wondered how to approach this project ethically: How do I tell the story of a teenager who has a health problem so fraught with stigma without causing her harm when the story is published? Most kids in school want to fit in, and any health problem, whether it's mental illness, cancer, or a physical disability can make a child feel different and jostle their self-esteem.

Protecting identity: not just about names

To protect my young sources from harm, I decided not to use their real names. I didn't want to take a chance that what was printed and available online could potentially distress the teens or the families I encountered. For what I was trying to achieve, it didn't make sense to put my sources in a situation where anyone doing a Google search could find their names associated with severe mental health problems and breaking the law.

In fact, the ethical question of whether or not to use a minor's name was moot for this project. I wouldn't have had access to any of the people who worked with the court, the teens, or their families unless I had promised to protect the identities of all the young sources who had been referred to the court.

Protecting sources' identities means more than not using their names. Says Tom Huang, the ethics and diversity fellow at the Poynter Institute:

"You need to figure out what details may identify the source such as where they go to school, what church they go to, or what athletic team their on, or if they're in specific clubs, how many brothers or sisters they have, or if they come form a single parent household. These are details that if you combine them could identify them. I'm not saying that you should not have some of these details. But you need to think: 'Can these details together help identify a child?'

For Cindy and her family, I also left out the town where they live and the name of her snake. I was careful not to describe what she looked like. Additionally, the attorneys who led me to Cindy and her family insisted on looking at the final draft to make sure that I didn't overlook details that might reveal Cindy or other court "clients''" identities.

I don't think that I could say that it's never appropriate to use the real names of teenagers who've disclosed information that carries stigma. In one audio series I produced on preventing teen suicide, I used the real names of two young sources, both over 18, who spoke openly about their mental health struggles on behalf of advocacy organizations.

Using release forms

It may be clear to many journalists, but it's worth mentioning: If you're interviewing a minor - whether or not you're using the child's name - you need to get permission from the child's parent or guardian. Release forms are standard requirements for broadcast media. Schools and other institutions will automatically require them. It's a good idea, even if your work is for print or online, to get a signed release form. Here is a sample release form, and here is another sample release form

I ended up having Cindy's mother Judith sign two separate release forms. One form was related to my interviewing them both. In it I added language that I would protect Cindy's identity. The second release form signed by Judith was also necessary; it gave me permission to talk to all the people affiliated with the mental health court specifically about Cindy and Judith's family. Certainly, one carefully-worded release form could accomplish what two forms enabled me to do.

Sometimes, even if granted permission, you might not want to use the name of a young source. L.A. Times reporter Robin Abcarian, who's reported frequently on issues affecting teenagers, tells of a recent example of an interview after a debate on abortion on a college campus: "One woman I spoke to afterward was fuming mad about what an anti-abortionist said, and proceeded to tell me she had had an abortion. She was 19. I asked her if it's okay to use her name, and she said yes." Later, over the phone, Abcarian asked her a second time, and the young woman reconfirmed permission.

Ultimately, Abcarian cut the anecdote for space, but it's a good discussion to have with your sources. Says Abcarian:

"I don't want to sound patronizing, or overly protective. She might be okay now, but as an 18 or 19-year old, she isn't aware of the power of having it in a newspaper that's read by millions of people. That's not something you want to burden someone with."

Abcarian's hesitation is in line with a piece of advice on interviewing children that emerged from a Poynter Institute seminar, "Do unto other people's kids as you would have them do unto your kids."

Tips to remember

Below are some tips on how to encourage kids and teens to talk candidly and openly (beyond tolerating their pet snakes) and other ethical considerations when interviewing minors about potentially stigmatizing health issues.

The tips are based on my experience, experts I interviewed, and a review of guidelines at the Journalism Center on Children and Families, The Poynter Institute, and the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

1. Be clear about what the story is about, who the audience is, and why you want to interview the teenager/or child.

2. Make sure that the child understands that they don't have to answer a question if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

3. Talk to teens one on one, not in a group: Unless it's a support group, which is structured for teens to share, teens may be more comfortable talking individually, particularly if you're discussing a health issue they may not want to reveal to peers.

4. Get permission from a parent or guardian to interview a child.

5. Interview the child or teenager in the presence of a guardian or parent.

6. If filming or taping a child or teen whose identity you want to protect, film him or her from behind or in shadow. For an audio slide show, consider transcribing interviews, and having someone else read the transcript.

7. Does the young person understand why you're interviewing them, and that you're a reporter? If they don't understand, you may consider getting a different source, or protecting the young person's identity.

8. What is the motivation of the parent in agreeing to allow their child to be interviewed?

9. Figure out ways to corroborate the story your young sources tell. Parents may be able to provide information, or you may request medical or other records to review and copy.