Kids: What’s a journalist to do?

This September, after leaving an Etobicoke house party, 17-year-old Taylor Whitney fell down a steep embankment of a ravine near the Humber River and died. The press zeroed in on the issue of underage drinking. When a reporter asked Whitney’s friend, also 17, about the presence of alcohol at parties, he replied, “My dad always leaves beer in the fridge.”

Bingo. Great quote. What journalist wouldn’t use it? But should she? Would the teen have offered it up had he a fuller appreciation of the trouble his remark could make for him or for his dad? Did she wonder what reception the boy would get when he got home? By using the quote in her story, had the journalist taken advantage of the boy’s youthful naivety?

I like this example because it highlights the ambiguous nature of a journalist’s relationship with kids so well. First, it falls outside youth justice and family law provisions protecting the privacy of children who are victims of crime, wards of the state or subjects of custody disputes. The legal compass, in other words, does not directly apply. Instead, it calls for a social and ethical discussion about the nature of childhood or youth on the one hand, and journalism on the other.

What’s more, a 17-year-old partygoer hardly fits our notions of a guileless child, an innocent vulnerable to a sensation-seeking, spectacle-addled press. Yet, he is legally a child, a minor whose youth would be the first line of defense for any other grave misjudgments he made. And his parents are, of course, still legally responsible for him. 

So what should a journalist do when their news source is under 18? At what age, about what issues, under what circumstances is it ethical to interview a child or youth? To take and publish their picture? How should journalists approach kids we want to use in our stories?

One criterion – the one courts tend to use – is “best interest of the child.” A laudable standard, to be sure. But does it apply in the news industry? I can think of three sets of interests routinely served by a news story: commercial (it will sell papers); professional (it will advance a journalist’s career); and social (it will advance our democratic rights to freedom of expression and information). While it’s difficult to justify any individual’s inclusion in a news story by advancing the first two interests, the last is journalism’s saving grace.

It’s not surprising then that “best interest” shows up in the UK’s Editor’s Code of Practice. The British code, according to an article by University of Western Ontario’s Romayne Smith Fullerton (published in Journalism Studies 5:4, 2004), provides the “most comprehensive guidelines dealing specifically with children.” Setting the age of consent at 16, it calls on editors to “demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interest of the child.” The trouble is, a casual glance at the morning paper reveals that most stories involving children wilt before such a demanding standard.

I’m not so sure that’s a problem. In fact, banning children from newspapers and news shows – as a rigorously implemented British code would – denies them representation in one of the few remaining spaces of public debate. On the contrary, I’d prefer to open that space up to children and youth, not just, or even primarily, as subjects in stories, but as writers, broadcasters, editors and producers.

While the British code may be too exacting, asserting the principle of best interests is a good place to start. It’s a crucial reminder of the very real power differentials between children and adults – an inequality of which journalists should be ever mindful, and that too few newsrooms have taken account of, much less developed policies to address.

School boards, not newsrooms, govern much current practice, as journalists frequently gain access to kids through schools. Increasingly, principals ask parents to sign written consent forms allowing the media access to their children while in the school’s care. And while the forms are to protect the school (not the journalist) from litigation, it’s wise to check in with the principal’s office first before approaching any child on school property. Not only will you maintain better relations with that community, schools stand in loco parentis – they are the legal temporary guardians of their students. As such, they are obliged to act in the child’s best interest.

Beyond the schoolyard, journalists also tend to seek parental permission, albeit more informally. A quick agreement over the phone or in person usually suffices, sometimes obtained only after the journalist has spoken with the child. 

Seeking parental permission is a long way off the mark set by the British code. Should journalists be concerned?

Yes, responds Smith Fullerton. Seeing journalism as a form of social science for a popular audience, she suggests journalists draw upon the ethical codes and guidelines governing academic research on children. The principle of informed consent is at the heart of such codes. This means not only obtaining the written consent of parents, but also taking steps to assure:

1. the story or photo poses no risk to the child. Will they be ridiculed, or exposed to danger in any way, now or when they are older? She points to a compelling Toronto Star portrait of a family’s struggle to get by on welfare as an example. Has the writer set up the children, whose intimate lives and thoughts are exposed (with parental consent), for ridicule by their peers – if not now, perhaps in the future? 

2. the child – and not just the parent – has given their verbal consent. Parents, she warns, don’t always act in the best interest of their children. In this media-obsessed age, they may pressure unwilling kids to perform before mics and TV cameras.

3. the child understands they can withdraw from the interview or photography session at any time without consequence, including disappointing or angering the journalist.
4. the news outlet develop, and share with the parents and child,  protocol for approval of the story or photos before printing.

Such guidelines take journalists a good deal closer to the “best interest” bar set by the British code, but are more practical and allow for greater flexibility. But what about the child’s age? Is the17-year-old from Etobicoke fair fodder for the journalist? Few would dispute that children mature at remarkably different rates, making it difficult to define an age of consent – an age at which a every child can be called competent and confident enough to know and protect their own interests – that’s appropriate in all cases.

Turning to the legal system, we gain clarity and confusion in equal measure. To begin, no minor (under 18) can legally enter into contracts except for the “necessities of life.” In the custody context, however, a child is considered a free agent at 16, at which age any child may choose to withdraw from parental control. And when it comes to sex, the benchmark is lower still. “The criminal code permits a person between the ages of 14 and 18 to consent to sexual activity provided that the other person is not in a position of trust or authority,” explains Toronto family lawyer Charlotte Murray. “If the person is under 14, she can consent to sexual contact with someone not more than two years older. So a 13-year-old can consent to have sex with a 15-year-old.” Most social service agencies, on the other hand, treat 12-year-olds as persons deserving of personal privacy, whose consent is required before releasing private records to third parties, including their parents. And under common law, she adds, anyone younger than seven is presumed incapable of testifying under oath. 

The upshot? Setting a “logical benchmark by which to judge if a child is a free agent,” says Murray, “is desperately complicated.”

Setting a newsroom policy is bound to be similarly complex, especially in today’s world of media savvy, independent children. But it is precisely because the line between kids and adults is blurred, that journalists need to be vigilant about another line – that drawn between representing and exploiting children for the sake of the story. While the principle of best interest and the legal ages of consent are far from clear criteria, they at least offer some bases from which a journalist can decide how to approach those stories.

Still, unless journalism schools, associations and newsrooms debate and discuss the issue, few journalists will think the issue through to the extent it deserves.

Sue Ferguson is an Assistant Professor of journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, and is the contributing editor of the Children and Media topic on J-Source.