The challenges of covering children
Evaluating the risks journalists take when interviewing children
April 7, 2014, 10:10 am ADTLast Updated: February 21, 2019, 2:43 pm
He can drive a car and get a piercing. But at 17 Ben Bonardelli is not trusted to speak to the media.
“I feel like I’m old enough,” he says, “just because of all the other things I’m allowed to do, like drive. I think that I’m at a level of education where I can speak for myself. I don’t need someone else telling me what I can say and when I can say it.”
Ben is younger than 18, so legally is a minor. It’s why editors and journalists won’t go near him. Not only are the logistics of interviewing and identifying minors in the media a legal gray area, but children’s words are perceived as less valid than adults’. This creates a higher risk of legal liability for the outlet that publishes them.
Most media outlets require parental consent for any minor to be interviewed or photographed. In Bonardelli’s case, permission was required from his parents and from his school, Armbrae Academy, where our interview took place.
“You have to realize that what you’re getting is from a child. You can’t treat it the same way as what you’d get from an adult.”
— Kevin Ward, the Canadian Press
In many instances media is self-censoring where children are concerned. This is due to ethical, rather than legal, considerations. Even if journalists and editors are not concerned with illegality, they worry they will get in trouble with their audience.
Michael Ungar is a therapist and researcher at Dalhousie University. Despite lacking legal footing, he says, this protective attitude is only natural.
“Let’s say a ten-year-old starts f-ing off and making racial slurs. It would be pretty rare that a journalist would publish that, based on the fact that it’s a child. There’s a social construction of how we understand childhood, and there’s a certain set of rights and privileges that we defer to them — and one of them is protection from themselves,” Ungar says. “It becomes an ethical issue on the onus of the reporter. You don’t do anything that would potentially cause the child harm.”
Still, these practices are not enforced with laws. Privacy and protection is only guaranteed so long as journalists and editors choose to award it — there is nothing that stops someone from publishing material a child or their parents object to.
New rules are unlikely to be enacted. Media lawyer David Coles says there is no reason why laws around publishing photos or quotes of minors would be different than laws for adults.
“We live in a society where there is freedom of expression,” he says, “and it isn’t curtailed simply because you are young or old, and you are free to express somebody else’s ideas and beliefs. To suggest somehow that, ‘oh my gosh, you can’t interview a 17-year-old without some release or contract from his parents,’ would be a restriction that is just unknown in our society, as far as I’m concerned.”
That being said, it is unclear if unhappy parents can sue media for publishing information about their children.
“If a person who is underage is interviewed by a reporter and the young person or their parents have not been injured or damaged in any way, they won’t have anything to sustain a lawsuit,” says Maggie Stewart, a lawyer with the Halifax firm Stewart McKelvey. “Realistically it’s unlikely that someone would be injured just by appearing in the news, or be able to prove it.”
In a case where harm could be proven, though, media would have little defence in saying they obtained consent to photograph or quote from a young person. Legally, a minor is not able to give consent. So media outlets request that minors have their parent’s consent before appearing in published content.
Kevin Ward is the Atlantic bureau chief for the Canadian Press. He says that before deciding to interview a minor, he discusses the motivation for and value of the interview with his staff. He then requires consent from the parents. A more pressing concern is the validity of a child’s words relative to an adult’s.
“Whenever you’re dealing with children, you have to realize that what you’re getting is from a child. You can’t treat it the same way as what you’d get from an adult,” he says.
For this reason Ward is especially careful to verify facts given by minors. (Cautious editors do this regardless of the age of their sources.)
Philip Croucher is the editor of Metro, a free daily newspaper in Halifax. He says that when dealing with child sources he is sensitive to the context.
“It depends on the nature of a story,” he says. “If it’s a story about a 14-year-old at a sporting event, I wouldn’t think twice about it. It’s a positive thing. But if it’s a 14-year-old who calls us up saying he’s being bullied at school, I’m not going to go do that story until I speak to some parents.”
In addition to these contextual considerations, Metro has policies governing informal interviews. For example, journalists must ask the age of anyone interviewed for a “streeter”, where randomly selected people are asked for their opinion on an issue.
Gwo types of stories have set rules for dealing with minors: crime and education.
Minors who are connected to a criminal trial as victims, witnesses, or the accused have their identity protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act. On rare occasions, names appear in news reports when a minor is tried as an adult.
Education reporting, on the other hand, is moderated indirectly by schools. Legally, schools have the right to control who comes onto their property. If a journalist wishes to interview or photograph a student at school, it is the institution’s prerogative to accept or deny that request.
“In educational law, schools have to act the way a prudent parent would act,” says Gary O’Meara, the headmaster of Halifax independent school Armbrae Academy.
All schools, public and private, are bound by this obligation. It is their duty to protect their students. This causes schools to be wary of media.
“The practice that we employ is — a Latin term — called ‘in loco parentis’,” says Doug Hadley, spokesperson for the Halifax Regional School Board. “It means that in the absence of the parent we act in the best interest of the student.”
For this reason, all public schools send waivers home each September for parents to agree or refuse to let their children appear in the media. The waiver helps schools know which students can interact with media and which must be kept away from recorders and cameras. Hadley says each school can also decide to be more protective.
“We have other schools who will, each time, take the blank consent form that we have and modify it for that specific purpose… What we do is allow schools to make that decision, based on the fact that they know their community best.”
Back at Armbrae Academy, O’Meara is more lax.
“Within that legal context of the prudent parent, you’ve got a lot of leeway if you’re willing to take it. Or virtually none if the potential legal implications are so scary to you that you don’t even want to make a judgment call,” he says.
“Crucify me for this comment, but I think — and the school’s philosophy is — that we can protect kids too much. Sometimes kids make mistakes, sometimes they say the wrong thing… on the whole, we trust our kids to say intelligent things.”
Ultimately, O’Meara’s attitude toward the media is founded on trust.
“One of the things is that you build up relationships,” he says. “I think (the media) know that if we agree to have them we really don’t pull any censoring on them… we don’t try to control them.”
For teenager Ben Bonardelli this means an ethically procured public depiction of himself. One that appeases his school, his parents, and the journalist involved.