“I thought about punching him,” a high school student told me during an interview.
I had just covered an important high school wrestling tournament in Indiana. During one of the tournament’s singles championships, one of the two finalists screamed at the referee and approached his opponent as if he was going to punch him. Coaches raced onto the mat to prevent a fistfight in the middle of a wrestling match.
What exactly happened? Hundreds of people saw the incident, and I felt obligated to talk to the two wrestlers. I didn’t hesitate to quote the wrestler admitting that he was considering punching his opponent, but I paid the price. For most of the rest of the wrestling season, the coach wouldn’t talk to me or anyone else from my newspaper and refused to let any of his wrestlers talk to any reporters.
The next season, sources were telling me all sorts of things about the same wrestler, who had won the state title a few weeks after the near fistfight and was one of the most prominent athletes on my beat. He wasn’t attending the same school, and some people were alleging misconduct by another school as well as the wrestler himself.
I decided to not publish anything negative about the wrestler this time because he was not an adult and the allegations were about personal, not public, behavior.
Did I do the right thing on one or both occasions? Journalism has no official rules on the subject, but the two incidents raise questions that aren’t raised when the news subject is an adult.
“As a reporter, be mindful about obtaining parental approval before publishing or airing children’s stories,” wrote Bonnie Swain Schindly, a reporter for 32 years, in “Tips on Interviewing Children.” “School officials typically require signed consent forms from parents when they know in advance that you will be on site. Also, school sporting activities are generally considered publicly-accessible events, meaning parents expect—and even hope for—post-game interviews with their children. An interview turns tricky when a child makes controversial or unflattering statements. A reporter’s rule of thumb is to solicit advice of an editor.”
I have written hundreds of articles about children during a 30-year journalism career. My tips include:
1. Establish Trust:
You need to have a level of trust with the adults who are supervising the children you want to interview. I covered lots of school districts for many years. Treating the children fairly on my first few story made it easier for me to get permission to work on the next story. And make sure that the children’s parents know about the article.
2. Be Conversational:
You shouldn’t start off an interview with questions. You need to make children feel comfortable before trying to get the insights and quotes that you need for your article, according to a book called Interviewing Children. I agree. Introduce yourself. Tell them who you are, what publication they are being quoted in, and when the article will appear. Talk to them as people, not interview subjects. And let the children ask you questions.
3. Show Interest In Their Lives: Frankly, I was more interested in writing stories about people than games. Thus, I might have asked them about what they did during the day rather than about this or that play. This led to stories about kids who rushed to the game they starred in right after they took the SAT or right after they returned from a doctor’s appointment. This approach will help a freelance writer for hire produce more stories.
4. Never Talk Down To Children: Even 7-year-olds who are being asked to describe what they liked best about the parade can sense when they’re being treated like children. They don’t like that. Talk like an adult.
5. Ask Open-Ended Questions: Asking questions like “were you scared?’ isn’t effective, according to “Interviewing Children: Guidelines for Journalists.” You should give children ample opportunity to elaborate rather than asking yes-no questions.
6. Do Not Embarrass Children: I always corrected their grammar, deleted sentences that weren’t articulate, and made sure that I didn’t quote them saying nasty things about people (unless they were older and public people like the championship wrestler mentioned at the start of this blog). I didn’t always fix adults’ mistakes.
Martin Z is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.