While I was researching a piece on bullying for the NSPCC’s Your Family magazine, a seven-year-old interviewee burst out crying and gave the phone back to his mum.
Hardly an auspicious start.
Interviewing children can be a daunting task, not least because of all the ethical and legal considerations. And that’s before you have attempted to coax a nugget of a quote out of them.
In the latest version of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, there’s a swathe of information relating to under 16s – from juvenile court cases to a ‘right and respect for’a family life under the European Convention. Journalists at every level should keep up to date with shifts within these fast-changing parameters.
The Press Complaints Commission‘s editorial code of practice also offers clear guidance on what is and isn’t acceptable in pursuit of an interview with a child.
Included in the points are:
â€¢ Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary
â€¢ A child under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.
The most pressing issue can be how to get your interviewee to actually say something and – even better than that – something that adds to your piece.
Journalist Eleanor Patrick, who is also a school counsellor, says you have to make sure young people fully understand what you are doing and be prepared for them to possibly change their mind.
She says: ‘Open-ended questions can work well in these circumstances – it may take longer to get what you want, but they are far less threatening and you’re not putting words into their mouth.
‘Children tend to want to please and are used to doing and saying what adults want, so they can feel pressured, and you can end up supplying them with the answer, if you’re not careful.
‘Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, you should also be mindful of protecting the child’s best interests.
‘This means that you should bear in mind the consequences for them of printing anything they may have unwisely said.
‘It’s also a good idea to explain to them that their view is crucial to the article – that you value their views and you aren’t just ‘using’ them. It is somewhat unethical to include their view merely as ‘decoration’.”
My colleague at Passionate Media, Helen Moffat, is a former chief reporter at the Wolverhampton Express & Star who writes for a range of women’s, parenting and education titles.
‘Where it becomes difficult is when the story is about a tragedy they have been involved in, and you are asking them to relive something painful,’she says.
‘Children can also often include lots of irrelevant details in stories too, and need a bit of steering back on to the subject.”
Moffat echoes Patrick’s advice on putting the child at ease.
She says: ‘Ensure they are somewhere comfortable and accompanied by an adult they trust. It is often more difficult getting them to speak in front of their parents, but you have to find ways of breaking the tension, talking about things away from the subject and lightening the mood as much as you can.’
Linda Jones is the author of The Greatest Freelance Writing Tips in the World