Guidelines for journalists

UNICEF’s ethical guidelines for journalists reporting on children and young people.

UNICEF
UNICEF/China/2018/Xia Yong

Reporting on children and young people has its special challenges. In some instances the act of reporting on children places them or other children at risk of retribution or stigmatization.

UNICEF has developed these principles to assist journalists as they report on issues affecting children. They are offered as guidelines that UNICEF believes will help media to cover children in an age-appropriate and sensitive manner. The guidelines are meant to support the best intentions of ethical reporters: serving the public interest without compromising the rights of children.

Principles

  1. The dignity and rights of every child are to be respected in every circumstance.
  2. In interviewing and reporting on children, special attention is to be paid to each child's right to privacy and confidentiality, to have their opinions heard, to participate in decisions affecting them and to be protected from harm and retribution, including the potential of harm and retribution.
  3. The best interests of each child are to be protected over any other consideration, including over advocacy for children's issues and the promotion of child rights.
  4. When trying to determine the best interests of a child, the child's right to have their views taken into account are to be given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity.
  5. Those closest to the child's situation and best able to assess it are to be consulted about the political, social, and cultural ramifications of any reportage.
  6. Do not publish a story or an image which might put the child, siblings, or peers at risk even when identities are changed, obscured, or not used.

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Guidelines for interviewing children

  1. Do no harm to any child; avoid questions, attitudes or comments that are judgmental, insensitive to cultural values, that place a child in danger or expose a child to humiliation, or that reactivate a child's pain and grief from traumatic events.
  2. Do not discriminate in choosing children to interview because of sex, race, age, religion, status, educational background or physical abilities.
  3. No staging: Do not ask children to tell a story or take an action that is not part of their own history.
  4. Ensure that the child or guardian knows they are talking with a reporter. Explain the purpose of the interview and its intended use.
  5. Obtain permission from the child and his or her guardian for all interviews, videotaping and, when possible, for documentary photographs. When possible and appropriate, this permission should be in writing. Permission must be obtained in circumstances that ensure that the child and guardian are not coerced in any way and that they understand that they are part of a story that might be disseminated locally and globally. This is usually only ensured if the permission is obtained in the child's language and if the decision is made in consultation with an adult the child trusts.
  6. Pay attention to where and how the child is interviewed. Limit the number of interviewers and photographers. Try to make certain that children are comfortable and able to tell their story without outside pressure, including from the interviewer. In film, video and radio interviews, consider what the choice of visual or audio background might imply about the child and her or his life and story. Ensure that the child would not be endangered or adversely affected by showing their home, community, or general whereabouts.

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Guidelines for reporting on children

  1. Do not further stigmatize any child; avoid categorisations or descriptions that expose a child to negative reprisals - including additional physical or psychological harm, or lifelong abuse, discrimination or rejection by their local communities.
  2. Always provide an accurate context for the child's story or image.
  3. Always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child who is identified as:
    • A victim of sexual abuse or exploitation,
    • A perpetrator of physical or sexual abuse,
    • HIV positive, or living with AIDS, unless the child, a parent or a guardian gives fully informed consent,
    • Charged or convicted of a crime.
  4. In certain circumstances of risk or potential risk of harm or retribution, change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child who is identified as:
    • A current or former child combatant,
    • An asylum seeker, a refugee or an internal displaced person.
  5. In certain cases, using a child's identity - their name and/or recognizable image - is in the child's best interests. However, when the child's identity is used, they must still be protected against harm and supported through any stigmatization or reprisals.
    Some examples of these special cases are:
    • When a child initiates contact with the reporter, wanting to exercise their right to freedom of expression and their right to have their opinion heard.
    • When a child is part of a sustained programme of activism or social mobilization and wants to be so identified.
    • When a child is engaged in a psychosocial programme and claiming their name and identity is part of their healthy development.
  6. Confirm the accuracy of what the child has to say, either with other children or an adult, preferably with both.
  7. When in doubt about whether a child is at risk, report on the general situation for children rather than on an individual child, no matter how newsworthy the story.

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'Best interests of the child'

The question of whether or how to protect a subject's identity is an editorial judgment that must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In all cases, though, it should be based on the primacy of the ‘best interests of the child.' This standard is the foundation of many national laws governing child protection and an over-arching principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

 To evaluate the need for identity protection of at-risk children, it helps to ask: If this were your child, would you permit her or his identity to be revealed in the context of a specific abuse, or with the potential for stigma?

Besides serving as a useful rule of thumb, this question promotes a view of every child – personally known or not, far away or close to home – as worthy of the same rights as all other children.

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Why identity protection is needed

The need for greater identity protection for some children became increasingly evident in international reporting during the 1990s. There were two main reasons for this: first, a rise in the number of conflicts that targeted civilians, including children; and second, a heightened awareness of the full range of children's rights and their violation.

Some of the most egregious forms of violation include forcing children into armed conflict or sexually exploiting them. Children who suffer these abuses may risk being traumatized or stigmatized if their identities are publicly disclosed. The same holds true for children who are HIV-positive, or those who are charged or convicted of crimes.

UNICEF supports rigorous media coverage of child rights violations because reporting is crucial to raise awareness of their existence and advocate for putting a stop to them. But advocating against human rights abuses can also put individual children at risk of additional physical or psychological harm.

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When to protect identities

"We have witnessed many instances where children have been further endangered or stigmatized after their stories are published,” notes UNICEF's Chief of Child Protection, Susan Bissell. “Protecting against this requires that reporting on children in high-risk situations also respects their individual rights to privacy, to participate in decisions affecting them, and to protection.”

To ensure respect for these rights, UNICEF's internal policies and external guidelines call for protecting the identities of children whenever publication of their stories may put them at risk.

UNICEF policy also requires that requests for identity protection from any child (or the child's guardian) must be respected in all circumstances – whether or not they involve sexual exploitation, HIV/AIDS, criminal justice or child combatants.

Protecting the visual identities of child victims of sexual abuse has long been broadly supported; indeed, such protection is mandated by many countries' national laws. This is partly because pornography (a visual depiction of sexual exploitation) is often an aspect of the abuse. Publishing the identities of sex abuse victims further exposes an intimate suffering that can deepen the sense of powerlessness and humiliation caused by the original violation.

In many communities around the world, identifying victims further stigmatizes them and increases their risk of future abuses.

Nevertheless, stopping sexual exploitation requires documentation of its pervasiveness. And cultural taboos against publicizing or even acknowledging the existence of sexual abuse can increase risks and give victims little recourse when it happens.

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Imagery that protects children

To address the challenge of protecting the visual identities of children at risk, UNICEF works with professional photographers and videographers who have demonstrated a key point: Imagery that fully protects the subject's identity can be as powerful and convincing as any other approach to documenting abuses.

Creating such imagery often means allowing children to participate in the act of protection – by, for example, turning away from the camera or covering their faces. The result, far from being banal or evasive, dramatically represents the situation of at-risk children, underscoring the need for protection while also preserving their dignity.

UNICEF imagery that provides this level of protection demonstrates the power of photography and videography to document harsh realities while safeguarding child rights.

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When identities are revealed

The principle of a child's best interests also recognizes instances where risks are weighed and found to be in favour of publishing identities. This is the case with child advocates who choose to take a public stance on a potentially high-risk subject. Some former child soldiers, for example, testify openly to the brutality of their past experiences.

In such cases, children have a right to express themselves and participate in issues that directly affect them. Still, efforts must be made – especially when children remain in the community where the abuse occurred – to ensure that they understand the implications of their decision to speak out.

In the end, UNICEF's position comes down to this: Protection against harm must be the over-riding premise for all interactions with children, including reporting.

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Non-sensational coverage of child soldiers

A parallel dynamic is at work in documenting the issue of child soldiers.

Media reports exposing the use of child combatants make a vital contribution to greater awareness of this gross exploitation and the global campaign to stop it. But to ensure that individual children are shielded against possible reprisals, stigma or worse, UNICEF protects the identities of all former or current child soldiers judged to be at risk.

This policy also protects against the sensational use of images that show armed child soldiers acting or posing as aggressors – including all those holding weapons.

Of course, armed child soldiers are threatening and dangerous (and are often drugged or otherwise de-sensitized to the damage they can do). As children, however, they are also, by definition, forced combatants. While recognizing the importance of reporting on them, UNICEF emphasizes their status as children and coerced victims, a status that is much harder to emphasize if they are represented in sensationalized ways.

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Use of UNICEF materials

All of UNICEF materials are protected by copyright, including text, photographs, images and videotapes. Permission to reproduce any UNICEF material must be requested from the originating UNICEF office, and will be only be granted on the condition that the principles and guidelines in this document are adhered to.

Sources: The Convention on the Rights of the Child; Child Rights and the Media: Guidelines for Journalists, International Federation of Journalists; Media and Children in Need of Special Protection, (internal document), UNICEF's Division of Communication; Second International Consultation on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, United Nations Secretary-General.

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