It is way too common to find a news story about education that omits—intentionally or otherwise—student perspectives. As the most-significantly impacted group by the education system, any story that doesn’t include, if not center, student voices is not doing its job.
While not every story will need minors as interview subjects, their perspectives are meaningful and should not be overlooked or disregarded. But it’s important that we balance the need to hear more youth voices in the news with caution and care to protect youth sources from unnecessary harm. So what is the most effective way for journalists to elevate youth voices without being patronizing or exploitative?
Here’s my advice on youth reporting pulled from my experience as a teacher at Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, NY, an after school educator in New York City, and the 2022 editorial engagement intern with Bloc By Block News.
Finding youth for stories: Don’t approach the parents or guardians like “man-on-the-street” sources. Interrupting families because you need a quote is a sure way to create a negative first impression. I’ve found that a good way to connect with kids for a story is by formally asking adults who work with young people (or family members).
If you want to interview students for a story about climate change, for example, reach out to leaders or spokespeople at climate-justice focused organizations or a science teacher at a local school who can refer students who might be interested.
While finding potential sources this way does limit the students you reach—and has potential to filter out kids who are labeled as misunderstood, uninformed, inarticulate, and so forth—you can always crowdsource additional youth sources on social media or from other kids that you’re put in touch with.
Getting consent from under-age sources: Consent is key for any interview. I’ve learned that this is especially true when working with young people in Baltimore, where parents’ distrust of the media is both prevalent and fair.
In addition to reminding the child and their parent or guardian that the interview will be recorded, you should also use paper consent waivers whenever possible. This protects you, your source, and the news organization you are working with. The devil is in the details, so allow your youth subject extra time to review the waiver and ask questions before beginning the interview. If you’re a freelancer and you’re not sure where the story will land yet, be clear about that with the minor and parent/guardian.
At the conclusion of the interview, inform the child and their parent/guardian that once the story is published, it will be very difficult (or unlikely) for you to update the story or remove it. Depending on the sensitivity of the interview and the age of the minor, you may share their quotes that you will use in the story for accuracy and to ensure they are aware of what to expect.
Covering basic interview questions, and beyond: Be sure to ask youth sources their first and last names, including how to spell and pronounce it. Ask their preferred pronouns, age, and grade. Ask them to identify their race, cultural, or enthic background (don’t assume). Ask them to identify the neighborhood they live in—or for privacy purposes, perhaps just their city or state. If you’re writing an education story, ask for their school name (if it’s relevant). Finally, ask if there is anything special or unique that a reader should know about them.
Protecting youth sources: Children are, naturally, more vulnerable than adults, and students are on the lesser side of a lopsided power-dynamic in schools. They could face retaliation for elevating concerns or unfavorable opinions about their school and its leadership.
With this in mind, take special care with your youth sources. If a child has a story to share but fears consequences for doing so, consider providing anonymity. If a student does not want to share their school name, ask if they’ll share off the record (be sure to explain what that means) for internal verification purposes.
Editors should understand that students may be concerned about retaliation from their school or judgment from their peers and will allow you to keep the school name anonymous. If you promised the student the school name will remain off-the-record, do not include the school name even if your editor insists. From my experience, it’s better to search for a new source than break your promise to a student when you may be their first interaction with a journalist.
Treating minors with respect: The young people you interview and report on are sharing their story with you. They are the experts of their experiences and many are bubbling with input that is rarely taken seriously by adults. As a former teacher, I witnessed how many kids with great ideas are disregarded, intentionally and otherwise. Kids deal with enough condescension from other adults in their life, so avoid patronizing them. Practice active listening and empathize with their position. You have a responsibility to them, beyond learning something for your reporting.
Making participation fun: If you’re preparing to host a table as a vendor at a community event like I did in early August, make your booth entertaining for children. The first guardian+kid pair that approached our table during No Boundaries Coalition’s Night Out basketball game asked if there were any prizes for answering my questions about their information needs and education priorities.
Offering a reward or turning the survey experience into a game would have been a great incentive to encourage more kids to answer my questions. Most were enjoying the event, playing sports, and running around with their friends. They didn’t want to fill out a survey. But I bet a box of treats would have gone a long way. I also considered making my info-collection process more collaborative by offering to co-create TikTok news stories on the spot with interested kids (with parental consent). Creative, age-appropriate engagement is an important asset when sourcing young subjects.
Creating news that is accessible for a youth audience: In order to make more news for kids, journalists need to make their final products accessible to all ages. That may mean telling stories on alternative platforms or in a variety of formats. It may mean using language that doesn’t require an advanced reading level. It could mean exploring unique ways to distribute the story when and where kids are more likely to see it. Do what you can to make sure minors have access to the information you are reporting, especially when it’s their own stories.
At Bloc by Block News, we started that process by expanding onto TikTok. We also attend events, both in-person and virtually, creating new pathways to source-building and information distribution.
Before finishing the interview: Ask them what else they’d like to share that your questions have not addressed—a traditional journalistic approach that, even with minors, often leads to some of the most valuable quotes. Ask them what they hope a reader/watcher/listener will take away from this story.
Sharing your contact information: Leave an email, phone number, or social media handle so your sources can reach you. While “on-the-record” typically means anything that was said is fair game for journalists to use in their story, I typically tell kids that if they have second thoughts and want to correct an answer or add to it, they can reach out at any time before the story comes out. I also provide them a time frame for when I expect the article to be published.
Centering the concerns, not the voices: Prior to beginning your story, ensure you know who your intended audience is. All too often, when kids are interviewed, journalists use their quotes in a story that is intended for an adult audience. To avoid extractive journalism, center youth as the intended audience, elevating their concerns. Adults can still be an aspect of the intended audience—after all, if you are trying to craft a piece with legislative impact, you will need to reach the people in power. But if you choose this latter route, ensure you give space and time for your youth sources to inform the story. Their perspectives will help shape your vision for what the final product will look like.
Providing a platform for kids to hold those in power accountable: With few exceptions, students have little power and influence over their experience in their schools, at home, and in other spaces—unlike politicians, school board officials, and teachers who determine education budgets, learning conditions, and curriculums. The media should always aim to ensure these individuals are using their power to benefit the minors they serve. Equally important, your goal should be to provide a platform for minors to hold the people who have power over their lives accountable.
Editorial Disclaimer: Reporting for this story was provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and we thank them for their support. However, the findings and conclusions presented in this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.