While young people under the age of 18 constitute a third of the world’s population, media rarely listens to them or gives them a voice. Developments with global implications – from climate change and the pandemic, to the war in Ukraine – have just as much impact on the youth as they have on adults, but mainstream media often turns a blind eye to the needs of the former. To tackle this issue, the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria) and its partners dedicated the first edition of its new Sofia Talks Media format on the specificities of reporting for children and young adults.
In the first half of the conference journalists that specialize in working with youth audience discussed the specificities of reporting on children, producing child-friendly news and how to engage young people that often disconnect from the news reality.
The moderator of the first panel, Irene Caselli, who is senior adviser at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, highlighted the ethical issues linked to reporting on young people. “Reporting on children usually has to be done slowly and more thoughtfully,” she said. AEJ-Bulgaria’s Boryana Dzahmbazova pointed out the importance of preparation: “Do your homework and consider the ethical dilemmas you might face in advance. Talk to parents, get consent early, think about the possible issues way before you get to the field, consider what is the best way to ask your questions.”
However, this sensitive approach is not always the one that media opts for. Gabriella Jozwiak, UK-based freelance journalist, recollected the early days of her engagement with youth reporting. “I worked for a youth therapy center in the UK and I found out that not only does the media not really focus on children, but when it does, it is on their “anti-social behavior.” They did not even have the right to reply,” she said.
Her colleague, Romanian freelance author Oana Sandu, who has worked with children living in extreme poverty and victims of domestic violence, gave several essential tips for such journalists. According to her, reporters who venture into covering youth stories can consider using illustrations of the children instead of photos; they ought to never use real names or only refer to their subjects with their first name; never try to interview 5-6-year-olds directly as it might be traumatic, but instead turn to their caregiver or psychologist. “This is also good for the caregivers – because they are rarely asked how they themselves feel in the aftermath of a traumatic situation,” Sandu added.
Sandu also underlined that journalists need to change their mindset when it comes to writing about young people: “In Romania we often write about children as if they are the property of their parents. They have secondary roles in stories,” she said. Gabriella Jozwiak’s experience with reporting in conflict zones resonated with her Romanian colleague’s experience. She found out that, in Ukraine, even orphans sometimes could not rely on the adults, as their caregivers themselves are traumatized. That can lead to a life of mental health problems.
All panelists pointed out why writing for small children is essential. “There is this misconception that children under the age of 5 don’t have memory of traumatic events, but now we have scientific confirmation this is, on the contrary, a formative time for them,” Irene Caselli said.
The second panel focused on the production of child-friendly news and the importance of kids not being shielded from the truth. Iskra Djanabetska, co-founder of Vijte.bg – a Bulgarian media platform for children aged 7-14 – described how her platform has been focusing on gamifying media content, in addition to translating the news of the adults into the language of children. She recalled how, when the war in Ukraine started, Vijte.bg asked children what they wanted to know about the topic. “The reaction from the general public surprised me – it was as if they wanted to shield children from the war altogether. The Bulgarian parent is very protective of their own children,” Djanabetska said.
According to her, complete shielding is impossible: “Children have their own channels of consuming media. One of it is advertising, which is not exactly news, but a way they consume information. We need to consider this,” she said, concluding that all parents should know that children can sense a lie and “if you treat them like babies, you are losing their trust.”
That is a consideration that Karin Wesselink, the editor of Kidsweek.nl, a Dutch media platform and a journalist with over 20 years of experience in interviewing children, also shares. She thinks that the artificial exclusion of young people from media reporting is a problem and has to be tackled. “I feel that, if children see themselves in the newspaper, they feel like part of society. If you feel part of society, it will make you more secure, it will boost your self-esteem. When adults are worried, then maybe children are even more worried,” she said, adding that, when approaching minors, is all about respect – “behave with them as individuals, it is crucial to find the right tone.”
Both panelists agreed that a news portal dedicated to young children ought to combine difficult subjects with fun one in order to offer comfort and hope to the young readers.