When a Reporter Calls
As an editor for Represent, a magazine written by teens in foster care, I sometimes felt besieged by requests from reporters looking to interview them. For a while Represent had no set policy for handling these requests, and I deliberated, sometimes painstakingly, over each one.
One of the organization’s goals, I knew, was to get teen voices heard as often as possible. Having writers quoted in stories was certainly one way to do that. On the other hand, Represent writers come to the organization to tell their stories in their own words, not to have their views interpreted for them by yet another adult. So each time a request arrived I went through the same consuming process of weighing the pros and cons to decide how to respond.
Staff at most youth media organizations find themselves in this position at one time or another. Reporters often want young people quoted in their stories but don’t know where to find them. In the best of worlds, making young people available for interviews is a good way to secure publicity for your organization while helping to get teens better represented in the press.
At Represent, a few reporters who interviewed our staff carefully quoted the young people in thoughtful, analytic stories that went a long way toward helping the public understand life in the system. In particular, an Associated Press article (here via CentreDaily.com) on some of our writers who’d once been labeled “crack babies” ended up in over 50 papers, attracting publicity for us while exposing the damage caused by labelling kids.
But there’s no guarantee that you’ll like what the reporter writes, that your organization will be credited in the story, or that the interviews themselves won’t cause problems with the young people you work with.
It seems ethically questionable to ask young people to divulge personal details about their lives to a stranger who promptly disappears once the story goes to press.
One reporter whom I helped fairly extensively while editing Represent ended up taking a position on child welfare that I found offensive. Another time, a TV show’s search for the right kid to interview spawned competition among my writers as they jockeyed to get on prime time, disrupting the newsroom’s normally congenial feel. And it almost always seemed ethically questionable to me to ask young people to divulge personal, often difficult details about their lives to a stranger who promptly disappears once the story goes to press.
To get an idea of how others in the field handle this tricky terrain, I talked with a handful of staff at other youth media organizations. Many of the newer organizations, I found, seem content treating requests from reporters on a case-by-case basis. But as an organization grows, requests come rolling in, especially if a group is working with a particular population that reporters have difficulty accessing, like kids in foster care or teens caught up in the juvenile justice system. At this juncture, most organizations find it helpful to form a few guidelines to fall back on when a reporter calls.
Having a clear mission helps many organizations determine how to respond to media requests. Like Youth Radio, a number of groups aim to ensure that young people are “the ones telling the story themselves, as a reporter,” explains Youth Radio news director and international desk editor Nishat Kurwa. With this in mind, staff at Youth Radio generally decline requests from reporters wanting to interview teens, though they do make young people available to speak on panels or to be interviewed as reporters themselves. “For the most part, we let them be in that outlet, telling that story instead of an adult,” says Kurwa.
Pacific News Service shares the view that teens should not be mere sources, but should be telling the stories themselves. Pacific News Service posts teen-written stories on its wire service alongside those written by adults, where other outlets can pick them up.
Children’s PressLine maintains a healthy sense of competition with more traditional news outlets. Executive Director Katina Paron expects reporters knocking on her organization’s door to acknowledge that the organization is set up to work with young people in a way that is more respectful and comprehensive than a reporter’s usual “hit-and-run” approach to getting quotes from teens. When a reporter requests an interview, Paron suggests that her own young reporters do the interview for them. Though reporters usually decline this offer, Paron allows them to interview her young people only if they identify them as journalists for Children’s PressLine.
Laura McCargar, executive director of Youth Rights Media, considers it “a win anytime we have a young person quoted in any form of mainstream press.” The organization’s mission views youth-made media as a tool for organizing and generating social change. “One of the bigger, systemic things that we’re looking at is ways in which young people have opportunities to contribute to mainstream dialogue and discourse,” explains McCargar.
All of the organizations I talked with take measures to protect young people who speak with reporters. Steve Goodman, executive director of the Educational Video Center describes his staff’s attitude toward the press as “skeptical” and “a protective one with our students.” An EVC staff member is usually present when reporters interview teens, says Goodman, though reporters who have earned the staff’s trust do get greater access.
Ken Ikeda of Youth Sounds never gives out information on youth directly, no matter how well his organization knows a reporter. McCargar at Youth Rights Media extensively prepares her teens for each interview, and Ginger Thompson, executive director of Youth Noise, requires all young people interviewed from the site’s advisory board to have parental permission. Donna Myrow of the teen-written newspaper LA Youth requires reporters to submit interview requests in writing for the teens to read.
At Represent, we eventually formed some rough guidelines for handling reporters’ requests. We decided to almost always say “no” to requests from journalism students, who frequently called. We figured that if a teen was going to open up to a reporter, we needed a guarantee that the story was going to be widely distributed. If a reporter wanted to write about the writer’s work at the magazine, we usually said yes. We also generally granted interviews if the reporter was from a news source that we trusted and felt could have a large impact, whether or not the story mentioned our magazine. Otherwise, we politely explained that it was not the mission of the magazine to make our young people available to reporters and instead encouraged them to quote liberally from the magazine.
Often I’d fax the journalists teen-written articles on the subjects they were researching, and a handful of reporters did quote from those stories. This thrilled me—the reporter got a teen voice in the story while still respecting the teens’ right to carefully choose their own words, and both the teens and the organization received proper credit. It seemed like the best of all worlds. After all, building support for an organization, as well as for the youth media field, means not only pushing to get young voices heard, but making sure youth media’s contributions receive due recognition.
Determining when (and when not) to grant interviews with young people can be tricky.