Media portrayal of children has a profound impact on attitudes to children and childhood, and is an important influence on adults’ behaviour towards children.
Media depictions provide role models for young people, influencing their attitudes and expectations. The way in which the media represent, or even ignore children can influence decisions taken on their behalf, and how the rest of society regards them.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, the media’s portrayal of children perpetuates a collection of myths:
- Families in developing countries, children living in poverty and victims of war and disaster lose their individuality and humanity. They are often portrayed as helpless sufferers, unable to act, think or speak for themselves.
- Coverage of children’s issues tends to focus on the sensational while ignoring the broad array of issues confronting children, as outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- Media reports about children are often one-off stories, with little or no analysis or follow-up.
- Children’s confidentiality is not always respected.
- When children do feature in the news, they are often portrayed as stereotypes such as ‘starving children in Africa’ and ‘irresponsible teenagers’.
Stories of child abuse, children involved in crime and street children tend to dominate, while the broader issues of children’s rights, such as the right to play, recreation and sport, or the right to be free from discrimination, are often not regarded as newsworthy. The result is an unbalanced impression of ‘children as victims’, or ‘children as dangerous’.
Gabriel Kessler, sociologist and researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research, says: "The media give scant thought to the important role they play, to how they can generate fear among society. I wouldn’t say that the media’s largely irresponsible coverage of juvenile delinquency is the primary cause of the excessive punishment meted out by the police. But it seems to me that the press outlets operate through hypotheses, completely discredited by scientific studies, that in some way lend support to that legitimation. They report from the perspective of the lost youth, hooked on drugs, unemployed, a career offender, and this can legitimate – even it is not explicitly mentioned in the coverage – the perception that the offending youth needs to be removed from society."
Do not publish a story or an image which might put the child, siblings or peers at risk even when identities are changed, obscured or not used.
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.
Do not discriminate in choosing children to interview because of sex, race, age, religion, status, educational background or physical abilities.
No staging: Do not ask children to tell a story or take an action that is not part of their own history.
Ensure that the child or guardian knows they are talking with a reporter. Explain the purpose of the interview and its intended use.
Obtain permission from the child and his or her guardian for all interviews, videotaping and, when possible, for photographs. The request should be made in his/her language and, where possible, permission should be in writing. They should understand the article may be distributed locally, nationally and internationally and permission should not be coerced.
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 without outside pressure, including from the interviewer. Ensure that the child would not be endangered or adversely affected by showing their home, community or general whereabouts.
Do not further stigmatise any child; avoid categorisations or descriptions that expose a child to negative reprisals - including additional physical or psychological harm, or to lifelong abuse, discrimination or rejection by their local communities.
Always provide an accurate context for the child's story or image.
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 there is informed consent,
charged or convicted of a crime.
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, or an asylum seeker, a refugee or an internally displaced person.
In certain cases, using a child's identity - their name and/or recognisable 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 stigmatisation or reprisals.
Confirm the accuracy of what the child has to say, either with other children or an adult, preferably with both.
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.
Verify the credentials of any organisation purporting to speak for or to represent the interests of children;
Do not make payment to children for material involving the welfare of children or to parents or guardians of children unless it is demonstrably in the interest of the child.
NOTES: Compiled from the International Federation of Journalists' (IFJ) Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Issues Involving Children
UNICEF’s reporting guidlines to protect at-risk children
Putting children in the right: Guidelines for journalists and media professionals
Journalists talk about media violence against children (Save the Children Norway)
The media and children's rights: A resource for journalists by journalists (UNICEF)
Interviewing children. A guide for journalists and others (Save the Children UK)
Checklist on child-friendly media (Children's Rights Centre, South Africa)
Reporting on children in the context of HIV/AIDS - a journalist's resource (Various, South Africa)