Family separation at the U.S. border had been widely reported at the local and national levels. But it wasn’t until a ProPublica reporter obtained audio of children wailing inside a detention center that the story spurred widespread action. Within ten days, a federal judge ordered a halt to the policy.
What cut through? The voices of children.
Figuring out how to capture and make public the voices of children in poverty inspired the Annie E. Casey Foundation to sponsor Poynter’s workshop, “Growing Up Poor: Covering Children of Color Living in Poverty in the South.” States in the southwest and southeast — regions with the lowest levels of household income — ranked lowest overall for child well being, according to the Foundation’s 2017 Kids Count study.
Led by Chicago Tribune reporter Lolly Bowean, the workshop explored techniques for covering these vulnerable populations.
“I think constantly about Lolly's opening statements and representing children in the stories that I tell,” wrote Tessa Duvall, enterprise reporter at The Florida Times-Union, in the workshop’s follow-up survey. “Not just by telling their stories, but by making sure that THEY have a voice, especially when it comes to things that are directly about them.”
Including children in the reporting process is time-consuming and tricky. It can take months to identify which children represent the story and build trust with both them and their parents. When children live in poverty, there are additional complexities. They might not have stable housing. Their parents might be concerned that someone will take them away. Trauma, shame and self-blame might inhibit your sources’ willingness to talk.
It’s worth the effort, though.
“We want to write about kids because we want to have a full reflection of life,” said Joan Garrett McClane, award-winning staff writer for the Times Free Press. “When we tell stories about things that affect kids, it gets our hearts engaged in the news in a way they wouldn’t otherwise.”
Below are reporting, storytelling and self-care tips for journalists tackling the topic.
Reporting: Focus on the parents as much, if not more, than their kids
“The number one thing is to build rapport and trust with the parents,” said Bowean.
Often, journalists get access to children through nonprofits or social services. Though parents may have signed a release for their child to talk to you, and they may be hard to reach, McClane urges reporters to connect with them. You don’t want families to feel used. “Just because they don’t have the resources, doesn’t mean that they aren’t ferociously protective of their kids,” said McClane. “Honor the parents. Kids are not isolated. They have roots.”
Gaining access to parents may be tough, but building trust with them is harder.
To overcome their reluctance to talk, Bowean recommends asking parents up front what scares them. Maybe the family lives in one district, their kids go to school in another and they don’t want their kids to be transferred. Maybe their sister lives with them, but she’s not on the lease and they’re afraid they’ll lose their apartment. What may seem a small detail to you, may be devastating for them.
Beyond these types of insecurities, families may also have intertwined structures. For example, Hispanic or Native American children have stronger ties with their extended family. Cousins are as important as siblings, and grandparents are as influential as parents. Understanding how families operate can help you build trust — and with the right people.
When it comes to reporting on the children themselves, be patient.
“It’s hard to tell good, accurate stories about kids. They’re not in touch with themselves yet,” said McClane. “You have to watch it unfold instead of the kid telling you.”
Bowean advised, “Don’t expect to have an interview over a kitchen table. Ride with them in the car, take a walk or go to the playground.”
At the end of the day, “If your inquiries fall flat, get someone to vouch for you,” said Felicia Fonseca, an AP reporter who covers Native Americans in the Southwest and was one of the instructors at Poynter’s workshop.
Storytelling: Ask yourself who you’re letting tell the story
There’s an art to giving voice to the voiceless. Fonseca said it’s a balance between respecting the culture and community and your obligation to your readers.
- Think about the first quote. Who gets to speak first?
- Who is this story really about, and are you letting them tell it?
- It’s not just what the child says, but what they do while they’re saying it. Be descriptive.
- How much is too much information? Are you making vulnerable people more vulnerable?
- Be cautious with labels. Consider taking “poor” and “poverty” out of it, McClane said, in favor of being more specific.
Practicing self-care: Be honest with yourself, your boss and your sources
Covering children, especially in harrowing situations, is taxing. Lines between professional and personal get blurry. McClane reflected on this in her behind-the-scenes article about her yearlong, immersive reporting on poverty in Chattanooga.
What’s her advice for other journalists?
Radical transparency. Keep sources updated with a story’s progress. Let them know who else is being interviewed. Even read them the story before it’s published.
“This strategy obviously cannot be applied across the board, but we don’t employ this strategy enough when we’re reporting on the community,” said McClane. “What creates a lot of anxiety for journalists is withholding information…I don’t play games. I feel like it’s earned me trust in a weird way. We’ve got to go the extra mile with our honesty and openness and be a little vulnerable with what we’re doing.”
This extends to being honest with yourself, said McClane. After you publish the story, do you need to ask for a break? Do you need to unpack in counseling? Allow yourself time to recover.
McClane also recommended that you keep supervisors in the loop during reporting and involve them in strategy. “When I hit that crossroads in my reporting, I called my supervisor and asked if they thought my gut was right. She backed me up even though we had to change the story.”
Learning from others: Read stories that uplift children's voices
Below is a sample of work from the participants in Poynter’s workshop, along with their comments about how their reporting on children impacted their community.
“I applied what I learned in the [Poynter] seminar by making sure that the students were at the center of our story and that their voices weren’t lost in the article. Their video testimonies made our story more powerful.”
— Brenda Medina, reporter, El Nuevo Herald, Miami Herald
“I interviewed an 11-year-old boy who was inside the home (although we chose to leave that detail out and conceal his identity for safety reasons). His voice in the story helped shape how it was told, and gave viewers not in this neighborhood a glimpse at the impact gun violence has on our city's kids.”
— Zach Crenshaw, general assignment reporter, FOX13 News – Cox Media
“The Poynter seminar has pushed me to make sure that youth voices are amplified in this work. Who better to say why children do what they do than the children themselves?”
— Tessa Duvall, enterprise reporter, The Florida Times-Union
“We don’t hear from children enough in our stories about the economy. Their voices are often missing from the public record and they are among the most vulnerable among us.”
— Crystal Chavez, “All Things Considered” host, reporter, WMFE 90.7 FM
“I wrote about a youth-led town hall on gun violence after the Parkland shooting and tried to remember the ideas of letting children speak and taking them at their word as they shared their experiences.”
— Lance Dixon, storytelling producer, The New Tropic
“This unfortunately does not include teen voices, despite an extensive series of attempts to get someone on the record. However, it broke the news of what until then had been a hush-hush pattern of unlawfully refusing to enroll low-income refugee students in Glendale.”
— Maria Polletta, state government and politics reporter, The Arizona Republic