Covering Kids

Julee Newberger
May 3, 2002

Chances are the last time you heard about a kid on the news or read about one in a magazine or newspaper, it was a bad news story. Research shows that kids appear in the news most often as victims or perpetrators—and when they do, the stories rarely include information that would allow the reader or viewer to understand the context of the event.

A February 2002 study by the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families tracked stories about five key children's issues in 12 major daily newspapers and on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN over a 3-month period. More than 90 percent of the stories on these issues focused on youth crime and violence or abuse and neglect. Out of that 90 percent, fewer than one in 20 provided information on broader patterns and trends. (The study did not include stories on schools and education, though it did include stories on child care.)

Statistics will tell you that violent crime committed by youths in our country is at its lowest since 1986. Any kid can tell you that more young people are doing positive things, from volunteering to helping others in need, than turning to violence or crime. But the picture of kids in the news still tends to be bleak.

Comment What would young people like us to know about their lives, and why do they think adults don't always get the big picture about kids? We asked three reporters from Children's Pressline in New York to tell us how they'd like to see children depicted in the news. They are Nicole Bournas-Nay, 15, Kibuchi Banfield, 15, and Tomica Kipp, 17.

What do you think of the results of the Casey report on how the media covers kids?
Kibuchi Banfield: I think it's very true. I was at this meeting with a couple of students and we were talking about a specific area of Brooklyn and this teacher said, "That's such a bad area—it's always in the newspaper," (referring to kids crimes, gangs and things like that). No one has told them that there are positive things going on there, too.

Nicole Bournas-Nay: I guess I wasn't really surprised. That's basically what you'll see—they'll report one story about a child who commits a crime and you don't see a lot of context or anything else. I can't really recall one positive story.

Tomica Kipp: I think it depends on the situation and the way a reporter puts a story out to the general public. The reporter should ask the kids' permission in making a story, and if he or she agrees that the public should know certain facts about what really happens, then we need to protect a person's self-interest. I believe you should ask a person permission before you do story about a kid because sometimes a story can cause harm.

What kind of stories about kids would you like to see covered in the news?
KB: I actually don't mind negative stories. The only thing I don't like is that they're not adding on ways to help, not trying to attract attention to people that can help. Not every journalist can do it and people try to gain publicity, want to be on top, be the best, sometimes there are sacrifices. Some reporters probably don't like writing stories like that, but they do. All I can do is try to get [kids'] their voice out there to show that they really care. I want the media to not forget why they are doing the story. They must not forget that the story is being done to help solve the problem.

NB: I would like to see more media coverage in the style of "Upfront," which covers the whole range of stories from how girls are doing better than boys in school to a small news-bit on two high school basketball players who scored 100 and 101 points in a game on the same day.

TK: Stories where young people who are successful throughout their education and in society and are willing to speak out to other young people throughout the media, who will give readers the courage and strength to dream and aim for the sky.

In addition—stories on sex education because in today's society there are a lot of teenage parents who cannot take care of their offspring financially because of the lack of qualification for employment or lack of motivation.

What are some things to consider when interviewing kids?
KB: When you go to a kid as a reporter and you ask do they like to be interviewed, their first thought is they're going to be famous. Do they want to appeal to friends as sophisticated, nice people, or do they want to be "down"—blending in, not sticking out? They might say something incriminating because they live in areas where there is negative influence all around.

TK: News stories can be a negative influence for kids, but it can also influence them positively if they can learn from a peer's experience. In a situation like a school shooting, if it's reported well then other kids can see the outcome of the situation and they can learn from it and be motivated to deal with similar situations more maturely. They can turn away from bullying, report it and seek advice. Reporters should cover stories more fully so that kids can learn from other kids' mistakes.

What are the biggest challenges to reporting about kids' issues?
KB: Some kids aren't really open ... We stress we're trying to give kids a voice, but if kids aren't willing to give themselves a voice, we can't force them. We have to try our best to get out of them what they really want to say. They tend to be choreographed. They hear adults say things and they tend to repeat it— I recently learned when doing an interview, try to make them more comfortable because that's when they come out with real stuff.

TK: We have to protect kids. If we report on positive things about kids and other kids will be more motivated. The kid can be like a role model to classmates and other students in school.

What are some things you'd like adults to know about kids?
KB: Two words: We think.

NB: Not everything kids do that's newsworthy is always bad. Not getting kidnapped or shooting in a school or breaking the law. If you just watched news you'd think that was all kids did. There are always kids who are doing things for the environment or to help education, trying to do positive things. On the news you wouldn't get any of that.