When a Child Dies

How to Interview a Child About Death and Dying

Interviewing children is tough enough. Interviewing them about death and dying is far tougher.

“Death is a taboo subject,” reads a guide for parents (PDF) published by the National Institutes of Health. Many families shield their kids from the topic to avoid upsetting or confusing them.

For this and other reasons, children all too often go voiceless in stories about their own fatal medical conditions and coverage of other kids' deaths. If interviewed at all, they're frequently portrayed as cherubic angels or hapless victims rather than people who have a distinct and legitimate perspective. Reporting these stories in depth requires understanding how children see events and giving them a direct voice. This kind of journalism raises all types of legal and ethical issues, and involves thoughtful judgments about boundaries, confidentiality, safety, reliability and fairness. Doing it well is a tricky balance between letting children speak for themselves and making sure we're not exploiting them.

Let ethics and decency guide your way, even under the tightest deadline pressures or demands from editors to quote specific kids.

The first consideration is permission. A child in the U.S. is defined as anyone who's under 18. They may have mustaches or babies of their own. But, because they're still developing and vulnerable in many ways, they should be afforded greater privacy protections than adults. This is part of our social contract. We buy into it as people who happen to be journalists, no matter how big the story. There's no one-size-fits-all standard for which interviews of which kids require parental permission. In some cases, it's obvious that a child needs a trusted adult at his or her side. Other cases aren't so clear. Especially with breaking news, kids may not know the ramifications of their comments. They may not realize that being interviewed could put them at risk as witnesses, suspects, recipients of programs and members in good standing in their community. As a rule, consider what your response would be if this were your kid being approached for an interview about something as lofty as death. Ask yourself if you would give permission.

Such judgments require not only basic ethics, but also an understanding of what kids comprehend about mortality at what ages. Pre-school children generally see death as temporary and reversible. “Watching cartoon characters on television miraculously recover after being crushed or blown apart tends to reinforce this idea,” according to the NIH's “Talking to Children About Death” (PDF). Between ages 5 and 9, children typically begin realizing that death is final. “But they still do not see death as personal. They harbor the idea that somehow they can escape through their own ingenuity,” the NIH has found. From ages 9 or 10 up, kids begin to understand that death is irreversible and start the long process of coming to terms with their own mortality. These developmental markers need to figure into journalists' judgment calls. It's not our job, for example, to break the news to 5-year-old Jack that his big brother who just died in a hit-and-run is never really coming back. And it's not our role to plant doubts in the mind of a 16-year-old cancer patient about whether she'll make it to her prom.

Any contacts with children should begin with identifying yourself as a journalist and making sure they know why you're interested in their story. If an adult isn't present, take the extra step of handing them your business card to give to their parents. Ask if they have any questions for you, because they usually will. In many cases, you'll be the first journalist they'll have met. If you're a print reporter, they'll want to know if you're on TV. If you're on TV, they'll want to know if you're famous. And if you're famous — if only in their eyes — they may want to know if you've met Beyoncé or Tim Tebow. Some kids may ask if you'll pay for the interview. Make it clear from the start that's not how you work.

Clearly establish ground rules. Let children (and any adults present) know that they'll be quoted and what the implications of that may be. Unless you've agreed on conditions of anonymity and confidentiality, be very clear that their names will be used and that people they know may read or hear what they say. Assure them that they can take as long as they want to answer your questions, and urge them to express any concerns along the way. Although potentially frustrating — especially on deadline — children need to be able to change their minds about what they tell you or what they want printed or broadcast.

Be sensitive about where you conduct your interview. If you're on a street corner where a shooting just took place, don't stand around for the child to ogle the gory details. That said, be cognizant of boundaries as well as the perception of boundary issues. Try to avoid isolated spots. Remember that children are told not to go with strangers or share very personal information with people they don't know. Don't put them physically or emotionally at risk.

Try to keep the interview as low-tech as possible. Bright lights, big cameras and fuzzy microphones can be distracting and over-stimulating to kids. If it's necessary to bring equipment, let children explore it, look through the camera or even take pictures of you. Keep your crew as small as possible. One-on-one is ideal, though often impractical. If you need a photographer, videographer or translator, try to pick people who are used to working with children.

Getting kids to talk can be difficult. Ask open-ended — not yes or no — questions so they can speak freely without mimicking your language. Children are used to being controlled, prompted and censored by adults. Tell them that there's no correct answer, and no right or wrong way to respond to your questions. Studies find that children provide more accurate information when given the time to narrate their stories freely. Listening closely, making eye contact and not steering their responses will show them you value their perspective.

Don't talk babytalk, patronize or speak down to kids. And, to the other extreme, don't speak above their level or use words they don't know. They can smell insincerity a mile away. Take them seriously. If they're doing great, let them know. If they're shy or giggle nervously, say “I understand why you may feel funny talking with me about this stuff.” If a child doesn't want to talk, never push it. If the parents want the interview to continue nevertheless, heed the child's wishes.

In some interviews, children may be speaking about things (such as violence, trauma, death) they've never experienced or talked about before that day. In others, their answers may seem scripted and rehearsed. Be aware of which children adults are offering for interviews. Some may be hand-picked to speak especially favorably, for example, about the coach who lets his football players scrimmage without helmets. Ask yourself why certain children want to be interviewed. Be mindful of what may be motivating kids to speak with you. Some have glaring inconsistencies in their stories. And some, like adults, aren't credible. It may be helpful to read their quotes back to them to see if they're sticking to their stories. Also be sensitive to their expectations. Let them know their comments may or may not be used in your final story or broadcast.

There are big differences in the ways adults talk about children and the ways children talk about themselves. Those differences, if captured thoughtfully, may boost a story from page 3B to 1A, or a 5 a.m. news segment to the top of the 6 p.m. broadcast.

Still, let ethics and decency guide your way, even under the tightest deadline pressures or demands from editors to quote specific kids. The death of a child is traumatic enough. No interview is worth making things harder.