When a Child Dies

Frequently Asked Ethical and Legal Questions

What if, in the course of my reporting, I have to inform a loved one about a child's death?

If possible, wait until police, crisis counselors or relatives break the news. If not, minimize harm as much as possible (say, by not shoving a camera in a mother's face as you inform her that her son was killed in a drive-by-shooting). Be aware that your subject may be in shock. Give him or her time to process the news before speaking on camera or on the record. Be conscious of their vulnerabilities, and compassionate about the trauma they may be experiencing. As a rule, intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding need to glimpse such moments. Avoid pushing it. Be willing to wait until the subject is ready to talk.

At all costs, avoid becoming part of the story.

How should I represent myself?

Truthfully, and with as much transparency as possible. Don't feign that you're writing a child's obituary if you're actually assigned to investigate his or her death. If you're interviewing a child whose parent or guardian isn't present, give the child your card and say you'd happy to speak with the adult later. Remember that a child — especially a young witness — may be in danger by speaking publicly about the story. Consider whether plans have been considered to protect him or her after your story runs. Allow a child to revise his story, or take back aspects of it that may put him or her at risk.

Should I trust a child's account of a serious news story?

Consider the child's motives, age, awareness and intelligence. Don't publish or broadcast unverified information. Interviewing the most informed sources is the best way to ensure accuracy. That said, interviewing children — and representing all critical perspectives — helps the balance and accuracy of your work. It also can put a human face on abstract or complicated stories.

Should I trust the police's, prosecutors', child welfare officials' or relatives' account of a child's death?

Act as independently as possible. Verify facts about families with the families themselves, and also through as many public records and other interviews as you can. Avoid taking public officials' word for it. Be aware that law enforcers sometimes rush to make arrests in cases involving children. As the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics urges, “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”

How should I handle confidentiality agreements?

Try to avoid them. According to a Poynter Institute self-directed course on legal issues by David Ardia and Geanne Rosenberg, “Confidentiality agreements can make it difficult for you to defend yourself in a defamation lawsuit. If you have promised your sources confidentiality and are sued for defamation, those promises can come back to bite you. If you don't have on-the-record sources for the reputation-damaging statements at issue, you may find there's a presumption that those sources don't exist.”

Ardia and Rosenberg also warn about the subpoena risk of confidentiality agreements: “If a court demands that you reveal a confidential source and you are contractually or ethically bound to keep that source confidential and opt to uphold your confidentiality pledge, you risk being held in contempt. That can result in fines and even imprisonment,” they write. They urge journalists to think twice about such agreements: “Consider whether you really need to promise confidentiality to get the information you are seeking, and think about limiting your confidentiality obligation to not revealing the source's name in what you publish, rather than making open-ended promises to keep the source's name confidential in perpetuity.”

What other kinds of promises can I — or should I not — make?

Never pay for an interview. Don't promise that you'll solve a crime or bring justice where injustice has been done. If you ask for photographs, artifacts or documents from the family, return them promptly. Be realistic about expectations. You may not use the interview you're conducting because of credibility issues or limitations in print inches or broadcast time. Make it clear that it's your job to tell the story as effectively as possibly within those limitations. And, if necessary, remind sources that this is about a child who has died; it's not your job to make anybody a celebrity.

What about public spaces — where can and can't I go?

Don't mess with crime scenes, touch evidence or cross police barricades. At all costs, avoid becoming part of the story.

Be mindful that public schools, although public property, aren't always open to journalists. Check with administrators before entering school grounds or loitering within a certain distance of the school. Remember that children are urged not to talk with strangers. Don't creep people out even more than they are by the death you're reporting.

What other pitfalls should I avoid?

Calling a kid a gangbanger, a juvenile delinquent or an illegitimate child. Outing a child you've interviewed as a drop-out, homeless or gay or lesbian — especially if those details have no bearing on their account of another child's death.

Getting the facts wrong. If you mess up, treat corrections as urgently as you did the initial story. Be open and honest about your mistake both to minimize harm to your subjects and to bolster your own credibility. These are kids you're writing about in the age of the Internet. An inaccuracy could affect their standing in their communities, schooling, access to public services and job prospects well into the future.