Natasha Ghoneim is a senior correspondent with Al Jazeera network, and a mentor with The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network. With over 20 years of experience of experience in interviewing children, her key advice is to avoid asking children direct questions about the traumatic events they have been through.
In 2015, when I was covering the war in South Sudan, I came across children who had seen their fathers hacked to death. They had seen their mothers and sisters raped, and their houses burnt down.
I spoke to some of the children through UNICEF, and they referred us to one boy who was about 10 or 11 years old. I think he didn’t even know his real age because in South Sudan people often don’t know their birth dates. I did not ask the boy specifically about the horrific incidents, but chose to ask him open ended questions.
He told us horrific things. He literally walked us through what happened when some rebel fighters came into his village, and how he managed to escape to a camp. He was speaking slowly because it was being translated for me. But after 15 minutes, I ended the interview because he was almost in a catatonic state and I didn’t want to push him further.
It’s important to report on children because they are probably the most vulnerable group on the planet.
We thought long and hard about whether we should use that interview, especially because we couldn’t confirm the things he was saying. Although I have every reason to believe he was telling the truth, I was still concerned because there was no adult relative to verify this. In the end, I didn’t think it was worth putting the boy’s face on television and exposing him to whatever might happen in a tribal conflict.
It’s important to report on children because they are probably the most vulnerable group on the planet. The majority of my experience has been in the United states, where we have children facing hunger and live with drug-addicted parents in neighbourhoods controlled by gangs. You can’t just approach kids who have been traumatised by sexual abuse, rape or violence and start asking questions because this could further traumatise the child. You have to seek parental consent. If the parents have been killed or aren’t in the picture, I would reach out to mental health professionals or organisations like UNICEF to find children to speak with.
You don’t have to be a woman to be able to interview children, but you do need to know how to make them feel comfortable talking to you. You don’t sit down on a chair to interview a child, you get down to his or her level, and you might even play with them.
Also, remember that children sometimes lie or imagine things, and I would not like to use an inauthentic account. If I get the feeling that something is amiss, then I move on and talk to someone else.
I never use a child’s real name on camera unless they are part of a well publicised case, and I always get parental consent.
There is so much more to reporting on children than as victims of violence, and journalists do a great disservice by only focussing on that. That is where the coverage of children, in the Middle East in particular, becomes one dimensional and stereotypical.
Natasha’s tips on interviewing children
- Keep pitching stories on children to your editors. It is important that there are more of them
- Handle children with great care. If a child seems fragile, stop the interview immediately.
- Always ask open ended questions. Don’t ask direct questions about the traumatic incident.
- Always seek written consent from the child’s parent or guardian. Make sure they are aware of the consequences or issues involved in publishing the story.
- Watch carefully for shifts in the child’s tone or body language and act accordingly.
Cat Carter is the head of Humanitarian Information & Communications at Save the Children. With a record of countless interviews with victims of violence, she reminds journalists to take care of their own mental health, as well as the children they meet.
I was in a refugee camp on the border between Jordan and Syria when I met Hassan. He was a 12 year old boy, and this was early on in the conflict, when we really didn’t know how bad the situation was inside Syria.
Hassan said he had something to tell me, and I made the classic mistake of assuming that I knew what he was going to say. I knew about food and water shortages, and that people in the camps didn’t have everything that they needed. So I asked him about these things, and he answered me very politely. But then, he turned to my translator and asked: “why is this crazy woman asking me about food and water when I have seen my best friend executed? why doesn’t she ask me about that? And about the torture?”.
I put down my notebook, and he told me about about the systematic torture, and that I should go ask others in the camp about it. And with that one conversation, he completely changed my approach and the approach of Save The Children when interviewing the children. We understood that we should let children lead the conversation.
After that interview, Save the Children wrote a report on the torture of children in Syria, and it went to the Security Council. The British Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, even quoted one of the children I had interviewed to the UK Parliament. All of that stemmed from that one conversation with Hassan.
We understood that we should let children lead the conversation.
One of the most difficult things about working with children in conflict is that you have to walk away in the end. I would often interview a child over several days, and build a relationship with them, but then I would go back to my hotel or home, and leave that child in that vulnerable situation.
I’ve had children tell they saw their parents being executed, or they have been sexually assaulted. You hear the worst possible things that could happen to a child, but then you have to leave and their stories can have an impact on your mental health. So I recommend that you take breaks between interviews with children. After every interview, just take 10 minutes to sit somewhere and reflect on what you’ve heard. Keep a diary about how you feel and the things that upset you. Writing your thoughts down helps you process those feelings.
The greatest risk in interviewing children is the possibility of re-traumatising the child. If you suspect that the child might be self-harming, or are suicidal or unable to cope, then you must end the interview.
I prefer it when people volunteer to tell their story. So I might go to a school or a playground, explain what I’m doing, and invite children to come talk to me if they want to. And I always let the child lead the interview. For example, if I interview a child from Syria in Lebanon, I would ask: “what do you want to tell me about your journey?”. I never ask a question like “what horrible things did you see?” because that places pressure on them.
The most surprising thing I have discovered in all my years of interviewing children in crisis is that children stay children. They may be forced to take on adult responsibilities and even become the heads of their households because their parents have been killed. But if you kick a ball to them, they will play and be a child again. Those flashes of resilience are what give you hope.
Cat’s tips on interviewing children
- Use the red card method: when interviewing a child, place a card between you and tell them, and tell them that if they feel uncomfortable at any point, then they can get up and touch the card, and that would mean the interview is over. This makes them feel like they have control over the situation because it's often very difficult for the child to say “stop”, and you must respect that.
- Read as much information as you can about the conflict or incident in order to have the right context before interviewing the child.
- Don’t overreact to anything the child says to you because that could end the interview, and then they might feel it was wrong to talk to you.
- Spend some time with the child and become familiar with him or her before the interview.
- Don’t ask complex questions, Children bore easily, so keep the interview short, no more than 30 minutes. You can always come back to them.
- Bring along papers and pens for them to play with, as it helps them relax, and think of other creative ways to engage the child
- Tell them about yourself and what you wanted to do and be as a child. This puts them at ease.