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Interviewing minors about sensitive topics proves controversial

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by Susan McNulty, CJE The Stampede and The Hoofbeat adviser J.W. Mitchell High School, Trinity, Florida

In 2017, my journalism students included coverage in the yearbook about ­­­­­­­­­­­online harassment. They interviewed two students and quoted them by name.

The next year, editors wrote and included a story about anorexia, this time using anonymous sources. In 2019, the People section editors included feature stories, including photographs and direct quotes, about four seniors, each facing their own unique challenges: a transgender boy, an immigrant, a cancer patient and a mainstreamed student with Asperger’s Syndrome.

In none of these instances did student journalists contact parents for approval or consent.

Reporting societal issues can bring calls for parental consent. Should some topics off-limits to journalism students without securing parental consent before publication? Photo furnished by Susan McNulty

This week in Round Rock, Texas, parents of a high school student brought a lawsuit against the Round Rock Independent School District (RRISD), accusing a journalism teacher of exploiting and contributing to their daughter’s anorexia. 

RRISD issued a statement Tuesday, Dec. 3, stating, “our goal is to create a safe and supportive environment for all of our students, and when issues related to our students’ well-being present themselves, we take quick and appropriate action. When this allegation was brought to our attention and we investigated, we took prompt corrective action and the person is no longer employed by Round Rock ISD.”

Read more about this case here: https://www.statesman.com/news/20191203/parents-sue-round-rock-district-claiming-teacher-worsened-their-childs-eating-disorder

Are some topics off-limits to journalism students without securing parental consent before publication?

Are there ways to cover sensitive, relevant yet controversial topics of teen concern without causing harm?

Professional journalists also grapple with the same questions student journalists face. Sarah Carr of the Education Writers Association created a reporter guide which offers insight and advice when interviewing children: https://www.ewa.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/ewa-reporter-guide-interviewing-children.pdf

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