Before you write about a minor, consider their well-being

A digital news platform recently posted a video clip on social media that showed a child reportedly being stripped of hereditary rights at a traditional ceremony. This was after DNA tests apparently revealed that the child was not a rightful heir. The video went viral, prompting some sections of the public to raise concerns about ethical standards in reporting on such sensitive matters.

A comment on the post specifically queried why the media organisation circulated such news of “a terrible incident” involving a child without regard for potential negative impacts on the child, who had no control over the situation. Likewise, the adults in the video were criticised for permitting and sharing the recording without appropriate measures to protect the child’s privacy.

As a key source of information, the media plays a central role in informing the public, and social media has eased information sharing. Media entities keen on audience engagement and digital growth may jump on trending posts without fully considering the implications on those involved, particularly children. This can lead to unintended negative consequences if not handled with greater care.

The impact of such actions can be extremely damaging. The child may be subjected to mockery, bullying, and harassment online and in social settings such as schools. Such experiences can lead to emotional distress, which may result in depression. The child’s family and friends may experience stigma, ridicule, and isolation.

Reputable media organisations have editorial policies and guidelines that prescribe ethical standards for reporting on sensitive topics, including how minors should be protected in news reports. Guidelines may vary with organisation, but they broadly reflect the fundamental ethical principles that define journalism. Bodies such as the Society of Professional Journalists have also developed a Code of Ethics that promotes the highest professional standards expected of journalists. Similarly, organisations such as UNICEF have formulated guidelines to ensure responsible reporting on children’s issues. These policies ensure that journalists serve the public interest without compromising the rights of minors in their reporting.

Uganda’s laws define a minor as a person below the age of 18. The legal frameworks in the country provide safeguards for children in the Constitution and The Children Act. Similar regulations also exist in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Organization of African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The legal protections aim to promote and protect the well-being and rights of children and stipulate measures to prevent actions that could harm children. Furthermore, they highlight why journalists should ensure children’s rights are respected and defended.

Accordingly, it is generally recommended that minors should not be identified in stories relating to cases that may expose them to trauma and associated dangers. This is particularly true in cases of sexual offences. To protect the privacy of minors involved in such cases, their identities are typically masked in news reports.

There are exceptions, but generally, photographing, interviewing, and publishing stories about children should be done with the full consent of parents, legal guardians, or responsible authorities. Some media organisations require signed consent between a child’s parents and the media organisation. The same applies to school events. While parents may permit schools to allow their children to feature in school-related stories, using such content for other purposes can be problematic. Hence, newsrooms should ensure their journalists obtain explicit consent from parents (and the children) before using images or information related to them. Failure to do so can result in legal and ethical challenges, which could damage the reputation of the media organisation and cause financial loss if a dispute results in a payout.

Even where consent is granted, the content should be used responsibly. There is a case where a media organisation interviewed a pupil for a children’s magazine with the parents’ consent, and the child’s picture was subsequently published on the magazine cover. However, the newspaper later used the magazine cover for advertising, with the child’s image appearing on billboards, TV commercials, and newspaper advertisements. The parents were upset and formally protested that they didn’t sign an advertising contract with the media organisation.

In another case, a journalist rightfully omitted the name of a minor who was the victim in a defilement case involving a school administrator. However, the news report disclosed obvious details about the child’s home, school, and parents, which inadvertently resulted in the minor being identified. This unintended breach of confidentiality compromised the privacy and safety of the minor. This can have harmful consequences for the minor and the other parties, including the school and the child’s family.

This is why we cannot stress caution enough. Media organisations that shared the clip of the child being stripped of hereditary rights likely did so because the video generated considerable social media engagement and deemed it of great public interest. They did not fully consider the potential consequences of the story on the child’s well-being.

The cases mentioned highlight the importance of journalistic ethics when dealing with sensitive stories involving minors. We can highlight important issues while upholding ethical standards by ensuring responsible and considerate reporting. As journalists, we are responsible for protecting children’s interests, privacy, and safety as we execute our duties. News organisations can do this by withholding the full name, parents’ identity, school, community or home address, photograph, and other details that may disclose a minor’s identity.

Where the need arises to publish a story about a minor, the media outlet should seek consent from parents or legal guardians before publishing stories that may identify a child, particularly if there is overwhelming public interest. Sometimes, the minor’s real name can be replaced with a pseudonym or blurred images to maintain anonymity. Where necessary, a newsroom should seek legal advice before publishing the story.

Overall, protecting the privacy of minors is crucial. With the widespread use of digital tools, sensitive information about minors can quickly spread online, seriously affecting their emotional well-being and safety. It is the responsibility of journalists to exercise discretion when reporting on minors, particularly in sensitive or controversial cases.

The author is a journalist with keen interest in media development.

Image by Charles Nambasi from Pixabay

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