Children in the News

Do journalists remember the do’s and don’ts?
Children in the News
By Rachel E. Khan and Elena E. Pernia

According to the National Statistics Office, children below 18 years old comprise about 43.4 percent of the estimated population of 84 million Filipinos.

At the same time, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) country report dated October 2005 noted that the problems facing Filipino children today are “considerable and pressing.”

It noted four core threats to the well-being of children related to health, nutrition, education, and protection. In fact, the country report ventures to say that out of 100 Filipino children: eight will most likely die before their fifth birthday, 30 will suffer from malnutrition, 26 will fail to be immunized against basic childhood diseases, 19 will lack access to safe drinking water and 40 to adequate sanitation while more than 10 suffer from some physical or mental disability or developmental delay, and 17 will never go to school.

Yet, despite these pressing issues, news items about children revolve around only two themes: children as “victims of abuse” or “in conflict with the law.”

Covering children
Last January, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) conducted a study to assess the coverage of children in the local print and broadcast media. A content analysis was made of two nationally circulated dailies and two regional newspapers as well as two evening news programs and three public affairs programs on national television. The content analysis was augmented by focus interviews conducted among media practitioners in six provinces spanning the country. Coverage period for the study was Nov. 15 to Dec. 15, 2005 for print and October to December 2005 for broadcast.

CMFR chose to use the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) “Guidelines for Media Practitioners on the Reporting and Coverage of Cases Involving Children” as basis for measuring the media’s awareness of the need to protect the rights of children. Even if the guidelines do not have the force of law, the responsibility to adhere to it is the test of ethical journalism.

This responsibility falls on both the reporter covering the story and the editor or producer who opts to use it.

The study had three specific objectives: first, to profile the coverage of children (i.e., frequency, type, and location of articles; characteristics of child featured in the story). Second, to determine the extent of adherence to guidelines pertaining to:

  • respecting the child’s right to privacy and protecting her/his identity and dignity (i.e., exposing the child’s name and other information that may reveal her/his identity, use of photos/footages wherein victim can be identified, use of graphic photographs/video, use of confidential records about the case of the child-victim); and
  • giving due consideration to the child’s welfare in the pursuit of the story (i.e., seeking permission for the use of a photo, knowing procedures and respecting the authority of government agencies responsible for the care of the child, interviewing a child in the presence and supervision of responsible adults/case workers, and refraining from exploring/exploiting child’s case for fund-raising).

And third, the study was meant to determine the quality of coverage about children, i.e. whether reportage is factual and newsworthy and how sources were used for the story.

Findings from content analysis

  • • Stories about children make up only about eight percent of the news hole. In the period covered by the study only 40 articles could be culled from all four newspapers. Regional papers had more coverage of children than the nationally circulated ones. Moreover, majority of the news articles, 92 percent, were on the inside pages. The same observations can be made of the broadcast news. Only 11 news stories about children could be culled from the five news programs in the entire period.
  • • More significant, however, was the fact that there were only two types of stories in newspapers. Children in print media were either “victims of abuse” (80 percent) or “in conflict with the law” (20 percent). On TV, children were portrayed as victims of abuse 100 percent of the time.  Abuse ranged from kidnapping to molestation.
  • • In terms of the news stories’ adherence to the DOJ guidelines on protecting her/his identity, the study noted that majority did not refer to the child by any name. Some articles and TV news clips used a pseudonym or the first name of the child. Unfortunately, the child could sometimes be identified because the names of her/his parents, school or address were given.
  • • In newspapers, photos were not used with the articles. On the other hand, use of pixelated images (72.7 percent) dominated the news coverage on television. The child was recognizable in 9.1 percent of the video clips and 18.2 percent of the news coverage took footages of other sources, not the child.
  • • Majority of the stories in both print and TV were straight news (77 percent) and therefore, were pre-sented factually, without use of words that would pass judgment on the child. Only two print articles used words that put the children in a negative light (i.e., “drunk,” “fugi-tive,” “escapees,” “and rugby addicts”).
  • • However, there was little attempt to expand the coverage of the news to allow the readers or viewers to understand the context of the event. Only a few articles attempted to raise the awareness of the causes of the children’s situation and even fewer were those articles that presented both causes and possible solutions.
  • • There is no clear evidence that reporters knew procedures and respected the authority of govern-ment agencies responsible for the care of the child. Nonetheless, such knowledge and respect of authority may be inferred from the fact that reporters relied on authorities such as the police, primarily, and social caseworkers, secondarily, as sour-ces of information.
  • • Only in two cases in print and three cases on TV was the child interviewed. In both media, there was one incident when the interview was unsupervised by a parent or social worker.

Findings from focus interviews
Journalists in Metro Manila, Laguna, Cebu, and Iloilo claim that they had not heard about the DOJ guidelines for covering children as such. However, they are familiar with the guidelines given to them in training seminars conducted by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and wonder if that was the same thing.

Journalists from Mindanao “have heard about” the DOJ guidelines for covering children but have not seen a copy of these. Editors say they are familiar with the contents of the guidelines and strive to carefully protect the identity of child-victims and even children in conflict with the law in their stories.

Some broadcasters were able to hear about the guidelines through a training seminar conducted recently by the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas. The organization had informed most station managers of the guidelines, but according to the journalists, this had not trickled down to reporters, especially those who are freelancers or block timers only.

Despite the absence of knowledge regarding the DOJ guidelines, journalists interviewed claim that they try to be sensitive to children’s rights. As much as possible, the names of children-victims are omitted from the story and they are not used as sources for the story so as not to add to their trauma. However, at times, journalists claim that their identities are essential to the story. For example, one story ran about a boy whose parents were missing. It was necessary to name the boy so that the story would help locate his parents.

Most print and some TV journalists claim that it is the broadcast, especially radio, reporters who need to be more aware of children’s rights. Oftentimes, reporters interview the child-victim because they need a video or an audio clip for their story. Unfortunately, the child-victim, even if his identity is not revealed, is traumatized by the questioning of the reporter.

Generally, most editors interviewed said that they have a tendency to avoid stories involving children because of the complications involved in writing the story.  Since journalists normally write and edit stories on deadline, it becomes too tedious to remember all the do’s and don’ts in covering children.


Reporters and editors have to be conscious that children are not miniature adults and have greater awareness of the impact a traumatic event can have on children.

Children are more vulnerable to trauma because of their size, age, and dependence. Prior trauma, past mental health problems or a family history of such problems may increase a child’s risk. Traumatized children may want to tell their story, but it may not be in their best interests to be interviewed, and in many circumstances it can exacerbate their exposure to trauma. Perhaps, the DOJ could be more zealous in providing journalists with copies of the guidelines, especially to reporters covering the DSWD as well as provincial print and broadcast journalists.

At the same time, there is a need to expand the coverage on children to “good news” stories and those that tackle issues affecting the children’s quality of life. Instead of straight news stories that can sometimes be reported without sensitivity to the child, journalists should explore feature stories that tackle children’s issues with greater depth, help create an awareness of a problem and possibly propose a solution. n

Rachel E. Khan is the deputy director of CMFR and a journalism professor at the UP College of Mass Communication. Dr. Elena Pernia is a communication research professor and dean of the same college.

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