How reporters should approach stories about vulnerable youth

A former youth in care explains why good intentions aren’t good enough.

In late October, I told my story to over 200 people attending a rally at the BC Parliamentary lawn. I spoke about my time in foster care, separation from my sister and other intimate moments in my life. I wanted to tell a story that would allow the public to better understand my life and the lives of the tens of thousands of other youth like me who come from care.

I know that media coverage of the system is key. It allows the public to understand slivers of this complex system. And I’ve been on both sides of the journalistic dance. As an advocate, I’ve asked media to cover specific stories — like the rally for youth from care — and as a journalist, I’ve spent time searching for compelling ways to tell my next story. But it’s important for journalists and the public to realize that youth telling their personal stories raises a lot of ethical questions.

Since the start of my time with Discourse, I’ve been working to unpack these questions: How do you tell important stories, and share youth experiences to better equip the public, without re-victimizing youth? Is it okay to tell the stories and to name vulnerable youth? Do you always need to share personal stories? What impact will youth’s experience with media have on their lives?

After listening to youth, advocates, allies, and organizers about child welfare journalism ethics, I’m left with a confidence that stories create change, but these stories need mindfulness. Our experiences require tenderness and care.

Youth readiness and retraumatization

All of the youth I spoke to shared the same idea: youth get burned by media. In September, I hosted a panel for Discourse’s Child Welfare Media Workshop Series. Ruby Barclay, a former youth in care on the panel, said, “good intentions for stories are not good enough.” Youth might be ready to tell their stories, but their lives are deeply contextualized by evolving circumstances and trauma. These details are incomprehensible to the rushed journalist under tight deadlines.

For youth without much media experience, it’s hard to predict what impacts your story could have years later. Sometimes youth from care get exploited for their stories. Former youth-in-care Jess Boon shared one example of when sharing a story ended badly. After a submission was published in a community newspaper, the story reappeared later in a parental custody dispute. These stories can come back in unexpected ways.

Even youth who are well-supported, prepared and experienced in sharing can be retraumatized by telling their stories. When we disclose intimate details, people listen. But we need to tell these stories in ways that are safe and avoid triggering the same issues that we speak about.

Being ready to make change doesn’t mean you’re ready to share your story. Readiness to tell a story does not mean that it’ll be an effective message. When youth go up and tell their stories to media, sometimes they get hurt.

Youth rally in front of B.C.’s Legislature to call attention to issues facing youth in and from care and to advocate for policy solutions.

Journalistic integrity

I’m new to the journalistic world, but I have seen many missteps. Even well-intentioned journalists make mistakes. In September’s youth panel, Lilia Zhareiva described a difficult experience with a reporter who completely mischaracterized her story. “I got the first draft, luckily,” she said.

“I was reading this story of myself that was so tragic, and, like Shakespearean in its drama. It was vile.” She added, “There was nothing about who I was, there was nothing about my motivation to get my education.” Zhareiva successfully challenged the story and asked that it be rewritten.

While Zhareiva’s ferocity and confidence are admirable, we can’t expect that of all youth from care who are interviewed by journalists. Deputy Children’s Advocate in Manitoba, Ainsley Krone, says, “Even me, who works in communications, gets duped by media looking for a specific angle.” Despite negative experiences, she still feels that storytelling in this space is important. “When the public is well informed, we get support for the system.”

I’ve had similar run-ins with journalists. In one of my first media appearances, a CBC producer wrote an online story based on my comments from a live radio interview. It was a complex issue, and my quotes were inserted out of context. The barrage of online comments that attacked my character and identity, and labeled me as a communist, were an indication of the journalistic dance I needed to be wary of in the future.

We all need to tread carefully.

What if youth want to share their stories?

B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), is the legal guardian of youth when they are in care. They have a blanket policy on youth from care in B.C. speaking on the record while underage.

Youth, journalists, MLAs and advocates participated in the #PledgetoCare rally in Victoria, B.C.

“The Children and Family Community Services Act (CFCSA) prohibits any individual from disclosing information gathered under the Act – this includes preventing media from revealing that a particular child is in government care, whether the child consents to that disclosure or not,” a spokesperson from the Ministry told Discourse in an email. This, as well as other ethical concerns, often means that journalists don’t publish the names of youth in care in their stories.

But what happens when a youth wants to share their story? I asked former youth-in-care and PhD student Melanie Doucet for her take. We need to take care status disclosure seriously, she says. “We’re placing adult responsibilities on youth who aren’t ready.” She says that the government’s caution is a responsible approach to the risks youth take when telling their story.

As an advocate, I’ll be the first to say that MCFD should not police youth voice. Still, being careful is practical.

Where to go from here

It’s so important to be heard. Last month, youth from care utilized media as a megaphone for change. The action aimed to attract as many media outlets as possible. We do this because we know it works, but journalists are walking on eggshells.

Youth stories are full of resilience. They’re rife with trauma and marginalization and most reporters are aware of this. But still, the major echoes of advocacy and strength need to be amplified. When we are ready to tell our stories, we need that readiness to be certain and respected. When it gets told well, our stories are effective vehicles for change.

For reporters, I hope that youth stories are minded as narratives that are constantly evolving. They’re probably only ready to share them if they have a support network around them and if they’ve practiced telling their story before. Above all, they need to be able to speak about their stories as an experience that they went through, rather than what defines their life today.

Youth are powerful, strong, and resilient. We’re ready to create change together, but we ask that media join us on our terms. [end]

This story is one of many published by of a group of B.C. journalists who came together on Nov. 22, 2017, for Child Welfare Media Day. See more stories here.

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