When an 11-year-old girl said a man attacked her on the way to school, cutting her hijab with scissors, news outlets eagerly ran the child’s name and images. But a few days later, police said the attack never actually happened. And that makes things a lot more complicated.
–Children in the news always require special consideration (Public Editor, Toronto Star)
-Joseph Brean, National Post: “Until it was found to be a hoax, Toronto girl’s hijab made news, not the attack on her”
The false hijab-cutting story raised questions around how reporters interact with kids. Journalists generally don’t interview children without parental consent, and victims of crimes often aren’t identified if they’re underage.
In this case, however, the girl’s family was in the room as she spoke–as were police and school board officials. As far as consent was concerned, it “checked all the boxes,” said Fatima Syed on Pull Quotes.
But just getting a parent’s OK may not be enough. Parents don’t always always understand the implications of allowing their child to speak to the media, said Romayne Smith Fullerton, a professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario.
“I think that we’re far too lenient in terms of identifying vulnerable populations generally, and children in particular, in North America and places like England,” she said in an interview, adding that journalists should offer anyone who’s participating in their stories a clear idea of what that might mean.
Smith Fullerton suggests reporters have a routine or checklist they go through every time someone under age 18 is involved in their stories, where they think carefully about the implications of their coverage.
“I think in this particular instance, there was really no need to identify that little girl in order to do a good version of that story, regardless of whether it was true,” she said.
(Smith Fullerton’s 2004 article, “Covering kids: are journalists guilty of exploiting children?”, is referenced in Toronto Star public editor Kathy English’s recent column on the subject.)
After news broke the story was false, several news outlets stopped publishing the girl’s name and photo in their stories to protect her identity–although she is still identified in previous reports from many of those same outlets. CBC, for instance, says they are following “customary practice” and no altering previous stories, “because they represent the record of what took place.”
National Post reporter Joseph Brean said it seems a “bit quaint” to blur the child’s face on new stories, but leave the old stories up.
“In so far as it affects her life, there’s no difference there,” he said on Pull Quotes.
Brean, and other outlets like the Toronto Sun, are still running the girl’s name and photo in their coverage.
In her column, public editor Kathy English said the Toronto Star should consider removing the girl’s name from their previous stories, “so this story is not connected to her online identity for the rest of her life.”
“Whatever happened — and it would seem this child told quite a lie — we must remember that she is just a child,” English wrote.
Amira Elghawaby said she hopes this situation forces organizations to review their protocols and rethink how they report on children. This young girl did not have to be at the centre of a media storm, she said.
“I think that everyone was caught up in the story itself,” she said, noting how fast it all unfolded.
Brean said journalists should remember that just getting a quote from a vulnerable source doesn’t mean you have to use it.
“We like hard and fast rules,” Brean said on Pull Quotes. “We even like publication bans because they’re clear. We find it harder, I think, to exercise good judgement.”