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Talking With Teens: Tips for Interviewing Adolescents

How finding, and elevating, teen voices enrich reporting.

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While reporting on a school in a neighborhood with a high homicide rate, Los Angeles Times reporter Sonali Kohli stressed to students she interviewed that they were empowered to control the conversation.

Many teenagers view a professional journalist as an authority figure and might feel pressure to give “correct” answers, Kohli said. That’s why she starts each interview with the premise that a student can end the conversation at any time or ask their own questions.

“I let them know, ‘If, at any point, you don’t feel comfortable, I will leave. It’s all up to you,’ ” Kohli said. “I ask them where they feel most comfortable talking. I really spell out (the interview process) and really give them a lot of control.”

Kohli, joined by veteran journalists Moriah Balingit of The Washington Post and Sarah Carr of The Boston Globe, offered advice during an Education Writers Association seminar last month in Berkeley, California.

“I will also check in constantly in a few different ways (during the interview),” Kohli said. “If their body language is changing, I will pause, take a step back and ask if they are okay to continue.”

Here are tips from journalists Moriah Balingit, Sarah Carr, and Sonali Kohli about talking with adolescents:

  • Listen as least as much as you talk.
  • Ask open-ended questions: “How did that make you feel” vs. “Were you upset when that happened?”
  • Check out the student newspapers at local high schools and colleges — you’ll find a lot of fresh voices and young people with plenty to say.
  • Share your cell phone number: Many youths communicate most regularly by texting, and let them know you’re happy to continue the conversation after the face-to-face interview has ended.

Learn more in EWA’s Reporter’s Guide to Interviewing Children, written by Carr.

‘People Have a Doctorate in Their Own Experience’

During the session, titled “Talking With Teens: A Fresh Approach to Your Next Interview,” Balingit recommended journalists make students feel important and that their voice is critical to the story.

“If you go into an interview with the idea that people have a doctorate in their own experience and you treat (students) with the same respect as if you met your favorite expert, … that helps erase the notion that we are the authority,” Balingit said. “If the situation is appropriate, I treat (students) like celebrities.”

But it isn’t enough to just say it.

“I tell them, ‘We don’t listen to you enough and that I think your voice is really important,’ ” Balingit said. “If you take that to heart, it is really easy to remember to say those things.”

Both reporters have spent time interviewing students who have experienced trauma or crisis, including teenagers of color or those dealing with sensitive issues.

Balingit encouraged journalists to address the sensitivity of certain topics with students before an interview. For example, when she interviewed transgender students about school bathroom policies, she acknowledged the fact that cisgender individuals are not asked about their bathroom use.

“Sometimes acknowledging the awkwardness is important,” Balingit said. “I might say, ‘I feel really silly but can I ask you more about that?’ That can be really helpful in easing those tensions.”

Kohli of the Los Angeles Times echoed that advice and added that journalists should openly acknowledge they may have a completely different world view from the students they interview. When reporting on a Los Angeles student who had several friends and classmates murdered, the student acted as if it were just a normal part of life.

“I said to her, ‘Look, this is where I went to school and I never had any of my friends die when I went to school. But your story is super important for not only your own peers to see, but also for other people to see, to better understand what is happening in the world,’” Kohli noted.

“That helped her understand why I was asking her about the things that seemed really obvious to her,” Kohli said.

Seek Expert Advice When Talking About Trauma

When preparing to interview students about a traumatic event, Kohli encouraged journalists to seek advice from psychologists or other professionals who have experience in this domain. Invite their feedback on the questions you plan to ask, Kohli advised.

But Kohli cautioned that journalists are not counselors; a quick interview about a painful experience has a risk for the student.

“We are not mental health workers … but I consider it my responsibility to not leave someone worse off than when I met them,” she said. “I don’t end on that really depressing note. I might ask, ‘What do you do to feel good or feel safe?’”

Handling parental permission when interviewing youths can be a tricky situation for a reporter; standards vary at different newsrooms.

Be clear with an editor about what the process is for using student names and what permission is required, Kohli advised.

Kohli said she confirms with students and their guardians that they are okay with sensitive information being reported and that a student’s name can be used in a story that will last forever online.

In some instances, she may offer examples of how certain information young people share with her for a story could present challenges later in life, when they apply to college or for a job. But Kohli said she won’t stress the sensitivity of reporting on mental health, at least not by using that specific language.

“I would never suggest (asking a student), ‘Are you sure you want to talk to me and be on the record because this is about mental health?’ That just furthers the stigma of mental health,” Kohli said.

On stories dealing with students who are undocumented or have family members who are, Kohli said she will ask multiple times if the student and their parents are okay with full names being used.

“The one time that I won’t ask for parent permission of a minor is if kids are protesting on the street, if they have walked out of school,” Kohli said. “In that case, you as a teenager have decided to reject authority.”

“But a protest is a very public thing; it is intended to draw attention,” Balingit said.

When it comes to finding teenaged students to interview or topics to cover, Balingit said high school newspapers can be a great resource. She consults an online database for student newspapers that includes links to publications across the country.

“That was tremendously useful when I was trying to find kids that vape,” she said.