Pin It

Let’s Start With a Story: Why You Should Talk to the Media

In September, I traveled to Florida for a journalism conference largely based on my enthusiasm for a panel tantalizingly named “The Maddening World of Media Access to Prisons.” Although it didn’t specifically address juvenile facilities, the discussion aimed to help journalists like me get better information from people at correctional centers.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, the biggest change in reporting on prisons is how every state agency now has multiple Public Information Officers, “people whose job it is to deny you access to things,” said panelist Charles Davis, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri. It was “frustrating and ironic,” Davis said, that as the journalism industry struggles financially and “as boots on the ground in terms of journalists go down, the number of minders is going up.”

When journalists can’t get access, one of the results is an abysmal lack of public awareness about important issues, said panelist Jessica Pupovac, a Missouri journalism graduate who spent a year-long fellowship compiling a reporter’s toolkit for accessing state prisons.

“There is a huge schism between the amount of resources and the amount of faith we put in the prison system in this country, and the amount of coverage it gets,” Pupovac said. “I realized there was this huge schism between public perceptions of prisons and the reality.”

Such a gap exists in the juvenile justice field as well. The way the public often perceives children in the juvenile system, as violent offenders or ne’er-do-well delinquents, can be quite different from the truth. But journalists can face even bigger challenges getting access to juvenile facilities because of the extra precautions states must take to safeguard the confidentiality of minors.

It is possible for reporters to stay sensitive to concerns about privacy and security and still cover stories about juvenile justice, Pupovac and Davis stressed. Negotiating terms in advance -- such as agreeing not to identify an individual child within the story or not to take any photographs that reveal identifying features – can help maintain confidentiality while allowing the public to be more informed and facilities to be more transparent and accountable.

I put that advice to the test during some recent reporting at the secure juvenile facility in Washington, D.C. The District’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and I reached an agreement where I was able to take photos of the facility, as long as I didn’t show any residents’ faces nor any areas of the campus that could compromise security. I signed a confidentiality agreement, and they allowed me to interview four teenage residents for an entire hour, as long as I didn’t use their real names or identifying details. They set up interviews with staff, who were happy to answer my questions for half an hour or more, and let me pop into classrooms for impromptu conversations with teachers.

Before I left the facility, the agency representative and the superintendent clicked through my photos and asked me to delete a couple that showed the names of former residents on a school bulletin board. So I did. I still came away with more than a hundred great shots and audio files (recorded with permission, of course) of my conversations with four thoughtful teenagers and the adults who work with them. It was a win-win.

As a professional working on juvenile justice, you can help inform the public about the issues that affect the children you work with every day. You can help raise public awareness, break stereotypes, hold people accountable, and give a voice to your kids. You can do this by treating journalists as people who can help you tell a story, not people whose curiosity you must thwart. You can do this by not being afraid to let journalists talk directly to the people most affected by the system – the kids, their families, your staff – and hear their personal experiences.

It may not always work out the way you want. Sometimes journalists can get details wrong. Maybe they’ll emphasize a point you didn’t really want them to focus on. Maybe their reporting will reinforce a stereotype. But you know what? Reaching out to reporters proactively, returning their calls promptly in case they’re on deadline, building a relationship with them, providing them with contacts or other resources for their story – these are ways to prevent those mistakes from happening.

Refusing to help a journalist who wants to talk to you increases the likelihood you’re not going to be happy with their work later. Because chances are they’re going to write their story anyway, and your point of view won’t be reflected in it.

John Fleming, my editor at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Jenna Gibson, a producer for “CBS This Morning,” and I are leading a workshop at the 7th annual Models for Change national conference to explain why and how you should “Help Tell America’s Untold Juvenile Justice Stories.” We plan to distribute this handout and this handout with tips for how to talk to the media. We will urge the people in the room – and we urge you now – to make a start in telling those untold stories by visiting our video booth at the conference. We have a videographer standing by, ready to capture your stories and turn them into short videos that we will upload to our site,, today and tomorrow.

Getting good information to the public about young people’s experiences with the juvenile justice system doesn’t have to be maddening -- for field service professionals or for journalists. Let’s just start with one person’s story at a time.  

Kaukab Jhumra Smith is the Washington correspondent for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and Youth Today, publications of the Center for Sustainable Journalism in Kennesaw, Ga.




*Photo at top by Flickr user Mr. T in DC