Photo of four children in rain gear and boots

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth dispatch from the 2024 Power of Narrative conference at Boston University. For previous posts, see deadline narratives by a Wall Street Journal podcast team, the braided structure used by The Atavist for complex stories and practical tips on empathy as a reporting tool.

By Esther Landhuis

The approach that guides the journalism of Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox might be distilled into three words: “Be human first.”

Cox is the author of the book “Children Under Fire: An American Crisis,” which draws from his years of enterprise reporting on how children are impacted by gun violence, mass shootings and school shootings. Speaking at the 2024 Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University, Cox offered tips for telling stories through the eyes of children. But his advice isn’t apt only for coverage of the most extreme trauma-based stories. It applies more broadly to reporters like me who write about rare diseases and contested illnesses, where patients and their families experience trauma that is less obvious and takes more time to understand and explain.

Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox and the 2024 Power of Narrative conference at Boston University

John Woodrow Cox

Here are highlights of his process, lightly edited from his words:

  • Be human first. That is where it begins. The first thing I say to anybody is ‘I’m very sorry for what it is you’ve gone through.’ If that is not your first instinct, you should quit doing this work.
  • Pre-report. Talk to everybody in their life first — all the adults, mostly so you understand if they have triggers, if there are things you shouldn’t talk about. You need to understand that as completely as possible before you walk in and ask them anything.
  • Always go, and always stay. Just show up. We cannot tell these stories from afar. We have to be there — and stay. The difference in the way a child interacts with you on the first day versus the second is enormous. They respond to consistency. Just being there, being a familiar face, for more than a day — they open up in a really different way.
  • Be transparent. I explain in great detail what it is that I do. I will show them on my phone, scroll through stories, and I’m very transparent about how the process works. What we do is so opaque to people. We think they understand it. They don’t. It’s very unusual to anybody who doesn’t do this work. So I try to be really clear about my process.
  • Give agency. Especially when talking with children, the thing I say all the time is ‘I’m not in charge. You can say ‘no’ to anything I ask you. There is no obligation.’ Children are so used to every adult in their life being an authority figure. So I say those words: ‘I’m not in charge. You’re in charge.’
  • Make them comfortable. I always ask kids where they want to talk. I ask parents to be present. I ask parents not to answer for their kids. I also sit on the floor. I want their eye level to be above mine. I want to signal to them all the time that they’re in charge, and I’m not.
  • When possible, immerse. If you ask a kid ‘How do you feel?’ — no matter what, their response will be ‘I’m OK’ or ‘Fine.’ The question I ask kids most often is ‘What happened next?’ By existing in their space — and this is true with adults, too — you’re going to learn so much more.
  • Verify. You can’t rely entirely on a child’s memory to tell the story. Anything they tell you, you have to seek corroboration.
  • Record everything. I have two recorders, always. Children speak in a really unique, unusual way. You have to get their dialogue exactly, because your ear will literally edit in real time. I know this because I’ve taken notes and I’ve recorded and they don’t match up. So right now I record everything.
    • Great tip: Get an Apple Watch and just turn it on to record. Then you don’t need to hold two recorders.
  • Find out what questions they’ve been asking. (to get at a child’s anxiety or fears…expressed in their journal, or to a parent or teacher etc.) Quick example: In a story about a boy whose father was shot to death, I asked the boy’ss mom to tell me what he would ask her:
    Did my daddy do something to deserve this?
    Did they catch the person?
    Is this person going to try to come and get me?
    Tyshaun would have never expressed to me that ‘oh I’m having a lot of fear about the person who didn’t get arrested who shot my dad’ or ‘I wonder if my dad did something to deserve this’ or ‘I wonder if this person’s going to come and get me.’ He wouldn’t have just volunteered that. But his questions to his mother revealed his anxiety. It’s a question that I ask literally every time when reporting (through the eyes of children): What questions have they been asking?
  • Leave them in a good place. This is a tip I picked up at Dart, the center on journalism and trauma. We take people into dark places in the course of reporting. We cannot leave them there. We have to bring them back out. You yourself, while doing this reporting, are going into a dark place. Sometimes it’s hard to think, how can I lighten this? How can I bring them back out of this? I write questions at the back of my notebook… things I know I can rely on when I want to bring them back out. For example, something they have to look forward to… What are you going to do this summer? What are you doing for Christmas? What’s on your wish list? Things that will put their brain emotionally in a better place.
  • Never underestimate. There are things we assume a child isn’t capable of thinking or doing. They have so much more to offer. And the truth is, kids can be a little bit of a Trojan Horse for tough issues. People find ways to blame: Oh, that must be this person’s fault. You can’t blame a 6-year-old. And there are a lot of other issues we can take on and find different ways to engage people if we told them through a different subject.

A closing thought from Woodrow Cox. How we tell stories through children’s eyes goes back to what I said at the start. Seek to understand their perspective, their loss, their fears, their interests, their aspirations — because they have all of those things. And too often we assume that they don’t. And that’s what it means to report with empathy.

To me, that is where our work begins and where it ends.

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Esther Landhuis is a freelance science and health journalist based in California.

Further Reading