It's my story: helping care-experienced young people give effective media interviews

Why encourage young people to give interviews?

Local people were up in arms about this project for care leavers … they started saying it would bring down house prices and all that stuff. I got in touch with my local paper and told them I was a care leaver and I wanted to put [across] our side of things … I did this interview and then the local radio got in touch, and I also appeared on TV … The media can be very powerful.

The media has a very direct influence on our lives. We know about issues, people and situations we would never encounter unless we saw them on our television screens or read about them in magazines or newspapers.

For young people growing up in the 21st century, the media is an intrinsic part of their lives. They are used to having instant access to information – through mobile phones, iPods and laptops. Programmes such as Channel 4’s ‘Big Brother’ and the plethora of ‘real-life’ documentaries blurs boundaries between daily life and the world of television. Young people may feel more connected to the lives of celebrities or soap stars they have never met than to the communities they live in. They see people plucked from obscurity and turned into stars overnight, and may want a slice of that action for themselves. Their politics, cultural references, fashion and music tastes, their concerns about the environment, battery farming or debt in the developing world are all shaped by what they listen to, watch or read.

Your role as a worker

Becoming part of that influential media instrument can be very tempting for a young person who has previously felt overlooked or unheeded. As a worker it is therefore your role to ensure that young people who give interviews about experiences relating to their own lives do so:

As individuals we may not particularly like the way some sections of the media operate or, for example, the values expressed in the tabloids. But unless we are prepared to engage with the media we stand little chance of changing the way it covers certain issues.

In this clip from an interview exercise, Joanne demonstrates very clearly how powerful young people’s voices can be in challenging stereotypes. (From media training with Voices from Care Cymru, commissioned by SCIE)

Like it or loathe it, you can’t escape the fact that television has a major impact on our lives!

It is estimated that around 25 million households in the UK own a television. Given that the UK has a total population of approximately 60 million and most households have two or more people living in them, it is probably safe to conclude that a very high percentage of the population has access to a television.

What can an interview achieve?

There are a number of reasons why an organisation might choose to give an interview, for example:

An individual might choose to give an interview about their personal experience for all of the above reasons but also …

We should not expect young people to give interviews simply because we think it will be helpful for our organisation. We need to ensure that, when they do so, they gain something beneficial from the experience. This might range from a sense of personal achievement or growth in confidence to the knowledge that they have contributed in making a difference to the lives of others.

So in preparing young people for specific interview opportunities it is important to be clear:

In this example, Craig takes control of the negative assumptions in the interviewer’s question and calmly rebuts them. (From media training with Voices from Care Cymru, commissioned by SCIE)

 ‘You live your life in a certain way with these views about what’s right and wrong and all that … you find yourself saying stuff about the young generation, ‘‘we was never allowed to do that when we were their age’’… but then one day you hear some kid talking about growing up with no one who gives a damn about them, and you think no wonder they do the things they do … you see it in a whole new light.’

Using your judgement

You will sometimes need to use your judgement about whether a young person’s motivation is too weighted towards a particular personal agenda to bring real benefits to themselves and your organisation. Giving interviews can certainly have some therapeutic qualities (because it is empowering and allows the young person to reflect on their experiences), but this doesn’t mean that an interview should ever become a public therapy session!

So consider whether there is a healthy balance of motivation in any situation before you encourage a young person to give a particular interview.

In weighing up this balance be aware that very few people are totally altruistic. A young person who is keen to represent your organisation and speak out about the problems experienced by young people coming into the care system is also likely to have a personal issue which motivates them. For example, they may still remember the person who said: ‘Young people in care never make anything of their lives’, and be keen to prove that person wrong by demonstrating their personal achievements.

It is probably safe to say that many of us are motivated by the desire to succeed in the face of other people’s negative beliefs and so long as it remains an underlying factor – and not an overriding obsession – it is probably healthy enough.

These issues are relevant to any organisation which works with marginalised or disenfranchised groups of adults or young people.

Watch out for the overriding personal agenda

Arguing from a personal perspective can be very powerful and usually adds extra weight to an argument. However, there may be a few times when you feel that the balance of motivations is too heavily weighted towards the young person’s desire to get back at an individual or institution they hold responsible for a real or perceived injustice. This strong desire to give an interview solely to air a personal injustice may be damaging to the young person for a number of reasons:

You will need to use your discretion and professional knowledge to decide how best to handle these situations. However, it is probably best to discourage a young person from giving an interview until they are able to create some sense of distance from the issues. In the meantime encourage them to access other opportunities to address their grievance, for example, contacting a counselling or advocacy service.

Speaking out about abuse

We do need to recognise that there may be times when a young person or adult will find it beneficial to speak out about abuses they have experienced – for example when an abuser has been sentenced or when wide-scale abuse has been uncovered. These situations need very careful handling and it is advisable that someone only speaks to the media about these situations after they have received counselling and support and have had a chance to think very carefully about the implications of doing so. Often people choose to have their identities disguised in these situations.

Be prepared – but not over-cautious

It is likely that you may never come across these complex and highly sensitive situations, but in order to feel that you are able to support and safeguard young people properly if they are giving interviews to the media, you need to think about how you would handle them.