Children in the News: Even Child Rights Groups are not Picture Perfect

Save the Children UK - Rwanda

By Elliot Cass

How media portray children and how they deal with them is one of the key challenges facing ethical journalists and to help them get it right, reporters might expect children’s rights groups to provide not only good sources and relevant information, but model standards for portrayal of young people.

But often that is not the case. Children’s rights organisations ought to be leaders in portraying children ethically, not least because the most ratified human rights treaty in history, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), mentions the importance of dignity in its first sentence.

But when raising money to support children many organisations routinely resort to publishing pictures of under-18s in the most dire circumstances, bloodied, emaciated or with tears welling in their eyes. This trend has not gone unnoticed, and recently a group of schoolchildren called out UNICEF, Save the Children and others for their use of these images.

Pupils at Applegarth Academy in Croydon, which promotes itself as a UNICEF rights respecting school, wrote to the charities asking whether they felt that these photos respected or helped to promote children’s rights.

Were the children in these images aware that they were being photographed? Did the photographer gain consent? Was the scale of the organisation and usage of the image explained adequately enough for that consent to be considered informed?

One organisation responded to pupils at Applegarth Academy by saying that it “strives to ensure” children understand and consent to being involved in its promotional material. One pupil said, considering that protection of children’s rights is the core of their mandate, trying is not enough.

While organisations working on child rights issues might argue that images of vulnerable children generate money to pour back into initiatives on the ground, the implications of treating children as objects of pity rather than as holders of rights should not be underestimated.

Picture a skeletal child with a bloated belly and flies around their eyes followed by a message claiming that a minuscule donation could save that child’s life. Such images yank at our heart strings but fail to inform us about why the child is in that situation in the first place, how it can be remedied, and whose responsibility this is. These images do nothing to make viewers think critically about the effects of poverty, famine or unemployment, or a government’s role in preventing or exacerbating social ills. And, importantly, it fails to portray children as rights holders.

In this sense the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s video I can’t wait until I grow up is a rarity. It features a child victim of domestic violence who, with every blow received cites one of his rights – to live in a safe and loving family environment, to be protected against abuse, and to be heard.

This last point rings especially true as, despite being the focus of many organisations’ work, children have no say in how they are portrayed. Indeed many causes for violations of children’s rights ultimately stem from entrenched attitudes towards children, differences in the way they are treated and a lack of consideration for their views.

Child Rights International Network (CRIN) made a decision to stop using images of children in 2014, opting instead to use original artwork that encourages viewers to think critically about children’s rights issues.

A rights-based approach to imagery is also taken by others, and the guidelines set out by WaterAid are a good starting point for how to approach using photographs of children responsibly and ethically. Using satire to illustrate the same point, the Oslo-based SAIH challenges the notion of ‘sad Africa’ kept alive by charities’ use of images of starving children in a video titled, Let’s save Africa! – Gone wrong.

Despite increased awareness around the importance of portraying children ethically, the current trend among most charities continues to lean towards images that reduce children to their visible suffering and ignore the fact that they should have a right to remedies in their own country without the need for outsiders to donate to ‘save’ them.

Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees children’s right to be heard and the organisations claiming to act in children’s interests would do well to remember this when thinking about their portrayal of children. These organisations ought to be promoting rights, not charity and the action taken by students at Applegarth Academy shows that children themselves see the problems with the current approach.


Elliott Cass is a journalist for the Child Rights International Network (CRIN), which became a supporter of the Ethical Journalism Network earlier this year.

Photo credit: Save the Children