Any reporter who has tried to interview young children knows how laconic and reluctant they often can be. Even open-ended questions designed to initiate conversations are answered with “Yes”, “No,” “I don’t know,” or worse, silence. But there’s hope.
For nearly a decade, John Woodrow Cox, an enterprise reporter for The Washingon Post, has perfected the art of persuading children to share their experience and thoughts about a fraught subject—their devastating experiences with gun violence as victims and witnesses to mass shootings and those traumatized even by a single death. In 2018, Cox was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a portfolio of his stories on the topic. He is the author of “Childen Under Fire: An American Crisis,” a new, disturbing, but must-read book for gun owners and parents. In a recent interview, he shared his techniques with me.
“The first time you meet a kid they tend to go one direction or the other; either they desperately want your attention and want to talk to you and will say anything or they don’t want to talk at all. They’re very shy and standoffish and pretty closed up,” Cox told me.
“I talk to them like an adult. I explain who I am and what I’m doing and why, that I work for a newspaper and I’m here to tell their story if that’s okay with them.”
Cox often likes to talk to kids “in the spaces where they’re most comfortable, which is frequently in their rooms because they want to show you their toys and the things they like the most. I’ve always used things like making sure my eye level is not higher than theirs. I don’t want tobe above them physically, I don’t want them to think I’m an authority figure because I’m not. And I want them to know that they can always stop talking about something if they don’t want to talk about it.
Repetition is another key technique, he said. The more he shows up, the more relaxed the children become. That’s his approach to reporting: “always show up and keep showing up…because good things happen in the reporting process when you’re there, and you’re there again and again and again.”
Cox recognizes that reporters believe children will be recalcitrant subjects, but he’s found the opposite. “Ultimately, kids love attention, like any of us. If you’re sincere, and genuine in your interest, they can sense that and they’re often willing to open up, even about the hardest things they’ve been through.”