The Sandy Hook massacre: Do journalists need to interview children?


Newtown, Conn. – Jordan Stofko, a seventh-grader at Newtown Middle School who also attended Sandy Hook Elementary, was interviewed with her father near her home on Friday, December 14, 2012. Photo: Danny Ghitis/Novus Select

As journalists we are frequently taught to ask questions first and decide later what to use.  It’s good advice I share with my students.

In today’s Internet fueled news world though the Sandy Hook massacre should give journalists something on which to reflect- Is it appropriate to interview children?

Admittedly, this is a difficult question for news organizations, news managers and journalists to ask in the midst of any breaking news story. The demand, both internally and from audiences, to know what’s happening immediately and from multiple sources has never been greater. Conversely, lost credibility from poor or questionable reporting to journalists and organizations for which they work has never struck faster. 

That’s why I believe it’s more important than ever to have ethical discussions about how reporting is handled before, during and after breaking news events. There should also be better transparency by news organizations in explaining to viewers, listeners and readers why they choose to cover major stories the way they do as they cover those stories. Not afterwards.

ethicsTime’s TV critic James Poniewozik had a recent article “Kids at Tragedies: Turn Off the Cameras” on this topic.

Writes Poniewozak-

“An 8-year-old kid is not a media-savvy spokesperson under the best circumstances. Under the worst circumstances talking to them live on camera, when they’re still processing a nightmare and are speaking words they can’t edit or take back—is unconscionable. This is true even with a parent’s permission, even if the kid is willing, even if he or she “seems fine.” You do not know how fine that kid is. No one knows how badly affected a child is moments after surviving a mass murder: not a psychologist, not a parent, certainly not the stressed-out reporter sticking out a microphone.”

AccuracyI would add the word “accuracy” to this discussion.

In tragic situations I covered as a reporter ( 9-11, Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse, post-war Balkans, refugees, drive-by shootings witnessed by kids, etc.) witness accounts and their accuracy may vary widely given the physical and psychological impact they have on witnesses,,and those claiming to be witnesses for the purposes of publicity when they are not.

I encourage news organizations to discuss the ethical implications of interviewing children before, during and after the reporting unfolds.

Here’s a great ethics decision making guide from the Poynter Institute’s Bob Steele. It recognizes that we all have different intuitive reactions to news events based on our own past personal experiences. It encourages discussion and reflection be involved in newsroom decision making, and that doing so is likely to result in better ethical decision making. The process isn’t perfect, nor do I think it can ever be when covering breaking news. I do believe it’s a far better ethical decision making process than no process at all.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, as Poniewozik points out, also has outstanding guidelines for journalists interviewing children in tragedies: “Avoid interviewing children at the scene. They are very likely in shock and need comfort, not questioning… find a quiet place to talk away from the chaos of emergency personnel and other victims.” Above all: “Traumatized people often make poor decisions. Be prepared for adults or children to change their minds once the interview is complete. If this happens, don’t use the material.”

Good advice. What do you think? Can we all practice this?

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
This entry was posted in broadcasting, Journalism, nebraska, new media, News, newspapers, television, Terrorism, University of Nebraska and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Sandy Hook massacre: Do journalists need to interview children?

  1. Short answer: no.

    Certainly not in a case like this. It is parasitical and morally repugnant.

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