Whatever the ultimate casualty count at Sandy Hook Elementary School, every student there Friday was a victim. These kids—10 years old, 5 years old—had been through an experience ghastlier than most adults have ever survived.
Minutes after they made it to safety outside the school, having heard and seen unspeakable things, cable, network and local TV crews were waiting to interview them, live on camera, about things a kid should never have to talk about. Flanked by their parents, boys and girls too young to see an R-rated movie described being hustled to safety as bullets whizzed by them in the halls of their school.
It was arresting. It was heartbreaking. And it was rash, unnecessary and wrong. There is no good journalistic reason to put a child at a mass-murder scene on live TV, permission of the parents or not. There’s not even a bad-but-practical reason to do it, beyond getting buzz and adding “color” to a story. No one learned anything they couldn’t have from talking to people off-camera and privately.
Yes, reporting tragedy is terrible business, awful and necessary. Unspeakable things have happened, and it’s a journalist’s job to find out about them and tell the world. This happens in war, natural disasters and murders; it’s a sad fact of the news. Sometimes that means interviewing victims and traumatized witnesses; sometimes that even means interviewing kids.
But there are much better ways to do this. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, for instance, offers 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.” Also: “Be willing to wait until the parents and child are ready to talk, even if that is weeks or months after the crisis. You will likely get a much better interview.” 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.”
There’s no changing your mind before a live camera, however gentle and respectful the interviewer. A non-recorded interview—as many print outlets were also running today—is a delicate enough thing to handle. But you can at least do it cautiously, take time, and give kids and parents an opportunity to rethink their decision to talk.
For that matter, a reporter off-camera can take a minute to ask some questions: “Do I need this? Is this adding to anyone’s understanding of the story? Would I want my own child asked this? Is this decent?” (Not to mention: is there a consenting adult I could be talking to instead?)
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.
It’s difficult enough after a tragedy like this to answer how we can protect kids from violence in a safe place. We at least know how we can protect them from being exploited in the moments afterward. Turn the cameras away.