Newtown shootings: interviewing traumatised children

Monday 17 December 2012, 11:42

Stuart Hughes Stuart Hughes is a BBC World Affairs producer. Twitter: @stuartdhughes

Newtown shootings: woman comforts distressed child After more than 60 mass shootings in the US over the past three decades, television news coverage of these devastating but all-too-frequent events now follows a similar tragic formula.

Aerial footage of heavily armed police officers circling the crime scene. Heart-breaking close-ups of the bewildered and agonised faces of the relatives of those killed and injured. Tales of individual heroism. The inevitable debate over gun control and access to weapons. And, above all, a single, seemingly unanswerable question: why?

To place one life-destroying incident of violence above another seems ghoulish. But, as with the 1996 Dunblane massacre, the large number of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week has caused particular shock and revulsion around the world. It has also raised some of the most difficult and troubling questions over some of the news coverage of the attack.

In the hours following the shootings, a number of TV networks spoke to children who witnessed the rampage.

On Twitter, some viewers described the journalists conducting the interviews as “maggots” and “sick bastards”.

Writers such as Elamin Abdelmahmoud of the Huffington Post Canada condemned the questioning of young eyewitnesses. “A little child who has just experienced a tragedy like this doesn’t need a microphone in his or her face,” he said. “What that child needs is their parents, guardians, friends and loved ones. The story can wait.”

“The more we saw these children talking on TV before they’d even had a chance to go home, the more it felt like exploitation,” said Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper.

So is interviewing minors in the immediate aftermath of a hugely traumatic event ever ethically or editorially justifiable?

The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma provides resources to reporters who cover violence. It has put together a comprehensive selection of links for newsgatherers covering the Connecticut tragedy and its guidance is clear. “Avoid interviewing children at the scene,” it says. “They are very likely in shock and need comfort, not questioning.”

“Children are not necessarily OK after a bad incident, no matter how they might appear,” says the Dart Center’s founding director Roger Simpson.

Others believe that interviewing children who have just witnessed violence can be acceptable so long as the interviews are carefully conducted and controlled.

“I don’t think it is inherently wrong to interview children after a traumatic event like this,” says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute in Florida.

McBride however acknowledges that children - with their eagerness to please adults - cannot always be relied on as reliable eyewitnesses. They have a tendency to tell interviewers what they think they want to hear, she says, rather than what they actually saw.

Al Tompkins, also of the Poynter Institute, has written a set of guidelines for journalists interviewing juveniles. They include asking questions such as: 

  • What is my journalistic purpose in interviewing this juvenile?
  • In what light will this person be shown?
  • How do you know that what this young person says is true?
  • How clearly have you identified yourself to the juvenile? Do they know they are talking to a reporter?

Tompkins believes that “adults aren’t the only ones with worthy views of news. But interviewing young people raises some of the most challenging questions faced by journalists.”

The BBC’s own rules echo these considerations, although they do not directly address the issue of interviewing children who have witnessed a traumatic incident. “We must ensure that the physical and emotional welfare and the dignity of children and young people is protected during the making and broadcast of our content, irrespective of any consent given by them or by a parent, guardian or other person acting in loco parentis,” say the BBC’s editorial guidelines. “Their interests and safety must take priority over any editorial requirement.”

Many, perhaps most, reporters sent to Sandy Hook Elementary School will unquestionably have shown compassion and empathy towards those whose lives had just been torn apart.

Researchers who have looked at previous mass shootings have found that the journalists covering them can themselves suffer post-traumatic reactions. The Dart Center encourages newsgatherers to employ self-care strategies to help them cope and urges news managers to provide extra encouragement and support for their staff.

I do not believe for a moment that any reporter sent to Newtown, Connecticut, went there with the intention of causing further trauma or damage to the youngsters caught up in the tragedy.

Sometimes there is a risk, however, that adrenaline, competitive pressures and the sense that ‘others are doing it so it must be OK’ can threaten to over-ride our basic empathy towards those we are reporting on.

That’s why the Dart Center’s advice is so simple but so vital: treat kids like you’d want a reporter to treat your own children.

Stuart Hughes is an Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma.




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    Comment number 1.

    Stuart, I think the public is as much to blame for bad behaviour when it comes to such reporting. Just read an interesting article on NewsView on the ethical issues of reporting after traumatic events - - as the article suggests, broadcasters are giving the public what they want to consume and the public are by far the best regulatory mechanism. It's easy to call these journalists 'maggots' but for the most part these are workers responding to a very specific public demand.

    Regardless, I think it was poor journalistic practice and I have filed a complaint against my local broadcaster here - hopefully enough other people follow suit to make a real difference in the future (I shall not hold my breath though!).


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