Reporters Interviewing Children In Connecticut School Shooting Adds Little News Value, Experts Say

12/14/2012 06:20 pm ET | Updated Dec 15, 2012

NEW YORK -- Television journalists rushed to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut after Friday's mass shooting and quickly sought eyewitnesses to describe the tragedy -- many of whom were little children.

"Was everybody crying, scared, wanting their parents to come get them?" a CNN reporter asked a young girl in a parking lot, accompanied by two adults.

While it's a journalist's job to quickly get information from the scene of a crime, there's something unseemly about asking children -- perhaps as young as 5 or 6 years old -- to answer questions on camera so soon after a tragedy involving their classmates. More problematically, such interviews can add trauma, experts said, while possibly helping spread misinformation, given that young children can be unreliable eyewitnesses.

"Simply having a child for the sake of having a child on camera does nothing to advance the story," said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. "Interviewing a small child whose understanding of death itself is limited, never mind who is confused and scared, can only contribute to the public's misunderstanding and contribute to the real trauma of the child."

Shapiro said he'd seem "some really irresponsible interviews" in the first hours after the shooting, with reporters pressing children for details and possibly helping to spread false information. He noted how in past shooting tragedies, myths -- like the so-called "Trench Coat Mafia" in Columbine, Colo. -- were quickly propagated by the media.

"As journalists, we do the public a disservice if we're trying to rush tidbits of information to air that are unverified, that create rumors, that create false understanding of terrible events," Shapiro said.

But providing inaccurate information isn't the only potential problem.

Emily Richmond, who serves as the National Education Writers Association's public editor, said that just because a child is "able to talk to you, doesn’t mean they're not emotionally traumatized."

Richmond noticed one TV reporter touch a child's back and ask if they were alright. "What do you do if the little girl says 'no, I'm not?'" Richmond asked.

Elana Newman, a psychology professor at the University of Tulsa, who has worked with the Dart Center, said that a young child "may understand that something bad has happened" and can describe something like a loud noise.

In the absence of other information, Newman said, a child's description may be useful. But fairly soon after the event, she said, "I don’t know what a child could offer at that age that one couldn't get from a police report in terms of details."

While some journalists who regularly cover schools may have experience interviewing children, many do not. (Richmond's organization is coincidentally holding a webinar on the subject on Tuesday and the Dart Center highlighted guidance for covering children and trauma on its home page Friday)

"I don’t think it is inherently wrong to interview children after a traumatic event like this," said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute on ethics, reporting and writing. "But I think there are some caveats that a professional reporter should be aware of."

McBride suggested that a parent or adult be present whenever a reporter interviews a child under 12 years old, which would include any of the children attending Sandy Hook Elementary. She expressed frustration with some of Friday's coverage, with journalists asking children yes-or-no questions like, "Were you scared?" and "Was Everybody crying?" Young children, she noted, have a tendency to answer such questions with what they think the interviewer wants to hear.

"The other thing is that you can't really rely on children that young as eyewitnesses," McBride said. "You really want to interview them to get their experience, not help document what happened."

In addition, McBride said that children need more time to express themselves than a TV interviewer will provide. "You really have to allow for that dead air space where the kid is stumbling," McBride said. "That's how kids express themselves. It's not perfect, snappy TV."

And perhaps getting a quick TV sound bite from a potentially traumatized child isn't the most compelling way to tell the story anyway.

"I think this is where photojournalism is particularly powerful," Richmond said. "The faces of those children running behind their teacher probably tells us more than those children can verbalize at that moment."

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