In a four-decade career in journalism, one of the things I never quite got used to was interviewing people connected to a tragedy. The last thing I wanted to do while reporting on a fatal traffic accident, an avalanche or a shooting was knock on a family's door as they were wrestling with a sudden tragic loss.
Sometimes my job required me to set aside my discomfort and gingerly approach someone who could help tell the story of what happened.
There's been social-media backlash against reporters who interviewed school children just after the massacre of students and teachers at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., this Friday.
Within hours of the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack that left 27 dead, Twitter was slamming journalists for approaching young children still likely shocked by the mass shooting. Tweets, some laced with expletives, excoriated reporters for trying to get eyewitness accounts from kids no older than 10.
"Dear News Reporters, let's leave interviews with children to the police, you maggots," tweeted Lindsey VanWinkle.
"This is not the time," said one of the tamer tweets noted on Storify. "Let them go home to their families."
Television network news organizations, including CNN, MSNBC, NBC and ABC, were specifically singled out.
"Journalism is awful. RT @jmarshhh If you're a reporter interviewing kids I don't know how you can sleep at night. Honestly. Be ashamed."
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Reporters at a mass tragedy like this face a real dilemma. Their job requires them to set aside for a while the horror they feel and try to learn what had happened so they can tell the public. (Judging from the tearful CNN reporter I saw doing her standup this afternoon, events can break through that professional shell.)
In the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the pupils may have been the best eyewitnesses to what happened. Does that make them fair game?
In a word, no.
"Sadly, some of the best sources of information for what happened inside Sandy Hook Elementary before, during, and after the shooting aren't your average eyewitnesses — they're children who've just gone through drama and witnessed death in front of their young eyes," Rebecca Greenfield blogged on The Atlantic Wire.
"That extra layer of sensitivity doesn't seem to matter to CNN or NBC, which have been broadcasting and re-broadcasting interviews with schoolchildren all day. And what little bit of detail these 'witnesses' have to offer doesn't seem to be worth the insensitive nature of the questioning — at least not according to the slew of people on Twitter calling out these news organizations to stop talking to kids, immediately."
Thinking about this, I reached out to one of my old bosses at The Canadian Press. Former Vancouver bureau chief Stephen J. Ward is a professor of journalism ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is about to become director of the Turnbull Center for Journalism at the University of Oregon.
"The ethical norm that should dominate all newsroom approaches to this story is to minimize the harm of such traumatized families," he told me via email. "Nothing can justify putting 'scoops' or 'getting the story ahead of the competition' in a situation like this.
"This means no barging in like wild elephants into the situations, grabbing kids to interview."
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Interviewing kids at all should only be done by going through an adult family member, Ward said, echoing guidelines set out by New York University's School of Journalism.
"Reporters should seek permission from a parent or guardian before interviewing children on any controversial subject," the NYU J-School guide says.
"Getting a quote from a 12-year-old on the opening of a new swimming pool would not require such permission; getting a quote on allegations that a school is unsafe would. When the call seems close, the reporter should discuss with a faculty member (or editor in a professional setting) in advance to determine the ethical course."
It should be noted CNN's Wolf Blitzer clarified that its reporters "always ask permission" from parents before interviewing children.
Most reporters (at least most I've worked with) instinctively know this. I've never had to deal with children on this kind of story, but even for adults connected to tragic stories I've preferred to find go-betweens to ask for an interview unless the people have made themselves publicly available already.
"I would prefer that media back off and deal with official statements on behalf of families," said Ward. "Journalists must not add to the trauma of these people."
We have to remember, too, that children are not equipped with the same thickness of psychological armour as most adults have developed to cope with tragedy. The seemingly calm young students I saw interviewed just hours after their friends were gunned down will be wrestling with what they witnessed for years.
Interviewing children in such circumstances, in essence asking them to relive the experience, can increase later emotional and psychological damage, Rebecca Greenfield said. She cited child psychologist Donna Gaffney, who said children need to be with people who love and support them in the first 24 hours of witness something like the Sandy Hook shooting or Columbine in 1999, the previous worst mass school shooting in the U.S.
"Children who are witnesses to violent events or tragic occurrences are victims in their own right," said Gaffney. "They may not be the direct recipients but as witnesses they are profoundly affected."
We are living in an era of real-time news, the so-called 24-hour news cycle, where the competition to break stories and update them with the freshest tidbits is intense.
But Ward told me that doesn't mean journalists can push the boundaries of discretion in pursuit of what, in the end, likely will be trivial details of a larger tragedy.
"I have no doubt that the new media environment pushes everyone to react quickly but that is, ethically, no excuse to give in to such pressures," Ward said.