Sunday, December 16, 2012

Media Interviewing Traumatized Children: WRONG

There seems to be a consensus of professional news writers and editors that the coverage of the tragic mass murder in Connecticut Friday morning generated more false and misleading initial reports than any other major national news event in memory.  I learned a long time ago, as a student at the Media University of Learning the Hard Way, that the first reports of any spot news story are almost always wrong, because initial reports often come from the most unreliable of all sources: eyewitnesses.

Ask any trial lawyer how reliable the testimony of eyewitnesses is, and how often, under questioning, their story falls apart.

Part of the problem with the Connecticut mass murder coverage is that almost every national news organization has abandoned the journalistic principle of attribution, and anchors and reporters state assertions as though they were fact-checked truth. Consider these statements:  His mother was a teacher at the school and he went to her classroom first and killed everyone there.  He was buzzed into the building by a security guard. Not only did those statements and many others reported as “fact” prove false, let’s remember that for several hours at the beginning of the slaughter, the media didn’t even get the shooter’s name right.  They parroted what police said, and police got it wrong.  The days of having a second source or confirming information are apparently long gone.  But the media didn't "attribute" the source of their information on the name, so - that's a mistake on their part just as much as it is on the cops.

As a broadcast news anchor for more than three decades, I know how this works, and I understand the pressure to provide “content” for the ongoing coverage.  You interview a “source” whom you believe to be credible, and report their assertions as fact – when often, their assertions are completely false.  It’s a true dilemma: you’re faced with two options (report it, or don’t) and neither one is practically acceptable.  If you don’t report it, someone else will “beat you to it”.  If you do report it and it turns out to be false – your tough luck.

The mistakes and errors in “fact” I can understand, but what I can’t condone is the exploitive interviews with traumatized children, moments after they’ve experienced a horrific tragedy, which their minds are often not capable of processing.  The Poynter Institute in Florida, journalism’s standard-keeper, discourages interviewing children as was done Friday, saying “What is the journalistic purpose in interviewing a juvenile?”  Child Psychologist Dana Gaffney, who worked with the survivors of the Columbine massacre in 1999, says “Children who are witnesses to violent events or tragic occurrences are victims in their own right.  They may not be the direct recipients, but as witnesses they are profoundly affected”.  She has advised reporters ever since Columbine not to interview ANY child or young person who has witnessed injury or death.

Police have no choice but to interview traumatized children as they gather evidence to try and solve a crime or enhance immediate public safety, but they are rigorously trained in the appropriate techniques to use with child witnesses, with a goal of protecting the children, who are likely in shock, from further stress and trauma.  Reporters interviewing traumatized children are creating more drama and, truth to be told, simply filling airtime.

In the sense of news reporting, children like the ones interviewed on live TV Friday provide no useful information, and tell us nothing about what it was like to be inside the classroom when bullets were flying that any adult couldn’t already guess.  Rescuers at Sandy Hook School wisely told the children to close their eyes, so they wouldn’t see and remember the bloodshed around them.  Is there any sentient adult with an IQ above room temperature who can’t figure out how it “feels” to be in the middle of a shooting?

Children are NOT small adults.  Even if their parents “gave permission” for the interviews, the parents are often traumatized and making poor decisions.  When CNN started to get huge pushback from adults who barraged CNN with social media messages late Friday afternoon, imploring them to STOP running interviews with the children, Wolf Blitzer (at 4:28 PM) announced that CNN’s reporters always ask permission from parents before interviewing children – as if that makes it all OK.  One social media post titled "Tell CNN to Stop Interviewing Children" got 56,000 "likes" in the first hour it was up.

There is a huge body of legitimate, peer-reviewed academic research about how children process traumatic events, research that was done following the 9-11 attacks.  Researchers learned that children process television coverage of tragedy and disaster far differently than adults.   They learned that children don’t understand the concept of video replay, and every time they see the towers fall, they think it’s happening all over again.  As I’ve maintained for years, television’s default position is “EXCESS” – so they play videotape of the towers falling over and over and over again.  And researchers learned that when children see disaster and trauma on TV, they think it’s happening in their own neighborhood – because the TV is in their home.  They don’t have the ability to adequately process the information like adults do.

That’s why parents have been advised by child psychologists for years to keep their youngsters away from TV coverage of disasters and traumas.  Children have a completely different view of such things, and can readily be traumatized over and again by watching repeated broadcasts of disaster.

One more rant: the young man who murdered all the children and teachers is not “evil”.  He’s mentally ill.  He didn’t do it because we’ve “kicked God out of the schools”.  He did it because he is mentally ill and we can’t “make sense of it” because his mind hasn’t been making sense for quite some time.  We need to examine not only our gun laws – the most lax in the world – but our mental health system.  That’s as much a part of the debate about ending these tragedies as keeping 30-round clips (or, as in the case of the Colorado theatre killer, HUNDRED-ROUND CLIPS) out of the hands of everyone except soldiers.


  1. You're absolutely right about the mental-illness laws passed by the Democrats.

    While you're at it, let's change the knife laws in China, which are the least restrictive in the known world.

    1. Dad 29, just shut the fuck up.

  2. Well stated, Tim. Once again, right on the mark.

    Jim V.

  3. terrific article. it's just too bad you had to write it......

  4. Tim, you are right on about not interviewing children. Children, and for that matter, the victims of a tragedy should be given the utmost privacy and respect. The news organizations need to ask themselves, "Would I want this to happen to MY family?"

    The killer may have been mentally ill, but his actions were evil. I really do believe evil finds it way into the minds of those who can't reject it. The question of, "How can God allow for this horrible thing to happen?" doesn't carry any weight. There is no such thing as a vengeful God. It's not that God ALLOWS terrible things to happen, but rather, EVIL is very powerful and can strike at any time.

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  7. The observation about the mental health system is important. The privacy section of the 1996 HIPAA Act (sponsored by Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas) will need to be re-examined, and that will not be easy. Even the local barbers knew the Newtown shooter wasn't OK

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