News media face dilemma when using child sources
Reporting about the deaths of 20 children and seven adults at a school in Newtown, Conn., posed an unusual dilemma for the news media.
The Washington Post
Worst school shootings in U.S. history
Virginia Tech University
April 16, 2007: Seung-Hui Cho, 23, kills 32 people and himself on Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va..
Newtown, Conn., elementary
Dec. 14, 2012: A gunman at a Connecticut elementary school killed more than two dozen people, including children, on Friday.
University of Texas
Aug. 1, 1966: Charles Whitman opened fire from the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, killing 16 people and wounding 31.
Littleton, Colo., high school
April 20, 1999: Students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves in the school's library.
Source: The Associated Press
One elementary-school child, a boy named Brendan Murray, was clearly disturbed by what he had witnessed. As he stood before a CNN camera describing his experience, his voice quavered and his eyes locked shut in apparent anguish.
The slaying of 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Conn., posed an unusual dilemma for the news media: Children as young as 5 or 6 were among the primary witnesses to the crime, but was it appropriate to approach them to get the story?
The answer, say news organizations, is yes, but with safeguards.
Journalists generally acknowledge that children can't give informed consent to a media interview, and that it's unethical to seek their comments by their consent alone.
Most news organizations have policies that advise reporters to avoid interviewing a child without the explicit permission of an adult guardian. The usual protocol is to interview a child in the guardian's presence. Some news outlets, such as NPR, go further, advising journalists to get a parent's permission in writing or on tape before interviewing a child. The Seattle Times advises staff covering breaking news to seek parental permission to quote a child by name or use their name in a photo.
After the interview with Brendan aired repeatedly on CNN on Friday afternoon, anchor Wolf Blitzer told viewers about the network's policy: "We don't talk to the children unless the parents say they want the child to speak out and they are there to watch these interviews."
But parental consent may not go far enough. The Poynter Institute, a journalism ethics and education organization, cautions news outlets about taking photographs or video of children involved in a breaking story, even from a distance. Many children — some with stricken and terrified expressions — appeared in news photographs and video Friday.
John Temple, managing editor of The Washington Post, was editor of the Rocky Mountain News of Denver in 1999 during the Columbine High School shooting. He says it's important for reporters to learn all they can about such events to prevent the next occurrence. In that sense, it's necessary to seek out witnesses, even the youngest ones.
"Everyone wants to know what happened in that school," he said. "There are so many things we need to learn and to understand."
Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.