The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Sandy Hook

December 15, 2012

Shooting and media: Reporting on terror when kids witness it

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.

Another, 8-year-old Alexis Wasik, calmly told ABC News that what she'd experienced had made her sick. "I wanted to throw up," she said.

In the wake of Friday's ghastly school shootings in Connecticut, the question is: Should children have been on the air at all?

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 eyewitnesses 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 — especially ones as young as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School — 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 written or informal policies that advise their reporters to avoid interviewing any child without the explicit permission of an adult guardian, though it's unclear whether every news organization observed this in the scramble to report the unfolding story in Newtown. The usual protocol is to interview a child in the presence of his or her parent or guardian.

Some news outlets, such as NPR, go further, advising their journalists to get a parent's permission in writing or on tape before interviewing a child. ABC News also said Friday that it doesn't air interviews with children live, but records and reviews them before broadcast.

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," Blitzer said on the air. "We are very sensitive to young children in these kinds of tragedies. Obviously, a lot of families are feeling the pain right now."

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