A Chicago TV station now says it made two ethical mistakes when it aired an interview with a 4-year-old boy last month.

The first mistake was interviewing a child at a crime scene. But things grew even worse when the station edited the boy's interview in a way that made it seem as though the African American child idolized guns and criminals.

In fact, the child told the photographer that he wanted to be a police officer. The station edited out that part of the interview.

This 4-year-old boy was interviewed on-camera by WBBM as part of a story about teen shootings.

A story published last week on the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education’s website first raised questions about the interview. Dori J. Maynard, president of the Institute, said, “We have long been worried about the ways in which the media helps perpetuate negative stereotypes of boys and men of color, but this appears to be overtly criminalizing a preschooler.”

On Thursday, WBBM Vice President and News Director Jeff Kiernan told me via e-mail, “The airing of the 4-year-old's soundbite was a mistake, and the writing and the editing of the soundbite was a mistake.” He added, “WBBM-TV takes responsibility for the story. It was wrong to air the story in the first place.”

The video, which Kiernan says was supplied by a stringer, included this exchange:

4-year-old boy: “I’m not scared of nothing.”

Photographer: “When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?”

Boy: “No.”

Photographer: “No? What are you going to do when you get older?”

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

In describing the story on the 4:30 a.m. news, WBBM anchor Steve Bartelstein called the boy's reaction "disturbing." After the clip aired, he commented, “That was scary indeed.” Co-anchor Susan Carlson responded, “Hearing that little boy there, wow!”

The boy's comments begin 38 seconds into the video:

Another video of the interview tells a different story. Poynter.org and The Maynard Institute got an email from a source who identified himself only as The Chicago News Watchdog that included another portion of the interview with the child.

That version makes it clear that the interview with the child was taken out of context. Here's the complete exchange, with the deleted portion in bold:

Photographer: “Boy, you ain’t scared of nothing! Damn! When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?”

Boy: “No.”

Photographer: “No? What are you going to do when you get older?”

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

Photographer: “You are! Why do you want to do that?”

Boy: “I'm going to be the police!”

Photographer: “OK, then you can have one."

(We have not posted the video online due to ethical and legal considerations.)

Bob Butler, a vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote the Maynard article and a follow-up. He said the video was met with scorn at the NAACP national convention in Los Angeles this week.

The Maynard Institute report quotes a WBBM spokeswoman as saying the station took unspecified “corrective steps” against the people who were responsible for editing and writing the story.

WBBM’s Kiernan told me that the station considered issuing an on-air statement about the video. However, “we did not want to further compound our mistake by focusing on the child who shouldn't have been on the air in the first place.”

“Anytime a child is involved in a news story," he continued, "it is to be dealt with sensitively and responsibly and certainly with the permission of a guardian.”

Guidelines for interviewing juveniles

I wrote some guidelines on interviewing juveniles for the Radio-Television-Digital News Foundation Journalism Ethics project on interviewing juveniles, which we're republishing in their entirety below.

There are circumstances where hearing the views of young people can prove valuable in our understanding of how they see the world around them. Adults need not be the only ones who express worthy views of news events. It is the method journalists use to collect the views of young people that raise the most challenging ethical questions.

Journalists should exercise special care when interviewing juveniles. Especially in breaking news situations, juveniles may not be able to recognize the ramifications to themselves or to others of what they say. Journalists should be especially careful in interviewing juveniles live, because such live coverage is more difficult to control and edit. Juveniles should be given greater privacy protection than adults.

The journalist must weigh the journalistic duty of seeking truths and reporting them as fully as possible against the need to minimize any harm that might come to a juvenile in the collection of information.

When interviewing juveniles, journalists should consider:

Journalistic Purpose and Quality of Information

  • What is my journalistic purpose in interviewing this juvenile?
  • In what light will this person be shown? What is their understanding or ability to understand how viewers or listeners might perceive the interview? How mature is this juvenile? How aware is he/she of the ramifications of his/her comments?
  • What motivations does the juvenile have in cooperating with this interview?
  • How do you know what this young person says is true? How much of what this young person says does he/she know first-hand? How able are they to put what they know into context? Do others, adults, know the same information? How can you corroborate the juvenile's information?
  • How clearly have you identified yourself to the juvenile? Do they know they are talking to a reporter?

Minimize Harm

  • What harm can you cause by asking questions or taking pictures of the juvenile even if the journalist never includes the interview or pictures in a story?
  • How would you react if you were the parent of this child? What would your concerns be and how would you want to be included in the decision about whether the child is included in a news story?
  • How can you include a parent or guardian in the decision to interview a juvenile? What effort has the journalist made to secure parental permission for the child to be included in a news story? Is it possible to have the parent/guardian present during the course of the interview? What are the parents' motivations for allowing the child to be interviewed? Are there legal issues you should consider, such as the legal age of consent in your state?
  • If you conclude that parental consent is not required, at least give the child your business card so the parents can contact you if they have an objection to the interview being used.

Explore Alternatives

  • What alternatives can you use instead of interviewing a child on camera?
  • What are the potential short-term and long-term and consequences of this person's comments?
  • What rules or guidelines does my news organization have about interviewing juveniles? Do those guidelines change if the juvenile is a suspect in a crime and not a victim? What protocols should your newsroom consider for live coverage that could involve juveniles?
  • How would you justify your decision to include this juvenile in your story to your newsroom and to viewers or listeners, to the juvenile's parents?

The Golden Rule for Interviewing Children: Do unto other people's kids as you would have them do unto your kids.