December 14, 2012

As television networks interview child survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, people get angry. They see reporters interviewing children in Newtown, Conn., as manipulative, and they worry about the child’s vulnerability.

I don’t think it is inherently wrong to interview children after a traumatic event like this,” Poynter senior ethics faculty Kelly McBride told Huffington Post.

Reporters need to first decide if a competent adult is present to determine whether a child should be interviewed, and if that adult is working in the child’s best interest.

As guidelines developed by Poynter faculty Al Tompkins advise, ask yourself:

  • What is my journalistic purpose in interviewing this juvenile?
  • What motivations does the juvenile have in cooperating with this interview?
  • How do you know that 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?

Done well, an interview with a child after a news event can help shed light on the experience and validate the child’s memory of the event. But not all journalists interview children well, and that can be especially obvious on TV.

Here are 10 pointers for interviewing children in situations like this one.

Consider the implications of an event.

“I think the most important thing for journalists to recognize is that a child who has been through a school shooting … has been traumatized,” said Julie Drizin, director of the Journalism Center on Children and Families. They are in a state of shock, so you have to be careful not to re-traumatize them by forcing them to describe in great detail what happened.”

Interview children younger than 12 with a parent or another adult who can advocate for their best interests.

“You really are supposed to have parental permission to identify a kid or to talk with them,” Drizin said. “In this kind of situation, it would be ideal to try to talk to children whose parents are present.”

Respect children’s and parents’ wishes not to talk.

“No child is required to talk to you,” Drizin said. “You have to be careful not to re-traumatize them by forcing them to talk. … I think it’s really important to be sensitive and to not push really hard.”

Try to find a quiet interviewing spot.

It’s not always easy finding a quiet spot at the scene of a breaking news story, but try to find one so that the children you’re interviewing won’t be as distracted.

Talk with children at eye level.

“I think it’s important whenever you talk to kids to try to see them eye to eye, as opposed to towering over them,” Drizin said. “Make sure you’re using language they can understand and that you’re not using any kind of baby talk.”

Let children know why you want to talk to them.

“Identify yourself as a journalist and say what that means. (‘I’m going to tell people all over the city and all over the country about what happened.’) When you are interviewing them, make sure they recognize that they’re being recorded, and turn the camera around so they can see that they’re being recorded and that you’re not just a curious friend,” said Drizin. “Let them know if you’re going to be using their names, using their image in an interview situation.”

Avoid questions about death, & avoid yes or no questions like “Were you scared?”

“Really young kids don’t always necessarily realize that death is a permanent thing. Their understanding of death is very different,” Drizin said. “It’s really important to make sure the questions are open-ended that are not leading the children to provide a level of detail that could lead them to experience more trauma. I wouldn’t ask a child, ‘Do you know somebody who died today?’ or ‘Did your teacher get killed?’ And I would not ask the children to describe the gunman … because that’s the type of thing that could be haunting them.”

Instead of asking children to speculate, ask neutral, concrete questions:

  • Where were you?
  • What do you remember?
  • What did you hear or see, and then what happened?
  • How did you leave the school?

Don’t expect to get facts from children.

“You’re not going to necessarily get facts from kids, but you’re going to get a sense of the emotional impact of what happened,” Drizin said. “They have tremendous imaginations. I’m not saying they’re going to make stuff up — but you’re relying on them to help you tell the story, not necessarily for the facts.”

Don’t expect kids to describe grief and fear the way adults do.

Children speak in random, wandering sentences. Often times it takes them a while to figure out what they want to say. So they start by drawing out their first words, “Weellll, we weeerre sitting in class…”

In response, sometimes TV interviewers want to help the child along with her sentence, by putting words in her mouth or thoughts in her head. You can see this CNN reporter do that, asking, “Was everybody screaming and crying?”

We don’t get to hear the question in this MSNBC interview or see where the reporter is, but the child is allowed to wander a bit as she tells her story. As a result, her story is more informative.

Related resources: Why are CNN and NBC interviewing the students of Sandy Hook Elementary? (Atlantic Wire) | Covering school shootings (Dart Center) | Covering children and trauma (Dart Center)

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.

More News

Back to News


Comments are closed.