Analysis: The non-existent news value of interviewing terrified 8-year-olds
Why are news networks interviewing terrified children?
It's a question many are asking after the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed at least 20 children and perhaps seven adults. The entire country is in shock, network news reporters included — but that's no excuse for interviewing small children who may be badly traumatized.
"One of the many tragedies to come out of Friday's mass shooting in Connecticut," wrote The Atlantic Wire's Rebecca Greenfield, "is the way information has actually come out of it."
Everyone is looking for someone to vent their anger on in a situation like this, and reporters who interview kids are an easy target. We should remember that they're just trying to do their jobs.
But in this area, they're doing their jobs badly.
The fact is, there's almost never a journalistic reason to interview kids, especially those who are likely in shock. Children don't tend to be the most eloquent witnesses. And they aren't supposed to be. They're children.
But especially today it feels bizarre, exploitive and just plain stupid to put microphones in the faces of young witnesses, even if their parents — also likely to be in shock — agree to interviews in the moment. It's dramatic, sure. But protecting children from further stress and trauma should take precedence over drama.
Police have no choice but to interview traumatized children as they try to solve crimes. But NBC, CNN, and Fox News — all of which interviewed small children today — aren't going to crack the case. All they're doing is filling airtime.
Speaking to reporters today, Connecticut state police Lt. Paul Vance specifically asked reporters not to bother victims' families. Police always ask this in these situations, and reporters always ignore them.
But they do their best to be sensitive.
"Per the NBC News policies and guidelines, our journalists are instructed to use caution when contacting minors as sources — particularly when discussing sensitive topics such as witnessing a violent crime — and seek to obtain the permission of the parents," an NBC News spokeswoman told TheWrap.
But are these minor sources providing any useful information? No. Today, their memories are a jumble of "boom" sounds and teachers saying to huddle in the corner. They tell us nothing about what actually happened that we couldn't guess.
And many of the children, hopefully, don't even know all that happened: Many rescuers at the scene wisely told children to close their eyes, so they wouldn't see and remember the bloodshed around them.
And really: We, the viewers, can manage to wait a few hours for police to reconstruct the killings for us, if, for some reason, we really need a moment-by-moment account of what happened.
Take this useless exchange with Fox News anchor Jenna Lee and an 8-year-old third-grader we won't name. Fox News did use her name, which almost guarantees that other networks will besiege her with requests to again relive the shooting.
Note how many times during the interview Lee asks the girl how she is feeling — not for facts, but for a look inside her terrified mind.
Asked what happened, the girl described hearing "bangs of gunshotting." The girl said her teacher locked the door, and told children to go to a corner.
Lee asked the girl, who was on the phone, how she felt. To the networks' credit, the girl's mother was also on the call.
"I felt scared and everybody was like shaking," the girl said. The girl said the police knocked on the door, and her teacher told the children to go outside.
"I bet you were pretty happy to see your mom when she came to pick you up," Lee said.
"Yeah," said the child.
Lee asked if the school has practice drills. (Why? Is this really the time to question if the school had enough drills? And is an eight-year-old the person to ask?)
"Um, not really, we just practiced like doing fire drills and if the fire drill [happens] we just go outside," the child explained.
Then her mother offered some second-hand information about someone who may have died.
"How did it feel when you saw your mom?" Lee asked yet again.
"Really happy," said the child.
Why, exactly, do we need to know, just hours after the shooting, how it "feels" to be in the middle of one? Is there anyone who can't figure that out?
Moments after the interview with the girl, Lee spoke to an excellent source: State Rep. John Frey, who has a niece and nephew who attend the school. Used to talking with the media, he was able to pass on what the children saw and heard more capably than a child ever could, without putting a child through the stress of a live interview.
The Fox News interview was by no means more egregiously unnecessary than any other media interviews with children Friday. The New York Times offered this baffling and needless account from a 9-year-old boy:
“We were in the gym, and I heard really loud bangs. … We thought that someone was knocking something over. And we heard yelling, and we heard gunshots. We heard lots of gunshots. We heard someone say, 'Put your hands up.' I heard, 'Don’t shoot.' We had to go into the closet in the gym. Then someone came and told us to run down the hallway. There were police at every door. There were lots of people crying and screaming.'"
The Times did not press the boy for details, apparently, on who said what. We don't blame them.
At least that child had the buffer of print, and wasn't subjected to a live interview. And the Times didn't use his name.
But he shouldn't have been interviewed in the first place.