Connecticut Elementary School Students Interviews & Vietnam Napalm Girl Photo

In the wake of Friday tragic Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the broadcast media (CNN, NBC, etc) were put under the spotlight, challenged, and asked: Should traumatized children have been interviewed on air live (or pre-recorded) in tragedy like this at all?  I’ve read the following four articles and I recommend you take a look too,

1) “Kids at Tragedies: Turn Off the Cameras“, TIME Magazine

2) “Reporters covering school massacre slammed for interviewing children“, Daily Brew

3) “Interviewing the children, cont.“, Politico

4) “Conn. school shooting: When children are witnesses, how should media proceed?“, Washington Post

After reading the above articles carefully, part of me felt inadequate to comment. Who am I to comment as I am neither a professor of journalism ethics nor a psychologist.  But in an age where anyone with a Twitter, Google+, Facebook account can comment freely and sometimes forcefully with expletives, I hope my ramblings/observations may shine some light.

1) Referencing this WaPo report, I agree with NPR’s approach in “advising their journalists to get a parent’s permission in writing or on tape before interviewing a child.” To me, parent’s permission and parent’s ability to stop an interview at any time is a most basic requirement. If an interview is stopped by a parent, then that clip (live or pre-recorded) should not be used again, ever. That interview, by agreement between media outlets should be treated as never happened.

2) I would trust reporters on the ground more and not go as far as ABC News. “ABC News also said Friday that it doesn’t air interviews with children live, but records and reviews them before broadcast.” I want to think media outlets send good reporters to report violent tragedies to begin with. They should believe in their reporters enough that they will do their job ethically. The final editorial decision may not help much if the source materials have been gathered unethically anyway.

3) I cannot and will not tell reporters to simply “Turn Off the Cameras“. As long as the tools and methods used by the media outlets are legal, I see it a danger to “freedom of press” if we (the public) start dictating to the media what is acceptable or unacceptable tool to use or report to air. Ideas of no interview “zone” or no interview “age group” (too young even with parental permission), etc are dangerous precedence to set.

4) Some good points were made in WaPo that I cannot fully agree.

Interviewing children in such circumstances, in essence asking them to relive the experience, can increase later emotional and psychological damage, Rebecca Greenfield said. She cited child psychologist Donna Gaffney, who said children need to be with people who love and support them in the first 24 hours of witness something like the Sandy Hook shooting or Columbine in 1999, the previous worst mass school shooting in the U.S.

I see the point made by the child psychologist. At the same time, I feel I must balance the potential emotional impact of the child with the public good of having an interview done right there when all eyes are on the scene of the tragedy. A professional lit at home/school interview with the affected children with their parents sitting besides them a few days later will not have the same impact.

To me, seeing the children speaking in their own unfiltered voices at the scene right after the tragedy is of critical importance. It is not just the “facts” that I am after. I want to know how the children feel. Seeing the children there was painful and very emotional to me but the reporters on scene are not the ones to blame. The reporters didn’t cause the tragedy. They were there to be our eyes and ears, to find out relevant information to allow us, if we choose to, be informed citizens (world citizens).

A wise blog friend once wrote, “Human beings are powered by emotion, not by reason.” He quoted the neurologist Donald Calne, “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.

5) Vietnam Napalm Girl Photo

Now let me talk about Vietnam Napalm Girl Photo, the second half of my title. Ms Phan Thi Kim Phuc is “a Vietnamese-Canadian best known as the child depicted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken during the Vietnam War on June 8, 1972.” To me, the Vietnam Napalm Girl Photo was one of the contributing factor to the end of the Vietnam war.

In June 2012, Kim Phuc told friends and relatives at an event marking the 40th anniversary of the photograph that made her famous, “I never thought that the child who was a famous symbol of war would one day be invited to become a symbol of peace”.

At heart, I am an optimist and see the world is capable of becoming a better place over time (hopefully with a small contributions by me). My hope is the painfully emotional interviews with children right at the scene of the Elementary School shootings may lead to meaningful actions by the American public. What if those interviews with children play a role in turning the American gun culture around? Witness White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Friday repeating the standard & pointless “today is not the day for a debate on gun control.” To the 180 degree change by President Obama a few hours later, “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics“.

I don’t normally say this but let me say, “God Bless America” and may you make the changes needed to avoid future tragedies.

Concluding thoughts

Because of the controversy resulted from the tragic New York subway death a few days ago, I came across a quote in The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War that I feel may be illuminating here. The Bang-Bang Club is an autobiographical book about a group of four photographers active in South Africa during the Apartheid period and here is the quote I want to share with you,

Tragedy and violence certainly make powerful images. It is what we get paid for. But there is a price extracted with every such frame: some of the emotion, the vulnerability, the empathy that makes us human, is lost every time the shutter is released.

As an independent reporter who has no formal j-school or ethical training, I have to remind myself if I were ever at the scene of tragedy and violence, I will have to be mindful of what am I doing and why. The price I pay for releasing the shutter or pressing the video record button is a piece of my humanity. While I am being paid to do my job, the “public good” must also justify the lost piece of my humanity.

P.S. Based on all the interviews with children I’ve seen, which by no means is exhaustive, none of them have crossed the “ethical line” to me. In case of tragedy, I find comforting to not set fixed rules but lean on the “I know it when I see it” standard.

This article is cross posted to examiner by me.

Dec 16th update: For the record (via THR),

@andersoncooper In answer to your tweets, no, Of course i will not be interviewing children from the school. I do not think that is appropriate at this time

@katiecouric Traveled to CT today, speaking with #SandyHook students http://instagr.am/p/TPXS_vSZMo/

Dec 17 update: I want to add and mention South Carolina TV Anchor Amy Wood did an insightful audio interview with Kelly McCurry, who was in the first grade when a gunman came into her school in Greenwood, SC and killed two classmates and shot some of her favorite teachers. Here is a very relevant set of questions and answers. (emphasis added)

Amy’s Questions (starting at ~5:22): “What do you think of the media interviewing the children? We have lot of comments on Facebook that are just furious children are being interviewed. Yet those faces are what make this reality to us all. These are the people that have been impacted. And in some circumstances it appears that it was willing. No one was chasing people down the street. But what do you think? You were in this position. What do you think about the media interviewing children in this scenario?”

Kelly’s answers -6:24: “I kinda heard that parents gave permission. But I disagree with that. I don’t believe children should be exploited for the media’s profit and to sensationalize it. Everybody understands the magnitude of what happening there. There is no reason to bring kids into that. And make them relive it. Thats something they should do with a counsellor if need be. With their parents. I really disagree with bringing the kids in.”

I agree with with Kelly that children should not be “exploited for the media’s profit and to sensationalize it” but like I try to argue in the article, as long as the interviews are ethically conducted, important public good can be served by these interviews.

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