December 14, 2012

Parents and children outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School. (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

Media-critic topic of the day: The morality of interviewing children after an unspeakable event like today’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Writing for the Atlantic is Rebecca Greenfield:

Sadly, some of the best sources of information for what happened inside Sandy Hook Elementary before, during, and after the shooting aren’t your average eyewitnesses — they’re children who’ve just gone through drama and witnessed death in front of their young eyes. That extra layer of sensitivity doesn’t seem to matter to CNN or NBC, which have been broadcasting and re-broadcasting interviews with schoolchildren all day.

The Associated Press ought to have some perspective on the topic, given its deep history covering all manner of tragic breaking-news events. When asked how the AP approaches interviews with children in such a scenario, spokesman Paul Colford responds: “If parents are present with kids, the opportunity should be considered for straight factual info.”

CBS News’s spokeswoman Sonya McNair says the policy at her organization is “not to interview children under the age of 18 before getting permission from a parent.”

Those sound sensible, though they appear to rely a bit too much on the uniform infallibility of parents. In many cases, as we know too well, parents have questionable motives for shoving their kids out in front of cameras. Poynter.org, a journoethics stickler site, has offered “Guidelines for Interviewing Juveniles,” which advises journalists to beware of parental motives in allowing kids to open up to the media.

In other words, rigid rules and standards from headquarters will get you only so far. There’s no replacing on-the-ground journalistic judgement.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.