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Conn. school shooting: When children are witnesses, how should media proceed?

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One elementary school child, a boy named Brendan Murray, was clearly disturbed by what he had witnessed. As he stood before a CNN camera describing his experience, his voice quavered and his eyes locked shut in apparent anguish.

Another, 8-year-old Alexis Wasik, calmly told ABC News that what she’d experienced had made her sick. “I wanted to throw up,” she said.

In the wake of Friday’s ghastly school shootings in Connecticut, the question is: Should children have been on the air at all?

The slaying of 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Conn., posed an unusual dilemma for the news media: Children as young as 5 or 6 were among the primary eyewitnesses to the crime, but was it appropriate to approach them to get the story?

The answer, say news organizations, is yes, but with safeguards.

Journalists generally acknowledge that children — especially ones as young as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School — can’t give informed consent to a media interview, and that it’s unethical to seek their comments by their consent alone.

Most news organizations have written or informal policies that advise their reporters to avoid interviewing any child without the explicit permission of an adult guardian, though it’s unclear whether every news organization observed this in the scramble to report the unfolding story in Newtown. The usual protocol is to interview a child in the presence of his or her parent or guardian.

Some news outlets, such as NPR, go further, advising their journalists to get a parent’s permission in writing or on tape before interviewing a child. ABC News also said Friday that it doesn’t air interviews with children live, but records and reviews them before broadcast.

After the interview with Brendan aired repeatedly on CNN on Friday afternoon, anchor Wolf Blitzer told viewers about the network’s policy: “We don’t talk to the children unless the parents say they want the child to speak out and they are there to watch these interviews,” Blitzer said on the air. “We are very sensitive to young children in these kinds of tragedies. Obviously, a lot of families are feeling the pain right now.”

ABC News reporter Dan Harris spoke with Alexis as her mother wrapped her arms around the child in a protective embrace. He also spoke with her mother after interviewing her daughter.

“Young children aren’t able to understand what a reporter is or does and what the ramifications of their words are,” said John Temple, managing editor of The Washington Post. “So you don’t interview a child, and certainly not an elementary school child, without permission.”

But even parental consent may not go far enough. The Poynter Institute, a journalism ethics and education organization, cautions news outlets about taking photographs or video of children involved in a breaking story, even from a distance. Many children — some with stricken and terrified expressions — appeared in news photographs and video as they were being led away from the school Friday.

In general, Poynter says, the “golden rule” for journalists should be, “Do unto other people’s kids as you would have them do unto your kids.”

Temple, who was editor of the Rocky Mountain News of Denver in 1999 during the Columbine High shootings in suburban Littleton, says it’s important for reporters to learn all they can about such events to prevent the next occurrence. In that sense, it’s necessary to seek out eyewitnesses, even the youngest ones.

“Everyone wants to know what happened in that school,” he said. “There are so many things we need to learn about and to understand.”

© The Washington Post Company