“From the beginning of the administration, the White House has asked news outlets not to report on or photograph the Obama children when they are not with their parents and there is no vital news interest,” said Kristina Schake, the spokeswoman for first lady Michelle Obama in a statement early Tuesday. “We have reminded outlets of this request in order to protect the privacy and security of these girls.”
But the administration decided to acknowledge the trip after an earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale struck Mexico on Tuesday, potentially imperiling Malia Obama, 13, and her friends. That spurred questions from reporters about Malia’s safety, compelling the administration to issue a statement that she was in Mexico and safe.
Presidential administrations have long been protective of the first family’s minor children, and reporters in Washington have mostly observed the taboo on stories or photographs of them outside official and semi-official events. The ban on such coverage has existed through many administrations by informal agreement with the White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents the interests of journalists who cover the president.
“There’s a general feeling among the press corps that it wants to be respectful” of the president’s children, said Caren Bohan, the White House reporter for Reuters who is president of the WHCA. “I’m a parent of two school-age children myself, so I completely understand that their parents want privacy for them. I think a lot of reporters respect that.”
While traditional news organizations have long abided by such arrangements, the Mexico incident demonstrates how difficult it is to enforce such standards in an age of “globalized news,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who studies the media and the presidency.
The report about the spring-break trip emanated not from Washington but from a reporter for Agence France-Presse based in Mexico. The story, citing an anonymous state police official in Mexico, reported on details of the visit. It was picked up by a number of Web sites, including the Huffington Post, Britain’s Daily Telegraph, the Ottawa Citizen and Montreal Gazette in Canada, and the Australian.
White House officials persuaded several of the sites to remove the article, but reports about the scrubbing effort soon called attention to the original story’s existence elsewhere on the Internet.