Covering Local Tragedies
Ochberg Fellowship Program
Beth Frerking, director of the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families at the University of Maryland, told us that journalists should always distinguish child subjects from adults.
"You have to always remember that you're not interviewing a politician or public figure," she said. "These are kids. You treat them as you would want a reporter to treat your child."
Roger Simpson, director of the Dart Center, said that children are very vulnerable to emotional injury in life-threatening situations. In addition to injured victims, also especially vulnerable are children who are close — in physical distance or emotional connection — to victims of death or injury or who are themselves directly threatened with loss of life. The closer a child is to violence, the more likely he or she is to have traumatic symptoms, he said. The younger the child is, the more likely it is that confronting the media may complicate emotional responses, he added.
Simpson commented that while responses of children to journalists convey information about the incident, use of such interviews also may signal — irresponsibly — that children's pain and apparent confusion is fair game in the news.
Donna Gaffney, a New York psychologist who specializes in child trauma, wrote in the Casey Center publication, Children's Beat, that "the first 24 hours after witnessing an event such as the Columbine shooting is a time when children need to be with people who love and support them." She added, "Children who are witnesses to violent events or tragic occurrences are victims in their own right. They may not be the direct recipients but as witnesses they are profoundly affected."
Children in Littleton and other cities where shootings have taken place in schools were trying to cope with frightening images as well as their own troubling emotional responses. Questions and photographs may add to their stress.
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The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.