Columbine: Interviewing Children

Gunfire. Children flee their school, looking for police, medics or parents. Instead, many run straight into the arms of reporters primed with questions. What should journalists know about the youngsters they try to interview at moments of crisis?

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."

Closeness to Victims Raises Risk

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.

Witnesses May Be Victims

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.

Suggestions for Interviewing Children

  • Don't try to interview a child who has just witnessed a death or injury.
  • When you do talk to a child, do so in the presence of a parent. Ask child and parent for permission to interview.
  • Be realistic in telling the child about whether interviews or photographs will be used in the news.
  • Try to talk to children away from the turmoil of medical and police activity.
  • Respect a child's desire for privacy.
  • Bring yourself to the child's eye level.
  • Be alert for signs of fear or anxiety and be ready to allow the child or parent to terminate an interview.
  • "Proceed slowly and in short segments of time." (Gaffney)