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Roeper: Reporters fail when it comes to exploiting child witnesses

Schoolchildren wait for their parents Sandy Hook firehouse following mass shooting Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday Dec. 14 2012 Newtown

Schoolchildren wait for their parents at the Sandy Hook firehouse following a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/The Journal News, Frank Becerra Jr.)

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Updated: January 17, 2013 6:46AM



Emerging from the escapist cocoon of the screening room last Friday afternoon, I immediately powered up the communications gadgets.

A few moments later I was stopped in my tracks, trying to absorb the unfathomable news of the school shootings in Connecticut.

Raced home, turned on CNN — and there was a boy about 10 years old, a student at Sandy Hook Elementary, describing what he had seen and heard and felt just hours before.

“I was in the gym at the time . . .
we heard lots of bangs,” said the boy, as a construction worker in a lime-green vest worked on a barricade, pounding rocks in the background.

“We heard screaming,” said the little boy, who then had to pause to compose himself, shaking his head as to ward off tears.

Even in this age of raw, instant news, it was a stunning television moment — equal parts riveting and sickening.

Where were this boy’s parents? Why would they allow him to speak to a reporter mere hours after dozens of his schoolmates and a number of adults were gunned down while he was close enough to hear the violence?

Not that this was the only such instance of a child being interviewed near the scene. A reporter asked a little girl, “Were kids crying and screaming? A boy who was delivering an attendance report at the time of the shootings told his story to a New York TV station as his mother stood by, her arm around him. A third-grade girl recounted how she heard “everybody crying” and “police officers yelling.”

On Friday’s edition of “Nightline,” reporter Dan Harris concluded his interview with an 8-year-old girl by telling her, “Alexis, I’m really glad you’re OK, I’m really glad you’re OK. You’re pretty tough.”

And that’s journalism how?

The more we saw these children talking on TV before they’d even had a chance to go home, the more it felt like exploitation. Kids telling NBC, CBS, Fox News, CNN about hearing loud noises and getting rushed out of school — talking on live TV before they’ve even been told which of their friends are gone forever.

Of course, the reporters can’t deliver those cringe-inducing moments if the families don’t allow their children to talk on camera before those kids have even begun to process what has just transpired.

When I asked Dr. Louis Kraus, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, about the propriety of interviewing small children who have just experienced an unimaginable trauma, he said, “This is a little town in Connecticut . . . [parents] see a friendly reporter, you’re not at your best, you might not be thinking. They’re like deer in the headlights. People somehow might think it will have a calming impact on their kids [to talk to the media]. But it’s not the best of ideas, obviously.”

Bruce Shapiro, executive director for the Dart Center of Journalism and Trauma, told the Huffington Post, “Simply having a child for the sake of having a child on camera does nothing to advance the story. Interviewing a small child whose understanding of death is limited . . .
can only contribute to the . . . real trauma of the child.”

Perhaps it’s unfair to fault the decision-making process of a parent who has just rushed to an elementary school to find out if her child is among the victims of a horrific mass shooting. Even as you’re thanking God your son or daughter has been spared, you know many of your friends weren’t so lucky and you’re just beginning to process how to help your own child cope with such a life-scarring moment. There’s no manual for this. You’re not exactly in the clearest frame of mind.

But still. I can’t imagine why anyone would allow an 8-year-old child to go on television to talk about an experience so traumatic it would have had an impact on trained military personnel.



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