I deal with the media all the time and have done so for more than three decades. Typically, I deal with them in what is termed crisis communications, meaning when a crisis is afoot. The media have a tough job to do; I get it. Reporters’ editors and other higher-ups are always pushing for more and newer angles and they want it faster than their competitors. I get it, I really do.
But what I don’t get is pushing a microphone and a camera in the face of innocent eight-year-olds and quizzing them on the horrors they may have just witnessed. Even with the parents there.
I am referring to the almost unspeakable tragedy that occurred last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, where 20 innocent children, aged 6-10, and six adults, were brutally massacred by an evil fuck armed with an assault rifle and two semi-automatic pistols.
On TV, I saw a CNN reporter (I wish I had gotten her name) confronting a third grader who had just been whisked out of the school by police. This child may have been in the groups of kids who were told to keep their eyes closed with their hands on the shoulders of the kid in front of them as they were marched out of the school to safety and away from the carnage. Police wanted to shield these survivors from seeing any blood, or too-still playmates who were now gone and beyond any future play dates. But there should have been a media shield around these kids, too.
I know the drill: the reporter asks the mom or dad if it’s OK to ask the child one or two questions, and the parents acquiesce. Why? Because some people just want their 15 minutes, I guess.
One of the little girls from Sandy Hook Elementary School said some of her friends were crying as they were hiding during the ordeal. One girl, who appeared with her parents on the ABC Evening News, was quizzed by Diane Sawyer. This is the same Diane Sawyer who “interviewed” young Elian Gonzalez, the little Cuban boy who, several years ago, had been caught in a fierce and protracted international custody battle between the U.S. and Cuba, after having been scared out of his mind when confronted by a U.S. soldier who thrust his own assault weapon in the little boy’s face when he was found hiding in a closet where he thought he would be safe. Sawyer thought it would be OK to ask the boy where he wanted to live, and ABC News was proud it had scored an “exclusive.” But that’s another story.
One little girl on TV told the reporter that some of the kids had been crying and had “tummy aches” during the ordeal, and the little girl Sawyer interviewed said the same thing.
A “tummy ache” is code for abject terror, the kind of panic that roots deep down in the bit of your stomach. But an eight year old can’t articulate that, so it becomes a “tummy ache.” And she was no doubt talking about herself, not her friends.
But the kids who were in the school at the time and who survived have, or may have, important information that needs to be shared. But not with reporters and not while the horror is so fresh.
These kids – who were traumatized whether they know it or not – should talk first with their parents, at home where they feel safe and secure. Let the parents ask them what they saw, what they heard, if they feel like talking. And take cues from the kids if they don’t want to talk right away.
After some time has passed, let trained child psychologists ask questions of the kids, maybe in a room with a two-way mirror, so law enforcement can peek in unobserved. There are established ways to glean important information from children without further traumatizing them.
Then, after having a good understanding of events and a timeline in the school, which is important, law enforcement should hold a news conference and summarize for the media what they learned from the kids.
The problem is the media are so used to this kind of questioning when they cover a disaster; but they usually interview adults.
What I saw over the weekend was a new low in media insensitivity, and a new low for crisis communications.