How Should Media Cover Mass Murder?

Following Newtown, what did journalists do right? What did they do wrong?

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Mourners gathered Sunday, Dec. 16, at the state capitol in Hartford, Conn.
Chion Wolf
Mourners gathered Sunday, Dec. 16, at the state capitol in Hartford, Conn.
Chion Wolf
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra addresses mourners gathered on Sunday, Dec. 16 at the Capitol.
Chion Wolf
Gathered men and women lit a balloon in memorial of the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Chion Wolf
A single balloon rises over the state capitol on Sunday, Dec. 16 to remember the victims of the shooting in Newtown.
Chion Wolf
A single balloon rises over the state capitol on Sunday, Dec. 16 to remember the victims of the shooting in Newtown.
Chion Wolf
How Should Media Cover Mass Murder?
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How Should Media Cover Mass Murder?

Watching the coverage of Newtown unfold on Friday, I grew upset by the number of wrong reports.

The shooter was misidentified. His mother's connection to the school was wrongly portrayed. There were reports of an altercation between the shooter and school officials the day before. There was incorrect information about the guns he used and the method by which he entered the school. I could go on. 
It seems to me, we're going too fast. And we've entered an age when Twitter reports from amateurs are scrambled up with the work of professional journalists and where semi-professional journalists retweet bad information in an ostensible effort to "crowdsource" it for truth.
This is in lieu of actually finding out for sure what's happening. There're more to say about the press coverage. Is there just too much of it?  Should children on the scene have been interviewed? We'll address these questions today with NPR's Andy Carvin and Bruce Shapiro from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
You can join the conversation, e-mail us or Tweet us @wnprcolin.



E-mail from Anonymous

I just listened to the rebroadcast of today's show and it was without a doubt one of the best shows I have heard a long while, on yours or any other show. Bruce Shapiro's knowledge and experience spoke volumes. I found myself shaking my head in agreement so many times during the show.

I can also relate to his personal experience as being the center of coverage as a target of violence - or in my case - tragedy. Back in 1986 we lived in a duplex in the Rockville section of Vernon when fire erupted. Four of our five neighbors died in the blaze. Our family of five - 2 adults and 3 children - made it out unharmed. We walked out of our home and right into the spotlight as there had been a string of recent fires in town that year with this being the deadliest.

That same evening , in my borrowed clothes (we lost everything) I agreed to be interviewed by a local news station. I was on auto pilot and I felt an obligation to speak to the press when asked. I didn't give the reporter the emotional footage she wanted though she pushed hard for it. I was numb. One thing I do remember was that the station used a clip from that day when they did an end of the year photo montage. It wasn't my interview but footage taken that day of my one year old daughter's folded up stroller with the wheel spinning. To there credit it said a lot more than I could have. Two of the people who died that day were a beautiful 3 year old and her 8 year old sister.

You made an excellent point that when it comes to this kind of reporting the media would greatly benefit from Mr. Shapiro's website. I made a decision last Friday to avoid wall to wall coverage of the shootings on mainstream TV and pick and chose what I would watch online.

Thanks for the show Colin.

E-mail from Jannine

Thank you for today’s discussion of the Sandy Hook shooting press coverage! I called in to comment, but time ran out before you we're able to take my call... I just wanted to touch on the part of the discussion referring to the press’s interviews of children. I didn’t actually see any of the video coverage, but I still wanted to offer an alternative perspective: I have randomly been interviewed by newscasters several times at that age and later on in life. I distinctly remember what a thrilling big deal being on the news was to me as a first and second grader (much bigger than later on when a greater sense of self-consciousness set in). Small children often struggle with their thoughts, opinions, and perspectives being disregarded by adults and society as a whole - it is especially difficult for them to speak out with a voice that will be heard. Regardless of the value of accurate facts one can glean from interviewing a child, I don’t think it’s fair to deny children the cathartic experience of sharing their reality with the world. Even if it’s not 100% accurate, it’s still probably what they are telling themselves and becomes their truth. I think this becomes especially true if you are deliberately passing children over for what could legitimately be seen through the child’s eyes as the less relevant or farther removed perspectives of adults that didn’t share their first hand eye-witnessing. Children are highly attuned to fairness and often wish for equal respect given to adults. If I put myself in their shoes, I would be outraged at the insult if I had something substantive to share and was ignored in preference for those who had less, just because of my age. Of course, it’s one thing if a reporter singles out a traumatized child, corners them, or puts them on the spot to try to get an edge for ratings - I agree that is categorically unacceptable in this circumstance! But if, with parents’ permissions, they ask a group of kids if any of them would like to make a statement in an interview to appear on a television news broadcast and there are kids jumping out of their seats or vying to be selected for the opportunity, I see that as honoring them. To the more extroverted and expressive children, it could be a little silver lining in the darkness of the tragedy and a first step towards coming to grips with the situation and healing. Really, I would like to see someone pose this question - of whether or not it is ok for young children at the scenes of horrific events to be interviewed on camera - to first graders around the country and listen to what they have to say on the subject! Thank you for addressing this issue, -Jannine P.S. Perhaps it’s better that I had to write out my thoughts in order to share them, as this is far more complete and in depth than what I would have been able to express on the phone :)

E-mail from Erin

I only caught half of your show because we were just home from a wake.
It was the first time I've turned on any media in the house. We usually have NPR running all day in the house. I thank you for your piece on what constitutes responsible journalism with children. I decided to call into the show, but it was always busy then it was too late to get through.

My child, Bear, was interviewed a number of times as we walked the approximate three blocks to where I was able to park my car. His interview has been seen worldwide as reported by friends in Belgium, England, Russia, and more. In fact, my sister-in-law in Portugal was able to inform my in-laws in Boston before we were able to call them.
They had seen the interview in Portugal that quickly. (We had decided not to share the details of Bear's very close encounter with the in-laws but the display on Russian media took care of that!)

Though I have intentionally not turned on the television since this happened, and try only to read headlines once a day and refrain from clicking on links unless there seems to be an important development, I have had friends filter some articles to me. It distresses me that we were asked repeatedly for names and facts, even how to spell them, but yet they often didn't make it into the coverage. The teacher that saved his life - Ms. Clements - She is our hero. I made a specific point to tell each and every reporter who she was and spell her name. Yet so much of the coverage focuses on the drama and just names my son as "boy"
(which is actually FINE) often as a 4th grader (and I saw them write down 3rd grade in their books) who was saved by "a teacher" (which is just plain wrong to deny her the credit for risking her life for my son).

We have been inundated with press since. Of course with a name like ours, it's not hard to find us. I have answered the door in pajamas, in an obvious state of questionable personal hygiene, with tears forcing mascara to run down my cheeks, while on a telephone call and some are still undaunted, plowing ahead with the quest for sensation and drama. I have had journalists call and say they'd like to interview, and even after saying no have them show up shortly thereafter because certainly I'd feel different if they were on my doorstep.

I do not regret allowing my son to speak (I gave him the power to make that decision), though I'm sure I was absolutely no condition to seriously grant informed consent. For the most part the journalists were respectful on-site and he was not intimidated. I do, however, resent greatly the pushiness of some reporters for more interviews and especially their attempts at sensationalizing the story. Truly, isn't this story dramatic enough on its on merits?

My son relayed his first-hand account, as he perceived it. He helped the world understand what happened right there, before the true details emerged, off-seting the wild conjecture and theorizing. For me as his mother, two things are very important. 1) In the right situation, a child will generally tell a safe stranger details he will not tell his mother (either out of boredom or in an attempt to spare her) and 2) I personally have only interest in what my son perceives happened, and will have to exorcise from his experience. The actual truth concerns me quite a bit less. I feel much better prepared to help him as he eventually processes this now that I have some better glimpse into what he experienced aided by his interviews and comparing notes with other moms.

I do not wish to have my child on camera again. My child survived. He is not the face of this tragedy. I do not wish to share whether he has nightmares, how his trauma is presenting itself, what we think/feel/believe about any aspect of the shooting. But, I am willing to talk about where do we go from here. In fact, my husband has inadvertently ended up in the spotlight and the White House for sharing thoughts on that. However, once many journalists (especially after paraphrasing the request a couple of ways), understand that he's not available for follow up on personal issues, they are less than interested in any other aspect of this situation.

I know one of your guests suggested that it's too traumatic to talk to the children onsite and to wait. I firmly believe any additional trauma dealt by a respectful interview of consenting children at an onsite scene is a minor additional trauma, if it even adds at all. I would likely feel different in a situation that wasn't about children (say for example inteviewing a kid watching 911, vs. interviewing a child that was first-hand involved in a situation). But to make a child relive horror after the fact, as they're trying to piece normalcy back together is wrong.... unless the child seeks it out themselves.

I so enjoy your show. I work part-time with flexible hours and have been known to stand in the center of my kitchen finishing your show with keys in hand instead of leaving for work. I can hear you in the car, but I'd miss something between the front door and car door.

E-mail from Chris

Enjoyed your guest yesterday, Richard Slotkin. I know his work well. Your discussion about whether, or how, societal violence affects individuals whose lives may not have direct contact with violence reminded me of what I see in my high school students, members of the so-called "9-11 Generation."

I wrote a commentary for Education Week this past September in which I tried to explain how violence at a societal level (the war on terror) impacts individual students. The link is:

My piece makes reference to mass shootings, and I agree with Slotkin that national policies of violence tend to desensitize us as individuals.

Saw you when you came to my school for "freshly squeezed." I asked the question about whether our political techniques are reminiscent of Nazi propaganda tactics.

E-mail from Rachel

Hi Colin,
I always enjoy listening to your show and I appreciate the history you have in CT. Not a native Nutmegger, I am grateful for your perspective and your coverage of in state issues. Today's show is no exception. You brought in just the right voices to discuss the crucially important role of good journalism in the face of tragedy. I also appreciate how you spoke and your guest recognized the deeply personal grief that Newtown families and the community are currently suffering. I wrote just on this topic today on my blog and wanted to share the post with you. This is the link:

Best wishes to you during this tough time.

E-mail from Dave

Another issue is whether media coverage: assigning logos, theme music, 24 hr. coverage, so much interest in the "shooter," etc is likely to INSPIRE other social outcasts to commit similar cowardly acts. I would submit that the media should make stylistic adjustments to lessen, rather than make MORE likely, further tragedies of this type.

E-mail from Susan

I wasn't aware of the Newtown events until late in the day, and when I heard, on NPR of all places, a little Sandy Hook School-child being "interviewed" about what happened, it made me furious.