There is a joke that runs through the industry, “never work with children and animals.” Of course we end up doing both because a script or story idea dictates it, but we always have choices around how we do it. However when you’re a journalist covering an atrocity such as the Newtown shooting you really have no choice.
Or do you?
Australia’s privacy guidelines introduced last December are clear. While a parent may give consent for a child to speak to the media after such an event, they are vulnerable due to the distressing situation they have been through. This gives cause to invading their privacy.
Following the Newtown incident the Dart Centre participated in a live panel on HuffPost and spoke to journalists about how to cover the story. The BBC’s World Affairs producer also weighed in to the debate. While both agreed that we should always look at the news values behind interviewing a young child in situations such as this, there really is none.
I always wonder what is the value of hearing someone’s expressed trauma after a horrific incident. Are we that desensitized that journalists believe if they don’t do it we won’t know how horrific the event was?
If that was the rationale then Newtown clearly debunked it. Everyone was shocked by this event. I still to this day cannot look at the pictures of the 20 young children who died there.
But as Newtown unfolded journalists went about their business like it was any other mass shooting. Even resorting to social media to find sources, which unveiled its own backlash.
There have been a lot of lessons learnt from Newtown and it is not just about gun laws. As journalists we too should look at how we report these events and whether we really are adding to news values by asking someone to relive their trauma. While we have privacy guidelines in place, it has taken almost a year for them to be upheld.
If social media is any gauge our obsession with finding witnesses has us looking like ‘vultures’. And with our approval rating so low, it really is not a good look any more.