< Interviewing Kids In the Wake of a Tragedy


Friday, December 21, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  It's perhaps natural in the anguish and shock following such episodes as the Newtown shootings that some portion of the public's anger is directed at the messenger: Why are the media using the shooter's name and glorifying him, people ask. Why must they run these images over and over? And why, in God's name, are they interviewing children? On message boards, comments sections, blogs and tweets, Americans are decrying the use of children as interview subjects. On Huffington Post this week, we've seen such comments as, THE MEDIA WHO INTERVIEW THESE CHILDREN HAVE ABSOLUTELY COMPASSION AND NO BRAINS, all caps. But not everybody sees it that way.

Bill Ritter is a news anchor for WABC-TV in New York, and a correspondent for 20/20. Bill, welcome to OTM.

BILL RITTER:  Bob, nice to be here. It’s an interesting topic you’ve chosen.

BOB GARFIELD:  I want to play you a piece of tape from Donna Gaffney, a psychologist who specializes in child trauma and who has often been used as a consultant for news media in best practices.

DONNA GAFFNEY:  There is no reason for them to be interviewed. There’s no value to it, there's no benefit to it. Kids have to be with people that they love and they care about, and they have to be safe after an incident like this. This doesn't provide that.

BOB GARFIELD:  Is she wrong, Bill?

BILL RITTER:  Well, in an ideal world, she's not wrong, but they were witnesses to something huge and yes, horrifying but also a big news story. And they were the first witnesses there. We did not just approach children, but if, if their parents were there, we said, we would like to talk to them, if they would, if you would agree to it. Yeah, we got a lot of criticism. But you hear the criticism louder than you do the people who are comforted by our coverage.

A lot of people watched us on Friday and Saturday and Sunday and Monday because they wanted information, and it has sparked, as we’ve seen, a national discussion about just a whole range of issues, from guns to mental illness to security at school.

BOB GARFIELD:  I don't know what was on WABC's air but what I took note especially of was interviews of kids who had been huddled in the corner of a gymnasium, and their testimony was about how many pops they heard from the automatic weapon discharging. What do we learn as an audience from that about what took place versus just the emotion of seeing children recount what they heard?

BILL RITTER:  Why did we talk to people who managed to escape the World Trade Center? Because they were there in this incredible and horrific experience. If it’s gratuitous, I would agree, I think, that we open ourselves up for extreme criticism. But if it gives insight into what these people were hearing and feeling, you know, that gives insight into some answers and some solutions so that this kind of stuff doesn't happen again.

And I think that we’re parents here, we’re people here too. We, we feel that. When we see something that makes the viewers cringe, it makes us cringe too.

BOB GARFIELD:  There's a big body of research that says that eyewitnesses are actually poor witnesses, and especially so with children, that their memories are quite chaotic, particularly amid the trauma of an episode like this. And not only do you risk further emotional damage to the child, you’re not even necessarily gettin’ the straight story.

BILL RITTER:  Well, I think that’s true, no matter what the age. People have vastly different recollections of what they each saw of the same incident. Out of all this, you know, emerges some sort of quilt that you can piece together what happened. And I think that's what happened here, because eventually, hours later, we did have a pretty good picture of what happened.

BOB GARFIELD:  I think every child I saw interviewed was quite composed - no sobbing, shaking, trembling, the things we associate with a kid in pain. I assume that if a kid breaks down in the middle of an interview, you're just not going to use that tape, correct?

BILL RITTER:  We’re extremely sensitive to, to what we’re getting on tape. Did you think that it went overboard? Do you think that it was too much?

BOB GARFIELD:  I don’t think we should use kids, except under the most dire circumstances, but the reason I asked that, Bill, is if we can be pretty sure that we’re not going to see tape of kids breaking down on camera. How we do know that there wasn't tape just like that gathered but not aired?

BILL RITTER:  I didn't see any tape of, of a kid breaking down. And, if we had it, I’m not aware of a decision to use it or not to use it. This was not wall-to-wall children. We had a couple of  sound bites from children on our air who were there and who escaped and who felt the trauma of what was going on. And we did ask their parents’ permission. This was not the story that we reported from the child's point of view. And some people let us know quickly and many times, when we did air a sound bite from a child, that they didn't like that.

BOB GARFIELD:  In this inquisition, [LAUGHS] I’ve focused on whether it's exploitative of the kids to be interviewed, but I wonder about the audience. Is it fair to them to trot out a child at a murder scene that left 20 children dead?

BILL RITTER:  We could ask that of every story we cover. Is it fair to, to show, you know, a crashed car? We had the Long Island Expressway shut down for 15 hours from Wednesday into Thursday, a 33-car pileup that killed someone and had a couple people critically injured. Should we not show that because it's bad? You know, or does it show, hey, you know, this is what happens when you don't drive carefully, this is what happens when you're speeding, this is what happens when you're texting while driving or making a phone call or distracted.

And it’s the same logic that says, you know, we shouldn't talk about the shooter and shouldn’t find out what made him tick and shouldn't find out why he was led to do this. I think that we owe it to the viewers to dig as deep as possible and find out why this happened.

BOB GARFIELD:  All right, Bill. Thank you very much.

BILL RITTER:  My pleasure, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:  Bill Ritter is a news anchor for WABC in New York City. Donna Gaffney, the other voice you heard, is a childhood trauma expert and a faculty member in the New York University International Trauma Studies Program.



Bill Ritter

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