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Media Exploitation of Children in the Aftermath of School Violence: A Commentary

Updated on October 12, 2018

Definition of exploitation

1. the use of something, esp. for profit.

2. the use or manipulation of another person for one's own advantage.

3. promotion; publicity

~ The Free Dictionary

Marysville Pilachuck High School Shooting

Here in the Pacific Northwest just days ago (10/24/14) there was a school shooting at Pilchuck High School in Marysville, WA, Three children thus far have died, including the young man who did the shooting, and two others are in critical condition. Add to that countless students, school staff, and parents who were traumatized by this horrific event.

One teacher tried to intervene but could not stop the shooting. She is now in the terrible throes of trauma and grief after witnessing this tragedy. Her life and so many more will never be the same. For the children and staff members who were at Pilchuck High School that day, October 24th, 2014 will be a day they will never forget.

How many teenagers, school staff members and parents around this country who have experienced such violence in their schools over the last 20 years live with such memories, the trauma, the devastation? Far too many. There is a new perspective on life and tragedy after such a horrible event. Some will spend a lifetime dealing with the grief and trauma.

This article is not going to discuss gun laws. It is not even going to discuss school and other mass shootings in America, per se; those are articles for another day. It is to look at the media's role and methods of getting information during these school tragedies.


The Grilling

As Americans have watched day(s) long news broadcasts over the years when school shootings have occurred. We watch as reporters stop students walking by, dazed, scared, looking for their parents, and stick microphones under their noses.

Reporter: What's your name?

Child: Jenny.

R: Jenny, can you tell us where you were when the shooting began?

J: Well, I was in math class and we heard this loud noise and we weren't sure what it was. Then we saw a police officer (security guard or gunman) run by the classroom.

R: When did you realize what was happening and what did you do when you realized what was happening?

J: We locked ourselves in the lab and hunkered down behind a cabinet we pulled away from the wall in the back.

R: How did you feel while you were behind that cabinet?

J: (Voice quivering) Terrified.

R: What did your teacher do?

J: She was trying to keep us calm, but we could tell she was really scared.

R: Did the shooter come into the room where you were at any time?

Soon the reporter is asking the child if she knew the victims and/or the shooter, what they were like, how close were they to them, and what they meant to them. What does this reporter, and all the others like her, think she's doing? This child is likely in a degree of shock, whether or not she actually saw the shooter or shooting. Experiencing such an overpowering sense of danger is frightening.

The reporters with a good nose and a little luck will often find children who actually saw or heard the event and begin to grill them in the same manner. It has only been an hour or two and the kids are just finding their way to their parents; they are still shaking; they are still in a heightened state of anxiety and fear; they are dazed and numb. The first people they need to see, hold, and talk to are their parents, counselors, and clergy, not a reporter who is asking the student to relive the event on camera so the viewing audience can be fully informed. Asking a person, especially a child, to recount the details of the catastrophic event when it has just happened is not the way a trained professional helps them. What the children need is comfort, reassurance, a sense of safety, being cared for, and the privacy to do it.

The families of the victims and the teacher who witnessed and tried to stop the shooting are all asking for the public and media to respect their privacy. This probably means the press is hounding them for statements, updates, and details of what they are going through, what the funeral plans are, and what do they need for medical costs that they haven't even gotten bills for yet. They are saying "Please, please stop and let us deal with this in peace." The added stress is overwhelming..

Do you feel that the press is exploiting the children's experiences for selfish gain (ratings, money etc.)?

See results

I am not sure how many "sins" I would recognize in the world. Some would surely be defused by changed circumstances. But I can imagine none that is more irredeemably sinful than the betrayal, the exploitation, of the young by those who should care for them."

— Elizabeth Janeway

The Media's Dual Perspective

Plain and simple, the news networks are exploiting the tragedy and the children for viewers and ratings. In their minds (and their words), they are giving us up-to-date, breaking news coverage. But let's face it - the questions being asked of the children are to sate the curiosity of viewers. So that is what the media seeks to do. The news networks want their reporters to be first at the scene, before other networks. The earlier they get there after the tragedy, the more emotion and drama is being played out.

As I watched the news coverage the other day I saw a local news reporter questioning a teenage girl in the manner I just described. The girl couldn't look at the reporter. She hemmed and hawed a moment at each question. The look on her face clearly showed she was in a state of shock and anxiety. She looked around frequently, probably searching the crowd for her parents. As the interview was ending, I could see the deep emotion etched on the reporter's face. She looked about to burst into tears. She reached out to pat the girl's arm and looked as though she wanted to hug her. The girl quickly walked away. The reporter struggled to keep her composure as she said: "This is so and so for the such and such station, live here in Marysville at Pilchuck High School, where a student gunmen..." It would be impossible not to be affected in such a situation. I got the sense that the reporter was no longer concerned about getting the scoop, but just wanting to help.

I truly believe that broadcasters care about what's happened (I can't bring myself to consider the alternative). I think they truly care about the victims and their families. But they are also seeing it through the lens of business and ratings. Their competition with other networks kicks in, and it becomes about getting the human element as much as the facts. Thus begins the exploitive interviews digging at children for all the gory, terrifying details.

These reporters and networks are not hesitant to shortly thereafter go to the homes of anyone involved and camp out on their front lawns or relentlessly barrage them with phone calls, hoping for an interview.

This gross intrusiveness, insensitivity, and violation the privacy should be banned.


Make sense of it?

One question heard throughout the day from reporters and broadcasters in the studio doing interviews of clergy, counselors, school staff, etc., was "Reverend (Mr. or Dr), tell us how we can make sense of all this?" Or, "How are you and your colleagues going to help the victims and their families (and/or the students, staff, community) make sense of this?" The ridiculousness of such a question seems to elude them. I had to chuckle when an interviewee stated the obvious, which was that it didn't make sense, and no one should be trying to make it make sense. They told the interviewer, they were just trying to comfort the kids and make them feel safe. Sometimes the one being interviewed says something dumb, feeling the pressure to make a senseless act make sense, while on local or national TV. When the interview is over, the camera returns to the commentator in the newsroom, who then says, "For those who are just joining us..." they describe what has happened and end with "We are all trying to make sense of this senseless crime."

If your child had a school shooting, would you want the press interviewing them immediately after?

See results

Advice and Studies From Trauma Experts

Heather Rudow, in her 1Counseling Today article, "When the Unthinkable Happens: Counseling Children Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting," spoke with Deb Del Vecchio-Scully, a trauma expert, who gave advice about how to help children in the aftermath of these tragedies. Rudow writes, "Del Vecchio-Scully recommends keeping children away from news reports, as studies have shown they can increase the risk of posttraumatic stress disorder." 2CBS News reports on these studies Del Vecchio-Scully is referring to. They report that watching coverage on TV can contribute significantly to a child's acquiring PTSD, particularly in children who already have anxiety issues.

In my opinion, based on what I've read in the above article, if just watching TV coverage can make a child susceptible to PTSD, certainly being interviewed at the site of such a circumstance is potentially harmful as well. The younger the child, the more difficult it is to recover from trauma. It is unfortunate that more can't be done legally to protect children of all ages from intrusive interviews by the press in such tragedies that qualify as "Breaking News."

One might ask how the coverage of one such tragedy could contribute to, or make a child susceptible, to PTSD. Here are a few to consider:

  • The age the child.
  • The emotional vulnerabilities of the child.
  • Lived experience of trauma already.
  • How protected a child is normally from news broadcasts (consider that in any given broadcasts we hear nothing but violent crime and other devastating news). Many parents don't let their children listen to the news, but there are circumstances in which they might hear a news broadcast of the tragedy.

I am sure experts could bring to light many more. The brutal fact is, in America, these tragedies happen so often, and are so sensationalized in the media, that continued exposure to them can create a sense of trauma or feeling in danger out in the marketplace.


Better Ideas

These horrific tragedies happen unexpectedly, of course, so perhaps the newsmen aren't prepared for such events. It would be a good idea to have an outside professional come in and train network news professionals, from corporate to cameramen, how to conduct themselves during such events. They need to know who are the appropriate people to interview, and what type of questioning is appropriate and inappropriate for children. They might also benefit from hearing from a children's trauma specialist.

News outlets of every kind should establish a protocol policy for how to respond to school tragedies, even those outside of school where children might be involved. Such a protocol would include finding a spokesperson (they always have one), or first responders who have a moment, to get information and regular updates. Hospitals usually have a spokesperson as well to keep the media apprised of the status of victims.

One good thing news networks often do is broadcast information how to donate funds for the families and the victims for medical or God forbid funeral expenses. That is just wonderful. Here we do see the tangible caring aspects of the media. They are doing a great service to those suffering from the tragedy.

As the media is usually aware of many resources that could benefit the victims and their families and the student body, it would be immensely generous and helpful to provide those resources to the appropriate people. Perhaps they already do this; I can't say I know either way, but it's a positive action to be of help.

First Amendment

After writing to local, state, and federal elected officials to voice my concerns and suggest creating a law to prohibit the press from questioning children on site directly, the consensus was that this is indeed concerning, but the First Amendment allows the press to do so. It would be unconstitutional to prohibit them, and too monumental an effort.

As a writer and an American, I place a high value on the US constitution and the First Amendment. I don't profess to be an expert in constitutional law; however, my understanding is that this amendment is saying that the press can speak freely on any matter without government prohibition or reprisal. It is a shame that this amendment has been interpreted to allowing the press to interview children in such a manner at such a time. I believe children in trauma should trump media intrusion and exploitation.

Turn Off the TV

I was visiting a friend when the news came on about the shooting at Pilchuck High. We decided after hearing an interview or two that it was time to turn off the TV. I don't want the press hounding kids on my account. I cannot see a single benefit of watching. It changes nothing. I have vowed to not watch the news in these situations. If everyone quit watching, maybe the sensationalism would die down to some extent and some of the copycat shootings would stop. One can only hope


1Rudrow, Heather (September 18, 2012). When the unthinkable happens: Counseling children following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Counseling Today. Retriieved from Accessed November 5, 2014.

2 Castillo, Michelle (November 7, 2012). Sandy coverage may Cause PTSD in anxious children. CBS News. Retrieved from Accessed November 5, 2014.


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    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      6 years ago from United States

      Audrey, the media in general (I know there are exceptions) have lost sight of the value of those they report on. So much of the time it's about getting the story incomprehensible tragedy and at the same time, create more tragedy in their methods. I wish they would change their methods when children are involved. Thanks for stopping by.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      6 years ago from California

      I so agree! We have made grief into a commodity --it is horrible what we do--

    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks for your comments teaches. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Fox or CNN had a good news hour?

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      You have stated my feelings exactly on this topic. The news is only adding to the trauma and highlighting the violence. If only they would cover the good kids do more often, guess that isn't really good news coverage to the media.

    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      6 years ago from United States

      Jeannie, I send you a kiss. You nailed it. Blessings young lady.

    • Jeannieinabottle profile image

      Jeannie Marie 

      6 years ago from Baltimore, MD

      This is a really interesting hub. I think the media is part of the reason there are so many school shootings now. There was a time when no one would have ever thought to do such a thing. Now, I hear about it all the time... even kids that don't succeed. I see local stories all the time of this kid planning this or this kid bringing a gun to school and getting suspended. Maybe if we heard a little less about these stories it would not seem like the cool thing for kids to do.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      6 years ago from Dubai

      It is really sad such things happen and the media takes it to their advantage broadcasting it and interviewing without giving a thought to the feelings of those who are suffering.

    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      6 years ago from United States

      Faith Reaper, I am glad you don't watch these things on TV. There is no real benefit. You can read a headline or article and get enough info to know how to pray or to send in donations.

      Jodah, we have those issues too. Edward Snowden (google him) who worked for the National Security Administration blew the whistle by releasing hundreds, maybe thousands of documents revealing all the dirty tricks they were up to, spying on all American's being one. He is now in asylum in Russia. Here was a time it needed to be done, but because it puts the NSA in a bad light for their illegal activities, they want him for treason. Treason is releasing secret info to the enemy, not your own nation. Either they think Americans are the enemy, or they don't have a dictionary handy. The point is though, they are after him for revealing illegal activities. I think there should be no punishment for that kind of thing. Free speech should be applicable among other things.

      Carol, Amen sister.

      Handymanbill, Yes, now that mass killings (violence) have become so common place and so sensationalized, if they take all the guns away they will use something else. I read some of the article. It was too gruesome to finish. I felt traumatized by the story and I wasn't even there. What I did notice, was how many statements they had from kids who were directly involved.

      Zainab, My heart breaks at the truth of your words, and others who commented similarly - THIS TOPIC IS IGNORED. Thanks for sharing.

      Bill, as I said with Zainab, the truth of your words break my heart and make me angry - THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAID LONG AGO. I have PTSD from a trauma in childhood. It wasn't the same type of trauma, but it has been debilitating in past years. So my heart is particularly sensitive in this area.

      FYI for everyone reading this - Don't ever ask someone what their trauma was that led to their diagnosis of PTSD. It's too painful (unless they want to talk about it) to share with curiosity seekers. Even close friends and family.

    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 

      6 years ago from Pleasant Gap, PA


      Thanks for being a voice for these and others. What you said should have been said long ago - or maybe it was and we weren't listening then. We need to be listening now. If we don't, it's not your fault. Thanks for standing up for these precious kids!

    • Zainab Tarawali profile image

      Musu Bangura 

      6 years ago from Nation's Capital

      This is a very unique article - this topic is ignored and needs to be talked about! The media has become extremely invasive over the years. Kids should not be subject to their inappropriate behavior in the aftermath of trauma. Thanks for sharing. Voting up!

    • handymanbill profile image


      6 years ago from Greensburg Pennsylvania

      I to believe that the news media should let these children alone. I also believe that they cause more of this to happen. I think many of these children believe that they can get there moment in the News by committing theses heinous crimes. It does in some way breed more violence. Just to touch on gun control look at this High School incident and see what gun control would accomplish. .

    • Carol McCullough profile image

      Success In Life 

      6 years ago from U.S.

      Thank you for speaking on this topic we need more measures for gun laws, and bring prayer back to our schools!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      6 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Ok thanks for the info on the Constitution and the amendments lambservant. I am not very savvy in regard to that. I know our Government have recently been in a quandary in regard to the media's freedom to report anything detrimental to security, also freedom of speech laws due to a lot of racist type comments.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      6 years ago from southern USA

      Oh, Lori, this is such an important topic and our children should come first before any media. I think you have come up with a great idea for the media to be trained by an expert on how to conduct themselves when a traumatic event has occurred. The questions they ask are truly dumb and make no sense at all ... I mean, what do they expect them to say?

      I just do not watch such and try to avoid it as much as possible, but that sure is not an answer.

      Up +++ tweeting, G+ and sharing

      God bless you.

    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      6 years ago from United States

      Dora, thanks for your comments. I think what authorities should do is have spokespersons available to field questions and give information. I read something earlier that compared the press back in the 50's and the press now. Back in the 50's it was "What Happened?" Today is "How do you feel." Neither should be asked of the children, but certainly the proper people can ask the former.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      6 years ago from The Caribbean

      Lori, thanks for discussing this issue. Violence in schools is becoming so common; I had not heard of this one at Marysville Pilachuck. Your points are very worthy of consideration by the reporters. While they may have good intentions of informing the public, the children's mental state deserve first consideration. Thanks for sharing your caring, compassionate heart!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      aethelthryth very good point. I wrote letters to the editor to two local newspapers as well.

    • aethelthryth profile image


      6 years ago from American Southwest

      What works much better than laws for things like this is public opinion, which you are helping shape with this article. If all the reporters go home to hear their family and friends saying, "I can't believe you're involved in a career where you do this to people," pretty soon it will be considered beyond the bounds of taste, and it will stop being the standard way of reporting.

    • whomtheSonsetFree profile image


      6 years ago from USA

      I agree completely lambservant. And I believe that I too would like to go "down under."

    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      6 years ago from United States

      whomthesonsetsfree, Isn't interesting how God and religion are disdained by the press, politicians, etc. When tragedy happens, all of a sudden prayer vigils are reported in a positive light and seeminly revered; but then again, there's the press at the prayer vigil, getting close-ups of people weeping and holding their candles and holding each other. As to the context or your comment, I think in many cases this evil, and the press perpetuates it by sensationalizing and exploiting it. These are copycat acts of violence. Jodah (see comment above) lives in Austrailia where these kinds of things are unheard of. I think I'd like to go live down under.

    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      6 years ago from United States

      Eric, thank you for not watching. Yes, perverted is another good term. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Prespycacious, I am sorry to say you are likely right. Justice, moral and legal, is not recognized in this situation.

      Billybuc, Amen and Amen. Thanks for stopping by.

    • whomtheSonsetFree profile image


      6 years ago from USA

      What an excellent and concise article. What you have written ought to move the hearts of any hearers/readers who see it.

      I've always thought it crass for the media to pounce on the victims of such a vicious attack only moments after the event occurred. The anti-GOD people do everything they can to remove GOD and Jesus from the arenas of schools and colleges etc., so it is my view that these children grow up without the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and subsequently, they are at a lapse when it comes to being able to discern good from evil as the Ten Commandments advise us.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you for writing this, Lori! This needed to be said. I am so tired of the media feeling that the story is crucial and nothing else matters.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 

      6 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      Thanks for holding these methods up for scrutiny. Sadly, this thrust for "the inside story" is not likely to change any time soon.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      6 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Excellent piece here on a situation that needs dearly to be addressed. I can only simply not watch those programs. And I do not so this was of great interest. They really do that? How perverted it is that that sells airtime.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      6 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Hi lambservant, I won't get into the gun debate because I am not in the USA and it is for easy for us outsiders who have never lived with guns to condemn and preach. We have never had a school shooting though. I can remember two occasions where students were stabbed with knives but that's it. As for the media there should be laws preventing them from interviewing friends or relatives immediately after a murder or shooting, especially when people are obviously suffering trauma.

      As for the Constitution and the First and Second Amendments...they are exactly that, amendments. Why can't they be amended again? If something is broken, change it.

    • lambservant profile imageAUTHOR

      Lori Colbo 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks for stopping by m abudllah javed, and for your affirming comments. It's an important issue, but I feel like very few recognize it.

    • m abdullah javed profile image

      muhammad abdullah javed 

      6 years ago

      Thanks lori you have rightly highlighted one of the important issues with a guiding approach.


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