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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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