The Risk of Revictimization and the Ethics of Covering School Shootings: What Journalists Can Learn from IRBs

By Michelle Meyer

Updated below

Like most parents, after learning about the latest mass school shooting this morning, my thoughts immediately went to my own kindergartener. And of course, like most reading this blog, I thought about how poorly we handle guns and mental illness. Before too long, though, I couldn’t help but make a less direct connection between today’s events and my scholarly interests. I’m thinking of the way journalists cover school shootings as compared to how we regulate human subjects research.

As I write in The Heterogeneity Problem, 65 Admin. L. Rev. __ at 14-16 (forth. June 2013):

Studies on sexual abuse and assault, grief, war, terrorism, natural disasters and various other traumatic experiences are critical to better understanding and addressing these phenomena. But exposure to trauma — whether as a survivor or as a first rescuer or other third party — often causes substantial psychological morbidity. . . . Given their potentially fragile state, IRBs understandably worry that “questioning [or otherwise studying] individuals who have experienced distressing events or who have been victimized in any number of ways . . . . might rekindle disturbing memories, producing a form of re-victimization.”

IRBs — local licensing committees who operate according to federal statute and regulation and must approve most studies involving humans before researchers can even approach anyone about possibly participating — sometimes impose burdensome requirements on the way trauma research is conducted in order to protect adult subjects from the risk of revictimization. And they do so in addition to applying regulations that require that researchers disclose that risk (and others) to subjects.

Contrast this with the way journalists cover trauma. As I flipped through the coverage of today’s shooting on the major 24-hour news channels, I saw most air (usually multiple times) “interviews” with young children — all between the ages of 5 and 10 — who had been near the crime scene. “Was everybody crying, scared, wanting their parents to come get them?” they were asked. “Did you hear any gun shots or anything like that?” “Are you okay right now? Are you sure?” “How excited were you to see Dad?” (These are direct quotes from just one interview with a third grader.)

Unlike trauma research — where risks are disclosed and prospective subjects are given time to read the information disclosures and consider the risks and possible benefits of, and alternatives to, participating, and where the interview usually takes place some time after the trauma — journalists who arrive on the scene to cover an unfolding trauma shove microphones in the faces of people in shock, including young children who would be unable to consent even under ideal circumstances, and simply begin asking questions.

And unlike trauma research, which when done well advances our understanding of the causes and consequences of various traumas, these interviews with journalists (as opposed to those with police) almost never provide any useful information for the public — and certainly not information that can’t wait until after a cooling down period when parents have had a chance to think about whether it’s wise to allow their child’s recounting of the most horrific day of her life to be replayed online for all eternity. Here, for instance, are two gut-wrenching, but not very illuminating, testimonials from today:

We were doing art, so, and, well, the doors wouldn’t lock and, well, we had to go in my art teacher’s office and we heard gun shots, like twenty, and then, like, then, um, she called, um, her husband to call the police and the police came and we heard screaming on the loudspeaker and then we came out of the school and I saw lots of police with guns. (9-year-old)

Um, well, we found, like, there was all these people, and we found that, like, because we were, like, right near the window in our classroom and, like, we saw police officers and we heard them on the roof and in our building. . . . Some people … they kind of got a stomachache…Police officers were right off the door trying to find the guy. (3rd grader)

Some may wonder why parents (assuming they were present) allowed their children to be interviewed. Yale psychiatrist Steven Marans today advised parents to “talk with other adults … but think very carefully before one inundates one’s child with questions and information [or allows others to do so] that the child is not requesting themselves.” That’s good advice for all us parents. But the parents of surviving Sandy Hook Elementary students were likely in shock themselves (indeed, in the interview from which I quoted above, the mother said “I think I’m still in shock, to be honest with you”), and in any event, they were unlikely to be thinking about (or even aware of) the risk of revictimization.

In The Heterogeneity Problem and a companion article, I’m critical of regulations that permit (in some ways, require) IRBs to limit offers of potentially welfare-enhancing research opportunities to competent adults based on concerns about revictimization and other risks. In the context of trauma research, the evidence shows that while a minority of trauma research participants experience revictimization, most do not, and some feel strongly that they benefit from the ability to share their story with an educated, interested audience dedicated to learning about trauma. Many other kinds of research, including those conducted with “vulnerable,” but competent adult populations, follow a similar pattern (and see The Heterogeneity Problem for much more). IRBs treat competent adults like children when they implicitly assume (with evidence tending to point in the opposite direction) that they are better positioned than those adults to weigh the risks and benefits of participating in a study. And so many times I (and others) have found myself comparing human subjects research to journalism and wishing that at least some of the former were treated more like the latter.

But when actual children (or other incompetent populations) are involved, journalists ought to act a little more like IRBs. When neither a potential subject nor her surrogate is able to meaningfully consent to being interviewed, when the interview is unlikely to provide any socially useful information, and when evidence suggests that at least some such potential interview subjects will be harmed by the experience, there is a strong prima facie case that such interviews ought not to be done.

Of course, pure self-regulation by journalists is unlikely. Media outlets play sound bites of small children describing what they experienced because such children are the proverbial train wrecks from which we viewers struggle to look away. We hear that “an entire kindergarten class is unaccounted for,” and that’s bone-chilling. But then we see that fact embodied by an interview with someone whose tiny fingers and precocious syntax remind us just how young the victims of the shooting are — and just how easily they could have been our own kids. In short, media outlets play these sound bites because they make for good television. The interviews get eyeballs, ratings, and ultimately profits.

Sometimes the media does respond to objections about their coverage from the parents involved. Most survivors of Columbine have gone on to live otherwise happy lives. But their recovery might have been quicker had the media not continually replayed images of them streaming out of the school with their hands on their heads as armed police looked on. Columbine parents apparently eventually requested that the media stop replaying these images, and eventually, most outlets complied (of course, by then, they were mostly on to other stories anyway).

But with everything else they’re dealing with, those parents shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of policing journalistic ethics. The objections have to come from a broader constituency, and they have to come quicker and in a more sustained fashion. Some years ago, Fox News and the New York Post famously decided to refer to “suicide bombers” as “homicide bombers.” This policy decision, of course, was made to appeal to a particular audience. But avoiding the needless revictimization of children should be a bipartisan issue. The next time you see an objectionable interview with a child trauma victim, whether from today’s shooting or tomorrow’s, fight the mainstream media with social media. Let them know that you can and will turn away from the train wreck. Shame them on Twitter and on their Facebook pages. Make it fashionable and profitable for all media outlets to take the moral high ground and refuse to air — and re-air, ad nauseam — vacuous interviews with children in shock.


CNN’s Anderson Cooper has done the right thing, pledging on Twitter “In answer to your tweets, no, Of course i will not be interviewing children from the school. I do not think that is appropriate at this time” That tweet itself has received (as of this writing) 4,101 retweets and 2,812 favorites.

But according to other Twitter reports (see, e.g., here), Cooper’s CNN colleague Wolf Blitzer noted on air that the outlet only interviews kids if parents give permission. But, as I suggested above, this surrogate consent is neither informed (how many laypersons would think that “mere talking” could be harmful? reporters certaintly don’t disclose that risk) nor fully voluntary (since the parents themselves have been through a traumatic experience and are likely in shock).

[Cross-posted at The Faculty Lounge.]

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