As a mother of young boys, I have had the age-old discussions with them about safety. I have instructed them rigorously on the many dangers in the world: strangers, drugs, cars, etc.
It struck me recently when reading an article in the New York Daily News that perhaps I have left a glaring hole in the warnings I have given my children. In this June 24 article about children throwing garbage into the 9-11 Memorial on a recent field trip, they quote a child:
"'They were making jokes and throwing stuff in the fountain. It didn’t seem like a big deal,' added another student on the trip who refused to give his name."
I wondered if the Daily News would have really published this child’s name if they had given it? That is when I realized that they already had done so.
"'It’s terrible,' said Walter Douglas, 13, who said he was not on the trip but heard about the incident from a friend. 'You’re supposed to be there to remember the people.'"
Our society has determined that children are not mentally or legally capable of entering into contracts and only responsible for their behavior to a limited extent. This prevents them from getting themselves into situations where they do not have the forethought or experience to understand what trouble might come from their actions. A commercial television show cannot use a child in their production without the explicit permission of their parents. A child cannot sign a contract that is binding.
Why is the news media any different? Why can children be used by the media without the permission of their parents? Can we really expect a child to understand the implications and the possible fallout their statements could have when they are made public for the world to read?
The story in question made the Daily News' cover. (Credit: NYDaily News, screenshot)
The article is also not neutral in tone. The Daily News describes the children as “vile vandals” who acted “callously” and that tourists were “disgusted by the students’ filthy acts.” The article makes no mention of where the responsible adults were and why they were not supervising these children. The report even seems to cast doubt when a child says he was not one of the children throwing things:
"'They kicked us out because of littering in the water. Kids were throwing baseballs in the pond thing,' said eighth-grader Anthony Price, 14, of East New York, who insisted he wasn’t one of the troublemakers."
As a mother, I would be disturbed to have my child quoted and named without my permission in such an article.
The reporters for this story pretty clearly went and staked out the junior high school to get quotes from the students since one quote was from a child who was not even on the ill-fated field trip. Realizing that reporters can lay in wait outside of a school and publish whatever my child might happen to say is troubling.
In contrast, Michelle Charlesworth, of ABC-affiliate WABC in New York City, in a more balanced and child-friendly report, mentions that a reporter attending the school’s graduation spoke to parents and students who commented that “there should’ve been more supervision.” The brief report also characterizes the Department of Education’s response differently “there is an investigation into exactly who is responsible and what to do about it.”
However the Daily News seems to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the children, reporting that the “Department of Education officials have launched an investigation into the students’ shenanigans.”
So until the media realizes that it is not ethical to behave in such a manner, I will be adding to the list of warnings I give my sons. Don’t talk to strangers. Look both ways when crossing the street. Don’t talk to reporters.
iMediaEthics previously reported on Jodi Kantor, New York Times reporter, who trolled for teens on Facebook while reporting on Cindy McCain, wife of the U.S. Senator John McCain. Here
We've written to the Daily News asking about this ethical violation and will update with any response.