8:02 p.m. December 14, 2012

Interviewing Traumatized Children: A Handy Guide for TV Journalists

Every reporter knows that the opportunity to interview a traumatized child is a career making moment. However, like so many moments where humanity may inch towards greatness, the risk of a terrible fall is great. Interviewing frightened children is an art form, not to be taken lightly. Something as simple as a bend of the knee could lead to a Pulitzer while forgetting to offer a tissue to a sniffling infant might spell eternal ignominy.

When covering the unspeakable tragedy that occurred today, it is more important than ever to understand the technicalities of Traumatized Child Interview Techniques (TCIT). Here's a refresher course, complete with examples...

  1. Re-traumatization. it’s important to remember that a child who has been through trauma is likely in a state of shock and the very act of asking them to relive their ordeal could be disasterously re-traumatizing. This makes for fantastic television. But always make sure that you consider the implications of the event on your subject's childhood development. When you ask them to painstakingly recount the horror they’ve lived, be sure to use a sing-song, baby voice. Save your growly purr for the camera, and instead take it up a few octaves, like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. Find an adorable, extroverted kid with an articulate, bubbly personality, make sure to ask sweetly, and that little angel will tell you everything that happened, in as rich detail as her little mind can accommodate. If you get do your job correctly, the audience should be able to actually see the re-traumatization in real-time.
  2. Anguish. Sometimes you’ll have a child who looks like she is going to break. Pretend that you are a body language expert from your favorite tabloid. Is the child screwing up her mouth in distress? Eyes shifting, refusing to look at you? Does she look like she is going to cry? Does your gut tell you that she will refuse to look at the camera? Then you are in luck! Try to find a pale girl, with long hair that will blow dramatically in the wind. Paint a sea of anguish across her face by asking her to recount her ordeal. Ideally, pick an older child, as they are so much better at sprinkling in little details that really drive home the horror. A master of this form is ABC News. They really understand that if you can capture the absolute pain of a child on camera, viewers will be enraptured, sucked into their televisions, drawn to the irrefutable shattering of naivety playing out in front of them. Helloooo, ratings!
  3. Physical Touch. Nothing says “I care” more than physical closeness to a child who has just had her safe personal space violated in the most horrific way. Certainly as CNN.com understands better than anyone, expecting an 8 year-old girl to relive her nightmare is made all the more gentle by the loving touch of the reporter. Notice how she sweetly places her hand behind the girls shoulder, like a mother might, supporting her to push the truth from her fragile, traumatized little heart. That cutie pie is paler than whitewash, doing everything she can to please the adults around her, and does that reporter stop the interview? No! She asks if her classmates were crying, if they wanted their parents, if the third graders heard gunshots.
  4. Panic. This is a real Pulitzer-bait. If you can find a child that strikes the balance between fear, shock, and realization, you have all the key ingredients for the perfect panic-stricken child clip. The child must be old enough to understand that something has just happened to them that is going to ruin the next twenty years of their life, yet naive enough to want to tell a stranger about it. They need to have good observational skills and the ability to tell a compelling story. Perhaps most importantly, they need to be cute, and ideally blonde if you’re going to pull it off. (Dark haired children are better suited to angst shots). The key to getting this one right is to find a child whose voice wavers while they talk to you. That slight quiver will keep your audience glued to their seat, unable to look away from the years of PTSD that are unfolding before them. The professionals at NBC News (at 1:14) know how to hit the panic sweet spot, with an intelligent, viscerally unraveling child as she tells her first person account of hearing the gunshots.
  5. Parents. This is America, so even after the most horrific tragedy, there will be no shortage of parents willing to thrust their children into the glare of the national news media spotlight. That said, parents are a complicating factor (they may try to talk or object from the line of questioning directed at their offspring), so it’s typically best to seek forgiveness rather than seek permission. In truth, parental approval is rarely required in these situations: a traumatic event is intensely formative and as such, children that endure it have by necessity matured enough to consent to an interview. They use that reasoning all the time with cancer kids and medical consents, so it is sure to fly for your news team. Just act like a trusting adult in charge and they will open up like buttercups.