Within hours of the Sandy Hook Elementary attack that left 28 dead in Newtown, Conn., last week, social media unleashed a backlash against journalists for interviewing young children from the school. Some of the harshest critics came from within the media's own ranks.
Time TV critic James Poniewozik blogged that the interviews of boys and girls, some as young as 6, were "rash, unnecessary and wrong," with "no good journalistic reason."
"Turn the cameras away," he admonished.
"Disgusting," tweeted Extra anchor Mario Lopez, joining a chorus of tweets that called the media "vultures" and "maggots."
Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, told POLITICO that on-air interviews with children right after such a crisis amounted to "irresponsible journalism."
The media should be questioning itself. It should always be poking and prodding its motives and methods.
It's true that reporters should be trained to be more sensitive and that TV stations and newspapers should restrain themselves from promoting scoops in a situation like this.
Exploitive? In the wrong hands, yes.
Bad journalism? No.
Those interviews needed to occur right then and there, when all of the nation's eyes were fixed on the scene of the tragedy, not in some professionally-lit studio days later with parents and psychologists flanking each child.
I know this is an unpopular view. I get that. I don't endorse using children to grab sound bites. I don't advocate interviewing kids without their parents' permission (which doesn't seem to be the case here because all of the children I saw on TV had a grateful adult standing solidly behind them).
I, too, cringed when I saw those children being interviewed. I dreaded looking at the paper Sunday morning because I knew some of the victims' baby faces would be staring back at me.
But as the parent of two kids and a former education reporter who interviewed students for 20 years on the beat, I was not angry at the media.
Yes, it's offensive. It's supposed to be.
An armed man shot 20 children dead in 10 minutes.
You can read that line over and over, and it still won't feel the same as hearing a third-grader describe in her little-girl voice how some of her classmates started to get stomach aches while they were crouched hiding in their classroom.
What hit you in the gut and made you want to howl in anger? The facts and timeline of the event?
Or the faces of children being led from their school in a conga line of fear in a photograph taken by Newtown Bee Associate Editor Shannon Hicks?
Journalists go to tragic scenes like this to be our eyes and ears. Their job is to gather and provide us with all the information so we can, as informed citizens, reach our own educated conclusions. I detest ham-handed reporters as much as the next person. But I can tell you with some confidence that most of the print and broadcast reporters at the scene that day shared the same conflicted emotions as Hicks, who took her now-ubiquitous photo through the windshield of her car, with one hand on the steering wheel and one holding her camera.
"I don't want people to be upset with me," she told The Poynter Institute, a school in St. Petersburg, Fla., devoted to the continuing education of journalists. "It's harder when it's in your hometown and these are children we're gonna watch grow up, the ones who made it. I know people are gonna be upset, but at the same time I felt I was doing something important."
Hicks, by the way, moonlights as a volunteer firefighter at the same firehouse that shares a driveway with the school. Although I know she probably has trouble sleeping at night because of what she saw that day and how people have reacted to the news coverage, I hope that she and other journalists continue to do what they do.
Adults have been unable to talk about gun control for all these years and wasted lives. Can the words of children who have lost their innocence cut through all the crap and get us to finally act?
Let these children speak. Let us all hear their pain.