The morning after the school massacre in Parkland, Fl., NBC’s “Today Show” asked Samantha Grady, a student who had witnessed the shooting of her best friend and classmate, “Do you know how [your friend] is doing?” “Yeah, unfortunately, she didn’t make it,” replied Grady, breaking down. There was a long pause. “We’re so sorry about that, Samantha, so sorry,” said NBC’s Hoda Kotb, as Grady wiped tears on her sleeve and struggled to regain her composure, the Washington Post reports. The reaction on social media was immediate and almost entirely negative. Commenters took NBC to task for putting a vulnerable teenager, perhaps still in shock, on national TV. The episode raises one a central ethical question in reporting on mass tragedies: Where’s the line between informing the public and mining the horror for ratings and clicks?
NBC News offered no apologies. News organizations wrestle with how much to tell the public about a grisly event. Should they air images of mass shooters going about their ghastly actions? Can a teenager who has so recently experienced trauma really give informed consent to be interviewed? Under certain circumstances, yes, said Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School. “As journalists, we have conflicting ethical obligations here,” he said. “A core obligation is to tell the story as thoroughly and accurately as possible, and that may mean talking to witnesses.” He adds, “This should be a family decision. If a teenager is going to be subjected to the stress of an interview, you want to know that the family supports her in that choice.” He said regarding NBC’s student interview, “NBC should be apologizing for its mistake, not selling that girl’s tears like reality TV.”