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New Module Helps Journalists Report on Child Death

May 9, 2013

Dave Ottalini 301-405-1321

Online training shows that child tragedies can be covered with sensitivity, balance, compassion and caring

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Journalists have a new tool from the University of Maryland to help them do the best possible job when reporting a tragic event - the death of a child. Whether it's by abuse or neglect, preventable accidents, gun violence and drugs or alcohol, insensitive coverage can start a drumbeat that leads to sensationalism or reactionary media coverage that never seems to end.

Dekia Mattox Memorial (Kristyna Wentz-Graff, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)"Covering child deaths is perhaps the most emotionally challenging story a journalist will tell in their careers," says Julie Drizin, director for the Journalism Center on Children & Families (JCCF) at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

It's clear, she says, that there's a need to help reporters do a better job of reporting the tragedy of a child's death that is "ethical, balanced, compassionate and caring." That need has led to a new tool for journalists – a free in-depth interactive training module – called "When a Child Dies" that was created with funding provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The new module is available now on the JCCF website.

Telling Stories with Sensitivity, Timing and Correctness
The new module uses interviews, examples from top reporters, lessons, tips, sources and more to help reporters deal with such issues as:

  • What is the best way to interview a child witness?
  • What is the best way to interview a grieving family?
  • What is the best way to craft an obituary?
  • How do you judge which images are exploitative?
  • How close can/should journalists get to the families they cover?
  • How does a reporter deal with legal issues reporting juvenile death cases?

The module also provides examples of inadequate and troubling coverage that reporters can learn from. It is designed to be a "living document" that can grow and change with time to become a better resource for reporters.

Future Impact
Drizin says, "High profile stories often lead policy makers to weigh in with new laws and regulations. Sometimes these efforts do protect children, but sometimes they undermine the institutions that work in the best interests of children by promoting stereotypes of corrupt, failed, wasteful, uncaring individuals, leaders and systems." Unfortunately, Drizin says, "Sometimes nothing happens at all."