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Parenting debate: Should a 9-year-old reporter cover a homicide?

Posted by on Apr. 11, 2016 at 8:45 AM
  • 16 Replies

Parenting debate: Should a 9-year-old reporter cover a homicide?

Hilde Kate Lysiak, age 9, publishes the Orange Street News in her Pennsylvania town.

Story highlights

  • After a kid reporter broke a story about a homicide, critics pounced on social media
  • Parents are divided over whether they would let their kids cover a violent killing

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)When Hilde Kate Lysiak got a tip about a homicide in her small town of Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, she confirmed it with the police department and then went to the scene to interview neighbors and get more information.

She worked the story "very hard," she wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian,before posting her story on her site, the Orange Street News, well before any of her competitors.
    Her exclusive ended up going viral, but not because of the story she broke. It was her age that got people talking.
    You see, Hilde is 9. You heard that right. A 9-year-old spunky, spirited girl, the daughter of a former New York Daily News reporter, who started her newspaper, she said, "to give people the information they need to know."

    "Yes, I am a nine-year-old girl. But I'm a reporter, first. I report the news. And so long as there is news to report in Selinsgrove, I'm going to continue trying my best to give the people the facts," she said in her Guardian op-ed.

    I'm thinking every newsroom across America could use a reporter as tenacious and dedicated as this elementary schooler already is.
    But not everyone sees it that way.

    After Hilde's exclusive, commenters took to social media. While many praised the pint-sized journalist, calling her a "Nancy Drew" destined for a Pulitzer, others raised questions, including whether it was appropriate for a 9-year-old to be covering a violent death.

    "Does no one realize that this is a 9-year-old reporting this type of graphic information," wrote a commenter on Facebook, according to The Washington Post. "I mean, what parents are encouraging this type of behavior!"

    'Parents know their kids best'

    As someone who dreamed of being a reporter in high school, and who, at 29, first did the kind of gumshoe reporting that Hilde is doing at 9, I am blown away by her determination, and I salute her parents for letting her pursue her dreams.

    But I know I may not represent the typical view, based on my love of reporting and my girl empowerment passions. So I raised the question with men and women in my social networks, asking them if they think it's appropriate to let a 9-year-old cover a homicide.

    The majority of people who responded echoed Beth Engelman, a mom of a 10-year-old, who said parents know their kids best and know what they can handle and can't.

    "At age 9, for a girl who is already a 'local reporter,' I have to believe she could handle the details. That isn't to say every 9-year-old could," said Engelman of Chicago, co-founder of the site Mommy on a Shoestring.

    Engelman said she would have been freaked out to hear about a killing at that age, but remembers a friend she had who loved "gruesome" stuff and grew up to be an emergency room doctor. "I could easily see her investigating murders and finding out all the gory details at age 9."

    Buzz Bishop, a broadcaster and father of two from Calgary, Alberta, said the news is never on at his home, so his boys, 6 and nearly 9, don't know what's happening in "Belgium or DC or Paris."

    That said, he feels that if you have a kid who is passionate about journalism and "is reporting in a responsible way, why not let them chase their dream? This girl demonstrates professionalism, initiative, and eagerness to learn. There's nothing wrong with that," said Bishop, who writes about parenting on his blog DadCAMP.
    Daryn Kagan, a former CNN anchor, syndicated columnist and author of"Hope Possible," agrees. "I'd say this is a case of parents knowing their child and doing an awesome job of providing a channel for her interests and passions. We'd all do better to focus our energy on doing the same for our own kids and worrying less about how someone else is parenting theirs," said Kagan, who is raising two teenage girls.

    Blogger Vera Ezimora said she can understand parents' concerns about someone so young reporting on violent crime. "But, Hilde isn't the 9-year-old next door," said Ezimora, founder of the site Verastic.com, and a mom of a 5-month-old girl. "I think that Hilde is no different than kids her age who have other talents, like dancing, playing the piano, acting, sports, singing etc. The only difference is that hers is not as common, and it makes people uncomfortable because they don't understand it and are not used to it."

    The emotional impact of covering a homicide

    But on the other side are parents, like Louise Sattler, who believe 9 is too young to be reporting on something as serious as a violent death.

    "Why? Most of all it possibly will put the child and family in jeopardy. SAFETY FIRST," said Sattler, a psychologist, educator and co-founder of411voices.com, a collective of professionals with social media experience, via email. "Second, the child can't possibly understand the total implications of a story of this magnitude. Will (she) be asked to report as a witness during the trial?"

    Pamela Wechsler has 17 years of experience as a local, state and federal prosecutor, including a few years exclusively prosecuting homicides during her work in Boston. While she said she is not one to tell parents how to raise their children and is in no way judging Hilde's parents for letting their daughter cover a homicide, if she had kids, she wouldn't let them do it.

    "I know how profoundly something like that impacts you, whether or not you realize it at the time. I think it changes who you are. I think it changes how you see the world, I think it changes how you interact with people," said Wechsler, whose first novel, "Mission Hill," will be published next month. (Full disclosure: Wechsler is a friend of mine.)

    "It's really a very profound thing to sort of experience the horror of a murder, whether you're reporting on it or prosecuting it or investigating it. But to be that up close and personal to something so horrible, you know -- it's serious."
    Wechsler, who worked as a legal consultant and writer for network television shows such as "Law and Order" and a few of its spinoffs, said even now, when she talks with people about cases, she won't go into detail if their kids ask questions.

    "I just don't feel comfortable talking about a murder with a child. There's something wrong about that, and I might say somebody hurt somebody, but I will not provide details and I will not say murder," she said.

    The importance of parental oversight

    Hilde's father, Matthew Lysiak, whom we could not reach for comment, told The Washington Post that his daughter has been in the housing projects in the Bronx with him as he reported stories and that she doesn't have a lot of fear. "She just wants to get the stories out and she really wants to report real news," he said.

    Parents like Terry Greenwald, a father of three grown children in Alaska, said that parental oversight would be essential if he were to let his 9-year-old report on a homicide. "There should be discussion about content. If it were my child, I would explain the evils of this world and make sure the child understood my concern, but would allow it only if it was understood that caution would be exercised," he said. "I think in such instances as a parent you have the opportunity to build trust with the child that may benefit everyone in later years."

    Diana Graber, founder of Cyber Civics, a digital citizenship and literacy curriculum for middle school, also believes the supervision of Hilde's journalist father is key. She applauds the girl for her "positive and proactive use of digital tools" and questions why there's outrage about a 9-year-old covering a homicide but not over what other kids are doing online.

    "While I can understand the concern of those who think she is too young to be online, I wonder why there is not a similar uproar over 9-year-olds with Instagram, Snapchat and other accounts who are exposed to equally, if not more gruesome, sexual and/or violent content as passive consumers, not proactive producers of media," said Graber, who is also co-founder ofCyberWise, the digital media literacy site for tweens, teens, parents and educators.

    What parenting and Internet safety expert Sue Scheff found most offensive about the whole controversy is the way adults were behaving. "Digitally shaming a 9-year-old girl? What has our nation come to?" said Scheff, who is also author of "Wit's End: Advice and Resources for Saving Your Out-of-Control Teen."
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    In a video posted the day after Hilde received a torrent of criticism, she read word for word exactly what some people said about her, including comments that she should be playing with dolls or having tea parties, not covering crime. "When I watched the video, this wasn't Jimmy Kimmel's Celebrity Mean Tweets," Scheff said. "This was a child reading what grownups (I presume some parents) were chanting to her. When will adults grow up? That should be the question to our country."

    But Hilde seems to be handling the backlash with more confidence and conviction than most grownups.

    "For those of you who think I need to mind my place, I'll make you a deal,"she said in her op-ed. "You get off your computer and do something to stop all the crime going on in my town and I'll stop reporting on it. Until then, I'm going to keep doing my job."

    Do you it's appropriate for a 9-year-old to cover a homicide? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

    Neon Washable Paint

    by on Apr. 11, 2016 at 8:45 AM
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    Replies (1-10):
    LauraKW
    by "Dude!" on Apr. 11, 2016 at 8:55 AM
    1 mom liked this
    What a remarkable child. Not every 9yo would be able to handle the situation. These types of decision should be left up to the parents and child involves. No black and white blanket answer here.
    NWP
    by guerrilla girl on Apr. 11, 2016 at 8:57 AM

    I agree with this.

    Quoting LauraKW: What a remarkable child. Not every 9yo would be able to handle the situation. These types of decision should be left up to the parents and child involves. No black and white blanket answer here.


    Neon Washable Paint

    jewels.unicorn
    by Member on Apr. 11, 2016 at 9:06 AM
    1 mom liked this

    She's a brilliant kid who was raised by a reporter. It's what she grew up with, and clearly she seems mature enough to handle it.

    I wouldn't necessarily want my children out there reporting on a murder but my kids have been sheltered from the news as I don't feel it necessary to bombard them with certain situations that they are not yet ready to wrap their heads around.

    As for this young lady, she seems to have a pretty decent handle on herself, I'm proud of her!

    heresjohnny
    by Bronze Member on Apr. 11, 2016 at 9:08 AM
    1 mom liked this
    I think it's awesome. Every child is different. Some can handle the gory details, and some can't. She obviously can, so I don't see the issue. When a kid is ready to see the world for what it really is, what's the point in continuing to shield them? All it will do is stunt their emotional growth, and then you'll end up wondering why your college-age kid can't function without a "safe-space."
    Bookwormy
    by Ruby Member on Apr. 11, 2016 at 11:41 AM
    I'm torn. My DD definitely can't handle those gory details at 9yo right now. And, as a mental health professional, I'm not entirely sure that it is healthy for any child to be exposed to those details honestly. But I also believe that parents know their own child best.

    At some point we all need to stop coddling our children. But gruesome murder details at 9yo? Hmm, I just don't know.

    That said, this child does seem remarkable. She certainly doesn't need to be playing with dolls and having tea parties.
    numbr1wmn
    by Lina on Apr. 11, 2016 at 11:53 AM

    I agree with this as well.  I wouldn't do it but it's ultimately the parents responsibility

    Quoting LauraKW: What a remarkable child. Not every 9yo would be able to handle the situation. These types of decision should be left up to the parents and child involves. No black and white blanket answer here.


    MyMyOhMy
    by Gold Member on Apr. 11, 2016 at 12:37 PM

    Should every kid cover homicide? No.

    Should this kid? She seems to be doing ok.

    PamR
    by Ruby Member on Apr. 11, 2016 at 1:30 PM

    She sounds like an exceptional child.  I'm not sure I would have been comfortable with my 9 year old children doing this, however.

    UpSheRises
    by Platinum Member on Apr. 11, 2016 at 4:49 PM


    Quoting LauraKW: What a remarkable child. Not every 9yo would be able to handle the situation. These types of decision should be left up to the parents and child involves. No black and white blanket answer here.

    This very much. My son could do it...i could not have done anything like that at 9yo.


    Susan1360
    by Silver Member on Apr. 11, 2016 at 5:16 PM
    This

    Quoting LauraKW: What a remarkable child. Not every 9yo would be able to handle the situation. These types of decision should be left up to the parents and child involves. No black and white blanket answer here.
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