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

SELINSGROVE, Pa. — 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 of 411voices.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 of CyberWise, 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.”

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.”