Protestors march near Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, California February 6, 2012.
Last night, KTLA evening news had an exclusive report into the alleged lewd conduct crimes against children at Miramonte Elementary School. The headline interview was with a 10-year old girl, filmed in shadow and unnamed. She is one of the students who says she was subject to lewd acts by teacher Mark Berndt – who faces 23 charges. The news last night was that the little girl said a third teacher would send the girl to Berndt's classroom to "get cookies during class."
KTLA characterized it as accusation against a third teacher for helping Berndt. Attorney Brian Claypool was also interviewed for the story, during which he sobbed, "When I heard it today, it confirmed my worst suspicions. That teacher should be protecting [my client] from Mr. Berndt, and she helped him do it." It was a breathless report into a scandal that has rocked this school's community.
David Begnaud, KTLA reporter who interviewed the girl, said careful discussion occurred in the newsroom before they decided to pursue the story. Also, the mother granted full permission and sat alongside her daughter for the duration of the questioning.
“We took a couple of precautions that made me feel better about it. You could not see the girl, you couldn’t tell who she was, and we didn’t identify her mother,” he said.
Begnaud said he was also conscious of the questions he asked. “There were specific questions that we chose to ask, and many more that we chose not to ask, quite frankly, because I just didn’t think it was appropriate to go into some of the details with a 10-year old,” he continued.
According to Begnaud, many parents have stepped forward to say media coverage helped them discover what their kids knew about the case. He went on to say that attorney Brian Claypool was on KTLA news Monday morning talking about the clients he represents, and he mentioned the class the mother’s daughter was in.
“When the mother walked out of the door last night she told me, ‘I think the media coverage is helping, because had I not seen that interview, I don’t know that I would have talked to [my daughter],” Begnaud added.
The report has stirred some controversy over its impact on the child and the investigation. Parallels were drawn between the Miramonte case and the McMartin case, a previous investigation where children were manipulated to make false claims.
Steve Whitmore, Senior Media Advisor to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and Sheriff Lee Baca, said that the community needs to remember law enforcement is trying to do its job. “I believe in the decency of people, and so does the sheriff. The community, we understand completely, is nervous and scared, and they want immediate answers,” he said.
Still, Whitmore stressed that anyone with information should only speak to investigators involved. “We ask them to do that because what’s important are facts. We understand that the media is going to cover things, we understand that concerned parents are going to say things, but covering and saying things are significantly different than facts, cooperation and hard evidence.”
Whitmore said detectives interview witnesses multiple times to fact check, and the job becomes difficult when their interviewees have already spoken to the media.
According to Begnaud, the nature of the interview was not compromised by suggestive questions; they only wanted to confirm information they received from attorneys.
“We wanted to hear it directly from one of the alleged victims,” he said. “This young girl answered the questions; she never stuttered, never made eye-contact with anyone else, as if to say, ‘Is this what I’m supposed to say?’ She looked right at me, answered the questions and quite frankly almost had a smile. I don’t truly think she understands the gravity of what the adults around her know.”
What is the potential impact of coverage such as this? Does it help or hurt the situation to have children as subjects of media interviews?
David Begnaud, Reporter, KTLA News
Steve Whitmore, Senior Media Advisor to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Sheriff Lee Baca