Privacy case settled against TV station

A recently settled lawsuit should cause television stations to be more cautious when interviewing minors for news stories.

By Julie Kredens, staff writer

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 4 (April 1991), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


“At some point we have to balance the child’s right to privacy against the freedom of the press,” says Charles Pederson. Pederson represents the child’s parents who sued KFMB-TV in San Diego for invasion of privacy.

His clients, Steven and Robin Schwartz, were outraged when the station interviewed their then 8-year-old daughter Alison the day after she, her sister and two friends escaped from a knife-wielding man who threatened them on their way to school. The lawsuit, which was settled out of court in March, contends that KFMB -TV put the child at risk by using her picture and first name on the air.

“(KFMB) didn’t give any consideration to the potential impact of identifying her and broadcasting video of her picture for this fellow to see,” said Pederson. The man molested an 11-year-old girl the morning that Alison escaped him on the same wooded trail.

KFMB reporter John Culea interviewed Alison the next day on her school playground. The plaintiffs contend Culea didn’t have the principal’s or any adult’s permission to interview the child; the defense claims that consent was implied because school officials were on the grounds and no one objected.

Station attorneys argue that Alison had already appeared on television in connection with the story. Steven Schwartz was interviewed by another station the night of the incident and was seen holding Alison’s hand, although the child was not identified as his daughter, nor was her name given.

The station said Schwartz entered the “limelight” by appearing in the interview, making his family “involuntary public figures.” The defense also argues it was a newsworthy story of public interest.

Pederson said putting the father on TV and putting an unauthorized interview of an 8-year-old on TV are two different things. “We’re not talking about an interview for a science fair project,” says Pederson. “An 8-year-old does not have the capacity to understand the ramifications of an interview (of this kind).”

Pederson said he hoped the case would remind journalists to give serious consideration to whom they are interviewing and what the impact might be. The family lived in fear that the molester, who was not caught until a month later, would be able to find Alison as a result of the story and come after her, he said.

“I’ve got a problem when we’re dealing with minors, and in a situation where there very possibly could be some impact on them,” said Pederson, “There was some impact (here) — there could have been a lot more, let’s put it that way.