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Highly Gifted Children and the Press

by Kathi Kearney

Gifted Education Consultant
Founder, The Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children
E-mail: kkearney@midcoast.com

1991 Kathi Kearney

This article first appeared in Understanding Our Gifted, March and May, 1991
Reprinted with permission of the author and Open Space Communications, Inc. 800.494.6178

click for printer-ready article

Also read Indecent Exposure: How Global Media Exploits the Gifted (PowerPoint),
presented for Global Awareness Division, NAGC, Charlotte NC, November 2006

Highly Gifted Children and the Press - Part I (March 1991)

Susan, at age 10, was a full-time college student. Unfortunately, she was also subject to the compulsory attendance law' which required her family to apply to the local school board for an "equivalent instruction" program. Since Susan had been homeschooled the previous year the school board insisted she take a fourth grade achievement test to "prove" she was learning. When her parents refused, the reporter covering the school board meeting that night filed the story with the local newspaper. The next morning's headlines screamed, "Genius Child is Denied Home Teaching." That was bad enough, but that was not all That morning an Associated Press reporter called the family "just to confirm the details" of the story. Two days later an Associated Press article made the front page of the state's dailies. Susan 's family received calls from The Today Show, People Magazine, and The Tonight Show They refused these and all further interviews, but that did not prevent them from receiving calls from reporters for a full year after the local story was first published.

Extraordinary children occasionally receive extraordinary attention. Magazines, newspapers, radio, and television have portrayed the plight of highly gifted children in various ways since the turn of the century. From the vicious press attacks on celebrated child prodigy, William James Sidis, in the century's early decades to "Doogie Howser, M.D.," ABC television's sensitive and well-written weekly series about a highly gifted 17-year-old doctor, both press coverage and dramatic portrayals of this population reflect the consistent ambivalence Americans feel toward highly gifted children.

The 9-year-old college student, the 14-year-old published novelist, and the 6-year-old composer are bound to draw at least some attention to their unusual accomplishments. Though they are fascinating to the public, such accomplishments also can make some people uncomfortable-uncomfortable, perhaps, with how they have developed their own abilities; uncomfortable because there is nothing in their own experience to explain such a phenomenon; and uncomfortable because these children often have not used the conventional routes to their achievements: conformity to the status quo is not the way a 9-year-old ends up in college. Historical tensions in American society between excellence and equality introduce political and sociological issues as well. Thus, the public reaction to the 9-year-old's college placement is more likely to be "I'm certainly glad I don't have your problems, Mrs. Grost. These children always turn out to be unproductive failures..." (Grost, 1970, p.136) than it is "How nice, Mrs. Smith, that your daughter is enjoying her new school"

We live in a media-saturated environment. If highly gifted children are going to be featured in television documentaries, on the pages of Life magazine, and in the scripts of a major television network series - and they are - it is extremely important that reporters and scriptwriters have access to information that will help them understand the unique needs of these children. It is also imperative that parents, teachers, and the children themselves share a rudimentary understanding of how the press works, and realize that they always have the right to say no to a reporter. Balancing these two considerations is often a conflicting task. When should a child be allowed publicity, and when should he or she be protected from the press? What are the long4erm consequences of early press coverage for a highly gifted child? What if those families and professionals who are concerned about portraying an accurate picture of extraordinarily gifted children don't talk to the press? Will others who have less information and less concern about the welfare of these children do so instead?

These questions have no easy answers; the right decision for one child and family may be a devastating decision for another. Both individual and family developmental patterns need to be considered very carefully, and even then the best choice is often to say "no." Publicity, like the contents of Pandora's box once it has been opened, cannot be recalled. However, the families of many highly gifted children and child prodigies often discover that they must deal with the press at some point. The next column will present specific information and guidelines for families contemplating press coverage.

Reference

Grost (1970). Genius in Residence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Highly Gifted Children and the Press - Part II (May 1991)

Life Magazine, Parade, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, CBS News 48 Hours, and a host of national and local talk shows and newspaper articles have all featured stories about highly gifted children and child prodigies within the past year. This American phenomenon of prodigy-watching is nothing new; as early as 1911, American Magazine featured the Victorian era's latest crop of prodigies, including such celebrated children as William James Sidis, Winifred Stoner, and A. A. Berle (Bruce, 1911).

But what if it is your child the press wants to interview? In the last column, we discussed some of the difficult questions families face as they confront media attention, including the conservative and safe response - just saying no. However, for those families who find themselves in the midst of media attention either by chance or by choke, this issue's column provides a number of specific suggestions.

Remember that you can always say no.

You are not obligated to talk to the press. In many cases (perhaps most), it will be better for you and for your child if you do not. Press attention has a way of getting out of hand, even under the best of circumstances, and highly gifted children often cherish their privacy (Hollingworth, 1942).

Ask for time to consider whether or not to do the interview.

Most situations will not require an immediate interview, even though the reporter may want it; depending on the type of press coverage, the reporter may be able to wait for a few days or even a week or two. Much of the publicity about highly gifted children is in the form of feature articles or television documentaries, in which there is much more lead time for the reporter than in a late-breaking story. Get all the in-formation that you can about both the interview process and the publication or television show in which the proposed interview will appear, including the reporter's name and a description of the audience. If there's time, do some homework. Read back issues of the publication (especially other stories about related topics, and other stories by the same reporter); watch a segment of the television program, or listen to the radio talk show.

Make the decision as a family whether or not to talk to the press.

Neither parent should make such a decision alone; unity is essential. You will need the support of each other. Consider your child's wishes-no child ever should be forced to participate in an interview. Be prepared for some unforeseen ramifications within the family if you decide to go ahead with news coverage: sometimes siblings feel left out, jealous, or even frightened.

Understand the media's role.

The same news media that uncovered the Watergate scandal, explained "smart bombs" to a worldwide television audience, and brought the Vietnam War into your living room will be interviewing you and your child. Their objective is to get the story, make it interesting and simple enough for a wide audience, investigate, and raise alternative points of view. Do not be surprised if you are asked tough questions on the one hand, or if complicated concepts are portrayed simplistically on the other. The press may well interview someone who is in disagreement with your point of view, and then juxtapose the two interviews in the final copy. The press's job is to get the story; your job, if you decide to talk to the press at all, is to protect your child from undue exploitation. Occasionally, there will be a collision between these two responsibilities.

Think before you speak.

This is good advice any time, but critical when talking to a reporter. You do not have to give an instant answer. Listen carefully to each of the reporter's questions, and take a moment to think about it. Answer clearly, and concisely, if you can.

Double-check the facts with the reporter.

In the midst of an interview, you or your child may neglect to give complete information, or the reporter may have recorded information incorrectly. The reporter needs complete, clear and accurate information. Before concluding the interview, double-check important facts with the reporter.

Treat everything you say as if it were on the record.

Even if the reporter assures you that you are talking to her off the record," keep in mind that what you say will shape her perception of your child, your family, and the issues involved. Now is not the time to mention your marital problems, a disagreement you've had with the child's teacher, or what the neighbors think. Sometimes information ostensibly given "off the record" finds its way into a news story anyhow. The prudent course is to treat everything you say to a reporter as if it were on the record.

Understand that press coverage makes your child traceable, now and in the future.

Publicity cannot be recalled. If your child's story ends up in the New York Times, for instance, his or her name will be listed permanently in the New York Times Index. If you agree to one story with one publication, expect to receive other publicity "offers." For example, on the recent CBS News 48 Hours segment about child prodigies, most of the children featured had experienced extensive media coverage in the past. Choosing whether or not to participate in press coverage is a difficult decision. It should be a decision informed by thorough family discussion, a rudimentary understanding of how the press works and what some of the unforeseen consequences of press coverage can be, and the child's own developmental patterns. No one has a crystal ball; no one can predict the outcome of media coverage ahead of time. It is always a judgment call. Those families who choose to tell their stories to the world via the camera's lens and the reporter's voice do deserve credit: without their stories, extraordinary giftedness would remain shrouded in mystery for the general public, instead of being given names, faces, and a growing realization, that the prodigy can also be the child next door.

For Further Reading

Hermann, W E. (1982, Nov/Dec). Publicity and the prodigy. Gifted Child Today. 60-61.
Hermann's short article describes additional considerations for families contemplating or caught in the middle of press coverage.

References

Bruce, H. A. (1911, July) New ideas in child training. American Magazine, pp, 286-294.
Hollingworth, L. S. (1942). Children above 180 IQ (Stanford-Binet): Origin and Development. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Company.

Annotated Reading: Gifted Children and the Press

The following books about highly gifted children and their families discuss both positive and negative experiences with press coverage.

Wallace, A. (1986).The prodigy: A biography of William James Sidis, American's oldest child prodigy.  New York: E.P. Dutton.
This book details the difficult life of William James Sidis, and includes an extensive discussion of the negative role of the press.  Included are excerpts from newspaper and magazine accounts.

Feldman, R.D. (1982).  Whatever happened to the Quiz Kids?  Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press.
"Little Ruthie Duskin" was one of the famous radio "Quiz Kids" during the 1940s.  In adulthood, she wondered what had become of her highly gifted cohorts.  This book outlines her search for the rest of the "Quiz Kids," the story of their lives and achievements 40 years later, and the impact of early publicity on their lives.

Grost, A. (1970).  Genius in residence.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
This is a mother's story of raising Michael, a math prodigy who went to college at the age of 9.  Mrs. Grost provides a humorous and realistic view of what it was like to be stuck in the middle of massive press coverage about her highly gifted child.

Kathi Kearney is founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, and is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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