Malia and Sasha Go to School

How should the media cover Obama's daughters?

Yesterday was the first of what will be several firsts for the soon-to-be First Daughters: Malia and Sasha Obama’s First Day at Their New School. The Obama camp, seeking to both satiate and control the inevitable hunger for First Day of School images released three still photos of the girls (and mom and dad) preparing for school yesterday morning. Still, the from-the-back, outside-the-school photos were snapped. Still, reporters did stand-ups in front of the school.

NBC News’s Tom Costello, for example, filed reports yesterday morning from outside the school, reports which were criticized on-air by MSNBC hosts as “inappropriate” and which Costello explained today as follows: NBC News decided it would report from outside Malia Obama’s school but leave before The New Girl actually arrived. Less invasive, presumably (or less invasive by one or two bodies; plenty of news organizations did not similarly disperse before the Obamas arrived). And: was there any real value for the NBC viewer to this outside-the-school-but-not-at-arrival-time footage?

On NBC Nightly News last night, Brian Williams showed the Obama-approved photos of the girls, some footage of an en-route-to-school motorcade (Sasha just visible in the window of one SUV) and reported that it had been the daughters’ first day at “a nearby private school.” Then, Williams ran 1977 footage of John Chancellor, then-anchor of NBC Nightly News, reporting on nine-year-old Amy Carter’s first day at public school. Chancellor said:

We covered that story because we think it is historically important, the daughter of a president in a public school, but as far as we’re concerned unless have a compelling editorial reason, that’s the last you’ll see of Amy Carter at school on this program. We wish her well in her studies and we respect her right to privacy.

Williams then echoed those sentiments:

Well done. And that’s pretty much the way we all feel about the Obama daughters. Those of us who are parents can commiserate, switching schools in the middle of the year is tough enough, so we’ll cover their dad, the president-elect and their mom when she makes news and in the meantime, we will try to let Sasha and Malia do their job, making new friends at their new school.

So we ask you, including and beyond yesterday’s “first”: When and how should news organizations cover the First Children? When it comes to Malia and Sasha Obama, what’s newsworthy? What, if anything, is fair game for coverage? These questions may not be new for news organizations, but, in 2009, are the answers any different?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.