BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Bog off

Tim Levell | 16:15 UK time, Tuesday, 12 June 2007

We're running a really thought-provoking little report on Newsround today about the state of school toilets.

Newsround logoA Press Packer (a member of our club for young journalists) e-mailed a few weeks ago to say that poor toilets in her school was one of her biggest concerns. We followed up this contact, got her out reporting on it, took her to other schools which are doing better - and fixed up an interview with the campaign group Bog Standard.

We know this is a big big big issue for children - a few years' ago, the children's commissioner for Wales ran a survey of the issues which concern children, and this came out top.

But it's strangely under-reported in the mainstream media. Junk food, unhealthy lifestyles, overcrowded curricula, exam overload, youth crime, the problems of TV, violent computer games - these are the issues about childhood that exercise adults.

If you ask children, though, a different agenda emerges, normally headed by bullying, but with interesting other problems like school toilets.

Do you think we are right to lead on this story? Are school toilets due the "Jamie Oliver treatment"? And as well as school toilets, what other un-reported subjects about childhood should Newsround flush out (ha ha, sorry I resisted all puns till then)....?

10 years on - a new era

Tim Levell | 12:40 UK time, Wednesday, 9 May 2007

This summer, we at Newsround are working out how to mark the end of a memorable and at times controversial decade, the like of which we may never see again.

Newsround logoAfter 10 years at the very top of his game - during which he's dominated all those around him and arguably changed the landscape forever - he's finally stepping down. Many people can barely believe that this moment is here, but yes, after this summer there will be no more.

He started way back in the summer of 1997. No one quite knew what to expect, but within a few years it was clear that nothing would be the same again. And not only did he conquer Britain; he wowed millions of fans in America, the Far East and Europe too.

So we're working out how to look back over the past 10 years, and we're also embarking on the search for his successor. Someone needs to take over where Harry Potter has left off, but the problem is - no one knows who.

In June 1997, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published - just a month after Tony Blair came to power. Ten years later, on 21 July 2007, the seventh and final book in the instalment will be published, having sold a staggering 225 million copies in 64 languages worldwide.

Admittedly, there are still three more movies to come. But really, this is the end of the line for the Harry Potter story - something which, on the Newsround website at least, has consistently provided far and away the most popular stories we've ever published.

And this actually provides us with a serious dilemma. Gordon Brown may be Tony Blair's heir apparent. But for Harry Potter, it's nowhere near so clear. In a recent vote, Tracey Beaker was number one to take over, followed by the Alex Rider series. But none of those have had quite the cultural crossover which JK Rowling's creation has enjoyed.

In today's atomised environment, where kids download hundreds of different bands, there seem to be very few breakthrough pop-cultural phenomenons. The era of the rock-solid showbiz stories about Take That, Busted or Britney has long gone.

Harry Potter was a good banker. Come the end of the summer, who will take his place?

Children's concern

Tim Levell | 12:15 UK time, Friday, 4 May 2007

A debate in the Newsround office right now is whether to cover the story of David Hasselhoff being filmed drunk by his daughters.

Newsround logoThere are many many families up and down Britain where drunken parents can cause great upset for their children - and even rip families apart.

The fact that David Hasselhoff has released a statement saying that his daughters were "concerned for my well-being" and that he has seen the tape and "learned from it" means that he has accepted the problem and is on-side with the tape being shown.

And it's a powerful example of how concerned children can help their parents get through their troubles.

But the video is undeniably strong. One clip shows him struggling to eat a hamburger; in another he says he is "lonely" because he has "trouble in our life".

hasselhoff_203ap.jpgIt should go without saying that we would do this as a story about children raising concerns about their parents' behaviour -- not in any way making light of what's happened.

Since I started writing this entry, one of our reporters has been talking to Alcohol Concern, who've told us that "as long as we do it responsibly, it could be beneficial".

We are erring on the side of doing it - and on the side of showing some but not all of the video. (Another discussion is whether we show the video full-screen or somehow shrink it or have it in the background.) Bearing in mind that we aim at six- to 12-year-old children, what do you think?

White faces on screen

Post categories:

Tim Levell | 15:22 UK time, Friday, 9 March 2007

Jim-UK was in no doubt what he thought about the colour of faces we show on screen. In a comment posted on an earlier entry on this blog, he wrote: "If Newsround is anything to go by, then there's not one white child in the country."

Newsround logoI promised a reply; but I also promised to give it some time to monitor our output. What seems to be happening certainly throws up some production challenges.

Jim's comments refer largely to the interviews we show with children - "voxes". We film voxes when we want children to give us their opinions on a news story, or if we've gone to report on an event where children are taking part and we ask them what they've been doing. Quite often, this involves going into a school or going on the streets with a camera and microphone.

The challenge is that, while the UK is ethnically diverse, it is diverse in disproportionate quantities. Let's say that we want children to comment on our lead story today -
Louis and Kate leaving X Factor . Our normal production process will be to ring up a school, go in and film the interviews and get them on air in time for our first afternoon bulletin at 4.25pm on the CBBC Channel.

But let's also consider that Britain has an ethnic minority population of 7.9% . The BBC's main production offices are based in urban areas, and we could well end up filming at a school in, say, west London. Chances are that 80% of the children could be from ethnic minorities. So if we were to choose three voxes, you could have two black children and one Asian child.

To counteract this, we very often send a crew to a school in a completely different area of the UK. But then the converse often happens, and we could well film at a primary school with exclusively white faces. It's a poor use of money to send two crews on one story (a camera operator + a someone to ask the questions can cost up to £650 a day). Finding the ideal ethnic balance on each and every story, particularly at short notice, continues to be a challenge.

But should we be aiming for an ideal ethnic balance in any case? Yes and no. To me, the key is that, over time, we have a fair reflection of UK society. I haven't actually counted (maybe I should?), but over the past two months the vast majority of children we have interviewed have been white. Perhaps not as high as 92%, but certainly a majority.

And there is another point to be made. What we are actually interested in is children's views and stories. Does it matter what colour they are? If we have three black kids out of three, what's the difference from having three white kids, especially on a story such as X Factor? It might be different if the story somehow related to ethnicity or their background. On our recent high-profile Unicef story into childhood happiness, for instance, all four voxes were from ethnic minorities, and in retrospect it would have been preferable if we'd found some white children to talk to.

This is a very sensitive issue and I've read and re-read this entry while writing it. To me, the most important thing is that, at any point, a child should be able to watch our output and identify with what they see on screen. Reflecting ethnicity is part of the way of achieving that. But we probably need to work harder to make sure that our day-to-day production requirements don't end up setting the on-screen agenda.

I'm sure you'll have views...

Giving children a voice

Tim Levell | 11:40 UK time, Wednesday, 14 February 2007

It's a shocking headline: British children have, apparently, a worse childhood than those in 20 other developed countries, according to Unicef.

Newsround logoAnd, though you can nitpick about certain details, the detailed findings seem to support the headline. Unicef studied at six aspects of wellbeing, and at every stage - whether objective statistics or children's subjective views - Britain came out poorly.

Why? That's got to be the main question occupying policy-makers, journalists and analysts. Many people will be suggesting solutions, but one thing is sure: many of those doing the commentating (myself included) will be writing and speaking from comfortable middle class homes and well-paid secure jobs.

In my spare time I am involved in a voluntary group which has given me some insight into these difficult lives. But I'm still not really exposed to the true scale of poverty, conflict, break-up, abuse, deprivation, lack of expectation, lack of education, lack of support, peer pressure, parental pressure, educational pressure, discontent and dissatisfaction that affects millions of children in Britain.

newsround203_3.jpgWe got a taste of that last year on Newsround when we talked to children living in deep poverty and made a series of animations about their lives. It's been a privilege to see those cartoons reappear this week - they tell a powerful story.

But more than that, we believe that on Newsround we have a crucial role in giving children aged six to 12 a voice. One of the problems with today's report is that it will prompt yet more hand-wringing by parents, legislators, journalists and educators. This is definitely part of the problem: the pressure being put on children today. They feel miserable about their lives because they think they aren't wanted, valued and or doing anything right. There's an amazing good-news story about improving exam results, for instance, and yet every summer it's knocked down as "exams getting easier" and woolly coursework. What do children have to do to be liked and respected by adults?

We are working on more ways to allow children to give their side of the story. You can read our comments page to get an insight into what some of our children think. We are supporting the Children's Society, which has launched a website to allow children to feed their thoughts into the Good Childhood inquiry. We are thinking of child-friendly ways to allow children to contribute, on their terms, and not just as punchbags in an adult arena.

This is something I care about deeply. Your take on this would be fascinating.

Banning Pink Floyd

Tim Levell | 10:28 UK time, Tuesday, 6 February 2007

It was great to read your comments on a previous entry, in which I explained why Newsround had - for the foreseeable future - "banned" Pete Doherty.

Newsround logoNow, something else is getting it in the neck. I'm trying to stop the use of the Eric Prydz remix of Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall whenever there's an education story on the TV.

You're probably familiar with the concept: take a dullish news story, liven it up using a bit of music, and if possible, make the words of the music relevant. But this song has taken it to a new high. In the past few weeks, it's been on Tonight (ITV1), Breakfast (BBC One) and numerous other TV news shows.

The cover of the infamous trackAdmittedly the song fits the bill perfectly. There's the very familiar guitar riff; the single breakthrough line "We don't need no education"; and then a long bit of techno instrumental, which is very easy to cut pictures to. First time you hear it, it seems inspired. By the fifth outing, you know it's the last resort of a time-poor, inspiration-poor producer.

In the 80s I was driven mad by news stories about driving, bicycles and shark attacks starting with (in order), Madness' Driving In My Car, Queen's Bicycle Race and the spooky opening bars of the Jaws theme tune.

I'm sure there are more pet musical hates that need to be outed. Go on - you know you want to!

Making the headlines

Tim Levell | 14:53 UK time, Monday, 15 January 2007

You may be surprised to read this, but the Mail on Sunday carried a shock-horror story about the BBC at the weekend based on an interview I gave - and I can refreshingly report that my words weren't twisted, my quotes weren't taken out of context, and, apart from the slightly over-dramatic writing, the story was basically correct.

Newsround logo"BBC bans Doherty from children's TV" was the newspaper's revelation, after I mentioned on the BBC's Newswatch programme (which you can watch here) that Newsround didn't think Pete Doherty was a suitable role model for children, and that we have an "informal agreement" not to cover stories about him.

It's not a blanket ban forever (we might even report on him and Kate getting married, if it's ever confirmed). But at the moment, yes, you won't catch Pete on Newsround, because he is known mostly for his drug-taking and crime - and, as I also said on Newswatch, his music is not exactly something that many nine-year-olds are listening to or interested in.

Some of you may think this is "censorship". Others may feel that he isn't a suitable role model, and I'd be very interested in your views.

But this also got me thinking about the BBC's slightly unusual relationship with some of the press - and wondering whether I should worry that my contribution has led to this story.

I previously worked on a project called iCan, now Action Network, which is all about helping people to take part in local democracy and take action on issues they care about. Before launch, we were concerned that the site could be interpreted as the BBC encouraging people to attack the government (in other words, undermining our commitment to political impartiality). I spent many hours with our editorial policy teams devising ways of making the BBC's impartiality clear - all in an attempt to avoid a much-feared tabloid expose.

I was then rather surprised when, after one of our pre-launch briefings, a senior BBC News manager told me that actually the best - not worst - thing that could happen to the site would be "revelations in the Daily Mail". It would show that the site was rattling cages (what it was designed to do) - and it would get it publicity.

In the end, iCan was never featured in any tabloid newspaper, probably to its cost. This taught me that headlines in the newspapers aren’t always a bad thing - particularly when they’ve got the story spot-on.

Harry Potter hype?

Tim Levell | 15:08 UK time, Friday, 22 December 2006

Newsround has long been associated with breaking news about Harry Potter, not least because our reporter Lizo Mzimba has set himself up as something of a world expert on Harry Potter. He can get through to people in Bloomsbury, Warner Bros and even JK's office faster than anyone we know.

newsround_logo_4.gifThis has meant that we have tried to take a step back from too much Harry Potter coverage in recent months and years, because we don't want Newsround to be known only for that story, and also because we don't want to be seen to be pushing a "product".

But it still amazes me that, whenever we have a Potter story, the response is astonishing.

On Thursday, we were the first news organisation in the world to confirm that JK Rowling had announced the title of the seventh and final book. Read our story here. The accompanying vote had started moving upwards before we'd even finished publishing the page.

We are watching comments appear in our inbox at a rate of several a second.

There's a worldwide web of fans who are out there, ready to pounce on any Potter story as soon as it's published. We aren't trying to hype him, honest. But we just can't avoid the power of the web response.

Eating humble pie?

Tim Levell | 10:31 UK time, Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Childhood obesity is one of the great issues of our time, and certainly a subject on which Newsround frequently reports.

Newsround logoWe even (let me get my defences in early) have an online special section, packed full of advice and inspiration to help children stay healthy.

So a recent mince pie competition got me thinking about what our policy should be on such eating (or over-eating) competitions.

I'm torn.

On the one hand, children can clearly see that it's a piece of fun. In our TV piece, we dwelt on the disgusting shots of people pushing food in their face, to exaggerate its unhealthiness. We scripted and edited it to make it as ridiculous as possible. And our presenter stressed in the intro that it was definitely a "less healthy pursuit".

An image from a mince pie-eating competitionSo I am convinced most children would have laughed along and poked fun at the competitors, rather than reaching for the nearest Mr Kipling six-pack.

On the other hand, simply by covering the event, we are arguably endorsing it. And with such a sensitive subject, we shouldn't be reporting anything which might encourage children to take up unhealthy behaviour.

But that makes children seem very literal and unsubtle; and everything we know about children's media habits says that they are astute enough to understand the subtext behind what they're watching. And what's the point of children's TV if you can't have any fun?

And yet, and yet. Every time I write a letter defending our policy, something in me worries that we are being irresponsible.


Strong visuals

Tim Levell | 15:21 UK time, Friday, 1 December 2006

When CBBC's Newsround first considered doing a special programme about child poverty, something which affects an astonishing three million children in the UK, the standard documentary techniques were rolled out - undercover filming, moody reconstructions, children showing a sympathetic reporter around their grim surroundings...

Newsround logoBut one of the aims of CBBC is to make television that's engaging for seven to 11-year-olds, and all our recent research shows that bleakness is a turn-off, both visually and emotionally. Children respond best to strong visuals as well as some practical and positive outcomes.

So when CBBC's creative head Anne Gilchrist suggested the idea of using cartoons to tell the children's stories, everyone at Newsround instinctively knew that this could be a very exciting and powerful idea. As far as we know, no one has ever attempted to tell current affairs using animation.

An image from one of Newsround's animationsAnd the result - broadcast online (click here to watch) and on TV from today - is something we are hoping will have a real impact.

Children we've shown it to have really liked the different animation styles, including photo-montage, comic strip and cardboard cutouts. They weren't really expecting a "documentary", but to our relief they've kept watching, and some have even had tears in their eyes by the end.

Most of that is down to the children and their uncompromising stories of neglect, of overcrowding, and of isolation.

An image from one of Newsround's animationsThe show's producer and creative brain, Kez Margrie, spent a lot of time with them, building up their trust and respect, enabling them to talk about their lives with both honesty and dignity. She involved them in every step of the process, from checking the look of their animated characters to agreeing the final edits.

The children are proud of the final outcome. But do you think it works? Would a conventional documentary have been better or more suitable? I'd be very interested to read what you - and perhaps your children - think of it.

The kids' verdict on David.

Tim Levell | 11:59 UK time, Thursday, 5 October 2006

Two Newsround young reporters interviewed Gordon Brown last week, and on our BBC One programme, we carried out a text vote, which resulted in three-quarters of those who voted deciding they didn't want him as prime minister.

Newsround logoWe did the same thing yesterday with David Cameron. And the completely unscientific, wholly-for-fun results are..

Just over 1,500 people voted. A small majority, 815, said YES, they did want him as prime minister. Slightly fewer, 671, said NO, they didn't.

Covering distressing news for children

Tim Levell | 15:30 UK time, Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Stories like the American school shooting are very rare; but every time they happen, we consider incredibly carefully if and how we cover them on Newsround.

Newsround logoIn broad terms, there are four key principles that we apply. (Please bear in mind that we aim at children aged between 7 and 11.)

1) Should we cover it at all?
Quite often, we won't. If we don't think an upsetting story has registered with most children, we don't want to bring it to their attention.

For this reason, we didn't mention at all the shooting of a student in Colorado last week.

However, we know that many children will have picked up something about this shooting. I happened to be at a Newsround event with 300 seven-to-11 year olds this morning, and I asked them specifically if they were aware of the shooting. 90% of the children raised their hands.

2) Report it simply and factually

Once we are sure the story has registered with children, we believe our job is to cover the story accurately, reliably and without sensationalism.

If you add to that the hearsay and half-heard comments that children can pick up in the playground or from friends or parents, and the story can often become far wilder or more scary in their minds than it should be.

We aim therefore to stand in the gap, and provide a simple, factual explanation of what happened. Specifically:
• We don't dwell on the details (which can make it so much more real to children, and mean they start putting themselves in that place)
• We use passive constructions ("Five girls have died", not "The man went in and shot five girls")
• We consider carefully whether to show the most emotive or lingering shots (which could include stills of the killer)

3) Add in positive reassurance

It is incredibly rare for something like this to happen, and that is something that we say explicitly in our coverage. The media covers shootings like this precisely because they are still so unusual. There are 25 million schoolchildren in America. Before this incident, only one student had been shot in a school in America this year.

Children are still very safe in school, and that is something we take great pains to stress.

We also have a webpage entitled What to do if the news upsets you. This was written with the help of a child psychologist, and we refer to it on all our coverage. This gives children who are upset somewhere to go to get help.

And we are enabling children to send messages to the families affected. This provides a cathartic release, and allows children to watch our coverage and feel like they are doing something in response.

4) Don't go overboard in our coverage

Finally, it can be tempting to follow the 24-hour news networks and provide wall-to-wall coverage. For Newsround, this is fundamentally wrong. All it does is distort the significance of the event.

We will devote no more than 30% of our output today to the shooting. We will then ensure we cover other news (to show that the world is still happening), and specifically include lighter items (today, a preview of the Robin Hood series).

We hope this will mean children leave us feeling happier, brighter and more reassured about the world they live in.

I have written a longer entry than normal, but I believe it is important to set out how we approach these stories. I am happy to answer questions, if you post them as comments below.

I would also be interested to read what you think of our coverage, on air or online.

The kids' verdict on Gordon

Tim Levell | 16:57 UK time, Wednesday, 27 September 2006

We're running a Press Pack interview with Gordon Brown on Newsround today, in which two young reporters get a special sit-down interview with the chancellor.

newsround_logo_3.gifAnd off the back of it, we've decided to run a text vote: "Would you like Gordon Brown to be the next Prime Minister Y/N?"

Children can text in during Newsround on BBC One, and we'll announce the result at the end of the show. Over and done in less than eight minutes.

It's quite a simple and straightforward question, and one that's on everyone's lips, but, this being the BBC, we have to check and double-check it with our editorial policy chaps.

They're happy with it, but we need to make sure that we present it correctly. Crucially, we cannot say when we announce the result, "This is what you think of Gordon Brown", or "This is what children think". The vote is, of course, a completely self-selecting, unscientific, unrepresentative piece of fun.

So we make sure that we say "This many people voted", and "Of those, this many said they liked him, and this many said they didn't". And with lots of adults watching Newsround too, we know that they could be voting as much as children are. So that's something we need to stress too.

But perhaps the most interesting thing will be to see how popular this text vote is, compared with other recent votes along the lines of England winning the World Cup and kids' views on seatbelts.

I'll let you know the outcome later.

UPDATE, Thurs 0900: …and the headline result is that, in the five minutes we were on air, 1,400 voted in our text vote, and over 1,000 of them said that they didn't want Gordon as Prime Minister. So it was a big fat "NO" on our massive video screens in our studio.

Next week we're interviewing David Cameron, so we'll put him to the test too.

The sting in the tale

Tim Levell | 10:22 UK time, Tuesday, 19 September 2006

It's not often that a story jumps up and grabs you in ways you didn't expect, but the death of Steve Irwin has certainly done that.

Newsround logoRelatively well known already to children as The Crocodile Hunter, our stories about his death, his funeral, his life and the alleged stingray revenge plot have taken us all by surprise by being phenomenally popular.

On the web, for which we have more reliable story-specific statistics, this has been our biggest-performing story for months, bar none.

Some stories have been read 50,000 times in a day, which for Newsround is a very large number.

_42046186_irwinhugging_getty_picgall.jpgAnd we did one of our regular classroom visits last week, where we show children photos of personalities and ask them to name them the person and say why they are famous.

Tony Blair: they thought they recognised him but couldn't quite say what he did.

Gordon Brown: one child managed to identify him as "Jordan Brown". The well-known glamour politician?

But Steve Irwin: they all knew him, and more to the point, all knew the precise details of how he died. It seemed that he was relatively famous beforehand, but in death has become an international celebrity.

So because of this interest, we have sent our reporter, Adam Fleming, to Australia to report on the memorial service.

We don't do a lot of foreign trips, so this is a big decision for us; but given that we normally travel for disasters, wars and conflicts, we appreciate being able to report on something a bit different, albeit something very sad for Steve's friends, family and fans.

Adam will do three reports for Newsround on TV, including a build-up piece today, and will be talking to children in the UK via our blog.

We know that when children get interested in a news story, they want to know everything about it, all the time. We hope our additional coverage will meet that need.

The news at nine

Tim Levell | 13:13 UK time, Tuesday, 29 August 2006

What were you doing when you were nine years old? And, more to the point, what was going on in the world that year?

Newsround logoIt's quite a sobering exercise. Look up the year when you were nine on Wikipedia (mine was 1978) and you'll probably be surprised how much you don't recall from the news. All I think I was aware of was the World Cup (Archie Gemmill's goal), two Popes dying in close succession and suspicious circumstances, Georgi Markov being poisoned in London by an umbrella (a real-life spy story!) and, weirdly, the Times newspaper strike.

Whereas, I remember far more clearly what I did on my summer holiday, who my primary school teacher was, and the trauma of my favourite pet dying.

I ask because Newsround has a new target audience, and it's a slightly younger one than before. As part of the BBC's Creative Future review , there will be a new teen brand, which will aim at, um, teenagers. Which allows CBBC and all the BBC's "children's" output to focus clearly and fully on the primary school audience.

It's a shift for us. In the past, Newsround has catered for a slightly older eight to 12-year-old age range - going into the first two years of secondary school. So focusing is a bit of a challenge.

But we're up for challenges. From today, regular Newsround viewers and readers will notice some differences.

We are using larger pictures on the stories on the Newsround website and a larger text size on our TV bulletins. Our round-up of 20-second stories on our TV bulletins will be chosen on the strength of the pictures, rather than including stories which are "important" but visually dull (no more court arrivals). We are aiming to use simpler language in the first four sentences of our web stories, on the basis that that's the right amount for children who are slower at reading.

And will be focusing ever more on stories that are relevant and interesting to nine-year-olds: stories about their lives, about other children in the UK and around the world. So behind-the-scenes, we have a new newsroom structure which should improve our forward planning, making richer, more proactive and more investigative.

It means that Newsround will probably cover fewer of the hard political stories that make it into the Wikipedia summaries of the year. But it might also mean that, thanks to our research, we break more stories about children's lives that seep into the national agenda.

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