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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.

Comments

Are you entirely sure that "Send an email to the Amish community" is treating their beliefs with due respect?

  • 2.
  • At 07:46 PM on 03 Oct 2006,
  • Orville Eastland wrote:

I live in the USA, so I don't get to watch CBBC's news. However, reading this simple message was a refreshing break from most news coverage. Children are affected by what they watch, and it's nice to see that acknowledged. It's also good to see a reporter or editor explaing WHY they do what they do.
Finally, the CBBC's decision to cover other stories and to reassure the audience is something that the media for adults should try to do as well. While some of us like finding out all the details about things, sometimes we feel overwhelmed by it all. And we quickly forget that, no matter what bad news is going on, we may not be that directly affected by it. The news may worry or upset us, but we should know that life will go on.
This is one of the reasons I trust the BBC for news (and other things)- even if I don't get to see as much of it as the rest of you do.

  • 3.
  • At 07:56 PM on 03 Oct 2006,
  • Simon W wrote:

Thanks for that - a fascinating insight into the deep consideration that goes into making Newsround.

  • 4.
  • At 09:53 PM on 03 Oct 2006,
  • Brenda Abou El Ola wrote:

I think your coverage of events and general news reporting on Newsround is excellent and have watched it since the early days as a child and now as an adult- parent,grandparent and teacher. However, I just have to take issue with your comment here... "Before this incident only one student had been shot in a school in America this year" ONLY one? As if one is ok? And perhaps one by the beginning of October is good going... I may be being a little picky, but as you are talking about how news is received and perceived(by child OR adult!)I feel you need to take care with the wording of ALL reports!

  • 5.
  • At 10:56 AM on 04 Oct 2006,
  • Trevor wrote:

There is a clear statement in the materials for teaching 'citizenship' that we should not unneccessarly shield children from subjects that can be distressing.

In presenting these issues it should be that you take care to inform but not distress. In my opinion the choice of vocabulary and images is more critical than the subject of the event. Most Journalists are conditioned to sensationalise and dramatise the events they report on and for children this is highly undesirable.

  • 6.
  • At 11:19 AM on 04 Oct 2006,
  • Jennifer wrote:

I've grown up with Newsround, and despite now getting to the age where most of my attitudes of CBBC revolve around "bring back the broom cupboard" Newsround still sets the gold standard of TV programming for children.

Have you perceived a shift in your audience since your deliberate targeting of a lower age gap?

  • 7.
  • At 12:13 PM on 04 Oct 2006,
  • Jackie C wrote:

As the mother of a 4 year old, I welcome the care you take in preparing Newsround and I hope it continues to the time when he may also start watching it. I would also welcome the same care being taken with the main news programs screened at breakfast time and 6pm. Children are not banished from the room at these times and there is a tendancy to sensationalise news items. Children pick up on certain items and images which they try to understand and hopefully ask questions about. Unfortunately it is not easy to influence which items stay in their minds and maybe become distorted from a normal life situation. News screened on News24 and 10pm could then maybe be a bit more hard-hitting.

  • 8.
  • At 01:49 PM on 04 Oct 2006,
  • Mik wrote:

As a journalist and a parent of two young children I found your thoughful piece both reassuring and interesting.

I do have my doubts though about encouraging the sending of messages to the families concerned. Has the Amish community sanctioned this?

Also, what do you feel about including the following comment from a young person that could alerts children, perhaps unnecessarily, to an even more horrific event:

"at least it was on a small scale after what happened in Beslan in 2004"

  • 9.
  • At 02:56 PM on 04 Oct 2006,
  • Neil R wrote:

This is indeed, a fascinating and understandably clear set of decisions which editors have to make, when aiming stories at a younger audience. This framework is so clear and concise, I shall save it for future reference and dissertations!

I am studying a journalism degree course, and thank you for this insightful look at how much responsibility is required as an editor. It also reminds us of the power of sensitivity that is projected from media sources, when targeted at a particularly challenging age group.

I'd like to commend the BBC for being first class in its hard work to always monitor and buffer its high quality output. It's a media co-operation to be proud of! Having watched newsround for well over three quarters of my eighteen years of life, thanks again for this unique angle on your well regulated process of editing!

  • 10.
  • At 03:54 PM on 04 Oct 2006,
  • Brenda wrote:

Thank you for publishing the guide lines that are used by Newsround. I think that I will copy this and send it to as many American News sites as possible. I am an American.

They could certainly use some instructions.

  • 11.
  • At 09:21 PM on 04 Oct 2006,
  • Karen wrote:

While I applaud your attempts to cover these things carefully I must (I can't help it) point out that "Five girls have died" is NOT a passive construction.

"Five girls were shot" is passive - and not much less upsetting, I would think, than "The man shot five girls."

"Five girls have died" is simply a past perfect active voice sentence. "Die" is an intransitive verb, not a passive. True, there is no agent named but it's not passive.

This may seem irrelevant, but if guidelines about using the passive are going to be issued or followed, it really helps if people actually know what the passive is.

  • 12.
  • At 08:34 AM on 05 Oct 2006,
  • anon wrote:

Clearly Charles Carl Roberts was not a gunman, he was a MILITANT. Please fix.

  • 13.
  • At 09:50 AM on 05 Oct 2006,
  • Mary wrote:

I think I'll switch to watching Newsround.

  • 14.
  • At 01:12 PM on 05 Oct 2006,
  • Steve wrote:

Good article. A shame those principles aren't applied more widely, e.g. "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"

Remove "For Newsround" and the statement is just as valid.

  • 15.
  • At 10:50 AM on 06 Oct 2006,
  • Ann wrote:

Even as an adult I find the coverage provided by Newsround superior to that of other news programmes. I find it impartial, factual and concise.

Thank you for taking the time to write such an interesting and informatice article.

  • 16.
  • At 07:45 AM on 11 Oct 2006,
  • Robert wrote:

Could we have some feedback from Tim Levell on Karen's remark that "Five girls have died" is not, as Tim seems to think, a passive construction?

  • 17.
  • At 03:00 AM on 12 Oct 2006,
  • Malcolm Parker wrote:

My own view is that we shelter children from the realities of life and death at our peril and I'm greatful that Newsround chose to include this appalling event. It is a sad fact that death is covered far more graphically in video games and in films than it generally is in the news and while the balance in Newsround is usually well judged if erring occasionally on the light-hearted, I think in the mainstream it does tend to be overprotective.

Karen was nearly correct, her pedantic missive in the context of the article was irrelevant.

  • 18.
  • At 12:40 PM on 12 Oct 2006,
  • Paul wrote:

The principles of relevance, clarity, context (slight paraphrasing here!), and restraint should be applicable to all news programmes. Newsround is an exceptional programme because it sticks to what is important about a news story and is written clearly and intelligently.

Karen - I'm so sorry I have taken months to reply - paternity leave and email hell are my lame excuses.....

You are totally right about my misuse of the word "passive" to describe those grammatical constructions. (Please don't tell my teacher mum!) What I meant was that the language is passive in its sense. Instead of saying "He went in and shot them", we use softer constructions, such as "The girls died". But I now know I didn't describe the tense properly.

To Mik and Ian: we didn't quite mean send an email to the Amish, and apologies if we gave that impression. We meant send an email to us, and then we will pass the comments on in paper form.

To Jennifer: yes, since our deliberate targetting of a lower age range, we have noticed younger children commenting and taking part. However I think there's a limit to how far that can go. Seven-year-olds are about the youngest who we think will really engage with the news, and we notice that the nature of their comments are simpler than those of 12-year-olds. So I think our approach feels right for now.

And to everyone else who found my article and pointers useful, thank you for your kind words.

Let's hope we don't often have to report on distressing stories in future.

  • 20.
  • At 10:11 AM on 22 Dec 2006,
  • Owen wrote:

I know its a bit after the debate but I just wanted to say that I think newsround is great in the way it reports the news. Im 22 and i read the paper at work but get home at 5:20 everyday and put on newsround before neighbours, gives me a great view of whats actually happening without blowing things out of proportion or talking about celebrities too much

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