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President World Summit on Media for Children Foundation
Paper for European observatory on Children's Television
Observarori Europeu de la Televiso Infantil, OETI, Barcelona,
January, 2006


OETI -has been working for some time exploring the value of news and current affairs programs for children and young people for their development, education and entertainment. It is investigating programs produced around the world as models of ethical television to inform young people. I endorse the conclusions reached at the first meeting held in Madrid in April 2005 but see many pitfalls and obstacles to the production of such enlightened news programs for children

My perspective is as an Australian whose career has spanned positions in teaching at Secondary School and Tertiary levels; as a media, communication researcher whose PhD studied the Impact of Self Esteem on Children's perceptions of Media Violence; as a policy developer on many Government Committees; as the Founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation and Founder of the World Summit Movement on Media for Children.

 I have lived through a decline in the ethical standards on television for children despite decades of advocacy on their behalf. Commercial television is the major culprit however public television is emulating all the characteristics of a market driven television culture.

 A Reflection On News

 I think we would all agree that to live and survive on our challenging planet young people must have hope and belief in the future. To believe in the future they must understand the problems they face and learn how to solve them. Mankind is a problem-solving species and our responsibility as adults is to help our young acquire the knowledge and the skills they will need to solve successfully the problems they will face. They will be new problems that we cannot possibly understand, therefore we need to instill in our youth a thirst for knowledge, an understanding of the process of inquiry - an education about how to learn as well as what to learn.

We live with conflicting interpretations of the state of the world today. There are those who argue life has never been better: we have reduced poverty, created more wealth and increased life expectancy more in the last 50 years than we did in the previous 5000 years. But many others say that things are getting worse: poverty and inequality are on the increase; the environment is being destroyed and nature is responding, creating turmoil through disasters; wars and terrorism are dividing people.  Regardless of which interpretation of history and politics we prefer, the way forward is the same. We face significant challenges. We may be very good at solving problems but there is no shortage of problems to be solved. The future depends on our ability and the ability of our children to do so.

The question is, can News Programs for Youth help this process?

I think News Programs as we know them in Australia, are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The media news transmit continuously, local stories of disaster and predictions of global economic, environmental and social catastrophe. The media are voracious consumers of our time and we spend many hours in our week viewing a never-ending saga of life's difficulties. We know from research such exposure has an eroding effect on our confidence, creating fear, feelings of hopelessness and inertia. Those who view the most hours of television have the most pessimistic view of the world, believing they live in an environment which is even more threatening than it is and there is little they can do about it.

In Australia in the 70's there was a song which was very popular with young people with the words:
“I'm watching a horror movie right there on my TV …
It's a horror movie, it's the 6.30 news.

The planes are smashin'
The cars are crashin'
The cops are bashin' - oh yeah
The kids are fightin'
The fires are lightin'
And dogs are bitin'- oh yeah

The public's waitin'
For the killin' and the hatin'
So they switch on the station - oh yeah
They do a lot of sellin'
Between the firin' and the yellin'
And you believe what they're tellin' - oh yeah”

Thirty years after those words were sung I have a sense of déjà vu. News Programs today are more graphic, more immediate, more sensational but convey no more accurate a view of the world we live in - despite the amazing technology at the disposal of journalists.

Recently I asked my 11-and 8 year-old grandsons what they thought of the news. Their response was immediate:
“I don't understand why so many people are fighting.
 They make it like everything's bad; dead people and fighting: nothing good; broken legs at the football.
Zombie news reporters: when something bad happens they don't look upset. They are weird. In the ads they smile, but on the news they are serious, like robots who can't feel emotions.
 I'd like to know what's good. I enjoy knowing what's happening”

Teaching understanding the News, by explaining the construction of the very programs that are meant to inform us, is for me our first task with young people.

The news is defined in the Macquarie dictionary as 'a report of any recent event, situation, etc; the report of events published in a newspaper, journal, radio, television or any other medium;  information, events etc considered as suitable for reporting; information not previously known.'  So according to the dictionary definition, news is simply what any news organisation decides is news and this is confirmed by the research studies undertaken in Australia.

Thirty years ago I edited a book of research studies based on the way journalists work and the nature of news organizations: The News in Focus: the journalism of exception. Still today, the prevalent school of journalism throughout the world, is the journalism of exception - a journalist does not report, “Everything is fine today in Pakistan”, she reports the unusual, the sensational, the conflict and violence. News does not tell us all the planes landed safely today, news tells us one plane crashed. News does not tell us we eradicated polio and malaria, it tells us bird flu might kill millions of people. It is important we know these things because knowing about them alerts us to the need to solve the problems disasters present, but as a program intended to inform, educate and develop our children into ethical adults News Programs have significant limitations.

All television stations in Australia begin their evening programs with a news service which has a prime purpose of attracting an audience which will stay with the station for the evening's viewing.  In both commercial and public television the success of a news service is judged by the number of viewers it attracts; the higher the ratings the more profitable a television station can become. The more profitable the station, the fewer risks its management is prepared to take which might jeopardize a station's leadership in the ratings. News can titillate, exploit, and provoke but it can't afford to offend and lose viewers, so we have a system of warnings, news readers give  - which often mean people viewing sit up and take more notice, particularly children unsupervised. Commercial television news - which most people watch - has become a victim of the medium's success: its form is dictated by the drama programs that make up the evening's schedule. And more and more, public television seeks to emulate that ratings success.

Newscasters have become media stars; they try to appeal to their audience demographic, and in Australia, news anchormen are well clad, smart and trim and women news readers commonly look like emaciated Barbie Dolls. Public relations firms took over the packaging of news, in the early Seventies, persuading station management that news anchors, weathermen and reporters should exude personal magnetism and showmanship.  Instead of simply imparting information to the viewers, they set out to attract them: viewers did not want serious newscasts, they argued, they wanted personalities, comfort and assurance, cheap thrills and amusement - in a single word, 'entertainment'. 

There are some very able reporters who work in television journalism who vehemently defend their professionalism, yet the news is subject to constraints, beyond their control. Budget, time, immediacy - the nature of the medium itself and the ideology of the society in which we view -  all impact on news values and the decisions made by news editors because News is a business: the organization decides what  news will attract viewers and beat the competition in the ratings game. So what the viewer sees on television is a highly structured, manufactured product, very selective and firmly supportive of the status quo.  News is a form of knowledge which has more to do with social control and social cohesion than offering information, encouraging diversity and impartiality.

The need for objectivity and balance are concepts touted often, in discussions about news, and Australia's two public TV Networks - SBS and ABC - try to achieve them more rigorously than the commercial channels. In the process they are often attacked for bias, especially when they become critical of the government in power which controls their budgets, so they become more cautious. The more we need to know the less we are told. News reports must have pictures and content reduced to a punchy segment. The in-built bias of commercial stations goes unchallenged. Trainee journalists are from their first day on the job socialized and subjected to intense pressure to seek peer-group approval; they are sent out with older, experienced journalists to watch the way to approach a story and to copy that approach.  Their path to success lies in understanding the priorities that determine what will be published or broadcast.  Those who learn those priorities and conform, achieve success by 'getting a run'.  Those who do not 'get a run', fail as journalists. The system shapes them: they do not shape the system. News then is what newsmen decide, and what the news organisation they work for sees as news. 

An important story for a News organization is not what those of us seeking ethical new programs may see as a priority.  A  BRUNETTE STABBED TO DEATH. can achieve more prominence in the news than, 6000 Killed in Iranian Earthquake. ONE US SOLDIER KILLED IN BOMB ATTACK assumes far more importance than: 100 Iraqis dead in an explosion.

In recent times, news coverage on Australian television has extended to 'embedded' promotions, where the line between the program, the advertisements and program promotions ceases to exist.  The integration of commercial message promotion, news and entertainment is intrusive: the voice for the advertisement is the voice of the actor in the soon-to-be-screened drama: the sports commentator makes scripted wise-cracks about an advertisement just screened for a coming attraction as he segues back into sports commentary; the banter between news-casters promotes an up-and-coming, not-to-be-missed, current affairs program. As the lines dividing information, advertising and entertainment are increasingly blurred, most of the audience does not complain. News has become entertainment because that is what people seem to want. And there-in lies the major problem in creating effective and ethical news programs for young people: they are just like their parents; they want to be entertained.

And with children there are additional issues. Most children don't like the news and don't want to watch it at all.  Research indicates children believe the news, and they believe films which are simulated to look like news.  Most children do not understand how events can be contrived.   If we want children to understand events, they need to view them from their point of view.  Children identify with things that relate to their own experience and those things will differ for each child, and certainly for different cultures. The child in Iraq will have a different view from a child growing up in Melbourne, Australia - or in Brazil, Japan or South Africa. In Australia we have a broad mix of children from different cultures so there are different views to accommodate. Our Prime Minister has recently suggested we should be teaching an Australian narrative view of history (whatever that might mean) to unite different perspectives.

In the face of these complex issues, in some circles I now hear it said, quite seriously, that we adults have made such a mess of programs for children that it is now time to step back and allow children to show us what should be done and created with today's media.  Certainly there are children who are a jump ahead of their teachers in understanding technology; they learn quickly how to use it and how to create with it. This does not mean, however, that we adults should abdicate our responsibilities in a free-for-all led by children.  They should clearly be partners in an enterprise to inform them, but surely we have learnt something from the programming experiences of the last half-century, with which to create a legacy from our learning.

I think we should teach children that much of the television programming they view is trash. We should ask ourselves and answer the question: what are the effects on individuals and society of allowing economic criteria and ratings success to determine news and information programs in a democracy? Young people need to understand that the toy news we have created with its toy presenters, who play with the audience, is a construction; it is a manipulation of events, designed by a broadcasting industry driven by profit and the need to secure its audience over and above any need to correctly inform that audience fully about world events and differing perspectives on those events. 

We need to rethink the programs we make for our children and the form they should take if young people are to learn as well as be entertained. The ideal news program(s) for them should contain the following elements:
- deconstruction of news programs,
- documentaries on relevant issues from a child's viewpoint,
- drama,
- comedy;(the program must be engaging for children and they enjoy drama and comedy most of all)
Progress in producing such programs will only be made if this is a joint enterprise between educators, young people and program producers.

The best idea I can think of that includes all these elements is:
 A television program supported by an interactive website which is linked to the program - a teen comedy-drama - based around the lives of a bunch of students who come together to produce a weekly youth television current affairs program. The program within the program involves current affairs including sport, music, art, films. Along the way the actors/ characters live their lives as they deconstruct and construct a regular news program for their peers. Those watching can take an active part constructing segments, and stories for the show, provide feedback and ideas. Teams of young, investigative journalists could develop in schools and communities and interact with the show.

Well scripted, such an idea could contain all the elements we seek for a News Program aimed at the development, education and entertainment of children and young people.

The News in Focus: the journalism of exception, Edited, Patricia Edgar, Published by The Macmillan company, 1980
Children and Screen Violence, Patricia Edgar, University of Queensland press, 1977
The Wealth of Generations: capitalism and the belief in the future, by Johan Norberg. Occasional paper 98, The Centre for Independent studies, Australia, 2005