Staff Writer

June 20, 2023 (Updated )

“In my opinion, children should be seen and not heard. I’m an adult, so it follows that I should be heard and not seen. That’s why I work exclusively over the intercom,” says Lemony Snicket, narrating The Hostile Hospital — the eighth instalment of Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

This notion that children should be silent and disengaged from adult concerns and world affairs was particularly prominent in the Victorian era and much of the 1900s. While we’ve come a long way from this view, there are still many questions about how and what we talk to children about.

It might seem like a question for parents and carers alone to grapple with, but in a world where news is more accessible than ever, journalists also need to explore how they can tell stories responsibly and promote a healthy news diet.

When Do Children Start To Notice The News?

From the BBC’s Children Talking in the ‘70s to modern-day shows like Channel 4’s The Secret Life of Four-Year-Olds, we laugh and marvel at children’s world views — but do we adequately consider their minds when it comes to news provision?

Dr Alison McClymont is a chartered psychologist with over a decade‘s experience working with children, teenagers, and adults. She tells Journo Resources that while there’s no set time or age for when children start to notice the news — partly because families’ news habits vary so greatly — by age eight, we might expect children to acknowledge the world with more of a “moral standpoint”.

Before this, McClymont says: “Children are much less likely to see nuance in news stories due to the moral developmental differences between children and adults.”

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Both Dr Alison McClymont (L) and Jodie Jackson (R) agree that negative news can affect children, and it is up to adults to provide context.

Jodie Jackson, author and campaigner in positive psychology and expert on the psychological impact of negative news, says one issue with the news is its omnipresence. “Something I am very aware of as a parent and also as a news literacy practitioner and advocate is the radio bulletins. They are the things that really get me because I think of them as little nuggets of negativity.”

Jackson continues: “They will replay on the hour. They will pick three, four, maybe five news stories that are terrible in terms of what they are talking about. It is always negative — there is no context because it is such a short period of time. And kids hear these things.”

While media like films and music have age ratings, Jackson points out these bulletins play through speakers at after-school activities, car radios, and waiting room TVs. “The news has not quite reached that level of what is appropriate and what is not in spaces that are communal,” Jackson says. “Kids have access, and they don’t have to be literate. You don’t have to be able to read the news, you just have to be able to hear and listen and understand words and stories.”

During the pandemic, Jackson says she realised how difficult it was to be a mediator between her children and information, which made her think for the first time that it was something children needed to be able to manage for themselves.

Journo Resources
"Kids have access, and they don’t have to be literate. You don’t have to be able to read the news, you just have to be able to hear and listen and understand words and stories.”
Jodie Jackson, author and positive psychology expert

It’s something that Flora, now 11, has experienced first-hand. She’s the daughter of journalist Donna Ferguson and was definitely engaged with developments during the pandemic, such as putting an eye mask over her doll’s mouth. Flora herself recalls: “I remember feeling annoyed that there was something about Covid every single day […] but when we went into lockdown, I think it was important for me to know the news about Covid, even if it wasn’t very good.”

Flora’s class also sometimes watched Newsround. “When the reports about the parties came out, everyone was like, ‘We hate Boris Johnson’,” she exclaims.

Giving Children An Active Role In The News

To help children manage difficult topics like the pandemic, McClymont says: “It is helpful to tell children what ‘role’ they play.” When discussing climate change, for example, adults can “explain what they can do rather than simply [highlight] the catastrophic events of the situation.”

McClymont also highlights the importance of discussing broader cultural aspects about why news might mean different things to different people. “I think it’s vital children are encouraged to see nuance, tone, and bias in news reporting as it will help them build cultural sensitivity, empathy, and compassion,” she explains.

Rosalie Minnitt, who creates educational content on children’s TV about topics like bullying and internet safety, agrees. “I think the most important thing is to give children back their sense of control and let them lead the discussion. It is most important to create an open, honest, and safe space to talk about the things that worry them, and work from there.”

While these might both seem like advice for parents and carers at first glance, they’re also themes journalists should try to weave within their storytelling. Even if you’re not writing for children, it’s likely to be consumed by them.

How To Write A News Article For Kids

Inspire An Active Role: Don’t just talk about catastrophic events — include stories of hope and tell young people what they can do.

Encourage Nuance And Impacts: Inspire children to ask questions about what news means to different people.

Don’t Underestimate Ability: Children have a huge capacity to understand world events — don’t talk down to or patronise readers.

Make Stories Feel Closer To Home: Global events can feel very distant — try to think about communities close to home also involved in the story.

Sign Post To Support: If readers feel upset about a story, signpost resources they can use.

“[Stories] are how we relate to each other and the world around us,” says Leigh-Ann Hewer, a children’s writer. “I think they’re instrumental in introducing and exploring difficult emotions and experiences as a child. Without them, it’s all too nebulous and overwhelming.”

While every child is different and might be ready to learn about complex issues at varying stages, Hewer says generally, children are much more emotionally tuned in than people may realise.

“It’s less about what the topic is and more about how it’s delivered,” she continues. “I always think it comes back to hope. You can tackle some serious stuff if you bring it back to hope, and that hope can come in many forms.”

Repackaging News For Children

The Week Junior is an award-winning weekly current affairs magazine for children aged eight to 14. The publication’s popularity soared during the pandemic and it has remained incredibly successful since.

Editor Anna Bassi explains of their work: “We don’t underestimate children’s curiosity or capacity to understand world events. We create pages that are easy to navigate and won’t put off younger or less confident readers.”

Rahul Verma, the magazine’s deputy editor, adds while the magazine focuses on solutions journalism, it doesn’t avoid difficult truths. “Often, we look for a softer way into the story. For example, [with] the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, our way into that was the rescue efforts, rather than having a headline [saying] ‘50,000 people die in earthquakes’.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

The Week Junior and CBBC Newsround are some great options for introducing children to world news.

Bassi says the first challenge is often deciding whether or not to actually cover an event, before assessing how best to communicate it without upsetting young readers. “We usually adopt a question-and-answer format and do our best to anticipate what children might ask about it. We stick to the facts, minimise details that would cause distress and focus on the positives,” she explains.

If a topic is particularly sensitive, TWJ will sometimes ask parents and teachers on social media what they think children need to know. The publication also has an advice page for readers if they have been upset by the news.

Relatability is also key in allowing children to process world events. Verma says that TWJ also makes a real effort to report on how world events are felt closer to home. In the case of the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, “we brought that back to two Turkish and Syrian communities in the UK who were organising on Facebook donations to be taken — really playing up how people were helping each other.”

Journo Resources
“It’s vital children are encouraged to see nuance, tone, and bias in news reporting as it will help them build cultural sensitivity, empathy, and compassion.”
Dr Alison McClymont, children’s psychologist

‘In The Media There’s So Much Assumed Knowledge’

Verma feels TWJ’s commitment to explanation and never assuming knowledge is key to its success with younger readers. “In mainstream adult media, there is just so much assumed knowledge, whereas we have to explain pretty much everything,” he explains.

“It used to be the case that news was mostly something for adults only, to be watched or listened to when children were in bed,” says Bassi. “These days, rolling news, the internet, and social media mean that it can be hard to avoid exposing children to world events.”

The problem is that most current affairs content was not created with children in mind. “What they do see and hear is very often very negative and can cause anxiety and overwhelm,” she states. “We provide context and perspective, both of which help children understand what’s going on.”

While Verma receives lots of emails from teachers using the magazine in the classroom, he admits there doesn’t really appear to be a large amount of child-tailored news content that exists outside of a digital context. Good digital platforms like Newsround exist, but perhaps against a backdrop of fake news and misinformation, children would benefit from more opportunities to discuss world events away from screens.

The Role Schools Play In News Consumption

While schools can play a powerful role in helping children learn news skills, they can’t be the only people working in the area. “They have a role to play, but I don’t they can do that solely on their own,” says Jackson. She’d like to see government legislation that supports news literacy within the national curriculum — but as journalists, we can also play our part by crafting stories inclusively.

It’s important to remember that the global pandemic exacerbated many pre-existing inequalities, manifesting in children with access to more resources returning to school at heightened levels of progress compared to their less privileged peers. Minnitt says: “Teachers have worked hard to bring everyone up to speed, but there are still big gaps in some children’s education, and the widespread impact on wellbeing is still felt three years on.”

Bassi advises: “Don’t avoid answering children’s questions. Start by finding out what they know already, then explain what you can without going into too much detail about anything upsetting.”

She also suggests explaining that it is normal to be upset by bad news and to remain calm, concise, and factual, and to try and end on the positives. Equally, “it’s also okay to admit you don’t have all the answers,” Bassi says.

Although most current affairs content isn’t designed for children, it doesn’t mean they won’t be exposed to it — this is important to acknowledge, and why it is vital that young audiences feel seen and heard. After all, like Flora says, “As children, you are just as much a part of this country as the grown-ups are.”

Hannah Bradfield
Hannah Bradfield

Hannah is a recent graduate from Loughborough University, where she studied a BA in English and Sport Science and an MA in Media and Cultural Analysis. Alongside her studies, Hannah was on the editorial teams of several student magazines, and was awarded ‘Best Student Journalist, Midlands’ by the SPA in 2018.

She was a BBC Sport Kick-Off Reporter in 2019 and had co-founded and edited a one-off 40-page print and digital magazine in celebration of International Women’s Day 2021. Along with her work for Journo Resources, she is currently studying for the NCTJ diploma at News Associates and writing freelance.

Header image courtesy of Keren Fedida via Unsplash