Rolling in Coverage
Helping families respond to the media’s portrayal of News and Natural disasters
The recent rolling media coverage of the floods, cyclones and the Christchurch earthquake has revealed just how subtle and influential news media content can be on the minds of young children. In this article I’d like to share some ideas to help families discuss and debrief about any issues that may have come from watching too much news.
Steven was asleep when the cyclone hit. He was awoken by rain on his face as the wind began to lift the roof. He could hear his parents moving around the house, doing their last ditch preparations and battening down the hatches to ride out the cyclone.
“Me, my brother and Mum and Dad crawled under Mum and Dad’s bed with mattresses all around us. I remember the sound of the wind and this big explosion when all the windows blew out. The wind was so strong it blew little bits of glass through the steel spring mattress and we got cuts all over us.”
Steve remembers the house swaying about a meter in each direction under him as it was buffeted by the wind. He was surprised because it had always felt so solid. During the eye of the storm, Steve’s father found the dog which had miraculously survived the first half of the storm outside and the family moved into the bathroom – the smallest room in the house. Steve sat in the bath, hugging the dog with his brother and watching trees, iron sheeting and other debris fly overhead. The roof of the house had come off. Steve was only 5 years old and this wasn’t Cyclone Yasi. It was Cyclone Tracey in Darwin in 1974.
Today, Steve is a fit, healthy counsellor who helps people deal with their own trauma’s, however his memories of Cyclone Tracey are still vivid and he is still gun shy of storms. “I was fine until my early twenties when I realised I wasn’t immortal. I started getting nervous around storms, especially electrical storms. My reaction now is what I call a ‘body memory’. It’s more of a sensory, emotional reaction than an intellectual one. My strategy is to call on my frontal cortex and do some self talk: “This isn’t a cyclone, it’s just a storm…. it won’t be the same as Cyclone Tracey…. that was an extreme event….this is just a storm… but it’s a good idea to get to shelter…”
I asked Steve how he felt about Cyclone Yasi when it was bearing down on Northern Queensland. He said, “As soon as the media alerted everyone and started showing those incredible satellite images of the storm, I would have been out of there…. on a plane or in the car… I would just get away. I wouldn’t stick around. Some of those pictures freaked me out. The good thing is that the media give people lots of early warning these days, so people have time to act.”
The media has relayed many stories like Steve’s over the past month. Tales of survival, loss and community strength in the face of flood, fire and cyclone. But what impact has the rolling media coverage of these disasters had on our kids? How does the news and it’s depiction of ‘dramatic world events’ affect our kids sense of safety and stability.
I got to thinking about this when I was driving my 4 year old daughter to preschool the other morning, about a month after the floods and 2 weeks after the cyclone. Out of the blue she said,
“No one is going to drown today because it’s a sunny day.”
Mia’s quiet comment made me realise just how much of what we see on T.V news and through other media channels is being internalised and processed by our little ones. We had been unaffected by both the floods and the cyclone at our place, but had kept a close eye on it via the rolling coverage provided by most of the networks. We don’t usually watch the news, preferring radio news as it’s not so visually driven and there’s less chance of the kids seeing something inappropriate. However, we relaxed all that when the amazing stories and pictures started to roll in 24/7 on almost every channel.
The kids circled around us and the T.V, not quite knowing what to do now that Mum and Dad were suddenly watching all this news. We tried to explain the gravity and historic nature of the floods and cyclone to them. Our son was interested for a while but got bored and even a bit frustrated by it. “Not more flood news!” he would say in the compassionate tones of a 7 year old. Mia didn’t seem fazed by it at all, hence my surprise with her comment in the car. When I asked her if she was worried about the floods, she said, “Yes, I don’t want you or Mama or Asher (her brother) to get drowned.”
A number of studies have observed an increasing trend to present more violent topics and graphic pictures in the news. (1) With the rise of televised terrorism, especially since 9/11, news of attacks, suicide bombers and army and civilian deaths are almost a nightly occurrence.
According to researchers, children become frightened by media content, including news media in several ways. One way is when media content evokes direct fear, in the same way as danger frightens someone in reality. Another way is when children can become frightened by observing the emotional responses of eye witnesses and surviving relatives of victims. A third way is through negative information transfer brought by the newsreader and eyewitnesses. (2)
The recent coverage of the floods, cyclones and fires certainly provided some shocking and memorable images, but their was also an upside. The depth and breadth of the flood and cyclone coverage gave many people the opportunity to get away or prepare themselves and their homes and probably saved many lives. Perhaps, it was also the media coverage that spurred the vast flood of donations and volunteers that came to the aid of those affected. One lady I spoke to in Brisbane’s Hill End on the Sunday after the flood said she had been overwhelmed by the help they had received in the clean up. They were flooded in the same house in 1974 and had received no help. Maybe the rolling media coverage this time around helped raise awareness to a point where compassion overflowed and we felt compelled to lend a hand.
That our compassion overflowed is a nice reversal of the common effect of much media driven news – compassion fatigue. This is a response to information overload, the impotent and overwhelming sense that there is nothing that can be done in the face of this crime ridden, war torn, disastrous world. Of course, not all media news is like this and neither is real life. People’s lives are filled every day with amazing, positive actions and interactions that don’t make it into the news. However, if an alien chose the nightly news as a way of understanding humanity and life on planet earth, he’d probably phone home for a return ticket.
Our children (like that alien) are new to this world and they develop much of their understandings and feelings about the broader world through their media experiences. According to the Media Awareness Network, “Parents should pay close attention to what their children see in the news since studies have shown that kids are more afraid of violence in news coverage than in any other media content. Fear based on real news events increases as children get older and are better able to distinguish fantasy from reality.” (3)
A dutch study investigating elementary school children’s emotional responses to a violent news event: the assassination of Dutch filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh, showed that active mediation (discussion, questioning and explanation) successfully reduced the connection between news exposure and fear, anger, and sadness, especially with the younger children in the sample. (4)
Active Mediation – Discussion, Questioning and Explanation
So, here’s a few tips aimed at helping your kids debrief, when the media and especially the news presents some sound byte sized chucks of ‘current events’ that make them question their choice of planet.
They are adapted from the Media Awareness Network (MNet), a Canadian non-profit organization that has been developing media literacy programs since 1996.
Discuss frightening and disturbing news events with children. Don’t assume they haven’t heard about a disturbing news event – ask first and, if they have, discuss it. Talking honestly and reassuringly to kids about traumatic events will go a long way in assuaging their fears. Reassure children by giving them the facts and the broader context, e.g “floods don’t happen very often, we live on/ can move to higher ground, we will always make sure you are safe.”
Understand what news frightens children at different ages. School-age children are beginning to distinguish fantasy from reality and to worry about real-life dangers. Help them to develop a realistic sense of danger by explaining that traumatic events such as fires, floods, cyclones, fatal car accidents or plane crashes are rare, which is why they’re considered newsworthy. As children get older, the closer an incident is to the reality of their lives, the more disturbing it will be to them.
Encourage older children to watch the news and discuss current events with you.
It’s important that young people understand what is going on in the world and their community. Watch the news with older children and use it as a springboard to discuss difficult topics such as racism, sexuality, war, death, drug and alcohol use. As much as we want to shelter our kids from the worst of the world, at the right age, awareness is going to aid them better than ignorance or naivety.
Create “teachable moments.” Use an atlas or Google Earth after watching the news to look up countries or areas mentioned in stories. Because news items often lack context or thoughtful analysis, use an encyclopedia or the Internet to get more in-depth information about an issue or a country that kids show interest in. Reminding children that they are a long way from these conflicts can reassure them they are safe.
Try to find positive news stories. Call attention to stories that emphasize positive actions and people making a difference – stories about new medical research, animals, bravery and personal strength, peace accords, activism on social or environmental issues and exceptional achievements in sports, the arts or sciences. There are many websites (mainly American) dedicated to presenting positive news. Here’s a few:
Explain the business of news. News media provide a valuable public service but they are also businesses that, in most cases, depend on advertising revenues to support them. In the search for images and stories that will attract audiences, the news media tend to focus on either sensational crimes, tragedies and disasters or “soft” news, such as entertainment and lifestyle features.
Discuss bias and stereotyping in the news. Although most journalists try to be objective and factual in reporting events, there is no such thing as a news story without a point of view. Bias can be unintentional or deliberate, depending on the motives of news gatherers, the sources of information they rely on and the political leanings of the media outlet’s owner. As well, reporters often work under tight deadlines and may not have time to present several sides of an issue. (5)
Some of these explanations will be too mature for very small children. Little kids live in the moment, so sometimes simple reassurances, hugs and a cuddle with a favourite toy, then moving on without dwelling on or over analysing a subject can be the best strategy. If it comes up later, like Mia’s response to the floods, talking through what they fear and reassuring them can help. (5)
Watching a disastrous news event is not nearly as traumatic as being affected directly by it. However, with the amount of ‘watching’ done by our young digital natives, as parents we need to maintain an awareness of what they watch, for how long and how it impacts on them. We can’t control the media’s representation of world events, but we can control what images, sounds and ideas enter our home and our children’s minds. As they get older and their emotional resilience grows, we can check in with them regularly about any fears or concerns they are experiencing in their digital lives. Maintaining a steady eye on the media content they experience (real and fictional) and giving them the space and confidence to talk about it is always going to be of benefit in raising happy, resilient, positive kids.
(1) Slattery K.L Doremus M. & Marcus L. (2001) Shifts in public affairs reporting on the network evening news: A move toward the senstational. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media
(2) Valkenburg, P. M. (2004). Children’s responses to the screen: A media psychological
approach. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
(4) Parental Mediation of Children’s Emotional Responses to the News
Moniek Buijzen, Juliette H. Walma van der Molen, and Patrica Sondij
The Amsterdam School of Communications Research ASCor
University of Amsterdam