Sorting out the good from the bad

15th December 1995 at 00:00
Carey Newson looks at how current affairs has to be tailored for children.

It's 10.15am and the BBC's Newsround team is batting around ideas for that afternoon's live news broadcast. With a bigger audience than Breakfast News and Newsnight put together, the programme makers have to decide what will hold the attention of Newsround's demanding young viewers and what should be avoided as unsuitable for an audience of 8 to 12-year-olds.

This particular morning, the docking of a space shuttle, the State Opening of Parliament and an item about making pig slurry smell fresher all look likely for inclusion. But the announcement that the ownership of Enid Blyton's work is to be sold receives the thumbs down as a "business story" not relevant to a children's audience.

In the 23 years since the BBC first launched the series it has evolved its own news values. Environmental issues, space and science stories, news about animals, adventure, sport and schools are hot priorities. The programme also reports the main adult news events of the day in a way that is accessible for children.

Newsround takes a broadly positive view of the world - in a disaster it will focus on the miraculous escape of 50 rather than the death of 100. One-off murders are generally ignored since they don't usually pose a danger to children. If a young person is in a coma after taking Ecstasy, the programme may cover the story to warn children of the dangers of drugs. But Newsround won't draw its audience into the distress of an on-going bedside watch.

The reason for running any story is carefully considered. Newsround's editor Nick Heathcote believes adult news could benefit from the same scrutiny. "I think more time ought to be spent analysing what they've done and how they've done it. News values for Newsround are incredibly rigid."

Inevitably, tailoring news to an audience of children, who may well be watching without an adult present, requires censorship. Indeed, Heathcote says the general BBC news guidelines issued during the Gulf War, to give close consideration to the amount of grief shown, were remarkably close to Newsround's unofficial guidelines.

He would think "very, very carefully" before showing a dead body on the programme, although a report about famine in Somalia included a body wrapped in a shroud. "I felt that because of the size and scale of what was happening there, one needed to indicate to the audience the seriousness of the situation. "

The programme steered clear of the Rosemary West trial. But if the guilty verdict had come in after the BBC's four o'clock news, the Newsround team would have had to break the story at five. Not to do so would risk being taken off the air for an adult news bulletin.

Relevance to the audience is a key issue. When Charles and Di separated, Newsround interviewed a child psychologist about the implications for William and Harry. The James Bulger murder was only covered once it became apparent that police were looking for children. The team considered the programme had a role to play in putting the crime into context, as being both extremely rare and something which in society's view was unacceptable.

"Some subjects I'd find very difficult to imagine we'd cover, but you can never exclude anything completely," says Heathcote. The programme has looked at Aids, although without reference to its sexual transmission. The statutory age of sex education is a guiding factor. "We need to be aware of the social climate we are operating in. We often get letters from parents on things like whale hunting saying 'Why show pictures of whales being killed?' But you can guarantee that you'll have an equal number of letters from children saying 'Why are adults allowed to get away with killing whales?'" Newsround is no longer the only news and current affairs broadcast for children. Last year Channel 4 Schools launched First Edition, a news programme for 9 to 13-year-olds. Because a teacher is present when children are watching, it can tackle a wider range of stories than Newsround, says John Richmond, Channel 4 Schools' deputy commissioning editor. "There is virtually nothing that is off-limits for us. We haven't covered a gay sex story yet, but there is no reason why we wouldn't. "

First Edition, which is not live, features three items a week, each with a different brief. One focuses on a hard news story - Bosnia or the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, for example - while another looks at a topical issue - such as free offers to schools. A third story is "child led", such as children reporting on the Labour party conference.

BBC Education produces its own radio news for 9 to 12-year-olds, In the News, which aims to get children listening, talking and writing as part of the English curriculum. Reports investigate issues of importance to children. Executive producer Brian Scott-Hughes says besides the environment, personal safety is a big concern.

Despite their different approaches, children's news programmes share certain hallmarks. All insist on simple language and offer more explanations than adult news. All have a strong element of participation, and all find the environment more newsworthy than domestic politics.

Newsround: BBC1, Monday-Friday, 5pm.

First Edition: Channel 4, Tuesday 11.45am. Repeats on Wednesday, 11.45am and Saturday, 7.45am.

In the News: BBC Radio 3FM, Thursdays (term time) 2.05-2.25pm

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