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COVID-19: How publishers are engaging children and teens

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World News Publishing Focus
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COVID-19: How publishers are engaging children and teens

François Dufour, who has produced PlayBac’s daily newspapers for children in France for more than 25 years, and his counterparts worldwide, see the usual problem in coverage of the COVID-19 virus.

“When children listen to adult media,” he says, “they get nothing because they hardly speak the same language.”

Editors of news for children around the world are again concentrating first on getting it right and in context.  Besides extremely carefully crafted reporting, they are using creative humour, letting the kids do some reporting themselves with increased interactivity and, as their peers are doing for adults, dropping the paywall.

“We believe that information is flooding over on them and on us, is becoming somewhat toxic, and we tackle the issue from different, wider angles, optimistic ones and sometimes funnier ones,” says Lamia Al Rassi, general manager at Planet News, Lebanon, publishers of KelYom newspaper in French for children and an Arabic and French multimedia service for teenagers.

That coverage starts with what children really want to know.

“We've been covering Covid-19 in The Week Junior since the very start with the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan," says the editor of the British weekly, Anna Bassi. “As always we've taken a very calm and balanced approach to explaining what it is and reporting on developments."

As part of the extensive coverage by the 70,000 circulation the news magazine has done, Bassi used reader questions to provide a brief explainer online.

Bayard Jeunesse in France completely converted a special telephone line that collected jokes to a virus communications hub.

“It’s a place where children can ask questions, give advice to each other and express what they love and hate about the situation,” says Corinne Vorms, brand development director for the division.  “Journalists answer the questions.”

Russ Kahn is editor of news-o-matic, a daily digital newspaper for children based in the United States with versions at several reading levels in English and Spanish, with related services in French and Arabic. He strongly encourages readers to send questions and pictures (sometimes more than 1,000 per day).

“Around COVID-19, we’ve been answering dozens of questions from kids every day,” he says. “We’re hearing their concerns and making sure they know they have a voice. I think this has helped children learn that we’re there for them — that we’re there to guide them through this strange time. And it’s kept them coming back.

“I think adult news editors can gain from our experience as well,” Kahn says.

“Listen to your readers. Make sure the information during this time is a two-way street.”

Editors are also relying on humour as a key strategy.

“We know teenagers respond really well to humour,” says Serene Luo, Schools Editor at The Straits Times in Singapore. “We always bear in mind that they hate being talked down to or made to seem dumb. We don’t want them to think, ‘oh, more propaganda.’ Humour often helps us break the ice.”

For example, instead of just listing actions to help stop the spread of the virus, her team made a game of virus information that called for readers to choose an option to advance in the game. A page about virus hoaxes around the world featured three bleach bottles discussing the idiocy of chlorine as a cure.

Credit: The Straits TimesCredit: The Straits Times

In the United States, National Public Radio editor Malaka Gharib drew a cartoon that she released February 28 on her Goats and Soda feature on poverty, development and health. The cartoon covers the basics with a twist. For example, it explains what “mild” means using salsa references and makes sure to cover picking one’s nose as a potential problem. Gharib provided a downloadable version to make a zine (this video and this video show how) and, a week later, she released a version in Chinese.

Credit: Malaka Gharib/NPR/GOATSANDSODACredit: Malaka Gharib/NPR/GOATSANDSODA

The response was immediate and widespread. Soon, she reported about translations into Arabic, Finnish, bahasa Indonesia, German, Italian and Braille, a video version and even bookmarks.

Since 2013, One Day One Question (Milan Press and France Télévisions) has answered French children’s questions with 90-second animations. The questions are serious, such as what is terrorism, and the answers factual with a playful spin in the animation, the music and the narration. Topics around coronavirus include fake news, vaccines, quarantine, discrimination and the virus itself.

Similarly, Playbac’s daily newspapers often include mildly impertinent cartoons to lighten the tone of troubling news. For example, a cartoon about an earthquake in Italy during the height of virus infections there shows a statue in the town square shaking and a man noting, “Oops, looks like our statue is feverish.”

Some efforts turn reporting about the virus over to the kids.

Denmark’s weekly Børneavisen (JP/Politiken) sent one of it’s young reporters, age 11, to a government press briefing. She was the only child in the room.

“We believe it is important that children get to ask their own questions,” says the editor, Louise Abildgaard Grøn, “because they need answers just as much as adults – perhaps even more, as their access to information they understand is limited.”

11-year-old Børneavisen reporter Emilia questioned Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen about the virus. Credit Tommy Zwicky, Børneavisen11-year-old Børneavisen reporter Emilia questioned Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen about the virus. Credit Tommy Zwicky, Børneavisen

The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) NewsHour Student Reporting Labs created special units that challenged American teenage students to do a 1- to 3-minute “quick take” video about their confinement experience, or a fuller news package that tells someone else’s story or a meme or other social commentary that confronted misinformation.

“Of course none of us knows what’s really happening, and it’s all very confusing and uncertain,” the programme’s founder Leah Clapman tells teachers in a webinar about the projects, “but we hope that by telling stories students will feel they have some control over the situation, an ability to shape the way they are thinking about this pandemic."

The British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) Young Reporter project plans something similar, according to Josie Verghese, who leads the project.

“We are talking to a group of young people about recording ‘viral voice notes’ about their unique experiences during this period,” she says.

In a nationwide effort, NewsBrands Ireland, which represents Irish news publishers, has extended its Press Pass student journalism competition by asking students to submit a commentary or news story about the impact of the Coronavirus: both positive and negative results, ethical issues and the spectre of disinformation.

South Africa’s Children’s Radio Foundation, which trains youth across Africa as radio reporters, is seeing the results of instructing its  young reporters in 2017 on how to use WhatsApp, a free app that uses wifi or cell service for calls, text and voice messages and the sending of documents, photos, and videos.

“Our youth reporters, particularly in South Africa and Ivory Coast, are using WhatsApp to collect voice notes about COVID-19 from peers and other relevant people in their communities and are able to carry on broadcasting shows made up of these voice-notes,” says Clémence Petit-Perrot, director of  learning and innovation.

Amplifying the youth voice has another advantage.

”As experts have said, those who are young and presumed to be healthy need to adhere to the national guidelines because they can unknowingly spread the virus to those who are more vulnerable,”  said Ashley Ellis, development associate at the South African foundation.“When young people hear this from voices they can relate to, the message resonates.”

The New York Times Learning Network provided such amplification with its “Writing Prompts” feature that calls for mini-reports on a news topic. It attracted far more than the usual number of submissions when it asked teenagers to write about how coronavirus was upending their lives, including responses from 90 new schools in several countries. Similar features focus on news photographs and graphs.

Brazil’s Jorca, a bi-monthly print edition for children with 30,000 subscribers, printed brief testimonials gathered from children in 12 countries about what they thought of the virus with the next week’s issue set to feature testimonials about what children are doing during their quarantine.

“We hope they can inspire each other,”  says the editor Maria Carolina Cristianini.

Bayard’s Phosphore magazine in France asked a teenage former intern to do a daily confinement diary.

“It’s an important and new moment for our audience,” says the editor, David Groison. “They live with their parents 24 hours a day, learn how to study with Skype and distance-learning platforms and cannot see their friends anymore. We are happy because her diary is really inspiring and we receive emails and messages each day from other young readers who share their own thoughts. Some teachers are sharing the diary and asking their students to write their own.”

KelYom of Lebanon will be running testimonials from 13 teenagers about their feelings about the virus and confinement and has asked its readers for more.

News outlets for children also have a tradition of addressing the influencers, teachers and parents, and are stepping up to help when children can no longer go to school. Now, they are taking that support further by dropping their paywalls, and the audience is responding.

In France, PlayBac Presse, which has three daily print newspapers for children, is offering free access to PDFs of all of its dailies for the duration of the government-ordered national confinement that closed schools. The equivalent of half its paid subscribers, 50,000 people, signed up in less than 10 days.

Credit: PlayBac PresseCredit: PlayBac Presse

Brazil’s Joca made freely available all of its web content and the latest print issue, which is devoted to the virus.  “We had a great response,” Cristianini says.

In the United States, the interactive digital news service, news-o-matic is offering free access for teachers, parents and children through June 30.  “I think that is probably the coolest thing we’ve done,” says Kahn, “making our content accessible for all children at a time when they need safe, age-appropriate information about the crisis and daily literacy resources at home.”

The New York Times Learning Network is always free but ramped up its normal weekly offering that typically numbered more than two dozen resources for teachers.

The network has already held two webinars,  with three more planned soon, according to the editor, Michael Gonchar. That’s in addition to a guide for teachers interested in using The Learning Network for remote learning and another for students learning argumentative writing skills.

When in-school programmes became impossible, the NewsWise media literacy initiative from The Guardian Foundation, National Literacy Trust & PSHE Association quickly enhanced its “NewsWise for Families” online offering of activities and links to reliable British news sources for children.

“There is a risk for children that being surrounded by news updates, conversation and newspaper headlines will quickly become overwhelming, says director Angie Pitt. “We all have a responsibility to support children's wellbeing, as well as their education around news at this critical time,” Pitt says. “The site offers “a series of activities to help everyone, but especially children, manage their feelings about the news, call out fake news and produce their own positive news reports.”

KelYom in Lebanon went so far as to produce a video (in French) to teach about how confinement is helping the earth breathe.

And sometimes the goal is simply to facilitate some fun.

France’s Bayard Jeunesse made access free to a wide variety of one-activity-a-day choices from its wide variety of magazines for children. Within a few days a free podcast with stories for children had 700 000 plays. For older students, it recommends 59 youtube channels that teach in an entertaining way and is hosting exhibits online about racism that had been slated to travel to schools.

In Japan, Yomiuri Shimbun's Kodomo edition that reaches 190,000 children challenged its readers in confinement to create something and send it to the newsroom.

"We have already received plenty of tremendous creations, such as complicated plastic models, a recipe which they cook every day at home for their family members, etc.," said journalist Akiko Yoshinaga. "We were very much surprised at their creativity and enthusiasm."

Editors of news for children and teenagers share a tendency to be optimistic about the resilience of their young audiences.

As Khan of news-o-matic says: “I think kids are more adjustable than adults. Some are very worried, of course. But many of them just seem to be able to roll with these new changes to their lives.”

For more about how editors handle news for kids in the 21st Century, check out The New News for Kids, Part Six of a set of seven reports the author prepared for WAN-IFRA and the American Press Institute. Aralynn Abare McMane, a global expert on youth and media issues,  directs the Global Youth & News Media Prize and is an advisor to UNESCO and several media outlets.


Simone Flueckiger's picture

Simone Flueckiger


2020-03-31 14:02

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