Children's Television: Newsround

In a world that can be scary, it's vital to explain and reassure
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The Independent Online

Since its launch in April 1974, Newsround has presented domestic and world events to children. Its first presenter, John Craven, pioneered the vogue for British newsreaders to sit on, rather than behind, a desk, although shirt and tie were still obligatory for many years. Three decades on, and the Newsround production team exceeds 40 and daily bulletins run on three channels and a website. And, next week, a hard-hitting investigative strand is launched.

Newsround Investigates is a series of half-hour documentaries exploring a range of challenging subjects aimed at Newsround's core audience - children aged eight or nine upwards.

In the first programme, Newsround presenter Lizo Mzimba and Professor David Wilson, a criminologist, investigate child arson. British children set fire to 20 schools each week, statistics show. It's a problem that affects 90,000 British schoolchildren each year, yet only 200 schools in England and Wales are fitted with sprinkler systems. Another Newsround Investigates to be broadcast later in the year delves into the statistic that one in three British children is officially classified as living in poverty.

The investigative strand has been developed to provide insight and analysis that is impossible within the time constraints of the regular Newsround bulletin format, says the executive producer Roy Milani. "A few years back we introduced Newsround Extra, an occasional series of 10-minute films on a particular topic. Recent Extras have covered computer gaming, depression and Asbos. The time now seems right to do something more in-depth in a half-hour format."

Children are exposed to more news from a wider array of sources than ever before, Milani believes. Yet nearly all of this news is packaged and presented from an adult perspective.

Newsround's mission has always been to explain and provide context for national and international events in a straightforward, easy-to-understand way without sanitising the facts. However, recent world events, combined with children's need for information - and, where appropriate, reassurance - is making the Newsround service more important than ever before.

"Once a topic is in the public domain - on the front pages of newspapers children might see, or in the news bulletins they might watch or hear - it's fair game for Newsround. And if it's pertinent, they will be seeking these stories out and discussing them with each other in the playground," Milani says.

"Clearly, this means there are stories we have to do that will be quite scary. The approach we take is to present the facts in an easily digestible way, and to be reassuring. At its simplest, this means directing anxious viewers to the website where they can get advice on who to speak to if they are worried, or share their views with other children."

It's an approach that has been honed over the years, with advice from child psychologists. And it's one adult news and current-affairs producers are increasingly trying to emulate - the Newsround team is regularly asked for advice by colleagues involved in producing bulletins for a grown-up audience.

Covering stories as sensitive as international terrorism, paedophilia and the London bombings last year requires a delicate balancing act. "On the one hand, you don't want to play down the truth of what's happened, but on the other, you don't want to scare kids so much they'll not want to leave the house," Milani says.

While the volume of the daily media children are exposed to might lead some to suggest that today's nine- and 10-year-olds are becoming desensitised, it is also extremely difficult to gauge just what's going on beneath the surface, Milani believes. "A child might seem blasé, but beneath the surface their feelings are likely to be very different. We cannot afford to lose sight of that."

Newsround's remit goes beyond simply informing children about what's going on - it's also about encouraging their consumption and understanding of news. A daily bulletin on BBC1 is supplemented by five bulletins each weekday on the children's channel CBBC and a comprehensive, lively website. Current features include on online debate on whether Sven Goran Eriksson's successor as England football manager should have been English, and thread on beliefs from atheism to Zoroastrianism.

There's also a club for budding journalists called Presspack. Although Newsround stories are usually presented by adult newsreaders, children's voices are an important part of the mix. Presspack members are encouraged to write their own stories and submit comment; children are often periodically invited to co-present and to help produce the TV bulletins.

This mix of explanation, reassurance and participation makes Newsround a news service unlike any other, Milani believes. "It's difficult to liken Newsround's agenda to that of any other newspaper, news programme or media brand," he says. "But the philosophy behind it is a strong one." And it's a philosophy that's kept Newsround consistently among the top 10-rated children's programmes on British television for more than 30 years.