Broadcasters Seek To Put War Into Meaningful Context for Children

By Peter West — January 30, 1991 6 min read
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As the first week of the Persian Gulf war unfolded in live television dispatches, the airwaves were filled with electronic images of the air war over Kuwait and Iraq, Pentagon briefings, antiwar protests, and wounded Israeli civilians being evacuated from the rubble of their homes following missile attacks.

The unrelenting, and unprecedented, stream of televised information prompted broadcasters, publishers, and educators alike to take steps to put the distant conflict into a meaningful and reassuring context for American children.

Personalities as diverse at Fred Rogers, the softspoken host of public television’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and First Lady Barbara Bush offered advice to parents on how to calm their children’s fears. Broadcast and cable networks developed special programming, and educators themselves harnessed technology to bring news of the war, as well as words of comfort, to their young audiences.

Television brought the war not only into homes, but into countless classrooms across the nation. Large, technologically sophisticated districts such as the Dade County, Fla., public schools were able to transmit the Cable News Network broadcasts to schools by way of the district’s own cable-television network.

But even the smallest districts were able to bring images of the war as it happened into the classroom.

In the Chittenden South School District, a 3,200-student system in rural Northern Vermont, teachers in three of the district’s four school buildings have access to cable television in their classrooms.

“What we’re finding is that we don’t have enough televisions in the schools right now,” said John Rinaldi, the district’s assistant superintendent for research and development.

Under a special copyright agreement, announced Jan. 11 by CNN, teachers are videotaping news programs for future classroom use, he added.

The outbreak of hostilities also prompted calls for more news programming designed for children.

Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children’s Television, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group, began lobbying commercial and public broadcasters on Jan. 14, the eve of the United Nations’ deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, to meet the needs of young viewers.

“Designed for adults, the news children see does not help them understand what is happening, where it is happening, and why it is happening,” she wrote in a letter to the heads of the commercial, public, and cable networks.

Whether in response to the letter or not, the major commercial news networks and the Public Broadcasting Service did begin to offer special programming for children.

Perhaps the first to do so was ABC News, which on Jan. 19 aired a special segment during its Saturday-morning Gulf coverage designed to make the origins of the conflict clearer to children.

“We’re talking to those of you at home who are younger viewers,” said the news anchor, Peter Jennings, acknowledging the audience that had tuned in for the Saturday cartoon shows. “And if you hang on for a second, we’ll try to make this simpler for you; perhaps also simpler for us.”

The segment included a Soviet satellite image of the Gulf region as well as interviews conducted by an ABC correspondent, Bill Greenwood, with children and child psychologists.

Mr. Greenwood, who reportedly compiled the report with assistance from his 12-year-old daughter, closed the segment with some reassurances for young viewers about the appropriateness of demonstrations against the war within the context of the American political system.

He added that “kids should also remember that this is all happening far away and there’s no danger to them here at home.”

PBS, meanwhile, produced a 308minute special on the Gulf crisis called “Kids Ask About War.”

The show, hosted by Peggy Knapp, of the PBS show “Newton’s Apple,” was taped earlier this month and was expected to be aired last week.

Also last week, ABC announced that it would schedule a one-hour call-in program for children, hosted by Mr. Jennings, this past weekend, while NBC announced plans to examine children’s reaction to war in “A Closer Look,” a new program that was scheduled to air Jan. 28

Some children’s programmers--notably the Children’s Television Workshop, producer of “Sesame Street” and other shows--announced they would not modify their programming to talk about the war.

“We feel that kids need to get information and comfort from adults who are near to them,” said Elizabeth Martin, a c.t.w. spokesman.

While war issues will not be appearing on “Sesame Street,” she said, the organization plans to produce special sections about the war for parents in the guides that complement the programming.

Some broadcasters also said they have begun to make difficult editorial decisions about how to cover the war for children.

“What we’re trying to do is basically mirror CNN as much as we can,’' said Jay Suber, executive producer for CNN Newsroom, a spinoff of the network’s news division that is broadcast to subscribing schools.

One of the more difficult decisions CNN Newsroom producers have had to face, Mr. Suber said, was whether to air footage of captured allied pilots, who appeared to have been physically coerced into making antiwar statements.

“We thought it was important that kids see that war is not a game,” he said. “But we understand that our audience is a captive audience and we will be tasteful.”

Whittle Communications, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company that produces “Channel One,” a 12-minute commercially supported news program for subscriber schools, is facing similar decisions.

“The guiding principle here is that the schools have the right to preview each program,” said Gary Belis, a Whittle spokesman.

And, he noted, the standard Channel One contract allows schools to reject up to 10 percent of the daily shows.

An added difficulty for the producers is providing the historical context of the war to precollegiate students, for whom Israel’s Six Day War in 1967 and the energy crisis of the 1970’s are distant historical events.

“We do have to keep in mind the emotional age of our audience; at the same time, we don’t want to sanitize the war,” Mr. Belis said.

Yet efforts to balance the violent imagery shown on television began almost immediately in the days after war broke out.

Mr. Rogers, a favorite of younger children, was among the first to respond, taping a series of short public-service announcements aimed at parents and children.

And last week, Mrs. Bush, in an interview recounted in The Washington Post, advised parents to4screen their children’s view of the war on television and to talk through their fears.

In some cases, educators themselves have produced shows for students.

Two days after the war began, the Massachusetts Cooperative for Educational Telecommunciations, a quasi-public educational broadcasting firm, produced a statewide, interactive teleconference with a child psychologist to help school guidance counselors and supervisors comfort children.

The success of the show prompted the organization to organize a second teleconference last week to give secondary-school students an opportunity to pose questions about the war to a three-member panel of academic experts.

The Educational Television Network, the satellite service of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, plans a similar telecast for parents at the end of the month.

Among educational publishers, the New York-based Scholastic Inc. announced last week that it would send copies of an eight-page teaching kit, entitled “America Goes to War,” to the more than 400,000 teachers who subscribe to any of the company’s 14 classroom magazines.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Broadcasters Seek To Put War Into Meaningful Context for Children


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