School Climate & Safety

Children’s Media Tell Story of Attacks Frankly, But Carefully

By Michelle Galley — September 26, 2001 4 min read

Teachers and parents weren’t the only ones grappling with how to talk to children about the events that unfolded Sept. 11. Editors and producers for news publications and programs aimed at children needed to figure out quickly how to cover the terrorist attacks in a way that would inform children but not frighten them.

When staff members of Time for Kids, a spinoff of the newsmagazine Time, met to discuss their upcoming issues, they knew they could not ignore the story, said Claudia Wallis, the managing editor of the publication that reaches more than 4 million students in kindergarten through 6th grade.

The journalists consulted with teachers from around the country to find out how best to approach the subject. “We got a strong message from teachers that it’s very important to tell kids that people are working to keep them safe,” Ms. Wallis said.

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Some children’s news media, such as Scholastic News, emphasize the heroic efforts of rescuers and the government’s plans to protect the United States.

With that in mind, the Time for Kids staff chose to give the “News Scoop Edition,” which is distributed to children in grades 2 and 3, a positive theme by focusing on rescue workers, plans to rebuild the damaged section of the Pentagon, and the support the United States was receiving from around the world. The “World Report Edition"—aimed at students in grades 4-6—includes a timeline of the events and a piece on how government officials are investigating the attacks.

Both editions feature a cover photo of firefighters raising the American flag.

A future edition for kindergartners and 1st graders will also call attention to the story, but not in as much detail. “We felt we needed to take very different approaches for different age groups,” Ms. Wallis said.

Choosing Images Wisely

Making coverage of the attacks age-appropriate can be tricky, said Matt James, the senior vice president of media and public education for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based philanthropy that focuses on health and education.

“You can quickly get into levels of detail that are not appropriate,” he said. But images of hope, such as the firefighters raising the flag and people lighting candles, are important to children, he added.

Time For Kids.com

Mr. James was particularly impressed with the image on the front page of the Time for Kids Web site. It shows an Arab-American man standing next to an American flag, holding a candle. “I think that’s a great image,” Mr. James said, to help squelch any tendencies children might have to stereotype people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Programmers at Channel One were also careful in choosing the images they aired following the attacks, said Morgan Wandell, the executive vice president of programming for the television-news company that broadcasts to roughly 12,000 middle and high schools nationwide.

Executives at Channel One, which is based in New York City, decided not to show pictures of two hijacked planes hitting the World Trade Center or the towers collapsing because they knew students would see those images elsewhere. “They were wall-to-wall on so many different outlets,” Mr. Wandell said.

Instead, Channel One featured a grief counselor talking to the anchors, and included the reactions of students from around the country. Last week, Channel One was planning to air a piece on how teenagers participated in rescue efforts.

The editors at Scholastic Inc. also decided to highlight calming images in the wake of the attacks.

Up Front from The New York Times

“It was very clear to us that the focus for us was not on death and destruction, but on how people in America were coming together,” said David Goddy, the editor in chief of the New York City-based company that produces publications for 25 million students in grades 1-12.

Mr. Goddy consulted with an expert on child trauma, and provided parents and teachers with resources on how to talk to children about the events. The Scholastic group geared its publications toward what children were saying and the steps they could take to help out.

That can be empowering for children, Mr. James of the Kaiser Family Foundation said. “Kids all want to know what they can do,” he said. “They want to know how they can contribute.”

Moving On

The editors of Teen Newsweek, however, elected to run a cover photo of the twin towers burning because they knew their audience would have already seen the images elsewhere.

“Believe me, they’ve seen this stuff,” said Deborah Dolan Nevins, the managing editor of the publication that goes out to roughly 200,000 students in grades 6-10. “To keep it from them is probably more frightening to them than to discuss it calmly,” she said.

The editors of KidsPost, a daily page in TheWashington Post dedicated to covering the news for children, ran stories on the attacks for three days following the events. The page included a story about the efforts children in the Washington area were making to help.

But, by the beginning of last week, editors there decided to shift direction. They ran a story about gray wolves being released into the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico.

“We will still cover the events, but we don’t want to dwell on it in a way that kids might find disturbing,” said John Kelly, the editor of KidsPost. In the Sept. 17 edition, the editors wrote a letter to their readers explaining their decision. “Thinking about sad things all the time isn’t good for anyone,” it says. “We all need to give our minds and our hearts a rest.”

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