Keep Kids in Mind When Writing that Story

Are Detailed Graphics Really Worth It?

Lebanon Journalism Review, Spring 2002

— by Magda Abu-Fadil

Beirut — Lebanese and Middle East media were quick to pick up on coverage by CNN of the tragic events of September 11 in the US and have been equally seduced by live reports from Al Jazeera TV, or their own correspondents, on the unfolding war in Afghanistan and threats of bioterrorism, but without much thought as to how all this affects young viewers.

While broadcast and online media have led the pack with sensational pictures and reports, print media have also drawn readers with hard-hitting news, gut-wrenching features and head-turning graphics, and, sometimes equally sensational coverage.

Internet service providers in Lebanon have been conduits of a steady diet of war news from international news agencies and through links to other key media, which have also provided reports, photos, graphics and video/audio feeds from the war front or scares about anthrax attacks and the like.

But can any of them afford the time to stand back and analyze what they're doing? Have any come under pressure to disseminate, or hold back, reports relating to the local scene? What's their understanding of ethical journalism in such a highly charged environment?

Children were glued to TV sets, along with adults, when passenger jets slammed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington and into a field outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2001.

Reactions were varied, but often based on their own experiences with violent TV shows, epic Hollywood movies, or, science-fiction video or computer games. But when the reality began to sink in, thanks to the endless replay of the horrific footage, fear and incredulity also took hold.

While there may not be exact statistics on children’s reactions to the tragic events and ensuing tragic war in Afghanistan — with concomitant side effects worldwide — it would be worth media moguls’ while to think what effects their newscasts are having on their younger audiences.

One cable network in the United States, Nickelodeon, has for the past decade featured a newscast for children anchored by a former NBC network reporter.

Nickelodeon, which is known for such shows as “Rugrats,” listened to kids’ concerns and fears about terrorism after viewing the suicide plane attacks and discovered that none had called for violent retribution.

Would Lebanese children who watch news about terrorism, as well as Israeli attacks on unarmed Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, have reacted with equal magnanimity?

How about the teachers and parents who are bombarded with questions about events in the news? Are they prepared to answer questions with any authority about what is being shown and written, and why?

Did still photographers whose pictures of severed limbs, bloody torsos and humongous damage of the September 11 attacks, more recently of “errant” bombing of Afghan civilians and helpless victims of the Palestinian intifada adorn the color front pages of many a daily or periodical wonder about kids seeing their pictures?

Closer to home, what of graphic footage and reporting of murder victims or carnage from endless traffic accidents on Lebanon’s roads? Are there any restraints on editors who broadcast or print such news? Do the newscasts and newspapers create a climate of fear for children?

Media researcher John McManus from the Berkeley Media Studies Center was critical of a report’s findings on the scarcity of coverage in the U.S. of key children’s issues such as education and unbalanced focus on crime dangers for minors.

“Kids being hurt builds audience, it hits us in the gut. And it’s a very cheap story to put together,” he said. He may well have been addressing Lebanese media.

Which suggests that maybe there’s a need for journalistic ethics in the dissemination of news. But guidelines that reflect the times and new technologies enjoyed by most today.

If one were to go by what Lebanon's Press Syndicate ratified as a code of ethics, it would mean a great disservice to readers in the country. The one page document dates back to February 4, 1974 and no effort has been made to update it.

When asked if it was time to modernize it, syndicate president Mohammad Baalbaki — who has served in his post for over two decades — told this writer that it was adequate.

Which is why the Institute for Professional Journalists at the Lebanese American University organized an international media seminar in May 2001 focused on the introduction of a code of ethics for the country’s various media.

Participants argued that the four-page document underlining ethical media behavior should be renamed “Proposed Guidelines for Good Journalistic Practice,” to emphasize that it’s not a codified set of rules, but rather a recommended exercise in self-imposed good behavior.

Above all, participants argued, there must be an emphasis on accuracy. Whether addressing adults or children, news should be honest, fair, impartial, and independent and respect the rights of others.

Sourcing, they agreed, was equally important so that readers and audiences know where their news and pictures are originating. And, such content should not be distorted or manipulated for illegal or unethical purposes.

But the issue of children and their welfare also got equal time. The guidelines recommended that particular care for minors’ welfare be exercised and consideration be given to the impact of TV, radio and other media.

Journalists at the seminar were also asked not to interview children except in the presence of, or with the consent of, parents or guardians, unless the interviews were intended to protect the children’s interests or if the children were already under close public attention. They were urged not to identify victims and juvenile offenders.

Being first with the news carries a moral responsibility of realizing what impact that scoop or story will have on people, especially children.

Journalists have an obligation to refrain from presenting skewed pictures or realities or of glorifying warped values. There is a fine line between self-censorship and responsible restraint.

It takes maturity, cool-headedness under pressure of deadlines and looking beyond the commercial bottom line to disseminate news and views that will not emotionally scar our future generations.

© 2003–2006 IPJ