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News media shows negative image of children or just ignores them, research shows

Media Monitoring Children News
Children are not only in the news, they consume news too (Julia M. Cameron/Pexels)
Written by Marcia Zali

Despite making up a large section of South African society, the news media often ignores children, research shows. When children are featured, the topics are also often negative.

‘Children should be seen and not heard’ is an outdated figure of speech and attitude, and yet media today still largely ignores the voices of children. This, even as children are among the most vulnerable groups in South Africa. When children do make the news, the image is negative and disempowering, research shows.

Children make up more than a third, or 37%, of the national population, yet research shows that they are only mentioned in 13% of written news stories. What’s more, most of these stories do not include the voices or perspectives of children, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) found.

In a report titled Children, Media and Law, MMA analysed print and online media, scraping articles for keywords. The organisation used an online tool called Dexter, which scanned the news for words like learner, pupil, child, mother, minor, baby, toddler, infant and teenager. Dexter analysed a total of 12, 693 stories from May to September 2020, and found that of those, 1, 710 were about children.

Media Monitoring Children News

(Media Monitoring Africa)

“Out of all the stories in print media, only 10.6% of those stories are about children,” said MMA researcher Taryn Hinton. “Within that 10.6%, only 2.8% of those actually access children.”

“There are many instances where children should be accessed, engaged, interviewed, we should get their voices and their active participation, and we fail to do it,” added Hinton.

Topics of coverage

When children are in the news, they are portrayed at “their most vulnerable and most marginalised precisely to highlight the extreme nature of the story which they feature,” said Hinton.

Comparing coverage over five years, researchers found that certain topics reoccurred, namely crime and education. Crime was the most common topic in 2019 and 2017, influenced by the release of national crime statistics detailing crimes against children, or violence in schools. In this stories, children are portrayed as victims or just children, perpetuating “the stereotype about being helpless or without agency will continue to be perpetuated,” the report found.

Media Monitoring Children News

(Media Monitoring Africa)

Education featured in 2016, and again this year. Researchers said that they expected health to top the agenda due to the Covid-19, but coverage focused on schools reopening. Health was the third most prevalent topic for 2020. Topics such arts, sports of profiles of children were below 5% or did not feature at all in some years over the period from 2016 to 2020. This also means that media neglects a positive image of children as hero or achiever.

“We tend to report on adults in a much wider scope of general life, of general adults but children are shown in extremes,” said Hinton. “They are shown as representing the worst of the worst or the best of the best. When we think of war images, the most powerful images are of children in war environments.”

Children as news consumers

Coverage often overlooks the fact that children themselves read the news, the research found. The researchers spoke to children who said they read these stories in order to help a friend or to know what to do if something happened to them. Still, many of the children interviewed by the researchers said they wanted a more positive image of childhood.

“We want to see all the achievements and good things that children do,” said one interviewee. “We do not want to hear more about murder, rape, abuse and crime against children.”

This is really really special children have worked to develop a chapter of digital rights! It’s really cool and empowering and fantastic. @MediaMattersZA

— William Bird (@Billbobbird) November 20, 2020

Earlier this month, the MMA also met with children from around the country to draw up a charter to guide to digital rights. This included access to the internet, but also included children’s input on their safety in the media landscape.

Laws protecting children

Media coverage often ignores the rights of children, even as these are enshrined in the constitution. Publishers often fell short of the ethical requirements in covering children, the monitoring organisation also found.

The amended section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act protects the anonymity of children throughout their lives. The act states that,

“No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity of an accessed person under the age of eighteen years or of a witness or of a victim at or in criminal proceedings who are under the age of 18 years.”

Media Monitoring Children News

Media Monitoring Africa’s Dexter tool (Media Monitoring Africa)

The amended act goes on to say that in (3A),

“An accused person, witness, or victim referred to subsection 3 does not forfeit the protection offered by the section upon reaching the age of eighteen years but may consent to the publication of their identity after reaching the age of eighteen, or if consent is refused their identity may be published at the discretion of a competent court.”

Even as the media should include more children’s voices, Hinton added that journalists need to apply best ethical practices. The child’s best interests should always be above the journalist’s desire to tell the story.—Health-e News

About the author

Marcia Zali