In the last five years the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) has observed a shift in news coverage of children. A number of factors could play a role, such as a growing awareness on the part of organisations like the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) as to the power and importance of children, the efforts of some key NGOs and civil society bodies, positive government policies and media monitoring, and a stabilising of our democracy. In all likelihood, it is a combination of all these elements and more. Whatever the causes, South African media are more regularly giving children a voice and reporting on children differently, while also respecting their fundamental rights to dignity and privacy.
Before discussing the changes and why they bear significance, let me first respond to those who question why children matter: They matter because they are the only group in our constitution who are afforded special protection over all others (see section 28). The Children’s Act is designed exclusively for children. Children also matter because they are simultaneously the most vulnerable in our society and the population group that is affected by the consequences of almost every government policy and piece of legislation.
Perhaps more importantly, for those in the media, children matter because they have huge commercial value. McDonald’s realised their “value” years ago, and invented their clown to cash in on their consumer value. So did KFC and others with toy meals, and so forth. They worked out the value not only of the child as a lifelong consumer, but also that children generally have caregivers.
As Liza van Wyk, CEO of AstroTech, observed: “The world’s most influential consumers today are children… in the United States it is estimated that they influence the decisions of more than US$500-billion of consumer purchases, almost 16 times more than South Africa’s entire foreign reserves of US$32-billion.” Children are making most of the buying decisions in homes Ã¢Â€Â“ as anyone with small children will know while in a shop.
I am not advocating that news media start to abuse children’s commercial value. Their exploitation is well catered for by any number of multinationals, and journalists also have to adhere to higher ethical standards. What I am suggesting, however, by way of highlighting this information, is that from all points of view it makes good sense to include children in the news. As one of the children that MMP works with noted: “I learnt that every human has rights; the media is a powerful influence; everyone has to do their bit” (Andre, Saxonwold).
In spite of this argument, international trends indicate that children are virtually absent from the news. MMP research (2003) shows children feature in 6 percent of total news items monitored (22,000) in South Africa. We anticipate this figure to be higher when the research is repeated in 2009.
MMP does perceive, however, that South African media are getting better. An overview of content from MMP’s childfocused MAD OAT initiative (see www.getmad.co.za) reveals just how media, from the Daily Sun and Sowetan to the Mail & Guardian and the The Star, turn ordinary stories into extraordinary stories with a bit of innovation and ethical practice. While MMP finds that many do still violate children’s rights and sometimes even break the law, these are reducing in number.
So here’s a challenge for media and journalists: In your next story, do yourself and your media a favour and speak to a child. Let’s hear their voice in your stories. We have skilled over 20 child-friendly journalists, all of whom I think would agree that speaking to children is not only eye-opening, but can make you a better journalist. One of the children MMP works with has this to say: “I would like to tell you guys to keep on doing the good work you are doing. It is a very very good thing to do, thank you” (Moipone, Geluksdal).
!_LT_EMWilliam Bird is the director of the Media Monitoring Project (MMP).!_LT_/EM
This article first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine (October 2008).