Media Monitoring Africa noted what a raw deal young people were getting in the media. So, the organisation has embarked on a course of action that is galvanising the country’s youth, explains Ayabulela Poro.
People often ask us, “Instead of creating a children’s news agency, why didn’t you create a school magazine?” Our response is simple – children’s issues need to be heard on a national level.
Every Monday morning, staff at Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gather in the organisation’s boardroom. After the coffee beans have been ground, conversations around the previous week’s news, largely revolving around politics and everything media-related, ensue. Needless to say, the debates are often heated.
It is then the responsibility of the chairperson to skilfully steer the meeting on to other items on the agenda, including Mad Oat (MMA’s Make Abuse Disappear Online Accountability Tool) that examines the portrayal of children in the media on a weekly basis. This provides an opportunity to focus not only on problems, but also one some of the best stories on children. While we have seen and continue to see some compelling stories on children, there is still room for improvement.
Sitting in these meetings, it is astonishing to hear about a news story that is supposed to be about a child, but the actual child was not contacted for his views on the issues or the story. When we look deeper into the coverage* of children in our country’s media, we find that not only are we not hearing children’s voices but also issues affecting them are taking a back seat. Only 12% of news media reports focus on issues directly affecting children, who make up 39% of our population. Given that our country has a youthful population, this doesn’t make sense from a business perspective, let alone on an ethical level.
What does this mean for a country like ours? If an artist were to illustrate it, South Africa might well be represented as a figure taking a leap into a bleak future, having neglected the present. Logic tells us that, if we want to create a better future for our country and for ourselves, we have to focus on issues affecting children. To do this, we need to find solutions to problems, but also apply political will and engage children in our discourse. Let them have access to basic rights, right to freedom of expression and to have their voices heard on matters that affect them. Somehow, despite a few pockets of excellence, we don’t seem to be doing this adequately on a media level. These are some of the reasons for establishing MMA’s Children’s News Agency (CNA).
Although one of the bigger components, CNA is just part of a more comprehensive MMA project known as, ’Children and Media: Championing Best Practice’, aimed at enhancing children’s voices and their participation in the media. The project, together and in its individual components, engages both children and the media.
Established in 2011, the agency is a first of its kind in South Africa. As part of the initiative, children are trained on a continuous basis as child journalists producing content for mainstream print and, more recently, broadcast media. Since its inception, the agency has published 20 articles in mainstream print media. Our child journalists have reported on some of the most intriguing and eye-opening subjects, including HIV testing in schools, the publication of matric results and the detention of child migrants in South Africa.
The project works with children between the ages of 15 and 17 from three high schools in Johannesburg: Parktown, Greenside and Barnato Park, giving them lessons and invaluable exposure to journalism and the newsroom environment.
As 16-year-old Annabel Fenton from Parktown Girls says, “Far too often we are told what to think, or what our issues are, by adults. We are often ignored and not asked for our views. As a journalist, I am now able to tell stories about issues that affect the youth, from a young person’s perspective, and in so doing try to change our media.”
At MMA, we realise that as much as establishing a news agency might seem like a noble idea it is a task that we could not handle without the support of the wider media, communities and families. While providing support for children to produce news articles, MMA is constantly building relationships with media houses and strengthening these through the signing of memorandums of understanding.
We commend newspapers including The Sunday Times, The Times and The New Age for publishing content written by our child journalists.
“It is about creating behavioural change,” MMA’s director William Bird says, not an easy task. The biggest challenge about running a children’s news agency is that unlike a traditional agency, we are working with individuals whose main occupation is school. But that hasn’t stopped them from branching out and starting to learn how to do radio pieces.
It’s a big task and we want to expand it to include children from all provinces.
The time has never been so opportune for stories told by children about issues that affect them from their own perspectives. Not only will this encourage more young people to read and watch and listen to the news, but hopefully it will encourage them to think a little more long-term. If they do, not only will we have more offerings of fresh insight but also a better future.
Ayabulela Poro is the head of Children’s News Agency.
This story was first published in the December 2012 issue of The Media magazine.