Much has been written about the power of the citizen journalism to empower average folk to contribute to the democratic process, by providing a voice outside the mainstream and encouraging more diverse, independent, reliable and accurate news coverage.
What hasn’t been talked about is the effect that this new participatory journalism has on those citizens too young to contribute to the democratic process at any level - our children.
Modern technology and the uptake of this technology by citizens to contribute to the news process brings with it new challenges which have yet to be fully considered by broadcasters or regulators. Modern technology also brings with a greater ability to protect vulnerable audiences - something that has also not been adequately explored by broadcasters and regulators.
In short new technologies have the potential to both expose children to, and protect them from, news footage likely to disturb or frighten.
To fully explore what the impacts of new technology are now, and are likely to be in the future, it’s important to define the problem as it existed before the era of widespread citizen journalism and digital media.
What research tells us is that television news is particularly disturbing to children with about one in three having been disturbed by something they have. It also tells us that even very little children see and are disturbed by news content - in part because television news is structured very much like a child’s picture book with pictures and simple text that match. Repeated studies also show that news is more disturbing to children than fictional violence but it is fictional violence that has been the focus of most of the hysteria.
This is despite the fact that the Australian Media and Communications Authority Code of Practice does require broadcasters to ensure that programs that are likely to be watched by children will not cause alarm or distress. And that news and current affairs, while exempted from classification under the code, must be presented with “special care” taking into account the likely audience and the material.
So the code demands that children be protected from disturbing material but the research repeatedly shows that they are not. Why? In part because broadcasters are required to consider their “likely audience” when evaluating news content. They point out - rightly - that children do not like news and do not choose news as a viewing option. What isn’t considered is that others in the household are choosing to watch the news - generally screened around family dinner time - and that children are being exposed to the content whether they like it or not.
Further, all the commercial stations screen news updates through the afternoon children’s shows, so even families deciding to actively limit their children’s exposure to news have real problems doing so (the ABC has made a policy choice to drop these updates because of parental concern).
And finally, really significant and inevitably disturbing news content, such as 9-11 result in regular programming being dropped in favour of coverage of the unfolding events. My own research into children and the coverage of those attacks revealed two key themes:
- a real sense of frustration by parents that their children had witnessed material they would normally have deemed off bounds because they had turned on the television to watch the children’s shows and had been totally unprepared for what they saw; and
- a very real sense of frustration that scheduled television children’s programs were dropped for days on end.
Unfortunately in an era of videophones and satellites, the embedded reporter and 24-hour news feeds the likelihood of far greater exposure to this type of material has to be considered and planned for. Now every skirmish in the war on terror and from every other news hot spot can and is being beamed direct into loungerooms across the globe in real time.
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