Children and the media: what do political parties say?

Wednesday, 1 April, 2009 - 12:15

We can listen to parties that tell us they will look after the police, give them resources, have more of them etc to help reduce crime, but if we do not look at key issues around violence and crime from the perspective of children and integrate children into every major strategy to address this issue, we are simply wasting our time.

According to figures from the Stats SA website – you should go there – it offers really cool ways to play with population data) based on their 2008 mid-year population estimate, children account for between 39% and 43% of South Africa’s population.

That seems quite a lot. Seriously. Zambia has more: 52% of Zambia’s population are children - incredible! If we look at the news, we certainly wouldn’t have any idea that children make up such a huge chunk of the population.

What we know from analysing the news on an ongoing basis is the following:

Children are generally marginalised, that is to say we do not see or hear them; they make up around six percent of news items. Then, when we do see them 1 in 4 stories about children clearly portray them as victims. Then again, more often than not, when children are in the news, adults speak for them, to them or about them. It is very seldom that we actually hear children’s voices. On top of this, gender stereotypes are deeply entrenched - girl children appear more in stories as victims, while boys appear in stories about sport or being active.

Gee and it seems a mystery to some as to why children do not want to read newspapers.

Of course for each of the issues I have just raised there are news stories and journalists that do actually tell children’s stories that challenge stereotypes and give us all hope. Sadly there are not enough of these. We are doing all we can to change this at Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) but we have some way to go.

What strikes me is this: a quick look at any of our major challenges - crime, gender based violence, child abuse, HIV, health-care, education, poverty, unemployment, and deepening democracy - and it seems that if we are to have any major impact on alleviating any of these we have look long term, - 10 years plus. Also key to this is that children are directly impacted by all of these things, often in ways more extreme than adults.

Sure we can listen to parties that tell us they will look after the police, give them resources, have more of them etc to help reduce crime, but if we do not look at key issues around violence and crime from a children’s perspective and if we don’t integrate children into each and every one of the major strategies to address these core issues, we are simply wasting our time. This is not about a touchy-feely ‘children are the future’ nonsense; this is about saying involve, engage and care about children now so we can all enjoy dignity, democracy and equality tomorrow.

So where are the politicians telling us how they are going to do this? I am not interested in hearing the parties tell us that they will alleviate poverty and reduce child abuse, I want to know how they are going to achieve this. Let’s see the details, let’s analyse the plans if they have them.

More to the point for MMA, where is the media coverage of these issues? Where the phrase ‘children are our future’ has some validity is in building children as readers, viewers and listeners to news. We know from working with children that once they are exposed to news and have critical literacy skills; children want to engage with the news. So for the editors and money people, if you want to build your audiences, start engaging with children now. In this period though it is vital to our democracy that children’s issues are not only considered but analysed and examined, and that we hold our politicians accountable to what they say.

There have been a few pieces in the media about children’s issues. A surprisingly small piece in the Citizen, “DA Punts spankings” which suggests that the Democratic Alliance thinks corporal punishment should be brought back. The idiocy of the suggestion is not questioned and no other parties are asked about it. In contrast, an excellent piece that draws on the recent interest in initiations and school violence also draws a clear link to the absence of politicians focusing on the issue of school violence. It is written by Janet Smith, titled ‘'School violence takes a back seat to politics and electioneering' and published in the Saturday Star. Click here to read it.

Read it and get mad, then email your political party and ask them for their views. Just after that, email your editors and let them know we need and want more stories about children. Do it, not just because you care about our democracy, not just because you have your own children, but do it for yourself because it is only if we address our challenges by integrating children, that we can hope to achieve the great things we know our country is capable of.

William Bird is the executive director of Media Monitoring Africa.

This article was first published through Birds blog. It is republished here with permission from the author.

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