‘I realize I only wrote one word – poo’: what happened when I was a Newsround presenter for a day | Children’s television
Ohen I agreed to try presenting an episode of Newsround, I didn’t expect it. “I’m going to talk about how animal feces are used to heat homes to generate electricity,” says presenter Martin Dougan, who is about to pretend to be a guest. “You can ask all the questions you want, but remember: my name is Jerry and it’s about poo.”
Next week, Newsround celebrates its 50th anniversary. Hence my visit to the children’s newspaper set: partly because the show’s production team invited me to mark the occasion by presenting an entire (fake) episode – and thus understanding how much it is difficult to cover the news for children. But also because Newsround was a pillar of my childhood. Without it, I don’t think I would be a journalist.
When I show up at Salford Studios, I’m greeted by series editor Lewis James. He recently went through the show’s archives, to see how they reported on big stories, like Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. He also discovered objects he did not expect. “There’s a 30-minute John Craven documentary about the Bay City Rollers,” he says.
Newsround removed the evening edition from its newsletter after 48 years in 2020, citing changes in the way children watch TV. A shorter eight-minute bulletin is always broadcast in the morning. According to James, this strategy has proven popular with teachers. “A BBC survey shows that 75% of primary school teachers say they use Newsround at least once a week in class.”
While Newsround has expanded its offering to a website and social media page, reflecting where younger audiences are these days, its mission statement hasn’t changed since the Craven years. “Where there is comfort, we give it to children,” Lewis says. “Where we can give children hope, we will. We won’t coat it. We will not say that all is well in the world. But we will give information in a different way from other media.
I’m given an overview of how check-in works and how best to interact with the news and production gallery. It’s a flood of information, most of which immediately pops out of my head. Then I look at my notepad and realize that I’ve only written one word: poo.
From the pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the news coverage is often overwhelming for adults, let alone children, but that doesn’t stop Newsround from covering it. “Kids already know these things, whether they hear it from the adults in their lives or in the school playground,” says Hayley Hassall, one of the show’s presenters. “We’re here to tell them what’s really going on and give them the facts, so they feel empowered with the knowledge to be able to do something about it.”
Nonetheless, Newsround takes a softer approach to news than most other outlets, as its recent report on the help Ukrainian refugees received after arriving in Poland shows. It examines donations and supplies provided by local people, before focusing on a refugee who had been enrolled in a local school and had already made friends. Distressing images, such as those shown that day on BBC News at Ten, do not appear. There’s also no analysis or speculation on what might happen next. “Speculation isn’t helpful for kids,” said Kirsti Adair, the show’s associate editor. “They want to be reassured.
Will they get it from me? As I prepare for my rehearsal, I’m not so sure. I am micro and sent to the studio. I’m asked to stand on an X on the ground for camera positioning, and my nerves make me sway like a cruise ship. Whenever I’m off camera, like when I sit on the couch during a report, my voice goes up an octave.
Next, an unexpected challenge. When I introduce “Jerry”, it becomes clear that he’s not here to talk poo. Rather, he’s a disruptive, constantly off-topic guest, a reminder that live kids’ television can be unpredictable at the best of times. “How can you use poo to create energy?” I ask innocently. “I do not know !” Jerry responds, with two minutes remaining on the item.
For the Newsround team, this is not the biggest problem they have to deal with. The war in Ukraine – and some of the content airing on TikTok – is a source of concern for the production team. It’s not just misinformation, but the impact of viral videos – a recent one highlighting the destruction that could be wrought if a nuclear bomb were to land on Manchester, London or Bristol. The topic can also be a challenge to cover because they don’t want to repeat what these videos say. “The reason you see this on your streams, or your friends talk about it on the playground, is because it’s dramatic,” Lewis says, “but not necessarily because it’s true.”
Another difficulty can be figuring out how to unbox essential but incredibly complicated new stories. When asked what it was like to report on the complexities of Brexit, a groan from several members of the production team echoed through the room. Explanations are needed in news stories where you wouldn’t expect them. In the report on Ukrainian refugees, Poland is presented as a country “bordering Ukraine”. “You have to assume that they [children] I have no idea every time,” Adair says. “Even if you’re doing Ukraine for the third day in a row, you’re assuming some kids are logging on for the first time.”
The need for such concise and clear reporting therefore comes as no surprise that the show has had such notable alumni, from Channel 4 News’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy to Newscast’s Adam Fleming, to the entertainment correspondent of the BBC, Lizo Mzimba. Senior BBC News reporters, such as security correspondent Frank Gardner and Kyiv correspondent James Waterhouse, are often brought in to explain complicated stories. How do they find the transition? “Some are better than others,” Hassall says. One of the challenges is making sure they don’t talk to the kids. “Or add some horrible detail,” adds Adair.
Heavier stories are often immediately followed by lighter ones, with animal stories being the favorite. “I did a live show next to a goose once and it pecked my head,” Hassall says. She then tells anecdotes as if such events happen to all of us. “I swam with sharks. I jumped out of a plane at 21,000 feet. I saved a lion from France. “Did you save a French lion? I ask. “Two lions, actually,” she said.
At check-in, I don’t feel brave enough to take on the lions, but I’m a bit more confident. I remember the Autocue is there to follow me, not the other way around, so I try to resist playing faster and faster. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go exactly as planned, given that Jerry has donned a disguised giraffe costume and insists he’s here as a spokesperson for the long-necked creatures, to “give them a break.” -shape that I think they deserve”. .” When I hear the gallery’s mild panic informing me that this jerry interview mess is invasive, I quickly end it, only for Jerry to shout, “Thanks, Mom!” on camera. I continue with: “Thanks to Jerry’s mom!”
Everything is a bit blurry. It’s only later, when we watch the footage and I see myself on screen in front of a set, that I feel like I’m in a real news studio. It reminds me that the world of television can seem distant and overwhelming to some kids, so I ask Hassall and Dougan if young viewers lose it if they spot them in public.
“I mean, we’re not Little Mix!” Hassall replies. I say nothing, but I can’t help thinking: when I was a child, they would have been much more important than that.