When I agreed to try presenting an episode of Newsround, I wasn’t expecting this. “I’ll talk about how animal poo is being used to heat up homes to generate power,” says presenter Martin Dougan, who is about to pretend to be a guest. “You can ask whatever questions you want, but remember: my name is Jerry and it is about poo.”
Next week, Newsround celebrates its 50th anniversary. Hence my visit to the set of the children’s news bulletin: partly because the show’s production team have invited me to mark the milestone by presenting a whole (fake) episode – and thus understand how hard it is to cover news for children. But also because Newsround was a mainstay of my childhood. Without it, I don’t think I would be a journalist.
When I turn up at the Salford studios, I’m met by the show’s editor, Lewis James. He has recently gone through the show’s archive, to see how they reported on major news stories, such as Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. He also uncovered some items he did not expect. “There’s a 30-minute documentary from John Craven on the Bay City Rollers,” he says.
Newsround axed the evening edition of its bulletin after 48 years in 2020, citing changes to how children watch television. A shorter eight-minute bulletin still airs in the mornings. According to James, this strategy has proved popular with teachers. “A survey by the BBC shows that 75% of primary school teachers say they use Newsround at least once weekly in the classroom.”
While Newsround has expanded its offering to a website and social media page, reflecting where younger audiences are these days, its mission statement has not changed since the Craven years. “Where there is reassurance, we give kids that,” says Lewis. “Where we can give kids hope, we will do that. We won’t sugarcoat it. We won’t say everything’s all right in the world. But we will give information in a different way from other news outlets.”
I’m given a brief of how the recording will work and how best to interact with the news items and the production gallery. This is a flood of information, most of which goes immediately out of my head. Afterwards, I look down at my notepad and realise that I have only written one word: poo.
From the pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, current affairs coverage is often overwhelming to adults, let alone children, but this doesn’t stop Newsround from reporting on it. “Kids already know about these things, whether they’re hearing it from the grownups in their life or in the school playground,” says Hayley Hassall, one of the show’s presenters. “We are here to tell them what is really happening and give them the facts, so that they feel empowered with the knowledge to be able to do something.”
Nonetheless, Newsround does take a gentler approach to the news than more other outlets, as shown by its recent report on the help Ukrainian refugees had received after arriving in Poland. It looks at the 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 ones shown that day on the BBC News at Ten, do not appear. Neither is there any analysis or speculation on what could happen next. “Speculation isn’t helpful for kids,” said the show’s deputy editor Kirsti Adair. “They want reassurance.”
Will they get it from me? As I prepare for my rehearsal, I’m not so sure. I’m miked up and sent to the studio. I’m asked to stand on an X on the floor for the camera positioning, and my nerves cause me to sway like a cruise ship. Every time I’m off camera, such as when I’m moving to the sofa during a news report, my voice goes up an octave.
Then, an unexpected challenge. When I introduce “Jerry” it becomes obvious that he isn’t there to talk about poo. Rather, he is a disruptive guest, constantly going off-topic, a reminder that live children’s television can be unpredictable at the best of times. “How can you use poo to create energy?” I innocently ask. “I don’t know anything about that!” Jerry responds, with two minutes left on the item.
For Newsround’s crew, this isn’t the biggest problem they have to deal with. The war in Ukraine – and some of the content circulated on TikTok – is a source for concern for the production team. It is not just misinformation, but the impact of viral videos – a recent one highlighting the destruction that could be caused if a nuclear bomb landed on Manchester, London or Bristol. The topic can also be a challenge to cover because they don’t want to reiterate what these videos say. “The reason that you may be seeing this on your feeds, or your friends are talking about it in the playground, is because it’s dramatic,” says Lewis, “but not necessarily because it is true.”
Another difficulty can be how to unpack essential yet incredibly complicated new stories. When asked what it was like to report on the complexities of Brexit, a groan from several of the production team reverberated around the room. Explanations are needed in news stories where you wouldn’t expect them. In the report about Ukrainian refugees, Poland is introduced as a country that “borders Ukraine”. “You have to assume that they [children] have no idea every time,” says Adair. “Even if you are doing Ukraine for the third day in a row, you assume that some kids are tuning in for the first time.”
The need to report so concisely and clearly makes it no surprise, then, that the show has had such notable alumni, from Channel 4 News’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy, to Newscast’s Adam Fleming, via the BBC’s entertainment correspondent Lizo Mzimba. Senior BBC News journalists, such as security correspondent Frank Gardner and Kyiv correspondent James Waterhouse, are often drafted in to explain complicated news stories. How do they find the transition? “Some are better than others,” says Hassall. One challenge is to ensure that they don’t talk down to children. “Or throw in a horrific detail,” adds Adair.
Heavier stories are often immediately followed by lighter stories, too, with animal news being a favourite. “I did a live broadcast next to a goose once and it pecked my head,” says Hassall. She then reels off anecdotes as if such events happen to all of us. “I’ve swum with sharks. I’ve jumped out of a plane at 21,000 feet. I’ve rescued a lion from France.” “You rescued a lion from France?” I ask. “Two lions, actually,” she says.
By the time of the recording, I’m not quite feeling brave enough to tackle lions, but I am a little bit more confident. I remember that the Autocue is there to follow me, not the other way round, so I try to resist reading it faster and faster. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly go to plan, given that Jerry has put on a fancy dress giraffe’s costume, and is insisting that he’s here as a spokesperson for the long-necked creatures, to “give them the platform that I think they deserve.” When I hear the slight panic of the gallery informing me that this mess of an interview with Jerry is overrunning, I swiftly bring it to a close, only for Jerry to shout: “Thank you, Mum!” to the camera. I follow it up with: “Thank you to Jerry’s Mum!”
It’s all a bit of a blur. Only later, when we are looking back at the footage, and I see myself on screen in front of a set, does it feel as if I was in a proper news studio. It reminds me that the world of television can appear distant and overwhelming to some children, so I ask Hassall and Dougan whether younger viewers lose it if they spot them in public.
“I mean, we’re not Little Mix!” responds Hassall. I don’t say anything, but I can’t help think: when I was a child, they would have been a much bigger deal than that.