Facts, Stories and the Creation of Worlds
An Analysis of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's "News for Kids"
Elizabeth Pauline Lester & Usha Raman
College of Journalism and Mass Communcation
The University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602
Tel: (706) 542-3556
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Facts, Stories and the Creation of Worlds
An Analysis of Atlanta Journal-Constitution's "News for Kids"
While recent textual analyses have focused on portrayals of Others in media,
little critical research has looked at the socializing role of children's media.
In this paper we analyze the News for Kids section of the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, a section that is targetted at children of
upper-elementary through middle-school age. Our textual analysis uncovers five
discursive strategies that NFK uses to construct images of "Us" (the preferred
readers) and "Other" (different and marginalized groups, both international and
local) in ways that sustain existing global and local socio-economic
relationships and heirarchies.
Facts, Stories, and the Creation of Worlds:
Facts & stories
An Analysis of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's "News for Kids"
Recent textual analysis has focused on portrayals of Others in media; along
with the commodification and packaging of other countries and cultures, messages
defining Ourselves abound in media from the most serious such as news to the
most frivolous such as advertising. Very little critical research looks at
children's media; although there are analyses of girl's magazines (McRobbie,
1978), and teen culture (Hebdige, 1979), little attention has been paid to how
children are defined and targeted by news media. In this paper we begin to
redress this omission by analyzing The News for Kids (NFK) section of the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).
We tell children stories for many reasons: to instruct, to give them a sense of
history, to build individual and group identity, to entertain, and to pass on
"cultural secrets" (Postman, 1982), among others. But we also teach children
notions of authority and reliability; thus, a tale told in a Disney feature
cartoon while pervading our cultural milieu is not constructed as an
authoritative and reliable source of information (even while in some sense it
may be treated as such). Here we look at the newspaper, still regarded as a
prestigious form of communication. We originally examined the international
reporting in the NFK section (and especially that which focused on the Atlanta
Olympics) but noticed that some of the same phenomena apparent in foreign news
surfaced in reporting on marginalized groups within the United States--e.g.
African-Americans, women (especially activists), ethnic or religious minorities
(Lester & Raman, In Press). We also noticed that the commodification and
packaging of the Other in this text seemed similar to that noted across
disciplines by Gates, Kabbani, Minh-ha, Appadurai, Fabian, Enloe, Spivak,
Clifford and many others. The characterizations of Others in this modern media
text seemed similar to that noted in academic disciplines, and
political-economic structures, and also in popular communication dating from as
early as the 19th century, such as pamphlets, travelogues, postcards, etc.
We argue that this on-going process is not limited to material intended for
adult audiences (although these have been the primary subject of investigation);
it is part of the socialization of children as well. Our thesis is linked to
the work of Wartella et al.who have documented how media in the twentieth
century have increasingly commercialized young people into a commodified "youth
culture". Also, Postman (1982) notes that initiation into the "real world of
adults involves gaining access to "cultural secrets codified in unnatural
symbols" or symbols that hold the key to the organization of the world. He says
"[l]iterature of all kinds--including maps, charts, contracts and deeds--keep
valuable secrets." (13) For children to pass into the adult world and understand
the world in adult terms, they must be able to recognize the various symbols and
their relative order. They must be able to read the maps; these maps are
provided by adults and reflect the biases and values of their world. Just as
toys are a "microcosm of the adult world" (as Barthes describes in Mythologies),
literature and information for children build a parallel world to that of the
dominant adult culture.
We also link this work with Herman and Chomsky's "propaganda model" of the U.S.
mass media, a model which contradicts our normative assumptions about U.S. news
media.Their political-economy approach encompasses issues of content and has
been applied to textual analysis by several authors (including Lester, 1994;
Acosta-Alzuru & Lester, 1996). However, the model has not been used to look
specifically at children's media.
Lester-Massman proposed using the propaganda model along with a radical focus
on the text to substantiate Herman and Chomsky's observations that there is "a
systematic and highly political dichotomization in news coverage based on
serviceability to important domestic power interests....Not only are choices for
publicity and suppression understood in terms of system advantage, but the modes
of handling favored and inconvenient materials (placement, tone, context,
fullness of treatment) differ in ways that serve political ends." (1988, 35)
Such analyses parallel in spirit work done by Sreberny-Mohammadi on the
treatment of Iran in U.S. newspapers (1995) and by Lule's (1996) analysis of New
York Times coverage of Haiti.
We were interested in finding out whether the content of news for children met
Herman and Chomsky's criteria for "systematic propaganda." We chose newspaper
reporting because this medium occupies a position of privilege; news is one
source of information that we are normatively educated into accepting as
factual. Also, although effects research has paid considerable attention to
the impact on children of televised violence (and some attention to education
benefits of television), relatively little attention has focused on the
socializing role of the mass media. One example of such research is a study by
Hayes & Casey (1992) that found that television played a role in the retention
of emotional reactions among children. Some studies have shown that television
viewing has an influence on the creation of self concept among certain groups of
children (Buckingham, 1993; Stroman, 1986). And Carey writes of the "ritual"
functions of mass media more generally, especially important in constructing
senses of Us and Other.
Numerous articles in Editor & Publisher document the growing interest among
newspapers in reaching young people; for example, special sections have been
created such as the Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal's Sports4Kids page (Garneau,
1992) and the Chicago Tribune's KidNews weekly pullout to mention only two. And
newspapers are not only another medium among competing media; print still enjoys
a reputation as an elite form with special Constitutional protections, long
history of association with democratic principles, and a concomitant use in
classrooms as an authoritative medium. Furthermore, the steady decline of
readership (among the general population and among college graduate and the top
25% of income earners--indicators that formerly predicted readership) has
spurred newspapers to reach out to new audiences as a way to sell advertising
space and to begin to form life-long reading habits--and to maintain and bolster
The questions we sought to answer through our analysis were: how does news
designed for children accomplish the goal of identifying Us and Other? Who is
the preferred reader of our text and who is (are) the Other(s)? What particular
discursive mechanisms are used to achieve this? What points, if any, of
departure are there from the dominant political ideology (and the ideological
reporting noted in news intended for adults)? Does news for children present
images consistent with current inequalities in global and local
The broad research questions that drive our research all come from a concern
with media portrayals of marginalized groups and their potential impact on
audiences that are inundated with congruent messages from various sources, all
of which serve to maintain entrenched socio-economic/ political relationships of
authority/dependence or subservience. And, as noted in research on news for
adults, even where no hierarchical relationships are suggested, there is still
the definition of core and periphery--the mapping of Our world and of groups
internal and external to Our own communities.
NEWS AND CHILDREN
The study questions of course assume that there is a relationship between what
the mass media portray and what we think and believe. There is a large body of
literature that indicates that the media do influence attitudes and to some
extent behavior. As mentioned earlier, these studies have for the most part
focused on entertainment and to a lesser extent education genres.
The 1972 Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and
Social Behavior stressed the powerful impact of media on children. The report
resulted from a one-million dollar study of the relationship between television
content and behavior. Antidotes to the power of a medium with little apparent
prosocial message were limited to suggestions for active parental involvement in
children's media consumption. At the same time, television's potential as an
educational tool or aid was also recognized, and research in the next two
decades also focused on that aspect, while continuing to emphasize behavior and
Few studies, however, have looked at children's relationships to news media,
print or broadcast. These exceptions (Zeese, 1986; Drew & Reese, 1989; Chafee,
Ward & Tipton, 1970; Atkins, 1975; Gunter, 1990) have addressed children's
responses to news of war or violence. But in all these cases, the content
focused on was news for a general (adult) audience, not news tailored
specifically for children. Some of this research has indicated that children do
react significantly to images portrayed in the news; their ideas about the world
are formed and influenced by these images (Quigley, 1989; Buckingham, 1993).
Research that considers the content of international news in U.S. media has
noted the construction of international Others in a manner that is consistent
with United States foreign policy (Lester, 1994; Lule, 1996; Acosta-Alzuru &
Lester, 1996). There is, then, a "grand narrative" that runs through all media
forms that promote essentially the same view of the world. Stephens (1994)
notes, in the context of children's literature, that
The patterns of cultural assumption which shape a
grand narrative promote conformity to socially determined and
approved patterns of behavior, which they do by offering
positive role models, proscribing undesirable social behavior,
and affirming the culture's ideologies, systems and
institutions. (p. 23)
By structuring children's media forms in ways similar to adult media forms
(news, in this case), children's news apparently serves a socializing function.
In this manner, children learn what the nation expects of them (and what/who is
the nation), and what they are to expect of themselves and others.
An additional stream of research that is pertinent to our analysis is work that
investigates the commercialization of children's media forms. Wartella discusses
the commercialization of youth (Wartella, 1995) in terms of the consumer
environment through the past four decades, linking the advent of each new medium
to an increasingly market-oriented attempt to commodify young people, changing
"childhood" from a demographic indicator to a target audience. This is reflected
in newspapers' (and in cases such as Nickelodeon, television's) attempt to
expand their news audiences by targeting younger consumers.
We were attracted to our object of study by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's
weekly section "News for Kids," and we asked questions about differences and
similarities in the content of news for children and news for adults. These
questions seemed important for two reasons. First, if children's news is
significantly congruent with news for adults, the 1972 Surgeon General's
recommendation that parents teach their children to view media messages
critically may be severely restricted by the very similarity of presentation. If
news for children is but a simplified version of the regular news, then it may
be difficult for an already socialized adult to read it critically, much less
teach a child to do so. Second, whether or not readers/viewers enjoy news, it
continues to play an important role in their lives, by providing a particular
view of the world, and by (albeit innocuously at times) laying down the
organizing principles of mainstream society. Print media are of higher value to
adults, especially authorities and opinion makers (Barnhurst & Wartella, 1991).
Barnhurst & Wartella show that children are introduced to newspapers at an early
age and come to accept them as authoritative even if they are "boring and
unrelated to their lives."
Although our study focuses on one newspaper, we situate the news for children
within other cultural forms that young people in this country regularly
encounter: television, music, films, toys, theme parks, computer games, and many
more. Our text is therefore part of a broader cultural milieu in which Others
are regularly defined for children, both by media and other institutions.
Textual analysis as a method for investigating how meanings are created is
particularly applicable because it recognizes that the text being studied exists
in relation to both its conditions of production as well as its reception and
interpretation. Yet, with a radical focus on the text, one is able to read
traces of both without becoming embroiled in issues of intention on the one hand
and in the multiple individual interpretations on the other.
It is therefore acknowledged that the text is produced within a variety of
institutional and professional constraints, that the text exists as an artefact
and that it constructs both dominant readings (interpretations) and preferred
readers (subjects) although readers may in actuality occupy a continuum ranging
from active engagement to boredom or resistance. Barthes' notion of a readerly
text helps us understand newspapers in that their preferred reading and reader
is in many ways strictly confined (Barthes, 1972, 1974).
Textual analysis proceeds from a "long preliminary soak" (Hall) in the material
to an extremely close reading of the specific text. In our case, we immersed
ourselves in the "News for Kids" columns along with the surrounding editorial,
advertising and graphic materials that it was positioned with. This meant
noting and reading other local news columns and adjoining ads, etc. We then
decided on a specific text for analysis.
This included all the columns that referred to "Other" groups: international
news, women, minorities within the United States, activists and other
marginalized groups. We also looked at a selection of columns about U.S.
traditions and customs, which seemed to define the dominant culture. We began,
therefore, by reading all "News for Kids" columns since it had first appeared
(late 1993) through October 1996. We then selected for closer examination those
columns that fit the description(s) given above. These columns seemed to fall
under a number of general themes according to which we grouped them, as
discussed further in our analysis.
The propaganda model adapted for textual analysis suggest that discursive
strategies structure the text; it is possible to unpack ideological meaning in a
text without special knowledge about the particular subject or content of the
text by remaining alert to the strategies that provide the structure. The model
situates the media text as a kind of ideological apparatus which contributes to
the formation of nationalism and its attendant values. Textual analysis also
reveals how ideological dimensions structure production (reporting, editorial,
graphic, work conditions) and suggest how, in spite of various ways of
"reading," the text positions readers relentlessly. This is an important
strength of textual analysis: neither production (encoding) nor the audience
(decoding and responses) are un-acknowledged.A radical focus on the text can
also reveal how ideological dimensions structure production and condition its
reading. And a hoped-or consequence of textual analysis is to provide a key to
unlocking the ideological formation of a text--a text which otherwise appears
Object of Analysis: Atlanta Journal-Constitution's "News for Kids"
Beginning in the fourth quarter of 1993, "News for Kids" has appeared every
Monday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, on page 3 of every section (it
appears on the third page of the main section, on the third page of the local
section, the sports section and the business section). While many major
newspapers carry special children's sections as a pullout, the decision to
incorporate children's material into the body of the main newspaper was a
strategic one for this newspaper. Children are encouraged to spend time with the
newspaper, learning about its organization and environment. According to Julie
Bookman, the NFK section editor, the paper is "extremely concerned...about
hooking kids on newspapers; we believe that the newspaper can be a very valuable
resource" (personal communication). Approximately 45,000 children receive the
Monday newspaper in their classrooms, where it is used as an educational tool by
teachers. This figure does not include other children who may see it in their
homes. The material is written for junior high level or upper elementary school,
but is often also used by high-school students as a quick source of up-to-date
The section occupies the top half of page three of each section, with the lower
half usually containing advertisements or other editorial material. Stories for
"News for Kids" are written by the section editor or by regular news staff,
including those stationed overseas. Occasionally children or their parents are
recruited to write a column. Reader interaction is encouraged through a weekly
opinion poll (the NFK Opinion Line).
Our attention was initially drawn by a feature within NFK which was started in
May 1995, "Kids Around the World." According to Julie Bookman, the feature's
purpose was to give children "an idea of how alike and how different" they are
from others around the world. The column works as a "snapshot" of children from
other countries which will "speak right to the kids" of metro Atlanta. This
directed our attention to the portrayal of other "outsiders" in the section:
international Others, socially or culturally marginalized groups, those who fall
outside the Mainstream. In an earlier work (Lester & Raman, In Press) we focused
on portrayal of international Others in coverage of the centennial Olympic
Games. Here we extend that analysis to the section as a whole. In this paper, we
examine one small section of the media map (or Appadurai's "media-scape"), a
part which draws for children the lines that connect them to their past and
future, and define their relationships with the Outer and the Other worlds.
Our long soak in NFK, the suggestiveness of our model, and our close reading
led us to identify several discursive strategies: (1) professional journalistic
discourse combined with the special international news strategy of disaster
reporting; (2) promotion of capitalism and the separation of adult-world and
child-world: (3) "History" and "Heritage," a seamless past or one delinked from
the present, i.e. an alternative time; (4) the foreign Other as either "like us"
(good) or exotic (good, i.e. more pristine and less advanced or bad, often a
form of anti-communism/demonization (one of Herman and Chomsky's five filters);
and (5) local Others as differentiated by race, gender or ethnicity and
demarcated from Us by their linkages to an exotic past or their lack of history.
Our analysis demonstrates how these strategies work to construct the social
formation for the children of Atlanta and trains children to continue to be
ready to accept the authority of news.
Of primary importance is the establishment of journalism and the news as
natural and authoritative categories. First of all, in spite of the fact that
"News for Kids" spices up journalistic style in an effort to be appealing to
children, basic journalistic practices are observed from locating types of
stories in specific sections (local, business, sports, etc.) to using news
values to determine newsworthiness and writing in an "objective" style. To
further bolster the authority of the newspaper, several specific columns overtly
address the topic of news gathering, journalism and journalists. Several
different columns stress that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is an old,
venerable institution (e.g. 3/7/94, E3;10/17, 94, A3 &B3), that journalists are
"professionals" with highly distinctive specializations (e.g. "Journalists are
people who are trained to gather news, check out facts and report accurate
information...[which] helps people make informed decisions about their world."
10/17/94 A3) and that journalism is a modern, complex occupation (e.g. 10/17/94
A3 &10/17/94 E3). Explaining the technological aspect of journalism in the
Business section suggests that journalists from reports to editors,
photographers to designers are knowledgeable computer experts who have
integrated the skills of high technology with the values of an oppositional
(watch dog) profession. For example:
..."The Atlanta Journal-Constitution"....name was a
kind of protest: Georgia was still under military rule, and the
editor wanted the state's constitution restored."
"This year the AJC was among the first newspapers in
the country to go on line, sending its information and stories
out over a computer network. It's called Access
Atlanta....Start up kits are available at local software stores.
News values are carefully explained: the notion that "There are six basic
questions you ask when interviewing someone for a news story: who, what, when,
why, and how." is followed by an analysis of a story. The importance of the new
is expressed as a contrast between the (diachronic) ancient ("simple and
isolated" 10/17/94, A3) and the complex modern (the synchronic present): "Our
world is no longer a place [where what] happens on the other side of the world,
such as war in Iraq or Kuwait, [doesn't] affect us here."
So it's important to gather all the information and
tell people about what is going on.That's the job of
newspapers. Newspaper reporters and editors keep track of all
the news, find out the facts and present them to readers. This
is called journalism. (10/17/94, A3)
Journalists are the heroes of this discourse with editors, production, clerical
supports, artists and others barely visible and with management and ownership
apparently nonexistent. Reporters are described as moving through ranks so that
eventually "you can become a 'specialized' reporter who writes about a
particular subject. Among this paper's 189 writers and reporters are specialty
writers in science, baseball, arts, crime and many more topics." (n.d.) This
kind of writing stresses individual accomplishment while effectively masking (or
eliminating) structural constraints and the role of big business. This strategy,
as we will show, is utilized in other ways to stress individual responsibility
as opposed to collective action as a means of solving problems.
Capitalism: one world order
Strategies segue into each other as in a Jan. 29, 1996 article about one
"specialized reporter," a consumer advice journalist named Clark Howard. Howard
is a popular Atlanta journalist who comments currently on "consumer" issues for
both local radio and television, although he started his career at the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution. News for Kids defines "consumer" for its readers as
all-inclusive: "anyone, from child to adult, who buys products...or services,
for his or her personal use of to give to others." (E3) Clearly such a
definition brings every human being into relations of capitalist exchange with
journalists serving as mediators in the exchange. The headline, "How does Clark
Howard know all those things?" establishes this media personality and, by
extension in the article, journalists in general, as having access to
specialized knowledge which they share with others for altruistic reasons.
Clark's authority comes form "reading three newspapers every day and 30 or so
magazines each month;" thus, journalism is both source and authority.
This specialized knowledge allows journalists to define, with particular
authority, the world in which children find themselves and their place in it.
The United States (or, "America" as the column repeatedly refers to this
country), home of the preferred reader, is a place of order, a place where
people obey a "higher law" known as the Constitution: "In America, people who
don't like what a lower court decides to do have the right to appeal their cases
to more powerful courts.... Our Constitution is the supreme law of the land."
(7/11/1994 A3) The same article goes on to talk about specific Supreme Court
decisions that affect children directly. This orderly state, ruled by a
benevolent higher law, is also caring of its downtrodden and disenfranchised:
"States, cities and school districts get money from the government that helps
them care for those who are too young, too old, too sick or too poor to take
care of themselves." (3/25/1996 A3) The country has evolved from a state where
all may not have been, well, perfect, to one which is fair, and for the most
part, good to its children: "A hundred years ago in America, even kids were
sometimes forced to work very long hours in dangerous places. The labor movement
brought changes so that now laws say kids under 15 can't work at full-time
jobs." (9/5/1994 E3)
In all these cases, the state is depicted as disembodied, an entity that is not
made up of real people, but of laws and rules and somewhat abstract
institutions. Thus, the frame chosen to explain the labor movement is peopled
not by real actors who were reacting to conditions imposed by other real people,
but by a faceless conglomeration of "16 million workers... who have joined
together to bargain with their boss for pay raises and what they are required to
do at work." (9/5/1994 E3) The same day next year (9/4/1995 E3), the column uses
labor day to talk about child labor in other countries:
Today is Labor Day, a good time to think about the
hard and tiring work that children used to have to do in this
country. It is still a way of life for many children in other
countries, especially poor nations such as Pakistan, China,
Thailand, Burma and several Central American countries.
The chances are good that many things you own--some
of your games and toys, perhaps your shoes, were made by
children in other countries.
The column goes on to emphasize that the United States, in contrast, has laws
that prevent the exploitation of children. Again, this is an opportunity missed
to encourage children to think critically about the global economy, in ways that
may lead them to question the larger system that produces these inequities. But
then, this is a strategy that underlies this form of discourse; there is the
appearance of criticism without generating the climate for critique. Children,
instead, are encouraged to deal with the system, to learn its ways and live by
them. Take for instance, two columns about the Iowa Test of Basic Skills
(3/14/1994 B3 and 3/11/1996 B3) which exhort readers to "Sharpen your
test-taking skills" and get ready for a test which provides a "quick and easy
way to figure out how much you know --and what you might need to learn." While
providing sound and sensible test-taking advice, the writer also show children
how to deal with questions that they may not have answers to by using some
clever guesswork. Subtly, children are shown that the system does have its
built-in loopholes that the adroit can use to their advantage.
On the one hand, though the column indicates in many ways that the preferred
reader belongs to a largely homogeneous system that is caring and just,
environment friendly and fair, it also defines the kid-world as being separate
and different from the adult-world. This allows the column to continue to touch
upon seemingly serious issues (such as labor, political corruption, gender
stereotyping and civil rights) without actually involving children in the
issues. Exceptions to this, however, are problems of violence (which seems
logical, given that most media-related work on children has to do with violent
behavior) and the environment. Here children are encouraged to take
responsibility and try to make a difference. A report on "Stand for Children"
(6/3/1996 A3) quotes a child, "Some parents put their children in a mess. It's
not the children's fault and we have to help them." And then, "Parents sometimes
don't talk to their kids about crime...." (8/21/1995 C3) (Significantly, the
photographs in both columns are of African-American children.) Here again, the
stress is on individualism ("What you can do") rather than collective
organization and our responsibility as a culture, as a society.
The delimitation of the kid-world also allows NFK to spend a lot of time and
space talking about products and services for children, in a way stating that
the kid-world is organized around toys, fun and games (apart from school) while
the adult world revolves around more serious issues. In this way NFK is able to
fulfil an unstated purpose that drives much children's entertainment--to provide
advertisers with a way to define and reach a particular market. Our
interpretation is in concordance with what Wartella describes as the
"commodification" of youth culture. Among the "serious" columns is one on
"Making your allowance work for you" (2/12/1996 E3) which, while providing good
advice on how to earn and save money, begins by saying: "How do kids get the
games, toys and mall money they've just got to have?" thereby rather obviously
encouraging the materialism that defines capitalistic society.
From there it is a short step to the numerous columns devoted to reviewing and
describing a variety of children's products and services, from Disney
merchandise to video games to books and movies. Logically enough, these columns
tend to appear mostly around the holiday months--Christmas, Thanksgiving,
summer. Straightforward reviews of and reactions to movies and plays (Tales of a
Fourth Grade Nothing, 3/25/1996 B3; Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, 6/24/1996
B3) are interspersed with promotional tidbits such as "And there's great music
too, from bouncy tunes to haunting melodies that celebrate the culture of
Indians who lived in our country centuries ago." ("Pocahontas," 6/28/1995 B3).
Never mind that Indians are generally referred to as "Native Americans" these
days and "our country" was also "their country." The same column refers readers
to a special issue of "Disney Adventure" magazine and a live Disney-staged show
at Atlanta's Fox theater. And then there are the product reviews. News for Kids
mirrors children's advertising on television by featuring mass produced
big-company products such as toys (games from Parker Brothers, toys from Mattel;
1/1/1996 E3) and food products (Cocoa mix from Swiss Miss, 2/5/1996 E3; and
Wheaties cereal, 1/15/1996 E3) and making it news by including quotes from
readers. Entire product categories are promoted, too, as with beepers, which
kids are turning to "to stay in touch with parents and pals." (3/25/1996 E3)
Located in Atlanta, the Journal-Constitution is connected in many ways to
Coca-Cola, a corporation with which it shares a history and whose growth
parallels and in some ways mirrors the growth of a largely Americanized global
culture . Coca-Cola is, after all, "an important company to Atlanta," one that
has been "good to its hometown." (3/20/1995 E3) The column invites readers to
visit the company's "World of Coca-Cola." While Coca-Cola's influence as a
global corporation is not explored here, another column begins a dialogue on
Disney's marketing machine (5/22/1995 E3). The column points to Disney's
merchandising activities but ends, simply by saying "With each new movie, Disney
gets better at marketing" without really getting the reader to question the
operation. This strategy of simply describing without critiquing is evident in
other NFK columns which deal with trends in kids' fashions and tastes. Designer
labels and big makers are scattered throughout an article on spring fashion
(3/13/1995 B3) while another defines "what's hot and what's not" at a local
middle school (3/13/1995 C3).
We think it is significant that in these "consumer" columns no connection is
made with larger issues that perhaps drive commerce and fashion and sustain it.
Therefore, although a column may discuss child labor in Pakistan or Thailand, it
exists distanced from a column on shoes and toys that may be produced by the
labor of those very same children. Of course, this is a strategy that is not
peculiar to news for children; it is typical of news reporting in general. It
is also one more way of both distinguishing the kid-world of fun and games from
the adult world of issues and problems (even where those problems involve
children) and of sustaining the news-advertising nexus.
The separation of adult and kid world is accompanied by the separation of the
preferred reader from the marginalized portions of society. Overall, the columns
seem to construct as subject a child who is white, middle-class, who has liberal
Protestant parents who are not part of the elements that cause problems in the
United States. In a column that discusses the sensitive issue of corporate
downsizing, much of the column is addressed to children who are not affected by
...there are probably children in your neighborhood
or school who are having a hard time. So try to be
understanding. Offer words of encouragement to classmates with
parents out of work. Think of how you would feel if your mom or
dad were in the same fix. (3/18/1996 A3)
In a piece on holidays, an NFK writer talks about how "adults' vacation time
is up to the boss" (1/2/1995 E3) and goes on to list the conventionally observed
holidays in this country. As an aside, it talks about holidays observed by
different ethnic groups outside the United States. However, there is no
acknowledgement that many of these ethnic groups comprise a significant
percentage of the "American" population. So the "you" in the article is
obviously not of these Other ethnicities. The fact that the preferred reader is
not from a marginal group is also evident from the lead to an article about Anne
Frank (8/4/1994 A3): "What would you do if America elected a leader who decided
he was going to hate you--and hurt you--because of your religion? Or your family
background? Or your last name?" Both holidays and historic events thus are
defined by a cultural core; those that lie outside this core are objects of
curiosity and interest, perhaps sympathy, but nothing more.
These Others, as our continuing analysis will show, are not just people of
different ethnicities and classes, but also those who are "different" in other
ways, those who do not fall within the core of patriarchal Western society.
Included in this periphery are activists (other than those who have fought for
"Our" way of life), people with disabilities (objects of compassion and
charity), the poor and disenfranchised. Thus, while on Jan 29, 1996 (B3), NFK
asks, "How can you help the homeless?" it does not ask what conditions of our
society produce homelessness.
The section does, to its credit, try to highlight women achievers and
occasionally queries a system where most prime time sports are men's sports
("Why are most sports on TV for men, like football?" 10/10/1994 D3) and ballet
is considered to be for girls ("Ballet: it's for boys and girls, but NO wimps"
6/21/1994 B3). In these cases too, though, there is the suggestion that the
system itself is okay, it may have the occasional flaw. Consider, for instance,
these excerpts from an article entitled "Why can't girls play baseball,
basketball and football like boys can" (7/10/1995 C3): "Compared to boys, girls
are not as competitive in jumping and throwing events" or "And girls are
starting to catch up with boys in some sports." Here women are recognized for
attaining standards set by men; the standards themselves are not questioned. In
"A day for daughters," (4/24/1995 E3), the Ms. Foundation for Women is described
as a "national organization that helps women and girls." Of all the columns we
read, the one where the system itself (and the entertainment industry that is
part of it) is questioned had to do with why girls do not like video games (
n.d.): "NFK readers say Sega and Nintendo are too violent and make girls look
If these Others are different from Us, then, it follows that "Our" history is
different from "Theirs." Marginal groups tend to have a complex and often
confusing "heritage" while the core has a "history."
History and Heritage: Real and Mythic
Constructions of us and other get rooted in history and heritage and News for
Kids covers history primarily as it relates to holidays. For example,
Thanksgiving as a U.S holiday is treated as an historical fact, whereas Passover
as a minority religious holiday is treated as a slightly exotic ritualized event
(4/10/1995 A3). The range of Atlanta's museums, from science and natural
history to local college and university museums provide the journalistic hook of
timeliness (as well as opportunities for promotion of fee-based events) to
history. Museums are places where Our history is preserved and Others' heritage
is showcased. Historical curiosities also fit into the journalistic value of
"human interest" and enable NFK to define both the history of the community
(defining by both inclusion and exclusion) and its points of separation from and
occasional connection with distant and different kinds of heritage.
Two examples of how holidays are constructed as secular and therefore "normal"
may suffice. Thanksgiving, for example, is honored with the headline "...Kids
who settled Plymouth Colony. (11/11/94, D3) Life among the "Pilgrims" or the
"Saints of the Mayflower" is described in terms of "religious freedom [the]
quest [that] would bring many settlers to America...." and in terms of the
prevalence of disease and famine. Missing from the description is any reference
to native Americans except in a side-bar recipe for "Indian pudding."
Interesting there is a fleeting reference to class: "Richard Moore, an orphan,
was an indentured servant (a worker under contract)." All the other children are
identified by name, age and some personal characteristics; Richard Moore, as a
"worker," is not.
Another "secular" holiday, strangely enough, is Christmas--it is described in
terms of such criteria as Christmas trivia ("What was the first company to give
employees a Christmas bonus (extra money)? [Answer] The F. W. Woolworth
Company") and an explanation of "How SANTA got his start". The initial line of
the story reads, "In six days, kids all over the world will wake up to see what
Santa Claus has brought them for Christmas." (12/19/94, A3) No qualification is
offered in terms of religion and although the origin of Santa involves a priest
who became a bishop, no mention is specifically made of Catholicism, nor is it
mentioned that Santa is a Christian figure.
Occasionally history connects "us" to a seamless past; for example "On
President's Day, we check out...The Men on the Money" (1/19/96, E3); another
example is: "How did calendars get started, and how did the whole world agree on
what day it would be?" (1/9/95, B3) The most overt example of how News for Kids
explains history is in the 1/2/95 (C3) article "Tracing your tree: genealogy is
guaranteed family fun!" This places history clearly in the realm of "our" shared
past experience. Seamlessness connects Us to history by treating our present as
an inevitable outcome of the past, a sort of evolutionary process that has
bettered and strengthened Us.
The tone of most of these stories is light, one of frivolous attention to a
past that is part of "our" present. Even the last, the story on genealogy,
makes the practice of history into a kind of game. A few stories, however, are
serious, primarily those that deal with wars. The memories of D-Day and
Hiroshima (6/6/94 A3 &7/31/95 A3) are both occasions for evocations of the sense
of importance of cataclysmic events. Yet even in these stories, a lightness of
tone seems to resonate in the use of sports metaphors describing international
relations and a concomitant congratulatory gayness that We were on the side of
right. Other, more distant wars, are described in terms of actual games, as in
the "Encampment (sic) great way to see what Civil War life was life." (7/17/95
B3) The Encampment is an event for which admission is charged; again,
significantly, the participant pictured is an African-American boy.
Independence Day is described with the headline " A Little Taste of the
Revolution." This article is about food, primarily deserts such as "strawberry
fool." (4/3/95 A3)
But these articles about history represent a smaller part of the news in which
history plays a part; the other group seems to address issues of heritage, that
is a history that is delinked with the present, a kind of mythical history. One
example is in the article headlined "Folklorist: She captures traditional
stories, songs and art." (2/26/96 E3) According to this article, "[b]eing a
folklorist...usually requires at least a bachelor's degree...[and pays] between
$15,000 to $75,000 [with an] average...about $35,000...." This article overtly
opposes nature and culture, suggesting that the subject of a folklorist is
nature, while at the same time the folklorist is cultured--by education, by
class, race and ethnicity:
A favorite project [the folklorist] did ... Making a
documentary of gandy dancers. The art form was developed by
black men while working on the railroad For me, a white
Northeastern woman...to bond with these older black men was a
privilege. These men had a life of difficult labor and had
faced incredible hardships. Yet out of all that painful
experience they made art.
China and Egypt are most commonly evoked as our common heritage. This
evocation is linked with Atlanta museum displays: mummies, Buddhas, pyramids,
"the great dinosaurs of China," Pharaohs, and other signifiers of an exotic past
make a heritage out of an historical past, heritage preserved as an immobilized
object, preserved also as"news". The news value is, strangely enough,
timeliness: the news is the (commercial) announcement of an exhibition. But
this kind of news/heritage also constructs a common past: Egypt/China (Middle
East/Far East) but as heritage, not as the connected past that is reported in
what we call history as different from heritage.
The "Other" world: Disorder
Perhaps the headline "Weird Fruits" (5/15/95,B3) would make a more appropriate
subheading for this section of analysis. "Weird" fruits such as plantains,
kiwis, papayas, mangos, carambolas and persimmons are compared to "[a]pples...
Popular snacks... As familiar as your blue jeans." Certainly nationality is
constructed as a natural part of our world and we are always U.S. Citizens;
others are foreign and all kinds of cultural artifacts also get constructed as
foreign or "normal" from fruits, to language, (8/22/94 D3), to currency.
"[F]rom dinars to dollars" (6/10/96,E3) explains how currencies are exchanged
across borders (and this specific article was specifically concerned with
"foreign visitors need[ing] American money" to spend at the Atlanta Olympics);
"Helping the world's children" (10/24/94,A3) explains how small amounts of money
can "help children in poor and war-torn countries...[e.g.] 50 cents buys
medicine to treat one child with tuberculosis for two weeks." In both cases,
however, currency and its exchange is treated as a curiosity, something which
"we" possess in abundance and which we share with others. Another topic tackled
in News for Kids is GATT (12/26/94,A3); but after a four column account GATT is
dismissed (and concomitantly journalistic authority enhanced) with the question:
"Want to read it? It might take you months to actually read the GATT agreement.
It is the size of four telephone directories."
International reporting tends to follow the "coups and earthquakes" approach
with the twist of making news palatable for the younger audience. Thus even
more clearly than in reporting targeted to adults, there is always a savior
within even the briefest story. Reporting on sub-Saharan Africa is invariably
grim. The only stories on African issues have the following headlines: "What is
Ebola and can I get it?" (n.d.); "Why are all those people dying in Rwanda?"
(8/8/94 A3); "Bloodshed in Rwanda," (4/18/94 A3). There are two stories, both
in May 1994 (5/2 A3 & 5/16 A3) about South Africa; this reportage is far more
contextually grounded than the other sub-Saharan African stories. In both cases
a brief but concrete history is provided to explain current phenomena in that
By contrast, the two stories about Rwanda, one about disease, the other about
war, cast a mythic shadow over recent events:
Rwanda (ruh-WAN-da) and Burundi (Ba-RUN-dee)...are
green and beautiful, and volcanic mountains dominate the
landscape. A race of small people called Pygmies live in the
area. The rain forests also are home to about 300 of the 600
rare mountain gorillas left in the wild.
Rwanda and Burundi share similar land, languages and
problems. But two groups--the Hutu (HOO-too) and Tutsi
(TOOT-see)--have fought for centuries to control the region.
The article moves from 1400 to 1959 within the space of one sentence. The one
and one-third column-length story is side-bordered by a 1/2-width column titled
"Gorillas are in Trouble" and headed by a picture of Signourney Weaver playing a
character in the film "Gorillas in the Mist." ((4/18/94 A3) In both stories the
pristine authenticity of distant past is contrasted with an inexplicably and
hopelessly compromised present. The impact of the language of the reporting and
the film promotional picture (which is placed in the upper left-hand corner (a
place of emphasis since it is there that the eye moves from to complete the
story) is to mystify the present in a mythic heritage; as the sub-headline
states "Centuries of hatred explode into violence." The news story reads like a
cautionary tale. Long ago, before the "centuries of hatred" lay a verdant Garden
of Eden. The African tribes are a primitive-bad, again in contrast to the land,
a pristine-good. This also contrasts with the way in which We are connected to
our past; our history has ennobled, while their heritage has weakened.
Other areas of the world are also covered in News for Kids and "trouble" is the
operative word. "Trouble in the Mideast," (3/11/96 A3) "Why is Cuba in serious
Trouble?" (1/10/94 A3), "Trouble in Korea" (3/28/94 A3), and "A Very Scary
Disease: plague reappears in India...." (10/10/94 A3) are representative. But
perhaps some of the most interesting reporting deals with U.S. near neighbors
such as Haiti and Cuba. The headline "Why did the United State invade Haiti?"
(10/3/94 A3) is answered in prominent subheads: "To ease suffering...to promote
democracy...[and] to stop the Haitian boat people." In this, as in most
international reporting, the United States almost always unilaterally solves the
Similarly reporting on Cuba clearly meets the Herman-Chomsky filter criteria
for anti-communism. Two examples: "Longing for Freedom: Cubans risk lives to
escape dictator" (8/29/94 A3) and "Why is Cuba in Serious Trouble?" (1/10/94
Cuba is a Communist country....The Soviets used Cuba
as a base for weapons and to annoy the United States with a
Communist presence right off our coast...We will not sell that
country any food or supplies, because we do not agree with its
Communist government....Each month, world leaders expect to hear
that Cuba's government has collapsed. But so far, Castro and
his followers have stayed in power. MANY PEOPLE IN CUBA DO NOT
LIKE CASTRO BECAUSE HE IS A DICTATOR. (Capitals in original)
This excerpt is true to the tone of both articles about Cuba. Communism is
demonized like no other world system (although there is no reporting on other
"rogue" nations such as Iran and Libya), and compared with something "normal."
Communism is described in the third person whereas responses to Communism are
written in the first person. The result is that Cuba and communism are
represented as distant systems; "we" are human beings with thought and feelings,
and we respond to troubles with appropriate emotions.
Closer to Home: Local Others
While in some sense it may be both easy and understandable that international
Others are constructed as being so different from Us, our close examination of
NFK revealed that marginalized groups within the U.S. are also positioned as
distanced from the core. Groups that have been discussed at some length include
Native Americans, African-Americans and occasionally, Jews. Occasionally a
special holiday or a colorful ethnic festival provides the opportunity to
"showcase" some of Atlanta's diversity: Chinese New Year, St. Patrick's Day,
etc. As mentioned earlier, marginalized groups are connected with some oddity of
culture, localized in time and space, or a Center-defined "historic moment"
(such as milestones in the Civil Rights movement).
Jewish heritage, for instance, is discussed almost always in connection with
festivals or holidays like Hanukkah (11/28/1994 B3) or Passover. Traditions
associated with such festivals are singled out for description and framed as
foreign so as to be interesting to the Mainstream: "Hanukkah would be a really
tough word in a spelling bee because there are so many ways to spell it in
English. That's because it is a Hebrew word and the Hebrew alphabet is very
different from the English alphabet."
Native Americans seem to present a peculiar dilemma: how much responsibility
can "We" (the core) accept for the state of this community (or communities)? Of
the three columns that concentrated on Native Americans, two deal with specifics
of culture. In a Nov. 28, 1994 (A3) article, NFK responds to a child's query
"Why are Indians now referred to as Native Americans?" The article answers,
"More Indian people are being called Native Americans because many of them
believe the term 'indian' is an ignorant and inaccurate name for who they are."
The agents that caused the crisis of identity and culture among this group are
distanced from the present Core; they are referred to as 'people in Europe'.
Unlike other NFK pieces where children's voices are heard, in these articles no
Native American children are interviewed for their opinions. This makes the
group even more distant to the preferred reader. The second article (5/223/1995
B3) describes a special program, the Indian Guides, that teaches children about
the "value of Native American culture," which, obviously, then is not a part of
"Our" culture but something that has to be specially sought. The third piece
(5/22/1995 A3) more specifically addresses the issue of the marginalization of
Native Americans but again sidesteps the issue of responsibility: "As a group,
Native Americans have many problems. They don't make as much money as other
Americans." Here, there is a unstated acknowledgement that economic power is
political and cultural power.
The construction of African Americans as a marginal group is perhaps the most
interesting facet of this part of our analysis. Blacks comprise a significant
proportion (slightly more than half) of Atlanta's population and an important
part of the history of the South. That they represent a culture and have an
identity that is different from the core is acknowledged in the coverage
patterns. Each year, there is a nod to famous black leaders and achievers during
Black History month and around Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Civil rights
issues are defined by NFK narrowly, as race relations; civil rights are almost
always discussed under the umbrella of 'Black History" (as in 1/31/1994 A3).
There is a telescoping of time, with the 1950s and 1960s somehow presented as a
distant past (although clearly this is within the lifetime of most parents of
NFK readers). Issues such as segregation and affirmative action are carefully
distanced from any real actors--or authors--in the present time. They were
products of a society that was different from what "We" are today:
...try to imagine that there was a time in Atlanta
when you could only drink from a water fountain labeled just for
That was more than 30 years ago, when your parents
were children. This was a time when people of different races
were separated. The practice was called segregation.
And again, in a Jan 17, 1994 (A3) article, there is an underlying dissociation
from what may be considered a negative past. "If black people rode on buses,
they had to sit in the back, away from whites. And if they went to movie
theaters, they had to sit in a special section.This was called segregation, and
it was the law in southern states." The message is that "We" are not
responsible; society as it existed then was.
In an article about slavery (11/7/1994 A3), the same tone is used to describe,
in clinical economic terms, what slavery means: "Slavery is when one person owns
another person." With a brief reference to the practice of slavery in the United
States where, since the Civil War, "slavery has been outlawed," the article
goes on to say that "a few countries ignore the laws and continue to practice
forms of slavery." Predictably, these are countries like Mauritania (a black
African nation), Haiti and Pakistan. The connections between these conditions
and the global political economy are ignored, thereby effectively retaining our
distance and separation from the poor and exploited.
Each year during Martin Luther King's birthday there is the soul searching that
pervades most news media, about the extent to which his dream has been realized.
NFK is no exception. In the form of collected quotes and random interviews with
children, they too take annual stock and reflect for a day, or a week.
But what about African Americans in the present? Freaknik, Atlanta's annual
outdoor party that attracts young blacks of college age, is considered by many
in the city to be a disruptive and rowdy event. NFK (4/15/1996 C3) notes that
"Freaknik has created problems such as traffic jams, rowdy crowds and lots of
litter." Accompanying photos show young people seated on the roof of a car,
others dancing and thronging already busy Atlanta streets. In an earlier
article (12/12/1994), NFK describes the event in noncommittal terms, followed
by: "But Freaknik has created many problems for Atlanta." This separates those
that participate in the event from "Atlanta" "our" city.
Stories about violence (referred to earlier) and poverty almost exclusively
feature African Americans in accompanying photographs, and although they are not
explicitly identified as victims or perpetrators the unmistakable association is
The defense, in journalistic terms, is that the newspaper "mirrors" society,
only reflecting what there is to see. While there may be some validity to
this--we hesitate to say "truth"--it must be acknowledged, at least
occasionally, that the mirror only reflects a surface view, and we need to dig
deeper, underneath the surface, to capture more than that. All News for Kids
columns are bordered by a broken line above which are the words: "Clip and
Save." The implication is that these fragments of information represent a
valuable resource, that "Truth" they represent is static, never changing, always
This unpacking of the specific strategies used to define issues, peoples and
events shows that NFK, along with,perhaps many other news media messages, do in
fact serve to support and reinforce the dominant ideology--capitalism--and
sustain the inequitable global political-economic relationships of the day.
News for children, as typified by NFK, creates images of Self and Other through
the use of such discursive strategies, and in doing so, builds an image of the
preferred reader as that is distanced and separated from those that lie outside
the cultural core. Discursive mechanisms are established through journalistic
authority: the definition of history and heritage, the delimitation of realms of
responsibility and action, the distancing of the preferred reader from a
sometimes questionable heritage but simultaneously connecting this subject to a
positive history, and the creation of other worlds as exotic, objectified,
primitive and often disorderly and violent as opposed to our own, which is
orderly and governed by clear laws. This element cements into place a
subjectivity that may directly contradict the reader's direct lived experience.
Our critique of News for Kids is not a criticism of the editors' efforts. It is
an attempt to show that beneath the surface of accepted journalistic practice
lies an undeniable ideological framework that not only supports whatever is said
and written, but builds and sustains beliefs that reflect that ideology in those
who hear or read it. Again, it works within and in tandem with a larger
media-scape that helps create our world and defines our position in it.
Recognizing these strategies and reading between and beyond them is one way to
empower ourselves toward greater understanding of the way the world is
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