Every year children look forward to going to school, some for the first time and others returning for the next level of their education. During these periods, media normally reports extensively on children, education and other challenges besieging the schools and the education sector as a whole.

News reporting on back to school over the years has become somewhat predictable, as similar issues are being covered year on year. The typical coverage of back to school period includes crying and/or sad faces verses happy smiling faces of new grade one learners, school admissions nightmares, infrastructure challenges among others.

Every year, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) analyses how media reports on children going back to school at the beginning of the year. This year was no exception as we monitored Cape Argus, Cape times, Business day, Daily Sun, Sowetan, The Citizen and The Star. It should be noted that the media used in the analysis below are some examples of good and bad practice in news reporting. This is not an indication that these were the only media that reported on back to school during this period. These media outlets were selected because they represent  some of the major English daily newspapers from different media houses in South Africa.

MMA’s observation of this coverage over the past years has not changed much from the description above. This was the case even this year as we found that although there were fewer images of children crying as compared to the previous years, media focused on similar issues and similar manner of coverage. For this analysis, we will be highlighting a sample of articles that stood out in terms of issues covered as well as images that were published.

Daily Sun published a spread of images of children captioned, “Pics: joy and tears on first day at school!” (15/01/2020) where most if not all of the children were expectantly grade ones.  In these images, some children were crying and others looked happy to be at school.

Daily Sun is not the only media that had a spread showing children on their first day in school, The Star (16/01/2020, p.1 & 3) showed images with a mixture of children crying and some smiling on their first day in a spread captioned, “First day“.

While it is important to show pictures of children, media must ensure that doing so is in the best interest of the children in the picture. For instance, it is in the best interest of the children to be  shown laughing and smiling as it portrays them in a positive and empowering way. However, it is not in the best interest of children to show them crying as it portrays them as being vulnerable. Furthermore, these pictures remain online forever and they are likely to be ridiculed by their peers or when they are grown.

Another important issue that the media focused on was learners’ admission. This issue receives coverage every year. Admission of learners in school has been amongst the pressing challenges the Department of Education has been facing especially in Gauteng as families migrate from other provinces in search of better opportunities in Gauteng.[1] The Star published, “Outrage over school placement” (14/01/2020, p.1) where the publication writes about parents in Gauteng flocking to district offices in a bid to find school space for their children.

This problem was not only limited to Gauteng as Western Cape also experienced the problem of admission. Cape Argus published a story titled, “Parents fuming as thousands of Cape children still not placed at schools” (17/01/2020).   The story is about parents of learners in the Western Cape who are angry and “have slammed the provincial Education Department’s online registration system, which has left thousands of children not placed [in schools].” 

 Both stories (The Star and Cape Argus) failed to source experts to help readers understand the problem and also offer possible solutions especially considering that this is a yearly problem reported by the media.

A subject that hardly garners media’s attention, especially during the back-to-school period is that of children with disabilities. This was not any different this year. From the sample of articles we monitored, there was only one article involving children with disabilities published by Daily Sun under the heading, “Good news for blind village pupils!” (16/01/2020). The story is about the Rivoni School for the Blind in Limpopo where learners are being taught in run-down mobile containers. The premier of Limpopo has promised, according to the article, that they will start building new classes by April, 2020. This story is just a report on the event. It failed to contextualise the challenges that children with disabilities face during schooling. Media should do more to report on challenges that children with disabilities are facing and not report on them only or mostly when there are events. Failing to do so disadvantages them as their issues are not seen as prominent in the news. Media monitoring research on coverage of children in the news done by MMA in 2017 revealed that  issues of children with disabilities are not prominent in the news.[2]

Our observation is that media continues to neglect children’s voices when reporting about them. They have, in most cases, failed to give children an opportunity to voice their expectations when going back to school or going to school for the first time. For example, Sowetan, in “Quadruplets’ first day of school four times the fun” (16/01/2020), failed to give the quadruplets involved in the story a chance to reflect on their first day at school despite the publication having had access to them. This is a common trend in news reporting in general that we have been seen throughout the years. Previous MMA research shows that only 8.2 percent of stories interviewed children despite those stories having been about children.[3] Media should start ensuring that children are afforded an opportunity to share their own experience when doing a story about them, especially when in the children’s best interest.

Overall, the coverage was mostly good, with media monitored taking the opportunity to highlight problems at various schools. However, the media missed an opportunity to give children a voice in their stories. We hope to see more coverage that focuses on other issues that often receive less coverage when reporting on the first day at school. For example, providing tips on how children can navigate school life can be one of the helpful topics that can be included in the media’s coverage of this event. More so, instead of just offering simple explanations of why children are crying on the first day at school, journalists should try to develop a deeper understanding of why most children cry so much on their first day at school. Sourcing psychologists or education specialists would probably be a good step to finding out why the first day at school is such an emotional experience for children. This way, the public can get a better understanding. In addition media should always make sure that all pictures of v children in vulnerable situations such as crying are blurred to protect their dignity and potentially from being humiliated by their peers.

MMA wants to compliment media houses that are striving to report better and hope that reporting in the future will be better where stories provide more context and have children’s voices included on a regular basis.

By Musa Rikhotso

[1] http://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=11331

[2] http://bonabana.co.za/presentation-2017/#/slide5

[3] http://bonabana.co.za/presentation-2017/#/slide6