The beginning of the year is the start of great things, chiefly amongst these is the first day of the school year where children retire from their summer holidays and start school. Among these children are the Grade Ones, who have always garnered media’s attention and made front pages of most newspapers and first items of television news bulletins.

Apart from the media’s focus on the first time school goers and their reactions to the school environment, media tends to document the challenges that those who are continuing with school face as well as a general overview of how different schools across the country are doing on the first day of school. This coverage is not only an important one to heighten children’s participation in the media; it is also an opportunity that puts the issue of education on the agenda.

Annually, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) looks at the articles published in various newspapers on children and how the media reported on the beginning of the school year.  Similarly, this year, various print media1 were examined to explore the coverage dedicated to the event which took place on the 15th of January 2014. This analysis is therefore written with the notion that media’s coverage of this event offers a contribution to public understanding of children and the issues that affect them, which is in this case education.

This also gives MMA the opportunity to gauge how the first day at school is framed in the context of press reporting, where the strengths and weaknesses of media coverage lie, and how these might be addressed. As key sources of information, it is important to analyse how the media reports on this day, as images from the media tend to have huge impact on public perceptions. More so, a smooth back-to-school coverage sets the stage for the rest of the school year reportage, therefore how the media reports on these stories is critical.

MMA’s observations of this coverage over the past years have not changed much. There seems to be a tried and tested method of reporting on this event. The same frame is dominant throughout each year. The coverage of back to school has become somewhat stagnant and predictable. This coverage points out to the creativity that is amiss in the newsrooms.  Mainly among the list of predictability is that media tends to include images of Grade Ones crying.

This was the case even this year, although the images of children crying were a lot less compared to the previous years. The Times, for example in the bid to cover the first day at school, published a two page spread of images of children in various schools across the country, most if not all of the children were expectantly grade ones. Trying to capture the “emotional experience” of the first day at school, The Times included a picture of a mother holding an obviously distraught six-year-old girl on her first day at school. The picture captioned “No holding back” (The Times, 16/01/2014, p. 12) is strewn across the two pages and is accompanied by a montage of other miniature pictures of children, except that in these images, children are not crying. What clearly stands out and what The Times seems to emphasise is the picture of the child crying and the ‘emotional’ aspect of the first day at school; an element that is all too often used by the media.

The Times is not the only exception when coming to images of children crying, the Sowetan, The New Age and the Daily Sun had similar pictures. The New Age (16/01/2014. p.23) published an image of a young boy bawling his eyes out, with a headline “Little S_____o didn’t want anything to do with big school” and a caption that reads, “CRIED ALL MORNING: S____o N_____a2 refused to attend classes.” On its front page, the Sowetan also had a picture of a girl crying with the title “FIRST-DAY DRAMA” and a caption that reads, “A shy Grade 1 pupil reacts on the first day at school of Seatile Primary School in Bekkersdal yesterday. Thousands of pupils reported for the first lessons of the 2014 academic year.”  Similarly, the Daily Sun had a front page image at the top right corner of the newspaper of a child crying hysterically. Accompanying this picture was the headline, “Back to school tears” (16/01/2014).  Similar pictures could also be found in a full page spread on page four.

The Star also capitalised on the “first day drama” and published a picture of a child who was trying to pull his bag from his teacher. The caption of the image gives more description into the events that culminated and described it as a “STAND-OFF”:“B______g D____i3, 5, lashes out at his new teacher, Mmapula Ramango, as he refuses to join other kids for the first day of class at Mogale Primary School in Mamelodi yesterday.”

Surprisingly this year, the pictures of children crying have decreased, instead there were many pictures of children happy and excited about the first day at school. One such picture appeared on the front-page of The Citizen, titled “Grade One here we come” (16/01/2014. p.1) and a caption that reads, “A NEW TUNE: Jubilant Grade One pupils march to class chanting ‘March like a soldier’ at Bosele Public Intermediate School in Kagiso, on the West Rand, on the first day of the 2014 school year yesterday.” The picture shows a group of children smiling and marching on the school ground. The journalist painted a picture of courageous and excited children in the reader’s mind.

Other media continued to focus on the cheers than the tears, while others documented a bit of both. For example, The Star ran a full page spread documenting how brave the “first-timers” are. The following headlines from the paper bear testament to this statement, “Pupil puts on a brave face, hoping to make friends” (16/01/2014. p.4) and “Nomasonto more than ready” (16/01/2014. p.4). The Saturday Star also dedicated a whole page worth of coverage to the first day at school.

The various headlines of the stories demonstrate the readiness of the children. For example, headlines such as “Dreaming big from day one”, “Ready to work hard in matric”, ‘I love my school,’ boy says after his first great day” shows children as proactive and able to adapt to change. These articles and many others portrayed the children as very ready and optimistic about entering school and illustrated that first day at school is not all doom and gloom.

What also stood out about this year’s coverage was the media’s attention to important issues. This year, the media analysed proved to be issue driven than event-based. The coverage culminated in several issues given focus, these included:

• The issue of lack of infrastructure in schools
• School feeding programmes
• Text book delivery
• Quality of education
• Children with disabilities

An interesting subject that hardly garners media’s attention, especially during the back-to-school period, is that of children with disabilities. However, this year, MMA monitored a number of stories relating to children with disabilities. At least three articles involving children with disabilities were published, these included, “Challenged but excited to learn” (Sowetan, 16/01/2014. p.8), “A class in love and laughter” (The Citizen, 16/01/2014 p. 2), “Pupil puts on a brave face, hoping to make friends” (The Star, 16/01/2014. p.4). Such articles show that children with disabilities are also newsworthy, and deserving of attention from the media, especially during the start of the academic year.

In most of the articles monitored children were give an opportunity to express how they feel. This is very welcomed as children are seldom spoken to in stories that involve them. This was a refreshing take on a child’s first day of school, and differed greatly from many reports that MMA has seen in past and in recent times of crying children and without a voice.

The volume of coverage is also noteworthy. Many articles on education were published across the different pages of the newspapers monitored. The New Age in particular, published many stories on the first day at school. An interesting element about this coverage is that it was spread across different types of news genres, that is, analysis, features, pictures and news stories.

Overall, the media’s coverage did justice to the first day at school event. The coverage was mostly good, with media taking the opportunity to highlight problems with various schools, giving children a voice and putting on the agenda issues that are often neglected.

MMA hopes to see more coverage that focuses on other issues that are often taken for granted 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. It would also be interesting if the media were to talk to the first graders prior to the first day at school about their expectations and what they are looking forward to the most, this could be a good build up to the first day at school coverage.

More so, instead of just offering simple explanations of why children are crying on the first day at school, journalists should try and develop a deeper understanding of why most children cry so much on their first day at school. Sourcing psychologists or education specialist 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.

By Kgalalelo Morwe

1. The Times, Citizen, Daily Sun, Sowetan, The New Age, The Star, Saturday Star, Sunday Times, Sunday Independent, City Press andBusiness Day
2.MMA obscured the name of the child to protect his identity
3.MMA obscured the name of the child to protect his identity