In one way or another, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected just about everyone in the country – whether that be as a direct result of the virus itself or as a knock on effect of the government-enforced nationwide lockdown.
And although the younger generation might not be the most vulnerable group when it comes to the virus, children too have had their daily lives turned upside down – with the lockdown following a mass closure of schools up and down the country. As a result, kids no longer have access to many of the resources, activities and daily interactions that are so often taken for granted.
With that in mind, the role of Newsround, the long-running CBBC news programme that has been a fixture on the BBC since 1972, is more important than ever. And indeed viewing figures have been significantly higher than usual in recent weeks – with the show’s website reaching 1.46 million people during the first week of school closures alone, an increase of more than 40 per cent.
According to some of the current crop of Newsround presenters, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
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“I think the reason why we’ve been hitting record numbers since the coronavirus has hit is because every once in a while a story comes up that requires a bit more explanation,” says Martin Dougan, a presenter on the show. “This is when Newsround steps up and really comes into its own. And I think the numbers that we’ve been getting since the coronavirus started shows that we still are an important tool for the BBC.”
Although the engagement boost is a good thing for the programme, the coronavirus pandemic has understandably posed some new challenges for the team – both in terms of the way that they cover the story and on a more logistical, practical level. And most of the presenters are unanimous in what the biggest of those challenges is.
“I would say the biggest challenge is providing that element of reassurance to everybody,” explains Martin. “It’s so hard for kids to comprehend what’s happening, so I would say that reassurance to our audience, trying to keep them informed and trying to do it in a way that is informative but also honest has been the biggest challenge.”
Leah Boleto, one of the main presenters on the show is in full agreement. “As [coronavirus] started to approach Europe, it felt like it was closer to home and it’s a challenge to cover it without it being scary and it being frightening for our audience,” she explains. “And then obviously, with the advent of social media, as we saw with Brexit, there was a lot of news that was shared that was inaccurate.
“And that’s when Newsround really kicked into action because we’re great at myth busting. And that was our first way of being able to tackle it in a rational, reassuring way.”
Ricky Boleto, another Newsround presenter – and Leah’s husband – adds that one of the ways of providing that reassurance is by not only focusing on the most negative aspects of the crisis, such as the death toll.
“We took a really big decision to not just focus on the numbers of deaths every day, and to focus on the fact that there are lots of people recovering from this and trying to get some of the positive stuff,” he says. “So we were looking at communities coming together…looking at some of the positive things because to some kids, this is quite overwhelming, their lives have changed drastically.
“And we were hearing from some kids that were leaving school before the lockdown that were visibly upset and crying because they thought they were never going to see their friends again.
“So we’ve tried to be reassuring and positive, which you don’t always see on news programmes. We’re very conscious that we’ve got kids as young as six watching Newsround, so we’ve been really careful about the kind of stories that we are covering.
“It’s quite a responsibility for us actually, to remain calm, collected and composed and tell them what’s going on right now without scaring them and without adding any fear to their daily lives.”
What logistical challenges have there been?
Of course not all the challenges faced by the team relate to the manner in which they report on the crisis. As with everyone else across the country the presenters have been affected by the lockdown personally and professionally – and so on a practical level some compromises have had to be made.
Leah is currently eight months pregnant and therefore unable to go into the studio – and she and Ricky also have a two-year old son who they’ve had to take out of nursery. And so, while Ricky is still able to go into the studio to present the show from time to time, the pair are home far more than normal – and have navigated this problem by creating a mini studio in their own living room.
“It has been a challenge,” Ricky explained. “We basically set up a studio in our front room, which doesn’t always work. We’ve had a bit of an issue with technology sending stuff back to base.
“Today, both Leah and I are editing a piece. I’m doing a piece about how children are having to get their haircut by their parents, Leah is doing a piece about Madrid which has been in lockdown for much longer than us.
“And we’re trying to do it all within our two year old’s nap, which is usually around two hours. But the older he gets, the shorter these naps seem to be!”
Meanwhile Martin, who has cerebral palsy, is on the government’s high risk list and is thus unable to go into the studio or go out to gather stories in the way that he’s used to – which he says has been a challenge for him personally.
“It’s been a challenge from the working side of things,” he admits. “Normally as Newsround presenters you’re not only working in the studio, you can be all over the country, all over the world. And then all of a sudden, you’re told you’ve got to sit at the computer to come up with stories. Which is part of my job – I understand it – but it’s not the norm for me.
“And there’s going to be a few times where we’re going to hit a wall you know. But it’s just about keeping things in perspective and doing what the government says and sticking to the guidelines to help everybody out.”
For Shanequa Paris, another presenter, the logistical challenges are rather different – she only joined the programme last week and hasn’t even met the rest of the team in person yet. But she says that although starting the job at this time has been a challenge, she’s been made to feel very welcome.
“It’s been the strangest thing ever,” she begins. “But to be honest, the team has been really good. So you know, we do our morning meetings and I still feel very involved with what’s happened each day!”
What content works for Newsround at this time?
The pandemic has obviously caused all sorts of challenges for Newsround – but in some other regards it has been an opportunity. The team has seen more viewer engagement than ever, and the presenters are in agreement that this kind of interactive content is a huge plus.
“One really good thing has been the fact that user generated content is just huge,” explains Ricky. “Our audience is now participating so much more than they have ever done by sending us their reports telling us how they’re self isolating. It’s been a great way for us to be able to keep that connection with our audience.”
One way of fostering this connection with the audience has been by encouraging the rainbow initiative, a trend which started in Italy and has since spread around Europe. The initiative sees kids draw a picture of a rainbow and display it in their front window, often with encouraging messages – and the presenters have been urging their viewers to share their rainbows with them on social media.
“A piece that I really liked was the rainbows that the kids are making,” says Shanequa. “Because I’m a big fan of things that are interactive. I think people are frustrated that they have to be stuck at home, and then it’s like, what can you do to be happy and put a smile on people’s faces and so they’re making and drawing their rainbows – and I think it’s brilliant.”
As well as interactive content, one form of reporting that the presenters says really works is drawing on a range of experts that are well known to Newsround viewers – for example Dr Chris and Dr Xand, who present CBBC’s science show Operation Ouch! This is something which Martin believes has worked especially well with audiences.
“The thing that really stuck out for me is with Dr Chris and Xand,” he begins. “We’ve done a few Q&As with them, they’re already well known to our audience where they can explain the ins and outs of the medical world to kids, so it’s brilliant.”
And the team have had no problem in getting experts to come onto the show – quite the opposite in fact. “A lot of them are coming to us and wanting to work for us,” explains Ricky. “I think so many people are at home and so many experts and other presenters and journalists want to participate and help in some way. So we’ve not been short of getting experts on Newsround!”
While coronavirus might be dominating the headlines right now, the team also believes that it’s important to continue to report on other stories as well – above all to ensure that their young audience aren’t overwhelmed by the current situation.
“What’s important to us is that we’re not focusing entirely on coronavirus,” says Ricky, pointing out that it remains important to cover “traditional Newsround stuff” – even skateboarding dogs. “We don’t need to have wall to wall coverage, we’re still focusing on all the other big stories – environmental stories and space news that’s going on. Which is what Newsround I suppose is known for.”
“I think it’s shining a light on yeah this is happening, but there’s still a lot of things going on,” adds Shanequa. “It’s a nice mix to have the happy news and to show things that happen all over the world as well. Like while this is happening, what’s happening with the animals and climate change? What new games are coming out? That’s still something that we all want to know. We know coronavirus is happening but what else?”
How have audiences been reacting to Newsround during the coronavirus?
Not only are more people than ever tuning into Newsround bulletins and visiting the website, but according to the team the feedback they have had during the period so far has been really encouraging.
“In the early days when we were all still going to work and school teachers were getting in touch saying thank you so much for that clear, calm report on what you need to know about the coronavirus,” says Leah, who says that she’s continued to receive much positive feedback on Twitter.
“Going for walks around where we live, I’ve had parents and teachers kind of shouting at me, saying we have been a lifeline for their kids,” adds Ricky. “Because they’ve got this routine of waking up with Joe Wicks, doing their exercise, and we’ve also become part of the timetable. And kids are obviously having to try and keep studying at home but they need these breaks and Newsround is a great five minute escape for parents.”