Research Project

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Children watching war

Children's perspectives on the war in Iraq and television coverage of the war

For weeks it had been in the media: the war in Iraq. Bombardments, wounded and dead people could be seen in the news. Children had their own perspective about these things. They had concerns and questions. They needed information, but also had the wish to announce their emotions and their view of things.

A current study by IZI, in co-operation with international researchers, is investigating the ways in which children's perspectives are characterised and the ways in which children's television deals with this topic.

A. Interviews with children

During the first week of the war, problem-centred interviews were conducted with a total of 138 children (6 to 13 years old), 95 children from Germany and 43 from Austria. In an additional sample 7 Iraqi children, who had escaped to Germany, were asked about their perspective on things.

German children are explicitly and actively engaged against the war,
Austrian children analyse the topic more superficially

Nearly all the German children participating in the study were against the war and knew details about it. This knowledge derived, above all, from television but also from discussions with parents or at school. About 70% of the children watched specific programmes about the war in Iraq. In particular, they remembered acts of war. They were interested in detailed coverage, which enabled them to form an idea of the situation. Above all, the children liked calls for action against the war and some even wished for a more explicit positioning of the hosts of television programmes. Pictures instilling them with a sense of fear were difficult for the children but so were 'boring' pictures or contributions with too much talking. They would have liked to get more information about the people in Iraq.

Many of the children questioned commented that they thought a lot about the war and some even dreamt of it. In these dreams, they imagined themselves to be in the situation of those who had lost their parents, as dying themselves or, as in one case, as killers. The children's emotions were mostly consternation and empathy but also anger and fear. The picture of Americans is strikingly critical - German children, for example, saw them as those playing underhand tricks on others in order to kill as many Iraqis as possible. Some children supposed that the Americans enjoyed killing, e.g. Iraqi children.

In comparison to Austrian children, it is noticeable that German children dealt with the topic in more depth, being supported therein by their parents or at school. Austrian children did not deal with the topic in a corresponding way. Accordingly, their knowledge was less sound and Austrian children's fantasies were less realistic but also less Anti-American.

The Iraqi children in Germany have a very intense relation to the topic. As they often have relatives still living in Iraq, they were worried about their safety. They were often against the war, too, but considered Saddam Hussein to be a criminal who should be evicted. They perceived the coverage the way it was made in the German media as incorrect, superficial, and at times inappropriate. They frequently wished for more information dealing appropriately with the life and situation of people in Iraq.

B. Analysis of children's emails to broadcasting stations

Broadcasting stations have become a central place where children send their questions and assessments of the situation. The study is investigating the questions children sent to German TV stations' Web portals at Kika.de, tivi.de, toggo.de and kindernetz.de. The emails being sent to broadcasting stations by children during the first week after war had broken out are evaluated by means of content analysis.

Parallel to this study, and using the same codebook, Dr. Peter Nikken is analysing emails sent to children's broadcasting stations in the Netherlands. For further information see www.jeugdenmedia.nl

Dutch children argue more diversely

About 84% of German children take a clear position against the war. They reason with a general rejection of war as it is "no solution" and people die. More often, children give personalised arguments; they reject President Bush and his way of acting. Frequently, they write that his arguments are threadbare because the war is fought for economic reasons only. In their statements, children and pre-teens also express their emotions, especially empathy with the Iraqi population, but also fear and anger. In the children's emails, however, the hope for a speedy end to the war and a peaceful solution, i.e. a reconciliation between Bush and Hussein, is also expressed. In their emails, children look for information explicitly about the Iraq War (e.g. the reasons for it) but also, on principle, question why there is war at all.

In the Dutch sample, a majority (67%) of the children were against the war. However, there were significantly more children with a pro-war attitude than in the German sample. In their argumentation, Dutch children were more diverse than the German children. Apart from the most common argument that "People die or are injured" during war, Dutch children argued significantly more often focusing on the person Saddam Hussein, e.g. that he is a dictator. But also arguments such as "The UN did not consent to the attack", "Iraq has dangerous weapons" or "The USA delivered the weapons to Iraq themselves" are lines of argumentation which can hardly ever be found in German panel entries. Only the argument that "In fact, Mister Bush wants the oil" is mentioned more often by German than by Dutch children. The two samples also differ in the emotions shown. Dutch children expressed more empathy but also more fear in connection with the topic, while anger as an emotion is mentioned more often by German children.

The statistical differences found between the panel entries in the Netherlands and the German-speaking providers are currently being used as the basis for a media analysis which is directed towards an examination of children's news with regard to the question of whether the tendencies found in the children's statements show a quantitative correspondence in television programmes (conducted by Wiebke Landschulz (IZI) and Charlotte Brekelmans (Uni Amsterdam)).

C. Media analysis

A third sub-project is investigating how far broadcasting stations consider the needs of children. During the first week of war, the Internet offer and children's news are analysed (Logo, Schau mal, Confetti tivi). In addition, there is a survey on the offer of television-convergent internet sites.

Compared to programmes for adults,
news for children is more clearly against the war

In the analysis of the coverage in the German and Austrian programmes, a strikingly frequent positioning against the war could be detected in the coverage of news for children. The German news programme for children logo! positioned itself with 50% of all sequences most frequently against the war. But Austrian news for children, too, often showed a rejection of war. In comparison to news for adults, news for children gave relatively fewer arguments for and against the war. George W. Bush was given quantitatively more attention in the coverage than Saddam Hussein. On the screen, both were nearly equally frequently present, however, the name Bush was mentioned more often. It is striking that pictures of suffering Iraqi people were avoided to the greatest possible extent in news for children. An illustration of Iraqi's emotions was totally excluded from news for children.

D. Multinational comparison

War is a media event. The media coverage, however, varies in different contexts (this topic is investigated by Elisabeth Prommer at the HFF Potsdam-Babelsberg). Also the situation of children varies in different countries. While German children participate in demonstrations and discuss war at school, children in Israel are involved in emergency trainings and carry their gas-masks with them.

In a multi-national comparison (Germany - Austria - Israel - USA) the functions of television and television convergent offers for children are investigated. The investigation set-ups vary according to the specific contexts. Media analyses and expert interviews referring to national news coverage relevant to children will be added.

In the USA, the attempt to keep children uninformed;
in Israel, specific fears and open questions despite a high amount of information

In the USA/California/San Diego the 20 children questioned in this survey were enthusiastic about the war; however, in general, the girls rejected it and wished for peace. Discussion of the topic at school had not taken place (the teachers were forbidden to speak about the topic). Conversations with parents were generally unsatisfying for the children who were looking for information and wanted to discuss war in general, which their parents refused to do. Accordingly, knowledge about the war was modest and the children's analysis of the topic was rather superficial. Empathy with Iraqi people did not occur with American boys at all whereas the girls saw the 'necessity' of the war but also the Iraqi people's suffering. The boys, in special, developed fantasies e.g. of George Bush cutting Saddam Hussein's throat with his own hands. Bombs, explosions and especially winning the war were the focus of attention.

In Israel, the population prepared for weeks for coming under attack from Saddam Hussein's long-range biological or chemical weapons. Accordingly, specific fears were uttered in the interviews, e.g. losing a member of the family or being in a situation when it is impossible to put on a gas-mask. The 39 children questioned were 'well-informed' about the war, its background and development. Their main interpretation of the reason for the war: Saddam Hussein wants to bomb Israel, therefore the USA attack Iraq in order to defend us. They cite the "axis of evil" and refer to the attacks on September 11. What they hope for is an American victory bringing about security for Israel and chances for Iraq as well. Therefore, not all the children have a necessarily pro-war attitude. Some argue that war is not a solution and will result in nothing but destruction. Due to the country's involvement, the media were filled with programmes dealing with the topic. Children were not always enthusiastic about the programmes; Girls especially, found them too sad. In several cases, the contributions contained too much talking and boring pictures. If Israeli children could decide on the programme, they would report on the war from their own perspective. There remain many questions about details that they would like to have explained in a contribution especially produced for children, "because adults know what war is and children don't." (Shirley, 9 years)

E. How far does television support children world wide in this topic?

Children's broadcasting stations provide children with various programmes and internet offers dealing with the war in Iraq. Children's news from Mexico to the Netherlands deal with the topic, Elmo from Sesame Street gives advice on how to cope with fear, etc. PRIX JEUNESSE INTERNATIONAL is collecting these programmes world-wide, and conducts interviews with editors about their goals and guidelines. The half-standardised survey is supplemented by a qualitative analysis of single programmes.

Different offers; many of them with clear guidelines on what may be shown

Producers of children's television gave quite a diverse amount of attention to the war in Iraq. On the whole, the range stretches from a heightened concentration on the topic aimed at giving very detailed information for children up to "sparing" the children facts about the war and distraction via alternative, "war-free" television offers. The coverage of the war on children's television frequently took place in the form of news programmes for children whereby some broadcasters took care to design the explications of correlations according to children's state of knowledge. Moreover, there were reports about the situation of children in Iraq. Reports about children in the respective country with a strong consideration of their perspective on the war and their fears were also quite a frequent element of programmes about the war in Iraq. In chat shows, experts (ranging from peace pedagogues to psychologists and military officers) were questioned. In addition, communication with a youth audience was established via internet-sites and telephone help-lines.

Many broadcasting stations developed guidelines for their war coverage for children, e.g. no pictures of heavily/badly injured, respectively killed people, no reports on details about America's weapons technology etc. In general, numerous broadcasters increasingly tried to include children in their programme design focussing, respectively, on their perspective on the war.

First results of the sub-studies were published in the English issue of TelevIZIon (17/ 2004/E)
Book publication: Children and Media in Times of War and Conflict