Turning off NPR: Media, Crisis and Kids

NPR used to be a morning ritual for me. Wake up, make coffee, turn on NPR. But for the last few months I have vacated that part of the radio dial, tuning in only occasionally, often when I’m alone in my car.

I was at the Boston Children’s Museum with my family on December 14, when I learned about the Sandy Hook shooting. Checking Twitter absent-mindedly while waiting in line, I saw the first tweets and news reports filling my stream. I looked up from my phone to a cacophony of kids laughing and playing around me, many of whom were the same age as the kids who were killed just minutes earlier.

Image via Flickr user Duane Romanell

On the drive home that day my wife and I were careful not to turn on NPR in the car with our two boys in the back seat. Since then, we’ve listened to a lot less public radio in our house. The Sandy Hook shooting coincided with my son turning four. While I’m sure he’s been aware of the media and discussions around him up to this point, recently he’s been a sponge for everything he hears.

For a lot of us who have children around the age of the Sandy Hook victims, that tragedy shook us to the core. But the endless media coverage of the event created new challenges as we tried to shield our kids from news of the tragedy.

This morning when I woke up, I made coffee and turned on the radio – it was tuned to NPR. My son was already eating his breakfast in the kitchen and before I could reach the dial words like “explosion” and “dead” came tumbling out. The devastation of Boston was brought into our little house so quickly. I changed the channel, I don’t think he noticed, but I don’t know. When I went to get the newspaper on my front steps images of the Boston marathon tragedy filled the front page. I folded it up and hid it from view.

I have no doubt that my sons will have to confront violence in our media and our world, but I see no benefit to introducing it at such a young age. Children under the age of six witness media coverage of disasters as live events, happening before their eyes (or ears) and so to children, the ongoing repeated coverage feels as though the disaster is in fact happening over and over again. At a time when the news stories can quickly shift from budget debates to bombings, the news is full of emotional landmines.

But turning it off isn’t always easy. I work in media and journalism, and study how the news responds to crisis. I love NPR and my local station and value their news and coverage of events just like this deeply. In addition, media coverage is part of the shared experience of this crisis for those of us who have lived in and around Boston but don’t live there any longer. Media, at its best, connects us not just to the events unfolding but also to each other.

This morning, another local station was paying tribute to the events yesterday by playing all music from Boston artists and songs about Boston and Massachusetts. I was grateful for this subtle acknowledgement of the tragedy and appreciated the chance to process all the complex emotions I have been feeling through song lyrics and familiar tunes. And when Sweet Baby James came on the radio my son and I sang together about driving from our home near Stockbridge to Boston, and I held him tight in my arms.

Resources for parents and kids dealing with disaster, crisis and the media:


  1. Dan says:

    It’s an understandable impulse to want to try to protect kids from harm. But is it really wise to try to shield them from what happens in this world that we adults have created. I don’t think so, and I think the effort is in vain, anyway–all it takes is a couple of other kids whose parents have not been so protective relating tales of what they’ve seen and heard, and the cat’s out of the bag. I think it’s a bigger problem that we’re raising kids with so little understanding of the world around them and all the things, good and bad, that happen here (and that we adults are responsible for). We see the evidence of that all around us, as with the young Marine a recently read about who said he never thought much about Iraq before he enlisted fresh out of high school–a good two years after the war had started. I think a careful and reasoned discussion with children is preferable to letting them live in ignorance. I also work in media and journalism, and wrote on my personal blog about this issue after the Sandy Hook massacre: http://infospigot.typepad.com/infospigot_the_chronicles/2012/12/after-the-shootings-over-how-to-protect-the-kids.htm

    1. Josh Stearns says:

      Hi Dan – thanks for your note. I think your link is broken, but I’m looking forward to reading what you wrote. To be clear, I don’t think we should over shelter our kids and I have had tough discussions about life, death and disaster with my kids. But those discussions happened on my terms. That is a very different thing than letting him hear or see whatever comes over the airwaves on radio and TV. My kids are quite young, and my gut as well as a lot of the research I have read, says limiting media exposure to violent events like this is best. But as I said in the post – that doesn’t mean not engaging tough issues together as a family.

  2. Jo Ellen Kaiser says:

    I protected my daughter when she was young from this kind of news on broadcast TV, but not radio. I found she didn’t really process what she didn’t understand. Even when she caught pictures on TV–she saw the 9/11 towers go down–she didn’t understand what was happening and so it didn’t really impact her. The age that seems tricky to me is elementary school, when kids really can figure out some of what is happening but try to frame it in ways that they understand, which can lead to them thinking they are responsible, their families are hurt, etc. Even now that my kid is a teen, I’ve found it best to bring up difficult news events myself, and frame them for my child, since I know she will see them anyway.

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