How Linda Ellerbee made ‘Nick News’ into an award-winning program

Mark it as the end of an era. On December 15, “Nick News with Linda Ellerbee” will air its hour-long finale, titled “Hello, I Must Be Going.” The Emmy-winning show on Nickelodeon debuted as a newsmagazine on April 8, 1992, though its origins stretch back even further (an earlier incarnation, “Nick News W/5,” was named for its “who, what, where, when, and why” format). Either way you count it, it’s the longest-running television news show for children, famously beginning when the young cable network asked Ellerbee to produce a show that would explain the Gulf War to kids. Ellerbee announced her retirement last week.

Before “Nick News” goes off the air, it’s worth teasing out its most important lessons, not just for the successors that one hopes will follow in its wake, but also for anyone in the business of news. First among these is how to address the news to kids without being condescending, precious, or dishonest.

“We started with common sense and the fact that we were journalists, and that we knew what good journalism was,” Ellerbee said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.

This fundamental respect for children as being worthy of good journalism is baked into the DNA of the show. Rather than hire a young person to host the show, who might appear more relatable for its target audience, Nick News opted for Ellerbee, a 47-year-old woman with serious journalism credentials. (She had been an anchor and writer for “NBC News Overnight.”) In the show, Ellerbee speaks directly to kids, using an inviting “you” address, but she speaks in a straightforward and friendly tone—not the high-pitched singsong voice that some adults reserve for children. Ellerbee, wearing casual clothing and usually sitting on a stool, is not separated from the camera by a desk or other barrier. She is a reassuring presence that guides viewers through everything from the September 11 attacks to the Oklahoma City bombing, from domestic violence to being a child with a terminal illness, from Title IX to Cuba.

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“We started with the rule that we weren’t going to lie to kids,” Ellerbee said in her 2010 interview. “We weren’t going to make up [anything], or say, ‘There, there, nothing bad happened. Don’t you worry about it, honey.’ ” She remembered being a kid herself, terrified that the Soviet Union was going to drop a hydrogen bomb at any moment. “Nobody addressed my fears, or gave me a way to talk about it,” she said, even though she could see bomb testings and other alarming news developments on television. “Why was I being treated like ignorance is bliss? Ignorance is not bliss.”

The show’s respect for kids as intelligent beings is evident in its quality. In addition to more than 20 Emmy nominations and nine wins, “Nick News” won an Edward R. Murrow Award for its 2009 special, “Coming Home: When Parents Return From War.” It was the first kids program of any kind to win a Murrow award. There have also been a slew of smart and well-edited recent field pieces, including “School Crime and Too Much Punishment.” This 22-minute episode epitomizes what makes “Nick News” work so well. While Ellerbee introduces and concludes the episodes, she only lightly narrates them. There is no forced storyline; the narrative emerges primarily through candid interviews and on-site film. Facts are interspersed with personal stories. “School Crime” is frank and revealing about the prickly nature of its subject, from the impact of suspensions on student learning to the disproportionate punishment of kids of color. But it also showcases how young people are leading an alternative approach to discipline through restorative justice programs at a high school in Aurora, Colorado, and a middle school in Oakland, California. Restorative justice isn’t featured in a simplistic way that makes it seem like a quick fix, tying up the episode in a bow. Instead, it’s depicted with real depth that honors the complexity of the process.

 

 

The “School Crime” episode also highlights the other great takeaway from “Nick News”–how to use kids as sources. As is typical for the show, the episode centers the voices of kids and teenagers in the story. They are complemented–not overshadowed–by interviews with parents, school officials, and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Kids, then, are featured not as one-note beings, present in a news story only to inspire sympathy or outrage, but as the multidimensional people they really are. In form and in content, they are acknowledged as authorities on their own lives.

Adults who think they can protect childhood innocence by ignoring the difficulties of the real world can unintentionally exacerbate their anxieties and fears. Ultimately, it’s an act of dishonesty. Ellerbee’s show is a model of how to talk with (not to) young people about what’s going on in their homes, schools, and the wider world–and she does it with an excellent ability to distill information, so that it’s never too daunting. The result is a news medium that gives kids a way to enter the public conversation, and to understand themselves as meaningful actors in their communities. It also gives adults a way to hear them. Young people’s questions, insights, and emotional responses to the news of the world matter.

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.