Media Literate Disaster Discussions Balance Concern with Hope

NOAA Chart Comparing Distance from Earthquake Epicenter and Wave Height

After a disaster like the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear catastrophe in Japan, media — both social and traditional — saturate our lives. We process the events as radios and televisions blare the news and our smartphones, laptops, and computers constantly update. Paper editions of newspapers, quaintly behind the news cycle, nevertheless provide a kind of security, allowing us to hold a finite amount of news right in our hands — amounts we can process.

By the time children are in fourth or fifth grade, the pervasive media coverage ensures that almost nothing remains hidden for long, despite adult attempts to shield their children from the most frightening images. Media literacy matters at times such as these, but conversations with children about the news can still be challenging. I address this topic in an earlier post, Talking to Children About the News. That blog piece included online resources to support family discussions.

When a disaster occurs and the news churns on about it, I am always on the lookout for the unique article or media story that allows children balance concern and anxiety with hope and resilience.

The March 14, 2011 New York Times article, Memories, Washed Away, juxtaposes beauty, history, determination, and courage, and may be a powerful conversation starter. The op-ed piece, by novelist Marie Mutsuki Mockett, describes a Japanese family’s life at different times in history. It begins during the World War II near  Nagasaki, moves through idyllic memories of the Japanese countryside, and explains how Japanese adults taught children, whether in Japan or the United States, about tsunamis. It concludes by describing one family’s continuing resilience and commitment, despite extreme challenges.

This is the type of news I want to share with children, one small bit of media coverage that is honest about the situation but also helps them understand people’s unlimited capacity to hope. When a public and scary tragedy occurs, we parents and educators have a singular purpose — to minimize fear and ensure that children feel safe, cared for, and process the event age-appropriately.

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