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Essay: When Covering Bad News Hits Home

“Mom, when is something bad going to happen to us?” It’s a question my 12-year old son asks more and more lately in the morning.
rehema and khori

“Mom, when is something bad going to happen to us?”

It’s a question my 12-year old son asks more and more lately in the morning. I’ve been getting this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I’ve gently tried to reassure him that “we” will be ok. But, he said to me the other morning,

“Mom, how can that be? The news shows bad things happening to so many people every day and everywhere.” Then he methodically began to list atrocities; beheadings in the Middle East, murders on American streets, and New York City police officers assassinated in their patrol car.

The news is not only my job and my career – it’s my passion. Like most passions, it bleeds into my daily life. My alarm doesn’t buzz or chirp or play music, it’s tuned to news radio. I check my Twitter feed for news before I even get out of bed in the morning. There’s a radio in my bathroom and a television in my kitchen. My morning routine is all-news all the time. As such, over the past 12 years of his life, the news is also a part of my son’s morning routine.

“And what sense does it make to kill people who draw cartoons,” he cried out that morning. “What’s the point of that?”

A cartoon drawn by Rehema Ellis' son, Khori.

This coming from a boy whose hobby is drawing cartoons. He recently got in trouble with a teacher for drawing on a school paper. This time, the news felt real to him. It hit home. He isn’t a police officer, he doesn’t go to the store alone to buy candy, he’s not a soldier, but he draws comics. With each word I saw him become more and more angry, frustrated, and frightened. He can understand someone not liking a cartoon, but not being so offended that you’re subject to a fatal reaction.

This conversation is happening as we’re watching a morning news program. He’s sitting at the breakfast table eating cereal, bananas and toast. I’m busy fixing the lunch that he’ll take to school. It was also a tipping point. I thought, “I can’t do this to him anymore.” So, I turned the television off.

“What are you doing, Mom?” he said.

"Let’s just do something different this morning, Baby,” I replied.

He reminded me that I like to watch the news. “News is what you do,” he said. “It’s how you take care of us.”

It’s true, but I decided I have to change and give my son what I had growing up. I left the house each morning feeling hopeful. I was surrounded by music from James Brown, Patty Labelle, and the Beatles playing on a small black radio that sat on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen in the house where I grew up in Boston.

It’s not that I was growing up in a perfect time. The news was difficult back then, too. We had safety drills in school on how to hide under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack. Marvin Gaye sang about “What’s Going On”…a cry for social justice. War raged in Vietnam.

A cartoon drawn by Khori Ellis.

But there was a difference. I wasn’t bombarded with bad news as a child. There was no 24/7 news cycle, no cable news, no all-news radio, no video on demand. I now realize that not having access to all news all the time didn’t make me less informed. It allowed me to be less afraid than my child is today.

So, today I’ve made a change.

I will continue to talk with my son about what’s going on – good and bad—in the world. He will be informed. But he won’t be inundated. Instead, I want to hear from him. I’ll let him ask me about the news, and I want to hear from him what he thinks about it. And as my son, he’ll have plenty to say. I can reassure him that things will be ok, and take more time to explain news he’s concerned about. This doesn’t work for all parents, and this is a work in progress. I don’t think I’ll keep the television off in the kitchen every morning. But for now, I’m listening to what my child needs. After all, he won’t be 12 forever.

It has been two days. Already, I see a happier boy. He got to pick out a song on my iPod this morning. He chose all up-beat songs. “Happy” by Pharell, Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” and a bit of jazz from Steve Turre. We started each morning on a different note. And I finished watching the news from my desk, one of the many benefits of my career. I wasn’t any less plugged into the news, but I am more plugged into my son.

It’s a little thing, but, as a mom, I hope it makes my son’s cereal a little easier to swallow.

[This essay was originally published on the NBC Learn Parent Toolkit after the Charlie Hebdo attacks]