Scrappy News features children reporting on issues in their community and looking for small-scale sustainable solutions.

BREAKING Here are the not-so-loud news anchors asking all the right questions
news Media Thursday, December 15, 2016 - 19:43

Turn on the news and there’s no dearth of channels bringing you the “latest”, the “breaking news”, and asking all the “difficult questions”.

But imagine a newsroom painted in the colors of the rainbow, somewhere out in the open, where news anchors and reporters are not screaming at their microphones. They wear plain clothes, speak regionally accented English, regularly switching to Hindi, and sign off their bulletins with a call – Be Scrappy! – and an animated hand gesture.

That’s Scrappy News for you, where government school children between the ages of 12 and 14 years bring you real contemporary problems in a fun way. And that’s not even the best part – they provide their own solutions too!

An initiative by Going to School, an NGO founded by Lisa Haydlauff 12 years ago, Scrappy News tries to draw children from low income backgrounds to school by teaching them 21st century entrepreneurial skills, design-thinking and community engagement.

How it began

Scrappy News was born in February last year. The Going to School team in Mumbai painted a truck in a melange of gay colours, and drove it around low-income settlements like Dharavi, asking children to audition for anchors and field reporters in a news programme. Anyone who auditioned would have to identify common problems in their community and provide solutions. 

Headed by Padmini Vaidyanathan, Going to School’s Director of Communication, Scrappy News was initially meant for primetime television. But the team decided to make that secondary and focus on the digital medium, an online channel, first. They intend to launch their app, ScrAPP, in January 2017, which will have downloadable content and guide children on how to make their own newsrooms, file reports, create shows and so on.

Their pilot episode, a one-hour long bulletin which featured children from the 11 most polluted cities in India was produced in December 2015. “It was about pollution but overall, it ended up being about trash,” Padmini confesses. Littering and trash was also one of the major problems which emerged during the auditions. 

By April this year, the team had begun working on a more intensive program for Bihar: the 2020 Scrappy Newsroom Challenge. With financial funding from the IKEA Foundation and an MoU signed with the Bihar government, the program was launched in five districts of Bihar in September: Kishenganj, Bhagalpur, Khagaria, Katihar and Madhipura. According to the MoU, Going to School will work with 3,000 government schools in Bihar till 2018.

How it works 

Three weeks before they are to start the programmes, Padmini and her team go in for a recce of the schools. “We don’t realise how cut off these people are. The children here aren’t motivated to come to school. One time, we found that there were 400 students in one class and hardly any classes. In other places, there were married girls in the class. They were 14. Can you imagine?” Padmini says.

After identifying problems and discussing solutions, the children make their own newsroom with all kinds of material, even unused things lying around their homes. Then, they are given five scrapbooks that talk about the elements of creating a bulletin, like finding and chasing stories, filming and so on. The crew helps them with handling cameras and sound recorders.

The end result is episodes like this one, where children talk about how everyone eats together and litters together. They go to shopkeepers in their community, asking them which plates they use. Realising that people consider biodegradable plates made of leaves dirty, the children then approach a man who makes these plates and come up with colourful names and badges as a way for him to promote them.

The exercise, Padmini explains, involves many elements: they learn to speak to adults, request them to come on air politely, negotiate and bargain and in the process, involve the grown-ups in coming up with small-scale sustainable solutions as well. 

While the Going to School team initially visited each school daily, eventually, they handover the operations to a local field coordinator, who divides his or her time between roughly five schools. But if the team sees a good story, they head over again with a full production crew.  

Challenges

As refreshing as the concept is, their journey has not been bereft of challenges. Foremost among these, they often cannot involve everyone in the class. “Because the children will be recorded, they all need to have consent forms from their parents. So, if some children’s parents do not consent, we aren’t able to involve them,” says Padmini. She adds however, that most of the parents and guardians usually do not pose a problem.

Padmini also points out that while some schools are co-ed, they invariably practice gender segregation. However, the solution they have come up with over time is to tell teachers, if they object, that the students are required to work in teams for their assignments. More often than not, they don’t face objections. “I think mostly they are just surprised and happy that someone came back to make a real difference,” Padmini says.

There’s also the problem of absentee girls. “Not only because the family expects the girl to stay and look after the house in case the mother can’t, but also because there aren’t toilets. This is apart from the mentality which questions educating girls in the first place,” says Padmini.

However, the team observed that it was also because there was no one to tell parents that their children were actually doing well at school. Once for instance, Padmini invited a girl’s father to come watch an event called “Scrappy races” where children race remote-controlled cars which they have made. “Once he saw how well his daughter was doing, she began coming to school regularly,” she observes. Involving married girls is also a hurdle the team is trying to overcome, she adds.

But does all the work that the children put into identifying problems and solutions translate into real change?

15-year-old Sonu Kumar, a Scrappy News anchor from Bhagalpur isn’t too sure. He says that despite going to the District Education Officer about there being no potable water in their school, there was no real change in the situation.

However, Lisa Haydlauff says that the idea behind Scrappy News at this point is to engage children and identify problems. “News coverage makes impact over time and after it grabs eyeballs. That will happen eventually. Right now, we want to encourage children to ask questions. The answers can come later,” she explains.

Besides, Dheeraj, a Scrappy News anchor in Mumbai makes a valid point here: “If one person starts recycling and inculcating good practices, people will follow. After all, Gandhiji was also one man, right?”  

Described by Padmini as one of their most “unstoppable and out of control” kid anchors, the 10-year-old wants to “grow up to be a scientist and find a solution to end pollution.”

Check out the photos from Scrappy News' activities here:

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