June 12th, 2013
Spotlight: Claudia Heitler, founder of Here, There, Everywhere News for Kids
Three years ago, veteran news producer Claudia Heitler founded Here, There, Everywhere, a news website geared for kids, when she became a mother herself. Today, the site features news stories about sports, science, major current events and the amazing things kids are doing all around the world. She emailed with us about her favorite news stories while working for the Today show (including a memorable run-in with her childhood hero Wayne Gretzky), how HTE got started, and how she makes decisions about reporting hard-hitting news stories for a young audience.
Before you became a mom, you were a producer on NBC’s Today show for many years, working closely with the show’s co-host Matt Lauer. What’s one of the most memorable stories you produced during your time there, and why does it stay with you?
Different stories stay with you for different reasons, of course. I remember sitting in front of Elian Gonzalez’s Miami home for a month straight, noted the shivs fashioned from toothbrushes and other things in the hallway at Riker’s Island as I headed in to talk to a man there convicted of murder, watched records fall at the Olympics in Sydney, covered President Clinton’s second inauguration, felt the weight of a jury of every day men and women hand down the death penalty, and met with Palm Beach County election officials who held ballots up to the light in search of “dangling chads.” Whether the events were celebratory, tragic, or somewhere in between, I am still amazed by the kindness of people willing to share their experiences under extraordinary circumstances.
But if I had to choose one favorite it would be the story I produced with hockey great Wayne Gretzky. As a fan of his, I’d written to him when I was 10 years old, a young Canadian athlete myself. I was thrilled to have received an autographed picture back. I still had it almost 20 years later and brought it with me to the interview I did with him in 1999, when he retired from hockey. I broke my own rule of not asking for autographs and asked if he could re-sign that same photo. He looked at it, and seeing his hair all parted down the middle and feathered, he looked back up at me kind of mortified, and he said he’d get me a more current head shot. I figured there’s no way he’d remember with all the hoopla surrounding his retirement and I was embarrassed that the one time I did ask for an autograph, I was rejected! Three days later his publicist called me that the autograph was ready and I could pick it up. It wasn’t a photo, though. Wayne Gretzky had signed one of the hockey sticks from his last game to me! It was an act of kindness from someone legitimately worthy of their celebrity, and so busy, that I was really blown away. And, it turns out a lot of people have stories about how nice he is. Life moved on, of course, but I now have a 9-year old son who has randomly become a competitive hockey player and just signed with a team. He got to choose his jersey number for the first time just last month, and chose Wayne Gretzky’s #99.
On your website, you talk about reading the news to your kids while they were in the bathtub. Why was it important for you to have your kids learn about current events from a young age?
It was important to me because there are amazing people doing amazing things, and I wanted them to have a sense or awareness that there’s a whole world out there that extends beyond themselves.
Since starting Here There Everywhere in 2010, what has surprised you the most about how children respond to news?
For me, it’s the refreshing questions children ask. I remember being in a classroom talking to kids about a woman rowing across the Indian Ocean by herself. She had logistically very tough problems to solve–water, food, the heat of the sun, communications, loneliness, sharks, even pirates. What the kids in my class really, really wanted to know was where she spit the toothpaste after she was done brushing her teeth. I didn’t know, it wasn’t something on my mind. But we sent the question off to her team, and they answered us right back! It may have been an irrelevant question to adults, but it became a moment of connection for the kids. And that’s what HTE’s after: kids connecting with their world in a meaningful way–which means on their terms and level of curiosity.
Even though Here There Everywhere is a news website for elementary school-aged kids, it still covers some tragic news events that can be difficult for young children to process, like the Boston Marathon bombings and the tornadoes in Oklahoma. How do you approach reporting on hard stories for kids?
Great question. I take this very seriously. There are a few factors we consider. Every child, as well as their parent/caregiver, has a different threshold for the kind of news they can and want to handle. We agree with that and totally respect it. Kids shouldn’t feel the weight of the world, and not every story is right for everybody. Some stories are so big or historic, though, that you know people will be talking about it. In those situations, I make sure to write calmly and accurately. People generally prefer their kids get news from adults instead of other kids in these situations.
It’s also important to provide a larger context — that while something undesirable happened, many people come together in those situations to help. And then we need to address kids’ questions of ‘could this happen to me?’. I consult with a child psychologist on the tougher stories and we often also have a guide for parents on how to talk to their kids about them. The bigger issue for me is that with TV and the Internet, kids can see the same unsettling images over and over in the endless 24-hour news cycle, and they can’t always distinguish between live and tape, and I think that needs to be avoided.
What kind of response has Here There Everywhere received from teachers and caregivers, and how has it shaped the evolution of the site?
The response has been really great! I was amazed to learn that countries all over the world read it. I love that teachers and caregivers actually take the time to reach out. There’s a shift toward more non-fiction reading and comprehension in school so I know it’s been incorporated into some classrooms that way. Kids enjoy the opportunities to engage with newsmakers, they like to discuss the critical thinking questions often added to stories, and the additional resources I link to. That being said, it honestly hasn’t shaped the evolution of the site too much. Good, substantive news stories stand on their own and all I try to do is tell them the best way I can.
How do you see media literacy as a component of everyday life?
I think news, as it tries to explain every day life, has a tendency to play out with an often oversimplified “us versus them” mentality: good guys against bad guys (man vs man), the “raging” tornado and the “invading cicadas” (man vs. nature), the diseases we “battle” against (man vs. self). These kinds of words, while convenient and descriptive, make it seem like we’re perpetually waging war on something, including ourselves. They create a sort of act-or-be-acted-upon idea and I think we need to be careful of that. It gives a sense of being disconnected from everything, rather than connected, which for me is actually the point of news. Each and every story to me demonstrates that we’re all in this together–even if it’s on the other side of the world.
The other piece of this for me is this notion of needing our news right now, including an unreal volume of it, or we’re somehow going to be left behind, especially if we’re not constantly at our computer. I think kids are better served with fewer but more thought provoking, well-told news stories that spark their interest and make them think. I believe it’s also important for kids to start with a sense of place instead of time. So, the site’s called Here There Everywhere for that reason. We all have a place in the world, we’re all connected, and kids will move the world forward when they’re ready.
Who do you want to win the Stanley Cup this year?
Wayne Gretzky. Kidding. I’m a big Sidney Crosby fan (this generation’s Wayne Gretzky, I guess), so I wanted the Pittsburgh Penguins to win…though I’d be an even bigger fan if he wore a full face shield (that’s the mom in me talking!).