Lester Holt has been reporting the news to the American public for more than four decades. His latest media venture focuses on a more specific audience: children.
“Nightly News: Kids Edition” is a twice-weekly online program that breaks down major news stories to help children understand what’s happening in the world.
Holt, who anchors the program, spoke to PoliFonics about the decision to create a kid-centric newscast and how it’s reminiscent of his experience explaining current events to his own children when they were young. (He has two adult sons, Stefan and Cameron.)
Creating A News Program For Children
Holt said that “Nightly News: Kids Edition” was “born out of some of the worst days of the COVID crisis” in New York, as the numbers of cases and deaths were mounting every day.
“I was anchoring the newscast every night, and it was grim. I mean, it was really, really grim,” he recalled. “I worried because I knew that families watch it together sometimes, and I was wondering how kids were absorbing all this, these things that were not only rattling them but also their parents.”
The kid-friendly program features conversations with experts, interviews with children and parents who are making waves, roundtable discussions and question-and-answer segments. Each episode runs around six to 10 minutes and hits at 4 p.m. ET every Tuesday and Thursday on NBCNews.com, as well as the NBC News apps, YouTube channel and Peacock. Holt said he’s been glad to receive positive feedback from parents and kids.
“The world is very scary for all of us right now,” he said. “We’re concerned because we’re riding through the COVID crisis, the economic crisis, we’re at this crossroads of a reckoning over race in America. These are very heavy topics for grown-ups, and I think sometimes we forget that there are kids watching or being exposed to this in other ways that we don’t always have as much control over. So it’s important for parents to engage with their kids.”
Explaining George Floyd And Protests To Kids
“Nightly News: Kids Edition” sometimes begins with a disclaimer telling kids to let their parents know when a topic of discussion is particularly serious in case they’d want to watch the program with their children. This was the case when they covered the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed.
“When George Floyd was murdered, the impact of that story was huge,” Holt explained, noting that they worked hard to present the issues in an age-appropriate way, while encouraging parents to continue the discussion after the newscast.
“The first time we dealt with it, we brought on a child psychologist and talked about ways to help kids through this, things they should know, what they should take away from it,” he explained. “We had one of our correspondents do a roundtable of sorts with a bunch of kids who expressed their fears and their questions. So we created that dialogue but continued to remind families that this is a conversation that has to continue once you put the computer away.”
Holt said they chose not to share any of the video footage of the end of Floyd’s life and chose to put the story in simple terms as a starting point to help kids understand why there was unrest and the history of it.
“We talk about a man named George Floyd and that he had this confrontation with police,” he said. “We assume that there’s some awareness of what’s going on in this day and age. So we started from that point that there’s a lot of people who are upset about what happened to a man named George Floyd, people are protesting due to their anger and disappointment over relations with police and Black people.”
Empowering Young People With Knowledge
Holt said that the guiding philosophy behind “Nightly News: Kids Edition” is that knowledge is power.
“The more you know, for example about coronavirus and COVID-19, the less scary it becomes and the more you know about what it can do and what it can’t do,” he explained. “Knowledge helps reduce your anxiety, so you know exactly what you’re looking at.”
He also hopes the program helps kids process their emotions amid these heavy times and know that they aren’t alone in feeling unsettled.
“That’s why it was so great to have the panel discussion with kids to talk about race and to have some of them acknowledge that they’re fearful,” he said. “On the program talking about COVID, I mentioned, ‘This is really scary for grown-ups, too.’ I think it’s good to remind people that this is a journey we’re all on together, and we’re learning as we go.”
Talking About The News With His Own Kids
Holt thinks of “Nightly News: Kids Edition” as an extension of conversations about world events that he had with his own children in his early days as a father and journalist.
“The TV would be on in the house, and they would see what Dad was talking about that evening,” he said. “So when there were those big difficult stories, we would talk about it at the dinner table, even as they got older. It became part of our family tradition to sit down at dinner and talk about current events.”
He often asked his children what they thought of different events and encouraged them to think through the issues from all angles, “whether it was raising taxes or invading another country,” he recalled.
“I come from a place that kids are smart, they recognize the signs of anxiety and worry around them, and they know when people are trying to keep things from them,” Holt said. “The key is trying to find the language. Unfortunately, as a parent, we don’t get a manual, so we have to feel our way through these things and understand what our kids can handle. I always defaulted with the idea of giving them as much information as I thought they could handle and to really respect their intelligence.”
Holt said the Operation Desert Storm military attack on Iraq and the beating of Black motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles are two notable 1991 events he remembers discussing with his sons. The King beating feels relevant today as it involves issues of race and police brutality.
“I never had the so-called ‘talk’ that a lot of people refer to, but we had lots of conversations,” he said. “It was part of organic conversation around what was happening in the news. I try to instill in my kids a sense of right and wrong, and to know that just because some things come from a source of authority doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right.”
Making Sense Of His Own Experience
Although “Nightly News: Kids Edition” is reminiscent of his parenting experience, Holt also draws inspiration for his coverage from his own childhood.
He was 6 years old and living in Los Angeles with his mother in 1965 when the Watts riots broke out, and he has vivid memories of smoke, firetrucks and National Guard troops on the street.
“I remember that sense of bewilderment and fear,” he said. “Your life is turned upside down. Suddenly, we left our home and moved in with another family a little farther out of town. Those emotions have certainly come back during these last few weeks. And as we talk about how to deal with kids and these stories, that has been in the back of my mind ― my own sense of anxiety as a little kid during a time of turmoil.”