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The NBC news anchor and "grandude," who launched Nightly News: Kids Edition a year ago, reflects on covering a year of COVID and national change for young people.

By Lester Holt, as told to Maressa Brown
April 05, 2021
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NBC Nightly News Kids' Edition
Credit: NBC

Nearly a year ago, as the pandemic struck, there was a lot of influx as our newsroom had essentially packed up, and people began working from home. In that moment, one of our NBC Nightly News producers said, "Imagine how scary this is for children." That became the spark of a conversation that we should do a special newscast for kids on the web: NBC Nightly News: Kids' Edition. There was no sense of how long we would do this. There wasn't really a lot of research that went into it. It was more of a gut feeling that this is something we should do.

My boys are grown up now, but I remember explaining difficult stories to them. I remember early on, my oldest was around 3 or 4 when the first Gulf War broke out. And here was his dad, working long hours. I covered the famine and civil war in Somalia and had to leave and explain what was going on. So the thought has always been in my mind that we can't forget the children are watching and what is confusing and overwhelming to adults is probably much more so for kids. Why couldn't we include them in our audience?

One of the things about being an adult is sometimes we're afraid to ask the really simple questions for fear of looking uninformed. But kids will go for it and ask something like, "Hey, can I get coronavirus from the water in the shower?" And there are no stupid questions. We're all kind of wading into this bizarre world and trying to figure this out. So, there is a really great honesty about the questions they bring forth and the concerns that they have.

Although the program really started by focusing on the novel coronavirus and all that it entailed, we said we weren't going to ignore the other big stories that impact families and kids. Certainly, the George Floyd story and the Black Lives Matter marches were not ones we could ignore. At the same time, you know, we weren't prepared to play that awful tape during the program. So we really talked it through. We brought on an expert to help explain it to kids. We did the best we could to acknowledge the story that they're all aware of but in a way that was sensitive to their age and what we thought might be appropriate in that case.

Similarly, we were careful with the presidential election to let things speak for themselves. Obviously, we had to delve into what happened at the Capitol. We did it without going into some of the gorier details.

Kids are connected like all of us. They know these things are happening, but they may not have the details or the understanding. Our job was to present it in a way that acknowledges it happened and to describe some of the forces at work but to not bombard them with graphic images.

We've also had a lot of fun. The other day, we shot a story about a music program in which Fender Guitars is giving these guitars to Los Angeles school kids and teaching them music. It's been really great for a lot of these kids who were separated by COVID closures. I even joined in with one of them, because I'm a bass player.

Seeing how kids have handled the past year, you feel empathy toward what they're going through: not having physical connections with their friends and their teachers. At the same time, you look at how adaptable they've been. They're perfectly equipped for this in so many ways, because they embrace technology in ways that certainly people my age don't. They really maximize the resources available to get through this.

I think we won't know the answer to how deeply this affected them for a while. It's hard to imagine that this doesn't leave some kind of an imprint on who they become and how they see the world and the threats of the world, similar to how children of the depression were in many ways formed by that experience. It's going to be an ongoing story that we'll be covering in the months ahead.

But hopefully, they will continue to bear in mind one of the things I communicated in an early broadcast of the program: Information is kids' most important weapon right now. The more you know, the less scary coronavirus and everything else going on in the world becomes, because you know what can hurt you and what can't hurt you.

As we mark Kids' Edition's one year anniversary, we're going to be meeting to map out where we go. No one laid a plan in front of us and said, "This is going to be a six-month thing or this is going to be an experiment." We started doing it on the web and the network decided to pick it up, and we've had many Saturday morning airings on the NBC network. So, you know, we'll just keep doing it as long as we can.

Parents have stopped me and said, "Thank you for doing this. It's required viewing in our household," and we're all so gratified that we've made a positive impact. As far as programming decisions go, this one was very organic. We did this on a hunch that there was a need there. Now, as we as we find our way out of this pandemic, we're covering lighter topics, showing kids doing remarkable things, raising money, and showing a sense of community. And with hope, armed with information and inspiration, the kids at home will feel compelled to try to leave a good imprint on the world.

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