Kids Are People Too, Papers Decide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The headlines are as unsettling as they are unrelenting:

Two Children Die in Parade

Teenager Charged in Shooting

Children Need Advice From Peers Against Drugs

Want to Retire Early? Then Don't Have Kids

Child Molester Arrested on School Bus

Kids Who Kill

"Children are only in the news, it seems, when they're the objects of fear or the objects of anxiety," says Larry Aber, director of the National Center for Children and Poverty at Columbia University in New York. "Either they're suffering themselves or they're causing others to suffer. Either way, according to the media, they're in trouble."

But the vast majority of America's youths are not in trouble. They're not suffering or causing suffering. They're not violent, not poor, not illiterate, not on drugs. They're not being abused or neglected, killed or maimed.

What they're doing is leading normal lives. You just wouldn't know it from reading the newspaper--or looking at television news.

Many other segments of our society, from ethnic minorities to airline pilots, have long made the same complaint about the distorted portrayal of their lives in the news media. Why, for example, were there big stories on the two fatal airplane accidents that U.S. commercial airliners were involved in last year and virtually no coverage of the more than 11 million flights that took off and landed safely?

The answer to all these criticisms, of course, is that news is news precisely because it's new--not normal, not a daily occurrence.

But a growing number of editors have decided that this narrow definition of news often yields an unfair and unrepresentative depiction of their readers and their communities, and they're starting to do something about that--especially in the coverage of children.

Over the past decade--and increasingly over the past three or four years--newspapers large and small have been creating children's "beats," assigning reporters to write full time about children and their families in much the same way that reporters have long been given beats in science, medicine, religion, the law and many other subjects.

These reporters write about trends or interesting everyday issues--homework, bedtime, child care, allowances, discipline, teasing, overcrowded after-school schedules--without necessarily waiting for a specific dramatic or tragic "news peg" like a high school shooting or the Elian Gonzalez case to hang it on.

Some newspapers have even published lengthy series--in a few cases running for a year or more--on such subjects as "Children First," "Caring for Our Children" and "Saving Our Children."

Most studies show that people get most of their news from television, but only one TV network--ABC--has a children's beat, and local television news programs in particular still seem to focus primarily on the sensational, the sentimental and the superficial when covering children. While stories about children in five major newspapers--the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Constitution and Houston Chronicle--increased 37% from 1993 to 1998, the amount of coverage of children on network television remained essentially the same during that period, according to a study by Children Now in Oakland.

The way in which young people are portrayed in the news media is important because it influences how the general public regards them and, as a consequence, how government and other institutions treat them.

Local, state and federal agencies and legislative bodies can restrict children or neglect them, punish them or protect them. Volunteer agencies allocate resources based on the problems--and possible solutions--they see, read and hear about.

With this in mind, a few newspapers--the Denver Post and St. Louis Post-Dispatch among them--had children's beats in the 1980s. But the idea of a children's beat didn't really begin to take root until almost a decade later. Beth Frerking was in the vanguard of the 1990s movement, working out of Washington, D.C., for the Newhouse News Service, starting in 1991, and for the first few years, many of her articles were published by newspapers that subscribed to the Newhouse service and had no other reliable source for stories about children.

Ironically, as more newspapers began developing their own children's specialists, fewer used her stories, and she grew restless. In part because of that shift, she has herself shifted, moving in March from news service reporter to director of the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families--a resource, clearinghouse and coordinating agency for all the reporters who have flocked to her old beat.

The Casey center, based at the University of Maryland, has created a community of children's reporters, complete with their own Web site, e-mail exchange, annual awards and fellowships and--perhaps most important--a communications network that not only enables them to trade information but also to reassure each other that they're doing important work and that they're not doing it alone.

Growing Interest Among Baby Boomers

Meanwhile, Rachel Jones, who formerly covered children and families for the Knight Ridder newspapers, is now trying to raise funds to start a Washington-based news service that would concentrate exclusively on children's issues.

Why the sudden journalistic interest in children?

"You have a lot of baby boomer reporters becoming editors," Frerking says. "Suddenly, things that happen to their kids are important."

The Chicago Tribune, which has published four major series on children since 1994, offered a more philosophical explanation in a Page 1 notice that accompanied the first article in its first series:

"A society can be fairly judged by how it treats its children. Caring for and guiding them to maturity is its most essential work, for they are the means by which it survives."

Thus, writing about how society treats its children--and about how those children are faring and what they are doing--should be essential to the mission of a good daily newspaper.

To many editors, the shift to more nuanced and comprehensive coverage of children is all about the bedrock principles of fairness and accuracy.

David Yarnold, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, asked for a "comprehensive content audit" of his paper in 1994, and Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the Portland Oregonian, did likewise last year; both concluded that their portrayals of youth were badly flawed.

"We decided that the criticism that the news media only portray kids in trouble or kids in sports was largely true, that we were guilty of that and that we needed to change it," Rowe says.

The Oregonian created a youth beat and began "The Zone"--a major story or question-and-answer feature that involves young people and is published at the top of the Living section every Friday.

"But we didn't want to ghettoize our youth coverage," Rowe says. "We wanted to mainstream it. Michele McLelan, our special projects editor, talked to reporters and editors throughout the paper about the need to treat youth as a regular part of the news and to get kids' issues--and kids' voices--into our stories every day, throughout the paper.

"We've changed dramatically in the last six months. Now there is hardly a day, certainly there isn't a week, when there aren't news stories about youth on our section fronts and, often, on our Page 1, and if we're writing about, say, high school dropouts, we don't just have school officials talk about it; we go directly to kids and interview them, too.

"This is not a marketing initiative," Rowe says. "It's a fairness initiative. This is not a matter of trying to get young people to read the paper but to get young people represented in the paper."

Many editors do see youth coverage as a marketing initiative, though, and they are trying to get young people to read their papers. In recent years, more than 50 papers have created special pages, sections and themed features designed to attract young readers. Among them are the Miami Herald, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Chicago Tribune, Providence Journal, Buffalo News, Eugene Register-Guard and Newsday in suburban New York.

Some papers aim their youth coverage at the very young, others at teenagers, and at many of the latter--the Sacramento Bee, Arizona Republic, Orlando Sentinel, Kansas City Star, Minneapolis Star Tribune--youth pages are actually written by local youths. The New Orleans Times-Picayune uses high school students to write movie reviews during the summer.

The Washington Post and Minneapolis Star Tribune, among others, have both a children/families beat and a youth page or section. The Los Angeles Times publishes "Section Gee!" and "The Kids' Reading Room," a feature that's part of its "Reading by 9" literacy project--an enterprise pioneered by the Baltimore Sun in an effort to improve literacy among local schoolchildren.

Aiming for Parents More Than Children

Many journalists think youth coverage should be directed more toward adult readers than children because studies over the years have shown that most young people aren't going to read a daily newspaper regularly, no matter how many kid-friendly features it publishes.

Indeed, these journalists--reporters and editors alike--realize that the issues, problems and activities of children and families are of interest to significant numbers of the adult readers they most covet, especially women, whose newspaper readership has been declining in recent years.

Historically, people who are invested in their communities, both emotionally and financially--which generally means they own homes, vote, pay taxes and have children in school--have been more likely to subscribe to daily newspapers than have less settled or committed households. That's why many in the newspaper business see youth coverage as an opportunity to rebuild declining circulation.

"At a time when newspapers say they want to speak more directly to their readers, this is in many ways the best way to do that . . . talking to your readers about things they deeply care about, things that deeply touch their lives every day," says Melissa Healy, who spent about 18 months writing about children and families for the Los Angeles Times before going on maternity leave early this year.

But only about 35% of American households have minor children living at home, so reporters know they must make clear to their editors--and to their readers--that even readers with no children, or with grown children, should be interested in these stories.

"What happens to children affects what kind of adults they will grow up to be, how our world will develop and be shaped. It affects every part of society," says Susan Chira, an editor at the New York Times and the author of "A Mother's Place," a 1998 book on working mothers.

More specifically, says Pam Maples, assistant managing editor for special projects at the Dallas Morning News, "Long-range studies show that that the kind of care that kids have early in their lives affects how they do later in school, which affects how they perform in the work force and as grown-up citizens, which has an effect on you and me, the taxpayer."

With that in mind, Maples is now helping to plan a major children's initiative at the Morning News, a series of articles that Gilbert Bailon, the executive editor, says will "examine children under 5 and how they're being prepared in school and how various other institutions are serving them--or not serving them."

Interest, Support Are Key Factors

Bailon's strong commitment to the series--and to improved youth coverage in general--illustrates what many journalists say are the two most important factors in implementing such improvements: a personal interest in youth coverage from someone on the staff, and strong support for that coverage from a top editor. Bailon provides both.

Without high-level support, reporters say, resources to cover youth properly are unlikely to be allocated, and the stories that are done are unlikely to be prominently displayed.

What triggered Bailon's interest?

"My kids are 11 and 15," he says. "That's certainly raised my level of awareness. I have a wife who works. We encounter some of the same issues as our readers do. Too often, those issues are not what most daily newspapers . . . see as a part of the core paper. But what is more core than the families that subscribe to our paper?"

Reporters and editors at many other papers are also baby-boomer parents with young children now, "and that," the 41-year-old Bailon says, "brings the issue to the forefront of their attention, too."

That it does:

* Barri Barnston began writing about children for the New Orleans Times-Picayune when her daughter was a year old. She's since done stories on subjects ranging from schoolyard bullies, puppy love, the Pokemon phenomenon and the city's first gay prom to summer camps for physically disabled kids, the children of divorced parents, teaching children to deal with cancer in the family, and--no surprise--"what to expect in baby's first year."

* H.J. Cummins took on the children and families beat at the Minneapolis Star Tribune in large part because of the problems and pleasures she encountered as a working mother.

"I consider the parenting piece of my life a very serious, intellectually and emotionally challenging part of my life," Cummins says, "and I think part of what I do in my work is try to bring that kind of respect for home life to news coverage."

* Fred Zipp, assistant managing editor for state and local news at the Austin, Texas, American-Statesman, created a children's beat last summer because "I have a daughter--she was 8 then--and as she's grown up, I've realized that there is a period in the lives of a significant segment of the population . . . when their time with their children and their problems in trying to maximize their children's opportunities in life is probably the most pressing concern in their lives. If that's the case, I thought we needed to dedicate somebody to exploring those problems and that situation."

Stories like those that Barnston and Cummins generally write--and that Zipp and Bailon encourage--have traditionally been seen at most newspapers as "soft features," and many journalists still regard them as marginal "touchy-feely pieces," almost inevitably lacking the customary news-making characteristics of conflict, crisis, confrontation and controversy.

"It's oozing news, not breaking news," says Healy of the Los Angeles Times, "and among mainstream newspaper journalists, especially big-city newspaper journalists, there's a discomfort . . . a sort of lingering sense that it's not legitimate national news . . . that it doesn't have real importance."

Although the vast majority of reporters on the children/families beat are women, most top newspaper editors are still men, and many of them--even those with young children--instinctively regard their own family lives as being in "the realm of nonwork, even anti-work," Healy says, "so it's hard for them to make the stretch and realize that families and the forces at play within them and upon them are a legitimate subject for our scrutiny."

Because of these perceptions, such stories have generally been consigned to the lifestyle feature sections rather than the news pages at most newspapers; for reporters writing those stories, status has been low, and turnover and disenchantment have been high. This is gradually changing at a small but growing number of papers, and at some, Page 1 play is increasingly common.

Still, it's often "hard to get on the editors' radar screen, and if what I'm doing is really a high priority, I'd like to feel more like it's part of the paper as a whole," as Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer puts it, echoing the concern of many of her children's beat colleagues

Ignoring Children in Welfare Coverage

Even on issues that directly involve children, they--and their needs--are often overlooked. In a study of 18 of the nation's major newspapers from 1994 to 1998, the Berkeley Media Studies Group found that the coverage of child care was "framed primarily as an issue of parents getting what they need in order to go to work rather than as an issue of children getting what they need in order to grow" and develop.

Similarly, although about two-thirds of the people affected by welfare reform are under 18, "they barely made the radar screen in media coverage" of that legislation in 1996 and '97, says Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now in Oakland.

Children Now studied welfare reform coverage by nine major news organizations during the summer of 1996 (when federal welfare reform was being debated and enacted by Congress) and the summer of 1997 (when the legislation was being implemented at the state level).

Of the 680 articles examined, only 15% focused primarily or significantly on children. In two-thirds of the articles, children were not discussed at all. Salisbury called this "shockingly disappointing."

When newspaper space is tight or resources are short, stories about children are especially likely to go unwritten or unpublished.

"In the crush of what's defined as news, children's issues still get relegated to the back of the bus," says Rachel Jones, who covered those issues for the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder Newspapers from 1994 to 1997, and now does so part time for National Public Radio. "In the hierarchy of news, politics and crime and foreign news still take precedence."

Steve Varnum, a reporter for the Concord Monitor, a 22,000-circulation daily in the New Hampshire state capital, recently found that out the hard way.

"For roughly three years, I've concentrated on child and family reporting . . . as one of two reporters assigned to our Sunday paper," Varnum says. "We've won a lot of awards for my stories, but now the editors are doing away with dedicated Sunday reporters, and ending my beat, in a sort of belt-tightening move because they say we need bodies to throw at the governor's race and other big local stories."

Even at a newspaper like the Austin American-Statesman, where coverage of children and the subject of families has strong support, competition from what is seen as "real" news often relegates those stories to the back burner.

"I couldn't do nearly as many of them as I wanted to because a hurricane happened and I had to run out and cover that, too, and then we had a big murder case I was in on covering and then I got drafted for our stories on the Texas A & M bonfire" that left 11 dead and 28 injured last November, says Suzanne Gamboa, who had the paper's children's beat for about a year until leaving last month.

"It wasn't a matter of lack of dedication," Gamboa says, "but of the size of our staff. Basically, the editors finally said that having me be a general assignment reporter on those big hard-news stories was more of a priority than the family and children beat."

But Susan Chira of the New York Times says she's always believed that stories on children and the family "could--and should--be hard news . . . and high priority. It takes the reporter to frame it properly and make it engaging and relevant. . . . You don't want to fall back on sappy, unfocused human interest stories that can be easily dismissed. You have to connect the so-called 'soft issues' in the life of children with issues that everyone agrees are important in American life: the structure and future of the American family, crime, welfare reform, health care."

The New York Times did just that in two ambitious, mid-1990s projects--"When Trouble Starts Young" and "Children of the Shadows"--and, more recently, in Page 1 stories on the decline in the number of teenagers who take summer jobs, on the increased academic pressure on sixth-graders, on the growing number of students who go to summer school and on those who spend an extra year in high school.

The New York Times doesn't have a children's beat. It does, however, have an executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld, who--30 years ago as a reporter--spent an entire school year writing a series of stories based on going in and out of a single fourth-grade classroom and in and out of the lives and homes of the students in that class. Because of his experience, Lelyveld says, he'd be predisposed to support a children's beat if the right person at the paper suggested it.

"You wouldn't have to twist my arm," he says, "but the first question is, who's the writer? If somebody came in with the right idea, I'd give it a shot."

A State of Mind, Not a Place

At the Washington Post, reporter Jacqueline Salmon made just such a proposal in a November 1995 memo. She didn't have to twist her editors' arms either, and she describes the beat that grew out of that memo as "suburban family life--a state of mind, not a geographic location."

Salmon urged her editors to create the beat because she thought that the Post, "while doing a good job of covering families as they come into contact with institutions . . . was not covering the kinds of things my neighbors and I talked about at the bus stop, the concerns of everyday life that would be sort of universal to this generation of parents."

Around the time Salmon started her beat, the Post decided that its front page was overloaded with stories on public policies and institutions and, as a result, was often boring. Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Post, appointed Mary Hadar to be assistant managing editor for front page features and charged her with finding at least one story a day for Page 1 that would "affect real people and be about real people," as Hadar puts it.

"We felt that stories about the way people live are legitimate news," she says, "just as legitimate as stories about what a congressional committee did yesterday."

Salmon--and the children and parents in the greater Washington area--were among the immediate beneficiaries of this expanded view of "legitimate news," and in recent months she has been on Page 1 with stories on such topics as child care, parents who spy on their children, kids who are sleep-deprived, and videotapes, flashcards and computer software programs for infants.

Salmon's stories are told largely from the parents' perspective; she has two children, ages 7 and 11, and she says the beat "just sort of evolved that way, with many of my story ideas coming from my kids." But the Post is that rarity, a newspaper with two reporters working full time on the children/family beat, and Salmon's colleague, Laura Sessions Stepp, focuses more on the children themselves--in particular, on children ages 10 to 15.

Stepp used to write about younger children, but she says that when her son turned 11, "and I saw what was happening with him and with his friends and how they were going through such changes, it bowled me over. I realized that I and other parents I knew were losing touch with this age child and they were confused and, quite frankly, this is when the risky behavior can start."

In an effort to shed journalistic light on these critical years, Stepp has written about alienation, fashion, rules and boundaries, after-school activities, spending money, the relationship between fathers and daughters and--several times--on sexual topics: the first kiss, sexually transmitted diseases, "Talking to Kids About Sexual Limits," "When 'Good Girls' Get a Bad Rep" and, in a controversial Page 1 story last summer, the increasing number of middle-school students engaging in oral sex.

Media Portrayals Can Be Powerful

Stepp has also written a book, newly published, "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence," based on a year in the lives of 12 youngsters in Kansas, North Carolina and three Southern California communities: West Hollywood, Van Nuys and South-Central Los Angeles.

Journalists and child advocates say the increased attention--and, often, more accurate coverage--accorded young people today comes in part from a growing realization that the ways in which children are portrayed in the news media can have an enormous impact on both public perceptions and public policy.

Just as writing about child care and the lack of health insurance for many children has helped put those issues on the nation's legislative agenda, so stories that portray today's teenagers in a largely negative light--as reckless, violent, drug-taking, drunk-driving miscreants who are getting steadily worse--has resulted in laws aimed to control and punish teens . . . and in both a negative public view of teens and an apprehensive view of school safety.

A 1997 study by Princeton Survey Research Associates found that Americans thought, by a 4-1 margin, that "young Americans without education, job prospects or connections to mainstream American life" represented a greater threat to the United States than "foreign nations working against us."

Another 1997 study, funded by Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Advertising Council, found that 53% of the respondents offered negative descriptions of today's children aged 5 to 12; only 23% made positive comments about these children.

Even before two Columbine High School seniors killed 12 fellow students and one teacher and severely injured 23 other students in Littleton, Colo., last year, a Wall Street Journal poll found that 71% of the respondents thought a child-against-child killing was likely in their school.

"But we have 25 million teenagers enrolled in 20,000 different schools, and including Columbine, there were a total of only 11 kids doing the killings at just nine schools," says Mike Males, the author of "Framing Youth: 10 Myths About the Next Generation."

Indeed, a report by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., says there is only a one-in-a-million chance that a child will be killed at school. Children are twice as likely to be struck by lightning as they are to be killed at school, says Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Institute.

The news media should provide this perspective, Males says, and despite several notable exceptions, "too often, they don't." Media coverage of teenage violence in the aftermath of Columbine and the other school shootings was "one of the most irresponsible events in the history of institutional America," Males says.

"The media have created a fear of young people, even though among teenagers today, serious crime, murder, violent deaths, traffic crashes and drug and alcohol abuse are far rarer than among the youth of 25 years ago."

Males adduces reams of statistics to support his contention that there is "a baseless panic about young people," and he complains that these media-induced misperceptions have led individual voters--and many local and state agencies--to approve unnecessarily restrictive and punitive laws, ranging from curfews to strict driving ordinances to harsher treatment of teens by the criminal justice system.

Many child advocates see these new laws as society's attempt to find easy solutions to difficult problems, and they blame the news media for that.

"The media tend to cover stories, especially those involving children, as individual episodes, rather than framing them as part of ongoing problems and themes," says Larry Aber of the National Center for Children and Poverty. "That leads people to blame the kids or their parents and to think that punishment and self-help and personal responsibility are the only answers.

"But there's a balance between individual/family responsibility and community/society responsibility," Aber says, "and by ignoring the underlying systemic causes of much antisocial youth behavior--poverty, say, or illiteracy or a lack of certain public services and facilities--the media allow politicians to avoid their responsibility to address these issues legislatively."

Marion Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., thinks the news media's largely negative portrayal of today's youths has another, equally damaging impact.

"It worries me," she says, "that if the only kids the media cover are the small percentage of kids who are taking drugs, dropping out or killing people, society will demonize all youths, and people will decide the problems we have are intractable and that nothing works. It's very important that people think there are possible solutions and they can make a difference."

Seeking to Make a Difference

The desire to make a difference has been a prime motivating factor in the improved coverage of children at many newspapers.

Robert McGruder, executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, says that after his paper published a four-part series on the 31 children who had died violently in Detroit during the first 4 1/2 months of 1992, his publisher told him, "We have to be more than just scorekeepers; we have to get into the game."

Under the banner of "Children First," McGruder says the Free Press decided, "We have to cover the issues that affect kids the most and we have to examine the institutions that are supposed to be looking out for kids: the schools, the courts, the welfare system, anybody who takes the taxpayers' money in the name of helping kids."

The Free Press has continued this campaign "off and on," McGruder says, "and while I don't think we've always been as diligent as we should be and I don't claim that we've had any more success than anyone else, we have tried. We think a big part of a newspaper's job is to help and defend and support the helpless and voiceless and oppressed, and in our society, no one is more helpless and voiceless and oppressed than children."

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Covering Kids: A Reality Check

Too often, the nation's news media ignore children, minimize their importance and their needs or portray them as behaving badly and getting worse. But statistics strongly suggest the media are mistaken.

*

Stories on child care in 18 major newspapers, 1994-98, tend to focus on parents' needs, not children's needs.

*

Government should help pay for child care

% of stories containing the focus: 25%

*

Child care lets families be economically self-sufficient

% of stories containing the focus: 15%

*

Family-friendly policies help employers attract and retain employees

% of stories containing the focus: 8%

*

But:

Investing in child care now prevents problems later: Less than 5%

Care after school is essential for school-aged children: Less than 5%

The early years are the most important for child development: Less than 5%

*

The Welfare Paradox

*

Welfare recipients

Children: 67%

Adults: 33%

*

But, stories on welfare reform by nine major news organizations, 1996 and 1997

*

Did mention children: 33%

Didn't mention children: 67%

*

Sources: Berkeley Media Study Group; Children Now; California Department of Justice; California Vital Statistics Bureau, Department of Health Services;

"Framing Youth: 10 Myths About the Next Generation" by Mike Males (Common Courage Press, 1999)

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Children in the News

Traditionally, most children have been in the news only when they've done something bad or when others have done bad things to them. Even though most kids don't fit into either category, this coverage can adversely--and unfairly--influence public perceptions and public policies that affect children, especially teenagers.

*

A New Approach

A growing number of newspapers have created children's beats in recent years, assigning reporters to write about the everyday lives of children and their families. These stories cover issues ranging from bedtime, allowances, teasing and schoolyard bullies to adolescent adjustments and overcrowded schedules.

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Appealing to Young Readers

Children don't generally read newspapers, but with circulation declining and editors worrying about the future, several dozen papers in recent years have created special pages, sections and themes features in an effort to attract young readers.

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