Hiding the Elephant: Child Care Coverage in Four Daily Newspapers

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The shortage of quality child care has been an elephant in Canada's political living room for decades, a challenge that polarizes opinion across party lines and provincial boundaries. No politician would say he or she is against quality child care yet no one has succeeded in defining a universally-acceptable model or in establishing a thorough national system. This paper begins to explore the role, perhaps even the complicity, of the press in helping to hide that elephant.

Given the characteristics that render any subject newsworthy to journalists-conflict, relevance, proximity, for example-the ways in which millions of Canadian families care for their children seems an obvious and compelling news topic. Add to that a decades-long debate over whether and how to build a national child care plan, and one might expect acres of newsprint devoted to the subject.

Yet, much to the dismay of its advocates, child care appears to remain an underreported area in daily news-even though its innate relevance and its potential for conflict seem unassailable, with more than 75 percent of mothers of preschool age children in the paid labour force and licensed child care spaces for fewer than 20% of children under age five (Friendly, Beach, Ferns & Turiano, 2007).

This investigation is part of a broader attempt to quantify, analyze and interpret media coverage of child care to determine its extent, its framing and its content. Ultimately, the questions we seek to explore include these: What exactly is the media saying about child care, both in terms of actual content and relative frequency of coverage? How is that message affecting the profile of child care in public discourse? How, if at all, does the message change during an election campaign? Does media coverage reflect current developments and findings in early childhood education?

In this pilot project we sought to establish baseline information about press coverage of child care in Canada between the years 2000 and 2007. We aimed to measure how much or how little child care appears in the pages of important Canadian dailies, to determine its prominence as a subject, to delineate whether coverage parallels political developments/events and to identify whether there were significant differences in the amount of child care coverage among the major dailies.

The Changing Political Landscape

The past several decades have seen an increase in the proportion of women who are part of the labour force. Between 1976 and 1999, the proportion of women 15 and older in the paid labour force jumped from 42% to 55%, while the proportion of men working for pay decreased from 73% to 67% (Statistics Canada, 2000). While fertility rates in Canada are declining, the proportion of women with young children in the labour force has been increasing steadily. Between 1995 and 2004, women's labour force participation rates increased, particularly for women aged 25 to 54 (Luffman, 2006). By 2005, 81 % of women 25 to 54 were in the labour force (Marshall, 2006), as were 71.9% of mothers with young children (Roy, 2006). In 2006, women accounted for 47% of the workforce, up from 37% in 1976 (Statistics Canada, 2007).

Over the same four decades, Canadian women have been increasingly vocal about the importance of the implementation of a universal child care strategy. For example, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1970: 271), which came after a series of cross-country consultations assessing the position of women in Canada, recommended that the federal government "immediately take steps to enter into agreement with the provinces leading to the adoption of a national Day-Care Act under which federal funds would be made available on a cost-sharing basis for building and running of day-care centres meeting specified minimum standards." The report recommended that the federal government "(a) pay half the operating costs; (b) during the initial seven-year period, pay 70 percent of capital costs; and (c) make similar arrangements for the Yukon and Northwest Territories" (1970: 271). …