Covering Child Abuse

American Journalism Review, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Covering Child Abuse


By many indicators, America's ability to protect its children is less certain than ever. Some children are left in families that are abusive. Others spend years in foster care, while still others sleep on the floors of state offices for lack of a foster care bed.

Their plight is an important story for journalists to tell. But too much reporting follows the same worn path. A sensational story about death by abuse is followed by a search for blame.

Thirty-two print and broadcast journalists, who met for a week in June 1997 to discuss better ways to cover the national crisis of child abuse, learned that there are other stories to tell as well. They heard about economic and social obstacles in the lives of families that can breed violence against children -- and the overhaul of child welfare systems to confront these realities. They heard about thousands of American families that are being fortified by the efforts of child protection agencies experimenting with new approaches that spread the responsibility for safeguarding children throughout the community.

The conference the journalists attended, sponsored by the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families, was the fifth annual session held at the University of Maryland, where the center is based. In five years, these conferences have exposed more than 150 journalists, selected in a competitive process, to the latest and best thinking about the problems children and families face.

Among the experts who addressed this year's group were the heads of the New York City, Cleveland and Florida child protection systems. Other speakers included one of the nation's preeminent researchers on children's brain development, doctors at Johns Hopkins Children's Center who treat the visible and invisible wounds of abuse every day and three youths who spent their teen years in New York City's troubled foster care system.

These themes emerged from the discussion:

* Stories about child abuse too often focus on sensational cases with the most extreme problems. At the same time, myths, stereotypes and faulty assumptions skew the way the public views the child abuse problem and impact public policy. Neglect is far more common than abuse, and equally devastating, but it rarely attracts press attention. That's partly because of a fixation by journalists on fatal child abuse cases, which are both inherently dramatic and easier to cover. But the focus on fatal abuse has contributed to public ignorance about the vast majority of abuse and neglect cases, which result neither in removal from the home nor death.

* Stories often lack context. It's common practice to put together a compelling profile of an abused child or an abusive parent without including background that helps explain why it happened. Reporters need to illuminate background factors such as families raising children in poverty, often with drug and alcohol problems, in neighborhoods where drugs and crime are common and jobs are scarce.

* The roles of race and class are not adequately addressed in coverage of child abuse and the systems set up to protect children's welfare. Children of every race and class suffer from abuse and neglect, but minority and poor children are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system. Almost half of the children currently in out-of-home care are children of color, and reporting needs to honestly confront the reasons.

* Reform movements and programs touted as "models" to prevent and treat child abuse come and go, but reporters are increasingly pressed to produce stories with "silver bullet" solutions. How can reporters make informed judgments about which approach works best?

* State confidentiality laws make it difficult for reporters, and ultimately the public, to find out whether child protection systems are working well. But they also serve an important public purpose -- protecting the privacy of families and extremely vulnerable children. …

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