Women Journalists Spurred Coverage of Children and Families: `... I No Longer Had to Approach My Work as Though I Didn't Have Children.' (Women: United States).(Column)

Article excerpt

A handful of reporters and editors, most of them women, many of them parents of young children, diverted significant media resources during the mid- to late -1980's to forge new beats focusing on the needs of children and families. Some won major awards, some flopped, quite a few actually impacted public policy and improved children's lives. Perhaps more surprising, some 15 years later, the beat goes on.

Cathy Trost was a children's beat pioneer, even though she doesn't like the name of what she helped create. "I always disliked `the children's beat' name because it never accurately described the range of serious coverage the beat actually involved," Trost said in a recent interview. While at The Wall Street Journal, Trost, a versatile and respected national reporter returning from maternity leave, found her personal concerns shared by not only increasing numbers of her readers, but journalism colleagues as well. "For a variety of reasons, suddenly children's issues were on the radar screen. It was important to businesses; it was a public policy concern," she said.

Trost's work focused on public policy and also on the impact on businesses brought about by emerging children's and families' needs. Witness these front-page headlines from her coverage:

* Human Tragedy: How Children's Safety Can Be Put in Jeopardy By Day-Care Personnel (October 1988)

* Pampered Travelers (of the Tiny Kind) Take Over Airliners. (March 1989)

* Born to Lose: Babies of Crack Users Crowd Hospitals, Break Everybody's Heart. (July 1989)

* Second Chance: As Drug Babies Grow Older, Schools Strive to Meet Their Needs. (December 1989)

* Parental Concern: As Nanny Agencies Proliferate, So Do Gripes About Service. (July 1990)

* Workplace Debate: Businesses and Women Anxiously Watch Suit on Fetal Protection. (October 1990)

Trost credits her editor, Al Hunt, then the newspaper's Washington bureau chief, with helping make this work possible. "He's an example of the new breed of male bosses who understood professionally and personally the implications of women in the workforce.... Back when I was starting the beat, he was the father of three young children and had a working wife [TV anchor Judy Woodruff]," said Trost. "It must have had something to do with his thinking about what's news."

Elsewhere, journalists, initially mostly women, were writing about children's poverty, infant mortality, the dangerous lack of childhood immunizations in many communities, decaying public schools, flawed foster care systems, and child abuse. These reporters were mostly working on the newspapers' traditional pink-collar beats--education, social welfare, human services, poverty and public health. But the content of their stories about children and family was changing. Now, many were based on hard new demographic data, included in-depth analysis of economic and social implications, and most focused intensely on the actual circumstances of children's and families' lives rather than using a particular incident merely as a transitional anecdote.

Crack cocaine, tragically, was the topic that propelled the children's beat stories onto many front pages, magazine covers, and to the top of the network news. The drug's dehumanizing impact on its users was nowhere more evident than in stories about children being born having been exposed to the drug in utero, about addicted parents selling their children for a few rocks, about the violence involving young people in communities where crack was being sold, and about the violent abuse of children committed by those under crack's influence.

Indeed, the crack epidemic, especially from about 1984 to 1990, directly coincided with the proliferation and institutionalization of children's beats at many of the nation's leading news outlets. Martha Shirk at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Carol Lawson at The New York Times, Carole Simpson and Rebecca Chase at ABC News, Melissa Ludtke at Time, Leslie Baldacci at the Chicago Sun-Times, Carol Kreck at The Denver Post, John Woestendiek at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Trost at The Wall Street Journal, Jack Kresnak and I at the Detroit Free Press, and dozens of others around the country worked hard to ensure that stories focusing on children and families were featured more prominently. …