Academic journal article Family Relations

Covering Adoption: General Depictions in Broadcast News

Academic journal article Family Relations

Covering Adoption: General Depictions in Broadcast News

Article excerpt


Using theories of stigma (Goffman, 1963) and media frames (Iyengar, 1991), 292 news stories pertaining to adoption that appeared on major broadcast networks between 2001 and 2004 were analyzed. Media coverage of adoptees contained more problematic than positive depictions. Although birth parents were not always depicted, adoptive parent and adoptive family depictions were more positive than problematic. Fourteen percent of the news stories contained stigmatizing claims without refuting these claims. Stories that contained stigmatizing claims were more likely to use human interest, conflict, and morality frames. News coverage of reunions, open adoptions, and adoption recommendations is beginning to show a more forward view of adoption. Recommended programs for adoption education are included.

Key Words: adoption, broadcast media, families, news frame, stigma, television.

Many adoption researchers and practitioners have recognized the media's role in shaping public opinion on adoption issues (Reitz, 1999), often focusing on negative portrayals of adoption (e.g., Greedy, 2000; Wegar, 2000). Understanding the way broadcast news media depicts adoption is important because the news is the second most relied upon source of information about adoption for Americans (Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, 2002). The objective of our study is to build upon prior analyses of adoption by using Goffman's (1963) stigma theory to describe general ways network news depicts adoption and its participants.

Adoption and stigma

Although adoptions overall tend to be successful and stable (Earth & Miller, 2000) and most adoptees function normally (Miller, Fan, Christensen, Grotevant, & van Dulmen, 2000), several adoption researchers have pointed out that the social construction of adoption can involve stigmas (March, 1995; Miall, 1987; Wegar, 1997, 2000). According to Goffman's (1963) classic work on the subject, stigmatization is a process of social discrimination that occurs when an individual's social identity deviates from norms in ways that cause others discomfort. In this process, the stigmatized are labeled with an attribute considered to be different, socially undesirable, and "deeply discrediting" (p. 3). Being so labeled can create distance from "normals," or those who lack the stigmatizing identity attribute, thereby reducing the stigmatized "in our mind" from a whole person to a "discounted one" (p. 3).

Several adoption scholars have argued that the dominant North American family ideology defines a real family as containing two parents with their biological children, their kinship bonds tied together genetically. This ideology is associated with several stigmatizing beliefs that have bearing on the wellbeing of adoption participants (Leon, 2002; March, 1995; Miall, 1996; Modell, 1997; Wegar, 2000). One stigma is that adoptees are unnatural because they do not have blood ties to their parents, come from substandard conditions, and have less than optimal genetic backgrounds (Brodzinsky, Smith, & Brodzinsky, 1998; Wegar 1997, 2000). Another stigma is that adoptive parents are not real parents because they lack the required biological ties necessary for bonding and parenting or because adoptive parents violate North American fertility norms that married couples should reproduce (Miall, 1987, 1989). A third stigma is that birth parents are callous because they give up their children (Leon). A final stigma is that adoptive families lack the indissoluble blood relationships of genetically tied families (Miall, 1996; Wegar, 2000). These stigmatizing beliefs can result in adoptive family interactions being seen as involving stress, unresolved loss, and dysfunctional behavior, rather than the flexibility, adaptability, and nurturance of healthy family interactions (Walsh, 2003b).

These stigmas have manifested themselves in some adoption participants as feelings of social prejudice and social failing. …

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