Television's Opportunity

By Amundson, Dan | Nieman Reports, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Television's Opportunity


Amundson, Dan, Nieman Reports


This could well be We Yen of We Child. The Clintons have spent much of their political lives advocating policies to help children. if campaign promises are fulfilled there will be renewed interest in the welfare of children at the highest policy levels. Additionally, over the last several years, news reports of rising illiteracy, juvenile crime, drug abuse and child abuse have raised public concern over the welfare of children. This unique alignment of forces presents new opportunities for children and the national news media.

To make the most of these opportunities the news media will have to take a more complex approach to the coverage of children and children's issues. This change does not, however, imply greater advocacy for selected programs. Advocacy runs counter to American journalistic traditions and is an impractical role for journalists to play. Rather than be advocates, the national media need to assert themselves aggressively as independent, objective, critical analysts.

There are two main flaws in current patterns of coverage. These have to do with the topical focus of the news and the style of analysis. Coverage of children tends to be sporadic, focusing either on crises or national policy conflicts. Thus, audiences see large numbers of stories on Jessica McClure trapped in a well or the political ramifications of President Bush vetoing a family leave bill. National television news rarely presents a detailed discussion of policies or programs aimed at children that allows for an adequate assessment of their merits. If the choice of content leaves something to be desired, this problem is compounded by the level of analysis in the news. All too often children's programs are covered as a political game. In such coverage the point becomes which party wins and how big a loss it is for the other side. In such a context, opposing views simply serve as a means to scoring points in the game.

These two shortcomings of news coverage of children are most obvious on television where the need for pictures and the shortness of time exacerbates the problem. In survey after survey, Americans indicate that television news is their leading source of information. In today's highly diversified and segmented media market, television news is one of the few places to find a truly national perspective. Thus, it makes sense to examine the patterns of coverage in the electronic media in assessing national news coverage.

Over the last three years news coverage of issues related to children has remained relatively stable on television, hovering between 350 stories in 1990 and 425 in 1992. Coverage has ebbed and flowed from one highlighted event to another. In February of 1990, it was the Elizabeth Morgan child custody case; in September 1990, the start of a new school year and a summit on children increased coverage. Stories on children dropped in frequency during the fall of 1990 and more sharply in early 1991 as the Persian Gulf War preoccupied media attention. Coverage rebounded in April of 1991 as President Bush unveiled his education plan and a series of teacher strikes heightened attention to America's schools. The television cameras paid even more attention to children in june when reports from the Children's Defense Fund, the National Commission on Children and the Surgeon General pointed out various problems facing children.

In 1992, the presidential election drove coverage as network reporters assessed the political value of children's issues to politicians and the impact of the recession on children. The year ended on a flurry of reports on the boy seeking a divorce from his parents and the "home alone" children in Chicago. This litany of events does more than remind us of the past, it reveals how television news is often driven by unconnected events. Coverage of these events does little to illuminate the full scope of issues facing American children.

A closer look at the content of television news reveals that approximately half of the stories on children are actually stories about the nation's education system. …

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