With Child-Care Stories, It Still Comes Down to Mothers Negative Findings Grab the Headlines. (When Journalists Arrive ...)

By Willer, Barbara A. | Nieman Reports, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

With Child-Care Stories, It Still Comes Down to Mothers Negative Findings Grab the Headlines. (When Journalists Arrive ...)


Willer, Barbara A., Nieman Reports


The number of mothers working outside the home has grown dramatically in recent decades. Today, nearly two-thirds of mothers of children under age six are in the labor force. With more than 13 million preschool-age children in some form of non-parental care, the need for child care is clear. But one wouldn't know this from observing recent news coverage of a child-care study in which some in the news media seemed willing to use selective findings to bolster unrealistic and outdated notions about work and family.

In April, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development's (NICHD) "Study of Early Child Care" released preliminary findings from one phase of its long-term investigation. Among them was a finding that young children who spent more time in child care were slightly more likely to show signs of aggressive or assertive behavior than comparable children not in child care.

For a number of reasons, it is not a surprise that this negative news--unlike other more positive findings about enhanced language skills announced in the same study--quickly filled newspaper headlines. "Child Care Breeds Aggression," "Child Care Leads to Bullying," and "Day Care Linked to Aggression" were typical examples. It is certainly true that the media have a well established tendency to focus on the negative and to oversimplify the often complex details of scientific studies. Also, in this instance, reporters who filed the initial stories had no published report to help them put this study's array of preliminary findings into a broader context. Instead, the findings were presented by several of the researchers in a telephone conference call. Then, there were deadline pressures to conend with to get a story into the paper, on TV or the radio.

What is more surprising, and disappointing, was the underlying theme of much of the news coverage. It effectively blamed parents--and more specifically mothers--of young children for needing child care in the first place. Not long after the inflammatory headlines, many reports--especially on television--featured interviews with guilt-ridden working moms confessing how badly they felt for leaving their children in these horrible situations. Some described how the study's reported findings confirmed their worst fears or touched too closely their ambivalence about such parenting decisions.

The days and weeks after the release of the study brought more balanced coverage. (The Dallas Morning News was one of the few newspapers that brought commendable balance to its initial coverage with a headline that read, "`Smart and Nasty' Study; Child Care Breeds Aggression, Enhances Abilities.") Reporters talked with researchers who noted that the 17 percent of children in child care who showed signs of aggression is the same percent one would find in the overall child population. Others figured out that 83 percent of children in child care didn't show signs of aggression. And some follow-up stories included other findings, for example that children who spent more time in child-care centers were more likely to display better language skills and have better short-term memory, or that children in higher-quality programs were less likely to show signs of aggressive behavior. …

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