In Brief

When covering children and adolescents, newspapers and television newscasts overwhelmingly focus on youth crime and violence and child abuse and neglect--all the while providing little background to help readers and viewers put such news into perspective, according to a new study of the media by psychologist Dale Kunkel, PhD.

Commissioned by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families at the University of Maryland, the study claims to be the first to look at the quality of news coverage of children's issues. Kunkel and his colleagues tracked newspaper articles in 12 metropolitan daily newspapers, and the nightly national news on four television networks between April 21 and July 20 last year.

They examined stories that fell into one of five categories--child abuse and neglect, youth crime and violence, teen child-bearing, child health insurance and child care--for contextual information about the current trends or patterns in the area as well as current public policy. For example, did a story about child health insurance mention that the percentage of children with health insurance has remained largely unchanged for more than a decade?

The study's findings include that:

  • 94 percent of the studied newspaper articles and 96 percent of the studied television news stories addressed youth crime and violence or child and abuse and neglect, while child care, teen pregnancy and child health insurance received little coverage.

  • Less than a quarter of stories about child abuse and neglect, youth crime and violence, and teen child-bearing included any information about the current state of related social policy. Child care and child health insurance fared better at 47 percent and 91 percent, respectively.

  • Only 3 percent of stories about school violence and 5 percent of stories dealing with child abuse and neglect provided background information, such as statistics on trends, to put a news event into perspective. In contrast, 90 percent of stories about teen pregnancy and 75 percent of stories about child care included such contextual information. Child health insurance news items fell in the middle at 36 percent. However, Kunkel notes that these three categories only make up a small percentage--4 to 6 percent--of the total television and newspaper story count.

  • At least nine out of 10 stories on the topics of youth crime and violence, child abuse and neglect, and child health insurance emphasized recent events rather than broad trends.

"The news media provides the least context on the most frightening and the most often-reported topics," said Kunkel at the study's release in February. "The public isn't being well informed about the important patterns and trends involving those issues. Rather, the press is just conveying the time-sensitive events that are occurring."

And that, says Kunkel, could mean that a reader or viewer could get the wrong impression from an article. For example, in an article on a school shooting, a reader or viewer might take away that schools are increasingly unsafe unless the reporter notes that school shootings are rare.

"This study is very consistent with previous studies indicating that crime and violence dominates as a topic, and that it seems to marginalize what many people would think are more important social policy issues," said Kunkel.

--D. SMITH

Further Reading

For more details or a copy of the report, e-mail the Casey Journalism Center at info@casey.umd.edu or visit www.casey.umd.edu.