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STANFORD -- Children are largely portrayed in the news as "problem people" - people who either cause problems or have problems - concludes a new analysis of the content of child-related newspaper and television news programs.
Stories about crime and violence were found to make up 40 percent of the child-related coverage across various newspaper and television formats, according to analyses conducted by student researchers under the supervision of communication professors at Stanford University and the University of California-Santa Barbara.
The study results were presented Saturday, March 5, at a national conference on children and the news media sponsored by the organization Children Now and held on the Stanford campus.
Students of Stanford Professor Donald F. Roberts, chairman of the Communication Department, examined coverage of children in television news magazines, talk shows and local evening news.
Students of Assistant Professor Dale Kunkel of the Communication Department of UC-Santa Barbara used comparable techniques to analyze the content of the national, commercial news networks and of five major daily newspapers.
Both groups found that stories about crime and violence dominated coverage of stories about children.
"Nearly 40 percent of all the stories related to children's issues were about crime or violence. Topics included child molestation, crimes committed against children, crimes committed by children and gangs," said Stacey B. Frank, the Stanford graduate student who led the Stanford research team.
"Children are largely portrayed as 'problem people' - either having problems such as disease or drug addiction, or causing problems such as gang violence or physical abuse in a dating relationship," she said.
The studies underscore the need for "greater breadth and balance" in news coverage of child-related issues, Kunkel said.
The Stanford team found that "talk shows cover children about twice as often as news magazines or local news," Frank said. Geraldo, Oprah and Donahue focus on "extreme cases," she said, but they also deal more with "special topics such as minority and gender issues" and "provide more practical information for parents" than the other two sources of news in their study.
Overall, she said, the researchers found "a general lack of public policy coverage" related to children in the sources studied. The local television news show studied (KPIX in San Francisco) focused on policy issues that affect children more than did the talk shows or the news magazines, Frank said, and network television magazine shows (60 Minutes, Dateline NBC and 20-20) were more likely to mention public policy as a secondary issue but not focus on it.
"Almost entirely overlooked were many important public policy issues that fall in the areas of family, health and economic concerns," Kunkel said. "Other topics that received relatively little attention from the press included ethnic minority group issues, gender-based concerns and age-related, development differences among the child population."
The age group most likely to be reported on were adolescents, the researchers said, although many stories didn't make clear what age of children they were reporting on.
"While there may be substantial coverage of children in the news, it would be difficult to characterize that coverage as balanced," Kunkel wrote. "The emphasis placed on reports of crime, with children portrayed as both victims and perpetrators of violence, seems to skew the information the press provides to the public, which may in turn diminish the public's perception of the relative importance of other child-related concerns."
The stories about children fell into six general topical areas: education, economics, family, health, culture, and crime and violence.
The proportion of child-related stories about crime and violence was by far the leader, but varied by source. Crime and violence stories made up 74 percent of the local news TV stories on children; 48 percent of the network news on children, 40 percent of the metropolitan newspapers' coverage, 37 percent of the network TV magazine shows' coverage and 27 percent of the talk shows' coverage of children.
The analysis was made of content in the month of November 1993. Because they have fewer stories overall, the talk shows and TV magazine shows were analyzed for a six-month period from July to December 1993. The local television news analyzed was the 6 p.m. news show on KPIX in San Francisco, and the network news analyzed was the daily evening coverage of ABC, NBC and CBS.
The newspapers analyzed by the Santa Barbara team were the Atlanta Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times. The Chicago Tribune ranked highest in the combined number of news stories and editorials or commentaries about children, and the New York Times ranked last. The Chicago paper was also more likely to display the children's stories prominently on the front page.
Stories about children's education were most common in newspapers and network news. They made up 11 percent of the metropolitan newspapers' news stories on children and 10 percent of network news children stories, but only 4 percent on local TV news, 3 percent on TV magazine shows and 2 percent on talk show stories. Newspapers, when they editorialized about children, were most likely to discuss educational issues.
Economic issues that face children - such subjects as poverty and homelessness or child support - were the least likely to be covered. They made up 10 percent of the TV magazine coverage but were less than 4 percent of the children's coverage in any of the other source categories.
Health issues, such as disabilities, eating disorders and nutrition, disease prevention and drug abuse, were more commonly featured on the TV news magazines, where they were 30 percent of all child-related coverage.
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