Media on Child Abuse and Neglect
As some of the most important gatekeepers of current information, the mainstream media in general and newspapers in particular provide a timely snapshot of current views and perceptions concerning various issues that have local, regional and national significance, including child abuse and neglect. The manner in which such newspaper articles address these issues can have a profound effect on popular views in ways that may lead to positive and meaningful changes or, conversely, such accounts can result in increasingly adverse outcomes if they are handled differently. To gain some additional insights in this area, this paper provides a review of several representative recent newspaper articles concerning child abuse and/or neglect to gauge their impact on the reader, any value messages and personal views communicated by the reporters involved, as well as other factors such as intentional or unintentional gaps in the coverage, alternative perspectives and potential solutions. An analysis of the persuasive techniques used by the reporters is followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Analysis
Newspapers are faced with some significant challenges in competing for readership today, and the emphasis they place on various social issues will likely reflect this need. For instance, some interesting differences in how the very same press release can be treated differently with headlines can be found in two recent articles from Australia. According to an article in The Gympie Times from Queensland, Australia, prominently headlined, “Region’s Child Abuse Complaints on Rise,” child abuse cases in the North Coast region are on the increase and the “community is increasingly concerned about its children” (2011, p. 1). The North Coast region includes Gympie, the Sunshine Coast, Redcliffe and Caboolture; during the last year, this region reported 15,816 reports from a variety of community-based sources, including parents, neighbors, healthcare providers, law enforcement authorities and school officials. The article, though, is quick to point out that despite the alarming figures that are involved, the term “child abuse” is an umbrella term that spans a continuum of behaviors. For instance, the article quotes the district police chief thusly: “Of course, child abuse can range from slapping a child to failing to provide food and clothing etcetera, so there are a whole range of things that come under that definition” (p. 3).
In addition, the unnamed reporter also emphasizes that an increasing awareness of the problem among the reporting officials has generated more reports during the last year compared to previous years and reassures readers that a number of initiatives are underway to reduce these levels of child abuse further (Region’s child abuse complaints on rise, 2011). A contemporaneous article with identical coverage in the Sunshine Coast Daily adopts a more alarmist perspective on these recent increases in child abuse cases, though, emphasizing in its headline that “Reports of Child Abuse Jump by 20% on the Coast.”
Although both of the foregoing articles cite efforts by regional authorities to address the problem, they do not offer any substantive alternative approaches or solutions. By sharp contrast, in his editorial entitled, “Repairing Families Is the Key to Addressing Child Abuse,” Radich (2011), who is district manager of the Oregon Department of Human Services, also cites specific statistics in support of this call for action in the state, but he provides some several solid alternatives concerning what can be done to address the problem from the outset, including substance abuse counseling for families, family support and mentors, and community-based programs that offer a more flexible short-term response that keeps children’s best interest at the forefront. A vastly different approach is adopted by Wetzstein (2011), though, in her article entitled, “Child Abuse Targeted by Hearing in House; Death in Indiana Prods Lawmakers” in The Washington Times.
In this report, Wetzstein cites two recent high-profile child murders including the grisly details of each of the cases (i.e., “Christian Choate was 13 years old when he died two years ago in a dog cage and was buried in a plastic bag near an Indiana trailer park” and “They also believe Christian’s father, who led police to the grave, had for years beaten the boy and kept him in a cage”) in an effort to alert readers to the problem of child abuse and neglect at the national level, and emphasizes time and again that the problem is likely underreported and current statistics most likely just represent “the tip of the iceberg” (p. A7).
Having prefaced her article with this disturbing example of the extremes that child abuse can assume, Wetzstein goes on to explain the differences in definitions used by different states makes precise national prevalence estimates difficult, but all signs indicate that there is a national problem that is expected to increase unless and until something is done to reverse these ugly trends While Wetzstein does not offer any alternative approaches beyond the notification protocols provided, she does advocate increased training for pediatricians to alert them to signs of abuse and neglect
Finally, an article by Hays, Schultz and Todahi (2011) in The Register-Guard is more positively entitled, “Together, We Can Reduce Child Abuse in County by 90%” (p. A7). In this article, the authors, who are a university faculty leader, family therapist and youth court official, respectively, concedes that child abuse is a complex problem that demands complex solutions, but the authors also follow this concession with some timely reports from recent evidence-based practice and research that shows child abuse can be prevented and treated. More importantly, perhaps, the authors do not vacillate in their assertions concerning what can be done. Indeed, following a recitation of the various adverse outcomes that are associated with child abuse and neglect, Hays and her associates state flat-out: “We know also that these outcomes are not inevitable. Compelling evidence suggests that child abuse, neglect and exposure to violence can be prevented – and when it does occur, long-term harm can be averted. No entire community in the United States has yet fully achieved this. We can” (p. A7). In support of this assertion, these authors describe the impact of several initiatives on reducing the prevalence of child abuse to date and conclude their article with an invitation to the public to raise awareness in furtherance of their goal to reduce child abuse by 90% by 2030.
The research showed that child abuse and neglect are issues that remain at the forefront of media attention and for good reason. Around the world, children are being abused and neglected in ways that can cause them lifelong disabilities or even death, but the manner in which these media accounts are handled was also shown to be an important factor in how the reader was expected to respond. In some cases, the articles were alarmist in nature with headlines that trumpeted the problem to attract further reading, while others adopted a more pragmatic approach that indicated that although there is a real problem, it can be addressed if everyone works together. Finally, the research also showed that conspicuously absent from these newspaper articles were any feedback or first-hand accounts from the victims who are most affected by child abuse and neglect, the children themselves.
Hays, A., Shultz, M. & Todahi, J. (2011, February 3). Together, we can reduce child abuse in county by 90%. The Register-Guard, A7.
Radich, J. (2011, April 7). Repairing families is the key to addressing child abuse. The Register-
Region’s child abuse Complaints on Rise. (2011, November 24). The Gympie Times, A7.
Reports of child abuse jump by 20% on the coast. (2011, November 22). Sunshine Coast Daily,
Wetzstein, C. (2011, July 13). Child abuse targeted by hearing in House; death in Indiana prods lawmakers. The Washington Times, A07.
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