Thursday, June 22, 2006

Foster care in America: Big Media takes a meeting

DECEMBER 1, 2011: This post, and several that follow, originally were posted before this Blog was on Blogger.  Because ABC News coverage of foster care is again an issue, I've reposted them.  Dates are the actual dates for the original posting, and the content is unchanged. 

            Say this much for the people at ABC News – the ones I’ve been criticizing for much of this month:  Unlike most of the rest of what I’ll call “Big Media” – the huge, national news organizations like The New York Times, and some other broadcast news organizations, at least they’re willing to listen.

            Just over a week ago, I made my second request to ABC News executives for a meeting.  I said I wanted to include in such a meeting members of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, an excellent grassroots group in New York City, so they could hear the stories of birth parents who not only deserved to get their children back (as these birth parents did) but never should have had their children taken in the first place.

            The answer surprised me.

I’d expected to be turned down.  It’s one thing to ask to meet with an editorial board with which you have no grievance or introduce yourself to the new reporter on the child welfare beat.  Aside from some journalists at some of the largest news organizations, almost all are willing to at least take time to listen to a wide range of points of view.

But it’s different when trying to meet with executives on the news side when you have a complaint, particularly when one approaches Big Media.  Big Media usually hates to meet with advocates.  We usually are dismissed and disdained as “pressure groups.”  They hate even more to meet with advocates who are critical of their stories.  And they especially hate to meet with such advocates when they’re from very small groups that have no leverage other than the force of their arguments.

            This incident, recounted in a 2004 story in Columbia Journalism Review is pretty typical:

a group of doctors and scientists was  lobbying The New York Times to drop terms like crack baby from its pages. The group included the majority of American researchers investigating the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure or drug addiction. They were spurred to action by the papers coverage of a New Jersey couple found to be starving their four foster children in late 2003. For years the couple had explained the childrens stunted growth to neighbors and friends by saying, among other things, that they were crack babies. The Times not only failed to inform readers that crack babies dont exist, but reinforced the myth by reporting, without attribution, that the youngest [of the children] was born a crack baby.

Assistant Managing Editor Allan Siegal refused to meet with the researchers, saying via e-mail that the paper simply couldnt open a dialogue with all the advocacy groups who wish to influence terminology.After some haggling, he did agree to publish a short letter to the editor from the researchers. 

            But ABC was different.  The senior producer of the Primetime program, a field producer, and the network’s Director of News Practices welcomed CWOP’s Executive Director, the chair of CWOP’s Board, two other parent advocates and myself and discussed child welfare with us for well over 90 minutes.  They listened carefully as the parents told their personal stories, and they asked good questions.  We even discussed terminology.

            I don’t know how any of this will affect future programs, if at all. A meeting is not an end in itself.  But it’s a beginning.