5 ways that journalists can tell a more comprehensive story about early childhood

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The foundation for who we become as adults is constructed during early childhood. Multiple bodies of science show us that what happens from pre-conception into early childhood has a profound impact on health outcomes later in life. This holds true whether researchers examine the lifelong impacts of childhood trauma, the multigenerational effects of neighborhood conditions, or the societal benefits of early education.

What's more, policymakers' decisions shape children's experiences in fundamental ways. From funding for preschool and nutrition to transformative laws like paid family leave, the decisions a society makes today about how to support early childhood development will influence the future health, educational, and economic prospects of entire communities.

Yet, research from our colleagues at Oregon Health & Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health has found that these interconnections are missing from much news coverage. Rather, the media tend to report on early childhood in narrow ways.

Robust, well-reported news coverage can inform and improve the decisions we make together, as a society, about early childhood. So what would it take to tell a more comprehensive story about this complex but critical period? And how can journalists incorporate scientific findings into everyday news stories about children?

reporting on early childhood report coverTo begin to answer that question, BMSG's partners at OHSU-PSU School of Public Health conducted an analysis of news coverage on early childhood. We then talked with journalists whose stories stood out as exemplars of comprehensive, nuanced reporting on the issue. Finally, we convened a group of experienced journalists to discuss the challenges of reporting comprehensively on early childhood and to generate recommendations for how to do better.

Our findings and recommendations — for journalists and newsrooms — are detailed in "From Beating the Odds to Changing the Odds: Recommendations for Journalists Covering Early Childhood." In the report, we also articulate a public health framework for understanding the emerging science on early childhood and provide concrete examples for improving news reporting by applying our recommendations to real-world stories.

Below, we offer five of our recommendations for journalists to expand reporting on early childhood, excerpted from the main report.

1.    Report on environments.

Americans famously believe that hard work, discipline, and self-determination are all it takes to succeed; underlying this rugged individualism frame is the value of personal responsibility — even when talking about very young children. However, while individual efforts are important for children's health, the problem with relying exclusively on the individual frame is that it hides the influence of other factors in people's success: the social, economic, and physical conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play.

Widen the lens on early childhood by telling stories that extend beyond the details of an individual's experiences to examine the effect that systems and environments have on children's health and well-being in the long term. Journalists can bring the broader context into stories about early childhood by describing the environments that contribute to poor health or by describing the kind of place that supports health for everyone.

For example, poverty shapes what opportunities are or aren't available to us in our communities. It is the product of policy and societal decision-making: There is clear evidence that groups in our society have been systematically excluded from home ownership, education, and economic opportunity. When reporting on poverty or any root cause of inequality, explore what factors give rise to it and what its real-life consequences are. Ask: What factors lead to certain communities shouldering the burden of poverty? Why are people of color faced with greater disadvantages than white people? Why are members of low-income communities faced with greater disadvantages than those with more power and economic resources? Then, explore how these broad societal issues have taken hold locally and how they affect child development and health across the lifespan.

2.    Cultivate sources who understand science and systems.

Sources in your story can illuminate the broader social contexts that impinge on early childhood. These might be researchers, advocates, or residents who can explain the connections between environments, social context, and the health and development of young children.

For example, economists could explain the interconnections between early childhood education and the history of economic development — or lack thereof — in communities. Sources could also be workforce specialists who can describe how early childhood programs enhance job opportunities now and in the long term, or environmental quality experts and city planners who can illustrate the collective decision-making that led to placing polluting industry and highways in close proximity to communities and housing.

In addition, sources who are steeped in the research about the long-term impact of early childhood experiences and exposures can provide important context about how the choices that policymakers make today can impact children's entire lifespans, as well as the health of future generations.

3.    Place "hero" stories like graduations, scholarships, or other personal achievements within a broader context.

Stories about children and families beating the odds can be inspirational and hopeful, but they often fail to convey the larger social context. This can leave readers with the notion that the only solution to poverty, inadequate educational opportunities, and other community-wide challenges is for individuals (often parents, when considering young children) to fend for themselves. If you're reporting on an individual who has succeeded in difficult circumstances, ask: How can the inspirational story illuminate a larger point about systems?

One way is to include information about how systems or actors in their wider environment contributed to that success (and others' successes). For example, in a story about a homeless high school student bound for college, the reporter highlighted the services surrounding the student that helped him to achieve this educational success.

4.    Cast institutions as characters in stories to illustrate systemic issues.

Write stories in which institutions or neighborhoods serve as the characters. Leading with location or geography can be one compelling way to convey broader societal context. If an issue can be associated with a geographic region, this will help readers understand that early childhood health and development is as much about social context as it is about individual children or families. In a story about a low-income Cherokee community in North Carolina, the reporter described how an intervention that provided money to every member of the tribe drastically improved the outcomes of the children from families that had been living below the poverty line. The reporter described the wider environment and community circumstances, and, in doing so, showed that these issues go beyond the individual.

Using data that are compared by zip code, neighborhood, or census tract can be particularly informative in demonstrating the differences in the environments that young children and their families inhabit.

5.    Describe the problem, but also investigate solutions, including prevention.

Ask sources not only about the scope of the problem, but also what would be needed to solve it and how to address its root causes. While after-the-fact strategies are important, focusing solely on how to help people recover from early childhood trauma and adversity could create a sense that these problems are inevitable.

Prevention, on the other hand, emphasizes the root causes of problems in early childhood. In our news analysis, we found that of the articles that discussed the achievement gap or poverty, only 16% referred to interventions that address the many structural and root causes of poverty. If news stories investigate the sorts of solutions that point to structural changes in systems, it will be easier for policymakers and the public to imagine tangible changes.

To read our complete set of recommendations for reporters, journalism, and philanthropy and to learn more about the science on early childhood and the findings from our news analysis, view the full report: "From Beating the Odds to Changing the Odds."

Want to get in touch about reporting on early childhood? You can reach us at info@bmsg.org@BMSG, or on Facebook.

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