This year (2014), the Journalism Center on Children & Families turned 21: the age many consider the beginning of adulthood. Although the U.S. news media haven’t outgrown their need for a group to advocate for, assist, reward and inspire excellent coverage of children and youth, JCCF won’t be around to help make that happen. The Center is closing at the end of 2014.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a leading philanthropy for disadvantaged children and families in the U.S., launched the center at the University of Maryland in 1993. The foundation recognized the critical role the media play in holding public officials accountable, shining a spotlight on ignored issues and communities and giving a voice to the voiceless.
Children don’t vote. They don’t spend much money. They have little or no clout as citizens or as consumers. But how adults vote and spend money has a profound impact on the lives of young people. Adults decide how public resources are spent on education, which is what most of childhood is about. Adults decide whether young people who behave badly should be expelled from school, imprisoned for life or kept in solitary confinement. Adults determine whether children get the health care, nutrition or opportunities they need to become independent, productive adults. And news organizations decide whether any of this is news.
Over the past two decades, JCCF has pushed and pulled the media to cover the issues that affect kids and the grown-ups responsible for them. We trained reporters, connected journalists with experts, research and ideas, shared best practices and held up examples of excellence. We honored stellar coverage through our annual Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism awards.
We did all of this in order to amplify the voices of children and families loud enough so that policymakers would hear, but also to remind news decisionmakers that children are worthy of airtime, column inches and bandwidth.
When the center launched, it brought 30 journalists and an equal number of prominent national experts together for a national conference called “The American Family: A Tradition Under Siege.” Attendees discussed the complex issues facing kids in this country and examined how their own newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations covered children’s issues, which in some news organizations was emerging as a beat.
Then-Attorney General Janet Reno spoke to the group and cautioned, “You have got to make your stories about children shorter … There is a tendency of America not to read beyond the front page.” Twenty years later, that attention span is reduced to 140 characters and most Americans no longer read the front page of anything.
In her report from that conference, center Director Cathy Trost recounted a story told by Sara Engram, the editorial page director of the Baltimore Evening Sun (which closed in 1995). Engram recalled two stories her paper published on the same day: one about the family of a child beaten to death; the other a pet column about two abandoned kittens. “We had 80 calls about the cats and not a single call about the child’s family,” Engram recalled.
Twenty years later, cats still capture more public attention than kids, as anyone on Facebook can attest.
At this inaugural conference, journalists grappled with many of the same issues we tussle over today: the ethical challenges of interviewing children and families; sensationalized coverage of deaths in the child welfare system; the lack of reporting on programs that are working; the ongoing debate over single-parent-headed households; and the over-representation of female journalists covering family issues.
And those present debated the role of journalism in advocating for kids. Heath J. Meriwether, then executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, said, “We want to be part of a journalism that stands for something. We stand for children.” His paper launched a project that year called “Children First.” Associate Editor Jane Daugherty told the Center’s “Children’s Beat” newsletter, “We decided that what a newspaper is not supposed to do is sit there and watch kids die and do little stories on how their lives were wasted … We can’t do that and pretend to be members of this community.”
Albert R. Hunt, then executive Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal, said that coverage of children’s and family issues are “incredibly important. It is going to affect what kind of society we have 20 years from now and it is every bit as important as writing about politics or current affairs or economics, and probably moreso.”
I wish I had confidence that editors of leading news institutions would say the same thing today and walk the talk.
Sure, much has changed since 1993. AIDS, crack, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency are no longer the hot-button issues that they were then. LGBT youth are coming out in droves and LGBT parents are getting legally married. But traumatic violence in young lives has moved to the fore – whether we are talking about school bullying, school shootings, sex trafficking, sexual assault or gun violence at the hands of peers or police.
When JCCF started as the Casey Journalism Center, the focus was always on disadvantaged children and families. Now, with the decline of the middle class, the population of the vulnerable has exploded.
These days, the key problem facing America’s families is the growing economic inequality. Billionaires thrive, while public schools can’t afford to fix a leaky ceiling, buy new books or retain talented teachers. Wealthy families collect homes and cars and Ivy League college degrees, while poor parents juggle low-wage jobs and struggle to feed their kids, gas up their cars and heat their home, if they have still have one. Healthy food, adequate housing, public transportation and college education are becoming inaccessible to a growing swath of Americans.
These are children’s issues. It’s not about the country our children will inherit. It’s about the country they are growing up in now. It takes bold journalism to expose these realities and tell the stories of what childhood and parenthood really look like in the U.S. today.
As JCCF closes its doors, due to lack of funding, we leave with heavy hearts, but tremendous hope. Thousands of journalists have attended our conferences and fellowships, entered our annual awards competition or relied on our website, journalismcenter.org, and weekly news summary for inspiration. Hundreds of these reporters, editors and producers are still working in newsrooms around the U.S. or are teaching in journalism schools. The legacy is theirs to carry on.
Our motto at JCCF has been “Stories Can Change Lives.” That is as true as ever. Journalism has been disrupted by the digital revolution. Not all institutions will survive. But I still believe that journalism has the power to inform and engage people in finding or fighting for solutions to many social problems and injustices. Indeed, that’s what the best journalism has always done.
A version of this column was published by Crain's News Pro on December 15, 2014.