Silent Revolution

How U.S. and Bay Area Newspapers Portray Child Care

By John McManus and Lori Dorfman

Imagine a news story so big, it touches the hearts and strains the pocketbooks of 10 million American families. Itís also a business story about a giant emerging industry that is beginning to rival agricultural crops in size and impact.

Itís a story about womenís ability to pursue careers. Itís a science story, about advances in understanding how and when childrenís brains develop capacity not just for knowledge, but also for citizenship. And itís a political story about who and how many will enjoy the American dream.

Youíll have to imagine much of this story. American newspapers great and small are paying scant attention to a sea change in how Americans care for their young children. The omission is important. What's not in the newspaper rarely makes television, the public agenda, or the deliberations of policy-makers.

Few mothers stay home anymore

In 1950, a minority of women worked outside the home ó about one in three, according to government statistics. Now itís a majority ó six in 10. In 1950 most children under the age of five were cared for at home, usually by their mothers. Today only 14 percent of U.S. children spend their first three years in the full-time care of a parent. Even the majority of mothers with children less than a year old are working or seeking work.

Not since the establishment of universal public education in the 19th century drew children from farms and factories into schoolhouses has there been such a turnaround in the lives of young people. At the same time, cognitive scientists have discovered that children can and do learn a great deal in their first five years and early relationships can shape what kind of people they will grow up to be. Whatís absorbed ó if the childís environment provides them ó are not just the shapes and sounds of letters, or how to hold a pencil and throw a ball, but reasoning, empathy for others and moral accountability.

Important, but ignored

Despite its importance to our society ó laying the foundation for an educated and responsible citizenry ó and to our economy ó generating jobs and freeing parents to pursue employment ó child care is barely visible in newspapers.

We examined every story about child care for pre-schoolers published in 1999 and 2000 in the nationís four largest papers, The New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as seven California regional papers including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Santa Cruz Sentinel. †Because of child care's economic impact we separtely examined every relevant story on the business pages.

The results are scant. Stories about child care (or nursery school or day care) represent only a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the stories in our sample newspapers. For perspective, consider that in an earlier study of three large California newspapers we found that about 6 percent of the stories on news section fronts (or promoted there) and editorial and op-ed pages focused on education.

Bay Area results

In the Bay Area, the Mercury News led by far. In fact, the Merc published more stories about child care than any of the 10 other papers we analyzed, 134 stories over two years. During 1999 and 2000 the Chronicle only carried 58 child care stories, the Oakland Tribune 42 and the Santa Cruz Sentinel just 15.

On the business pages child care is all but invisible. California newspapers averaged just two stories per year about child care in their business sections. But so did the New York Times. Yet the child care industry generates as much as $5.4 billion-a-year in California, according to a report compiled from state data by the National Economic Development and Law Center. That's as big a business as vegetable crops or live stock. And that †figure only counts licensed care, not the informal care provided in the homes of neighbors or extended family.

From necessary evil to social good

To discover the content of these stories, we randomly selected half of them for further analysis.

We did turn up some good news. Themes in an earlier study of news coverage that disparaged child care as an inconvenience or "necessary evil" are disappearing. †Newspapers now paint child care more often as a social good, even a chance to "level the playing field" for poor Americans.

Children's advocates---and even politicians---are suggesting a government role in making quality child care available to all parents. As child care's portrait in the media moves from a motif of "baby sitting" to "early childhood education," state responsibility for funding and setting standards is replacing the idea that parents alone should bear the burden.† Another common theme is the idea that child care is good for business. Parents are free to expand the labor force or enhance their value to industry through education.

A new news frame--a prominent concept in stories--has emerged from discoveries in cognitive science about the impact of quality child care on early brain development, school readiness and formation of a social conscience. Researchers are finding enduring improvements in educational outcomes-- even higher college attendance rates--among poor children exposed to quality child care. Reducing the gap between rich and poor in access to quality child care, said Harvard Professor Christopher Jencks, "would probably do more to promote [racial equality] than any other strategy that could command broad political support." †††

Less encouraging is the prominent play accorded isolated cases of violence or allegations of sexual abuse at child care settings. Because of the overall scarcity of coverage of child care, these stories probably raise more alarm than they might were child care a more frequent news topic.

Why does child care get so little ink?

The dearth of coverage is surprising. We asked editors from the Chronicle, Mercury and Tribune why the story rated so little attention. None have yet responded to our inquiry, although the Tribune ran an earlier version of this article on its op-ed page.

Child care ought to be newsworthy for a variety of reasons: It is provided in every community across the nation. Three of every four children under the age of six spend considerable amounts of time in the care of someone other than a parent.† Formal child care is also among the most rapidly growing businesses in the U.S. And itís a troubled industry, experiencing considerable difficulty finding and keeping staff. Finally, the field is entrusted with something priceless, our children.

Lori Dorfman directs the Berkeley Media Studies Group

To download the entire study in PDF format, click here