Rethinking How The Public Is Informed About Children

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of OCD's Developments newsletter.

New strategies are being explored for informing the public about the circumstances, characteristics, and conditions of children in ways that help to promote an accurate understanding of the issues, but also inspire hope, accentuate positive aspects of children, and make note of progress made toward improving their circumstances.

Recent research suggests that investigating such strategies has merit.

A growing body of evidence reports, for example, that the public generally perceives the rates of teen pregnancy, drug use, school dropout, and juvenile crime to be greater than what statistical evidence shows them to be. At the same time, public awareness of positive youth-related activities, such as participation in volunteer services, tends to be low, according to the study published in the journal Child Indicators Research.

Such findings raise questions about the effectiveness of how children’s issues are most often communicated, including the reliance on often dire statistics and dramatic anecdotes of children enduring hardship.

"To me, it’s an argument against using more big numbers and trends and creating a crisis," said Junlei Li, PhD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development (OCD) Division of Applied Research and Evaluation. “I think this continuous effort to create crises using numbers or very sad stories is counterproductive. Crisis doesn’t surprise people. It just adds to this false impression that most things related to children are getting worse and there is nothing you can do to make them better.”

OCD and several partners are developing communication strategies for child-related issues as part of the project, Something Worth Giving. The idea is to create a standing, cohesive, and effective communications strategy for Western Pennsylvania to promote a better understanding of children’s issues, and mobilize support and volunteers around those issues as the need arises.

Working with OCD on the project are Carnegie Mellon University faculty, Saturday Light Brigade, Pittsburgh Cares, and other partners. The Grable Foundation provided the initial seed grant and a grant to continue the initiative.

Perception and Policy
An awareness of children’s issues and accurate understanding of children’s circumstances and conditions are important for a number of reasons. Public perception helps drive public policy and investment in children. And perceptions held by the public and policy makers are particularly critical in the wake of recession as sentiment for government financial support weakens and philanthropic organizations face their own economic constraints.

The public’s perceptions of the condition of children is shaped by information from several sources, including the news media, government, universities and research organizations, child advocacy groups, religious and community leaders, and personal experiences. The news media and personal experiences were the leading sources cited by respondents in a recent national study as informing their perceptions of children. Each source has shortcomings. Personal experiences, for instance, are likely shaped by anecdotal rather than empirical evidence. And news media accounts tend to ignore the positive and focus on the negative aspects of children and youth.

In fact, studies report that major newspapers do not frequently cover topics related to child well-being—a practice likely to continue as financially distressed newspapers further trim their budgets, editorial staff, and content. But when news organizations do report on children, the children are often portrayed as tragic and the stories largely focus on their involvement in negative activities and events. For example, nearly 95 percent of child-related stories reported on television and in print focus on crime and violence, according to a Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families survey of national news coverage of child-related issues.

Studies conducted over the past two decades suggest that such sources of information have shaped public perceptions of children, their conditions, and behaviors that are largely negative and often disconnected from statistical evidence. In one study, for example, nearly two-thirds of the respondents said school drop-out rates had increased when, according to statistical evidence, the rates had been declining. Another study, which looked at public misconceptions about trends in teen pregnancy and sexual activity, found that most adults were unaware that most sexually active teens report using birth control, teen pregnancy rates have declined since the 1990s, and teenagers account for only a small portion of all unintended pregnancies.

Ineffective Strategies
The news media, advocacy organizations, and others have long relied on strategies for reporting on children that research suggests are ineffective in terms of creating accurate understanding of issues important to children and youth. Among the most common strategies are the use of statistics and anecdotes, and both are often used to convey a crisis.

Anecdotes depicting individual hardships, such as living in poverty, are often used to present an issue in human terms. Research suggests, however, that rather than promoting empathy, such anecdotes can reinforce the perception that those depicted have some measure of control over their circumstances and are responsible the hardships they are shown to endure. Researchers also report that when a problem such as poverty is perceived as individually caused, people are less likely to state a desire to help the poor.

Relying on statistics also has shortcomings, particularly when they are used with little or no interpretation. Statistical illiteracy has been reported to be high among the general public, as well as among professionals who jobs involve interpreting or reporting statistical information. In a study of medical literature, for instance, high levels of statistical illiteracy were found among doctors, along with statistical errors in about half of the articles reviewed and misinterpreted findings.

Exploring A New Platform
OCD and its partners in the Something Worth Giving project began investigating how the public receives information about children one year ago as part of their effort to develop a new communication platform to effectively educate the region about issues important to children, youth, and families and mobilize support around key issues.

As part of the first stage, the project identified questions that are important for nonprofits to consider when informing the general public and policy makers about issues related to children and youth. Does a nonprofit’s communications evoke care and inspire hope? The project published a guide exploring the questions and issues related to communication strategies that effectively promote a better understanding of the conditions of children, youth, and families.

The next stage involves convening a multidisciplinary team of experts and stakeholders to develop an alternative to the traditional, crisis-oriented strategies used to inform the public about children.

Research provides some suggestions for more effectively using elements such as statistics and anecdotes. Statistics, for example, have more meaning when interpretation is provided and numbers are blended with the narrative rather than presented alone without the context necessary to understand their significance.

As Something Worth Giving moves forward, another important consideration is changing the tone of the messages that flow from the new communications platform—shifting away from relying on the “imperiled child” framework that has been a staple of the reporting on children’s conditions.

“What we need is an alternative,” said Dr. Li. “Is there a way to tell uplifting, hopeful, positive stories that could educate people about the needs, but also educate people about the possibility of things getting better?”


Guzman, L., Lippman, L., Anderson Moore, K. & O’Hare, W. (2009) Accentuating the negative: the mismatch between public perception of child well-being and official statistics. Child Indicators Research, (2) 4, 391-416.

Hannah, G., & Cafferty, T.P. (2006). Attribute and responsibility framing effects in television poverty. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, (36), 12, 2993-3014.

Frameworks Institute (2003). The storytelling power of numbers. Frameworks Institute eZine.

Li, J., Groark, S., & Munroe, R.G. (2010). 3 Simple Questions to Guide Our Communication on Behalf of Children, Youth and Families. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development.

Click here to download a PDF of the 3 Simple Questions document.