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
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
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
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.
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
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.
A New Platform
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
G., & Cafferty, T.P. (2006). Attribute and responsibility framing effects
in television poverty. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, (36), 12,
Institute (2003). The storytelling power of numbers. Frameworks Institute
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.