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
research suggests that investigating such strategies has merit.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
study, for example, nearly two-thirds of the respondents said school dropout 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.
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.
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.
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
Exploring a New Platform
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
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
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
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?”
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
eZine. www.frameworksinstitute. org/assets/files/eZines/Storytelling_power_of_numbers.pdf
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. www.ocd.pitt.edu/Files/