The Good-News Challenge: How the Journalism Center for Children & Families Covers an Important Beat

Ray Schultz
November 5, 2009

Are reporters interested in good news in the children's arena? Or is the old adage true that "if it bleeds, it leads"?

One might think the latter, judging by the Journalism Center for Children & Families (JCCF) News Summary, a weekly newsletter containing links to stories from around the country. Generally, I've found less on what works and more on what doesn't. Take these examples posted by the JCCF in October 2009:

Is the JCCF neglecting, in its story selections, the kinds of solutions-oriented ("good news") stories that we at Child Advocacy 360 think are so important to achieving greater public engagement—that is, stories on who's doing what that works?

To find out, we spoke with Gena Fitzgerald, the JCCF's executive director and a former NBC News producer.

Fitzgerald started by explaining that the JCCF is "the only journalism nonprofit that focuses exclusively" on children and families at risk. Located at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, it helps news professionals with training programs and informs them with the newsletter, which services around 4,500 subscribers per week, many of them journalists.

The day starts early for Jennifer Dorroh, the JCCF's public media editor. She searches the Web for stories to highlight in the newsletter and on the Web site, then writes summaries. Editorial assistant Renee Davidson does the posting, and sometimes covers for Jennifer. The purpose of this work? To support—and inspire—journalists.

A reporter might see a "a story that's exceptionally well written or reported and say, 'Gosh, that's a good story, I could do that here,'" Fitzgerald says.

Context versus Sensationalism

Fitzgerald acknowledged the "age-old issue in news," that journalists "accentuate the negative and never the positive." But she added: "There's a need for both." There are of course important issues of concern to be reported on. Bad news may grab the reader's interest, but articles on programs and systems that work can serve as an example to other communities, and help combat apathy generated by a sense that failure is inevitable.

The staff looks for such articles—and does find them.

"A lot of the stores we classify as 'positive' tend to be about education," Fitzgerald said. "Most news organizations still do a pretty good job on that."

They have also seen solid pieces concerning housing and homelessness.

Safeguarding Space for the 'Children's Beat' in Media

Is the group's largest funder, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, interested in who's doing what that works? Yes, especially programs, system reform and approaches that empahsize permanence—a lifelong connection to a safe, stable home—for children, public affairs manager Sue Lin Chong told me.

But the Casey Foundation isn't trying to dictate positive coverage; quite the contrary. The Foundation started the JCCF in 1993 as the Casey Journalism Center, at a time when children's issues "rarely made the news in the consumer press, and when they did it was often on the women's style page or in a light column," Chong said. "It was not hard-hitting."

Shaping the News?

Many journalists believe that news cannot be dictated by personal preference or metrics. There is plenty of "bad news" on the child/youth front, and how it is covered has a direct bearing on what happens in communities. That's where the JCCF plays a critical role.

For example, it recently conducted a two-day conference on early learning, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation with additional support from the Casey Foundation. Over 50 people applied for 20 open slots. And the JCCF Web site contains a major training resource—a section on how to cover child sexual abuse and look beyond the salacious headlines.

"You see the mug shot and you see the arrest story, but you never hear what happened to the child or the molester," Fitzgerald explained. "In one recent story, a reporter looked not just at the arrest, but at the history of abuse in that molester's family. He talked to psychologists. It was a deeper way of looking at a story."

Journalists need this support because newsrooms have been downsized and the survivors have had more work dumped on them. A reporter who is sent out on a one-shot assignment about children is "not going to come back with the depth and understanding a beat reporter has," Fitzgerald said.

Even seasoned reporters turn to the JCCF for backup, including those still battling deadlines on dailies and those who have left their jobs and started independent Web sites. Need ideas, and even sources? Email the JCCF. Want help with the angle? Ditto.

"In a larger sense, we have become a catalyst," Fitzgerald said. "Any nonprofit can have a blog or a Web site. But when a reporter or a news organization focuses on an issue, that's when you raise public consciousness."

The training provided by the JCCF carries over to "good news." Dorroh said in an email that learning about successful programs is an important part of each seminar.

What's Next for the JCCF?

For starters, it has a new look and name—it's no longer called the Casey Center. And that is in line with changes in its funding apparatus.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the charitable group for children founded in 1948 by UPS co-founder Jim Casey and named in honor of his mother, will contribute half of the JCCF's $500,000 budget for 2009, compared with 100 percent a few years ago. That's part of a planned phasing-out of the grant that is standard practice with Casey initiatives and other programs, Sue-Lin Chong said.

In 2009, the JCCF also received funding from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Challenge Fund for Journalism, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, the Ms. Foundation for Women and individual donors. And it has started soliciting individual donors via direct mail and phone calls. The first campaign raised $20,000, which was matched by the Challenge Fund for Journalism.

In addition, the JCCF is working with America's Promise Alliance, a nonprofit partnership for children founded by General Colin Powell, on journalistic awards.

Two winners of the Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism, a program administered by the JCCF and funded by the Anne E. Casey foundation, received America's Promise Alliance awards worth $5,000 apiece for stories that resulted in "significant action on behalf of young people," said David Park, senior vice president, communications and marketing of America's Promise Alliance.

One winner reflected the kind of progress we like to see—the America's Promise awareness award went to WNYC Radio Rookies, a group of young people who had themselves been in foster homes.

And on the journalistic front? The JCCF has broadened its subject area. The focus remains at-risk families and children, "but 'at risk' can be defined so many ways now," Fitzgerald said. "It can mean low income, but can also mean pre-adolescents with health issues and kids with autism." Fitzgerald also wants more content on juvenile justice, teens and military families.

That isn't all. "We're just starting to do our own reporting," Fitzgerald said. And, taking a page from FDR's Works Progress Administration, Fitzgerald hopes to provide an outlet for "awfully talented reporters" who are no longer working.

That's good news.


 

Child Advocacy 360 blogger Ray Schultz has edited several marketing publications, including Direct, DM News, Promo, Chief Marketer and Circulation Management. He has also written for the New York Times Sunday Magazine and other publications.


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Comments

We&;re very interested in your response to this issue—do you feel the mainstream news on children, youth and families is balanced? Negative? Positive? Or is it just right?

How does Child Advocacy 360&;s call for a greater focus on "good news" and context square with your sense of journalistic integrity and fairness?

On a personal note, are you more likely to respond to certain types of articles? If so, what gets you reading (and acting)?

Let us know!

(And while we&;re at it, may we suggest that you sign up for the JCCF Summary - it&;s completely free and a good way to stay on top of the news! You&;ll find the link above.)

- Caitlin Johnson, managing editor of Connect for Kids

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<strong>Bleeding Leads & the Children&;s Hour</strong>

There&;s a saying: Functional families are all the same. Dysfunctional families are each unique in their own special way.

This sentiment has kept psychotherapists in practice for more than 120 years.

There&;s a similar dynamic at work (at play?) in children-focused reporting. As Gena Fitzgerald points out, positive stories on children tend to focus on education. This is because education fills a healthy chunk of a child&;s time, and is usually a positive experience (or, hopefully, at worst neutral).

The problem is that these stories can sound awfully similar after a while. One A student looks pretty much the same as the next. It&;s the D-minus students who make for intriguing copy.

But there are other sources of good news about children. Organizations such as the scouts (Daisy, Girl, Cub, Boy and so forth) which are known for community outreach can provide conduits to exceptional young people. Ditto Junior Achievers and 4-H Clubs and the like.

Religious newsletters might also provide entry into positive stories -- in the form of "here is what our church/synagogue/mosque is doing within the community" bulletins.

Heck, subscriptions to high school newspapers, provided the papers are worth anything, should provide the equivalent of a clipping service on stories about exceptional kids, albeit not necessarily ones from families in need.

That said, I wonder if the organization itself doesn&;t pre-orient its mission toward negative stories. By focusing on "children and families at risk", doesn&;t it automatically limit its exposure to good news?

<strong>Response from Gena Fitzgerald, JCCF Director</strong>

10 November 2009

Dear Mr. Schultz:

I read your piece on the Journalism Center with interest and while I appreciate the profile of our organization, I must take issue with the questions you pose by way of introducing the Journalism Center:

“….Or is the old adage true that “if it bleeds, it leads”? One might think the latter, judging by the Journalism Center for Children & Families (JCCF) News Summary….”

“ Is the JCCF neglecting, in its story selections, the kinds of solutions-oriented ("good news") stories that we at Child Advocacy 360 think are so important to achieving greater public engagement—that is, stories on who’s doing what that works? “

I’d like the opportunity to respond to the questions you raise, and would ask that you please incorporate a response from us within your blog posting.

I must state unequivocally that we do not neglect solutions-oriented stories, and we absolutely reject stories that focus on sensationalism rather than facts and context. “If it bleeds, it leads” is misleading to your readers when describing the Journalism Center. We are know for promoting stories about programs and ideas that work, in addition to the challenges that face American families. We promote original content on our website about “Best Practices” for journalists. But our center’s mission is to help journalists cover the state of children, youth and families in this country. That truth may be unpleasant. But how else can the public respond or create solutions without these stories?

When USA Today reporters Brad Heath and Blake Morrison investigated the problems of toxic air pollution near elementary schools across the country, laws were changed. When reporter Angie Weidinger of KOLR-TV in Missouri profiled a deaf teenager virtually imprisoned in a nursing home simply because he was deaf, that boy was given a new home and a new life. There is no better example of our mission than the Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism and the America’s Promise Journalism Award. Our medalists, including KLOR’s Weidinger and USA Today’s Morrison and Heath, were the impetus and the vehicle for solutions in those communities, and their focus on what did not work became a catalyst for change.

I’d propose another name that might be more descriptive of our
mission: “what did we learn?” That is the thread that connects the stories we deem critical for our audience. If something went wrong, what did we learn? And if a community solved a problem and it can be replicated elsewhere, what did we learn? If a community can’t figure out a solution to a pressing problem, what did we learn? What works is important, but it can’t be the sole focus of what we do or what journalism covers.

I’d like to share just two examples of two very good solution-based stories that we promoted recently.

American RadioWorks on the Perry Preschool Project and how their results now challenge notions about what helps people succeed — in school, and in life.

The East Bay Express, Oakland CA on A Safe Place for Troubled Teens:
Alameda County&;s path-breaking new mental-health court seeks to help youth with psychiatric problems who have broken the law.

Next year, I would like to invite you to be my guest at the Casey Medals and America’s Promise Awards ceremony here in Washington. I know that with your interest in child and youth issues, you’d enjoy the evening and the opportunity to get to know our organization and our mission even better.

Best regards,

Gena Fitzgerald

Executive Director

Journalism Center on Children & Families