Richard Wexler, a former reporter and journalism professor, now executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, contends that journalists’ usual coverage of child welfare revolves around a “master narrative.” This familiar story line, he argues, is wrong in its portrayal of the problem and results in dire consequences for the well-being of children as more children are placed in foster care. “The master narrative holds that when children ‘known to the system’ die, it must be because that system bends over backwards to keep children in, or return them to, dangerous homes in the name of ‘family preservation,’” Wexler writes. He cites evidence to support his claim that journalists highlight stories when children die in parental care, but barely acknowledge deaths in foster care. Wexler offers journalists an alternative narrative.
Nina Bernstein, a metropolitan reporter for The New York Times who has reported on child welfare for more than a quarter of a century, describes her attempts to escape the master narrative and replace it with more balanced coverage of the child welfare system and its impact on children’s lives. She says her ability to do this was best realized in her soon-to-be-published book, “The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care,” in which she uses narrative journalism to explore through one family’s experience the actual impact of both public perception and policies.
Patricia Callahan, a Wall Street Journal reporter, writes about an investigative series of stories about abuse and death of children in foster care that she worked on while at The Denver Post. She and her Post colleagues battled agencies to get “confidential” records and crunched computer records of various databases. They then published stories that exposed the selection of foster parents who had criminal records and the shoddy and illegal practices by private companies contracted by the state to oversee children in foster care. Their reporting demonstrated how confidentiality rules can harm children and led to suggested changes in the system by a special committee of the state legislature.
Jane Hansen, a reporter with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, describes the consequences of her newspaper’s efforts to get state agencies to release to journalists the records of children’s deaths in foster care. Stories about these deaths—and the difficulty of getting records—have resulted in the passage of Georgia’s Open Records Act. Journalists can now receive the records of individual children who died while in the custody of the state.
Blair Tindall, a reporter for the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times, shows what happens to small ethnic newspapers when a large newspaper chain—in this case Knight Ridder—wants to gain a sizeable market share. Vietnamese owned and operated newspapers are losing readership and advertising and some are ceasing publication. And the Vietnamese community is losing its independent media voices.
Don Aucoin, a television critic for The Boston Globe and current Nieman Fellow, lets us know why the TV drama about journalism, “Deadline,” came and went so quickly in this fall season. Turns out the show’s portrayal of a newspaper columnist was more sleuth than truth.