A Time cover from 1988.
A handful of reporters and edi tors, most of them women, many of them parents of young children, diverted significant media resources during the mid- to late -1980’s to forge new beats focusing on the needs of children and families. Some won major awards, some flopped, quite a few actually impacted public policy and improved children’s lives. Perhaps more surprising, some 15 years later, the beat goes on.

Cathy Trost was a children’s beat pioneer, even though she doesn’t like the name of what she helped create. “I always disliked ‘the children’s beat’ name because it never accurately described the range of serious coverage the beat actually involved,” Trost said in a recent interview. While at The Wall Street Journal, Trost, a versatile and respected national reporter returning from maternity leave, found her personal concerns shared by not only increasing numbers of her readers, but journalism colleagues as well. “For a variety of reasons, suddenly children’s issues were on the radar screen. It was important to businesses; it was a public policy concern,” she said.

Trost’s work focused on public policy and also on the impact on businesses brought about by emerging children’s and families’ needs. Witness these front-page headlines from her coverage:

  • Human Tragedy: How Children’s Safety Can Be Put in Jeopardy By Day-Care Personnel (October 1988)
  • Pampered Travelers (of the Tiny Kind) Take Over Airliners. (March 1989)
  • Born to Lose: Babies of Crack Users Crowd Hospitals, Break Everybody’s Heart. (July 1989)
  • Second Chance: As Drug Babies Grow Older, Schools Strive to Meet Their Needs. (December 1989)
  • Parental Concern: As Nanny Agencies Proliferate, So Do Gripes About Service. (July 1990)
  • Workplace Debate: Businesses and Women Anxiously Watch Suit on Fetal Protection. (October 1990)

Trost credits her editor, Al Hunt, then the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief, with helping make this work possible. “He’s an example of the new breed of male bosses who understood professionally and personally the implications of women in the workforce…. Back when I was starting the beat, he was the father of three young children and had a working wife [TV anchor Judy Woodruff],” said Trost. “It must have had something to do with his thinking about what’s news.”

Elsewhere, journalists, initially mostly women, were writing about children’s poverty, infant mortality, the dangerous lack of childhood immunizations in many communities, decaying public schools, flawed foster care systems, and child abuse. These reporters were mostly working on the newspapers’ traditional pink-collar beats—education, social welfare, human services, poverty and public health. But the content of their stories about children and family was changing. Now, many were based on hard new demographic data, included in-depth analysis of economic and social implications, and most focused intensely on the actual circumstances of children’s and families’ lives rather than using a particular incident merely as a transitional anecdote.

Crack cocaine, tragically, was the topic that propelled the children’s beat stories onto many front pages, magazine covers, and to the top of the network news. The drug’s dehumanizing impact on its users was nowhere more evident than in stories about children being born having been exposed to the drug in utero, about addicted parents selling their children for a few rocks, about the violence involving young people in communities where crack was being sold, and about the violent abuse of children committed by those under crack’s influence.

Indeed, the crack epidemic, especially from about 1984 to 1990, directly coincided with the proliferation and institutionalization of children’s beats at many of the nation’s leading news outlets. Martha Shirk at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Carol Lawson at The New York Times, Carole Simpson and Rebecca Chase at ABC News, Melissa Ludtke at Time, Leslie Baldacci at the Chicago Sun-Times, Carol Kreck at The Denver Post, John Woestendiek at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Trost at The Wall Street Journal, Jack Kresnak and I at the Detroit Free Press, and dozens of others around the country worked hard to ensure that stories focusing on children and families were featured more prominently. This reporting was also bolstered by photo and graphic resources.

Logo used by the Detroit Free Press.
These new children’s beat stories were crafted very differently than the old fluff/sob story/features formulas. Reporters relied heavily on hard news elements and highlighted public policy dimensions, but their stories lacked neither passion nor good writing. In fact, fine writing was often the norm for the beat. By merging the more creative, storytelling qualities with social and economic analysis (similar to that being done by the business and national desks), children’s stories found their way to the newspaper’s front page or to the top of the evening news.

The role that many women journalists played in propelling the children and family beat forward cannot be overstated. It is certainly true that many news stories about children’s lives would have surfaced and been reported even if women had not been in positions as reporters and editors to champion them. But the particular attention these topics garnered, the play these stories received, the resources allocated to their coverage, and the ways in which reporting was handled, all of these decisions were heavily influenced by women journalists. And these women knew—perhaps, in part, from their own experiences as new parents—that what was happening to children and their families was not “soft” news but was as vital and pressing as the topics that normally made it to Page One. That some men, in turn, became champions, too, made easier the job of putting such coverage on the radar screen at many publications.

At the Milwaukee Journal, Nina Bernstein wrote about children and family issues in the broader context of a human services beat, then as a special projects reporter at Newsday, and more recently as a national reporter at The New York Times. While at Newsday in the 1980’s, Bernstein covered what would turn out to be a 26-year landmark lawsuit against New York’s discriminatory foster care system. (Bernstein wrote about the family involved in this lawsuit in her critically acclaimed book, “The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care,” published in 2001.) It was then that she began to observe a shift in the public’s willingness to empathize with the plight of the nation’s increasing number of poor children.

While many news organizations, including Newsday, did not create separate children’s beats, many others did. A study by Margaret Engel, conducted for the University of Maryland’s Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families (CJC) in 1993-94, found more than half of the 62 newspapers and news services surveyed had created children and/or family beats, most of them during the early 1990’s. But the CJC survey also found that “the reporting power is sparse and thinly scattered. Too often, the existence of a beat depends on the serendipity of having a motivated reporter with an interest in children’s matters.” And usually that reporter was a woman.

But as Trost, the founding director of the CJC said, “The emergence of a children’s beat is an important development because it professionalizes the reporting topic and puts it on a level playing field with more traditional beats.” To further professionalize coverage, in 1993 the CJC began hosting annual seminars for journalists who applied to come there for intensive study of issues affecting children and families. (Regional seminars have also been held on topics such as coverage of welfare reform.) More than 275 magazine, broadcast and print journalists have attended these CJC children’s beat seminars. The vast majority of journalists who do attend are women. I was in that first class of 29 CJC Fellows, four of whom were men. Our topic: “The American Family: A Tradition Under Siege.”

Beth Frerking was also among the first group of CJC fellows. She credits Deborah Howell, Newhouse bureau chief in Washington, for creating her beat at Newhouse News Service. By creating this national news service beat, Howell and Frerking were able to put children’s and family policy stories on front pages of newspapers around the country including Atlanta, Seattle, San Diego and San Antonio. “I was on maternity leave when she [Howell] came up with the beat,” Frerking said. “She wanted it covered, not from a features perspective, but as hard news. I came from that background, having chased hurricanes, political campaigns, all sorts of breaking news…. The goal was not to cover Washington stories on children and family issues, but to cover stories that were national that affected families and children.”

Howell said her decision to create the beat was prompted by “a lot of concern about the American family, high divorce rates, children at risk. [But] we didn’t want to just write about problems.” Frerking expanded the beat’s boundaries with stories that explored the impact of changing family structures on work, the economy, health care, and the ways in which children are being raised. Perhaps her most memorable story was a quick turnaround piece during the investigation of  the  still-unsolved  murder  of JonBenet Ramsey. Frerking wrote about how young girls are sexualized in child beauty pageants, a topic that before then hadn’t been reported. Her story examined the exploitation of events that dress little girls in provocative clothing with heavy makeup and then have them perform in sexually precocious “talent” routines.

“The story was cutting edge not because it was so brilliant,” said Frerking, “but because I no longer had to approach my work as though I didn’t have children…. That allowed a perspective that had often been lacking. There was significant reader response and other news organizations jumped on the story.”

The question now is whether children’s and family beats will be sustained and receive similar types of treatment from editors. “There’s been very little coverage of that beat since September 11, but many of the stories have included the impact of terrorism on families and children,” Howell observed. However, she added, “I can’t predict the life of the children’s beat.”

Now the head of the CJC, Frerking said she is optimistic. “I hope the coverage continues and increases…. I picked up newspapers for several days after September 11 and kept asking myself, ‘Where are the women reporters? Where are their bylines?’ Then stories started surfacing about who the victims were, how their families were being counseled, the story of the family who died together en route to a fellowship in Australia. Those are the stories people are hungry for.” And they also turned out to be stories that were predominantly reported by women.

Indeed, a memorable story of heroism in the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Center was filed by Sue Shellenbarger and published in The Wall Street Journal: “Is worksite child care safe? Amid new fears for children, many parents wonder whether bringing kids to high-profile, visible workplaces is unwise.

“The 14 teachers at the Children’s Discovery Center in 5 World Trade Center, a building that later partly collapsed, had taken in only 42 early arrivals by the time the plane hit that morning.

“As the ground shook, teachers grabbed each child’s emergency records, took babies in their arms and, following a drill they practiced every month, led the children outside, leaving behind their own purses and, in some cases, their own shoes…. Some parents raced in to pick up children, too, leaving staffers with just 28 kids.

“Once outside, the ragtag band was barred by police from the preset evacuation destination,  7 World Trade. Then, the second plane hit. Split into two groups by flying debris and hordes of fleeing people, teachers began walking north…. Some teachers, with babies propped on their hips, were soon barefoot; the paper booties they’d donned in the center’s infant room shredded from all the walking. Armed with the emergency records,   staffers borrowed phones to get messages to parents…. All of the kids were returned safe to parents….”

For now, at least, buoyed by such coverage, the beat goes on.

Jane Daugherty, a 1984 Nieman Fellow, was the founding editor of the Detroit Free Press’s ongoing Children First campaign. A three-time winner of the RFK Memorial Journalism Award, she was a Pulitzer finalist in 1994 for her Children First columns. She is now director of community relations and development for a family services agency in Bennington, Vermont and senior researcher for Stoney Associates, an early childhood policy consulting firm in Albany, New York.

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