ABC's cheap portrait of open adoption

At its best, journalism not only informs, it educates. It raises consciousness, demystifies subjects that are poorly understood, and enables us to shape better policies and practices relating to important issues.

ABC's "20/20" segment on open adoption, which aired Friday night, had the opportunity to accomplish all those lofty goals. And many of us in the adoption community had high hopes that it would succeed.

After all, adoption is an institution that affects tens of millions of lives every day and is helping reweave the social fabric of our country, yet it remains tainted by faulty stereotypes and problematic practices. So we welcomed a serious media effort to dispel the nonsense and replace it with reality.

Well, we got reality all right, but not of the sort we anticipated. Rather than an insightful examination of a profoundly personal, life- altering process, "Be My Baby," reported by Barbara Walters, turned out to be "Survivor V: Who Gets the Baby?" - albeit with more positive aspects and softer edges than most reality shows.

It wasn't just the initial advertising, which the network withdrew, that made it appear this way. It was the very construct of the program, in which "desperate" prospective parents paraded into interviews like contestants; an anguished teenager became the "judge and jury," making intensely intimate decisions for herself and her child while knowing millions of people would watch (and perhaps judge) her; and the baby was presented repeatedly in ways that would unavoidably lead many viewers to perceive him as the grand prize.

Maybe outcomes like this are inevitable when the line between journalism and entertainment blurs. Or maybe some parts of life are so vitally private that they shouldn't be captured on tape.

As an adoptive father, educator, and former reporter myself, I think and hope adoption's realities - its joys and achievements, as well as its challenges - can and should be regularly reflected by the media; it's the surest way to replace corrosive myths with accurate information and, consequently, to improve the lives of millions of children and their families.

To be fair, adoption's own history hinders people from knowing enough about it, because it's hard to learn about secrets. As a consequence, even as the creators of "Be My Baby" sought to fill informational gaps, they were undermined by holes in their own understanding. (I hope I'm not naïve in attributing many of the show's deficiencies to a lack of research, rather than a blinding desire for higher ratings.)

A few examples:

• The prevailing view among adoption professionals and parents today is that it is best for children, as they grow older, to choose if and when to share private (as opposed to secret) elements of their adoption stories. But the child on this show will never be able to make such choices about his first months - and the program itself didn't mention either his privacy rights or the potential psychological impact of having intimate details of his early life televised.

• The child's biological father was mentioned fleetingly. While it's true that biological fathers often are relegated to the role of sperm donors because they aren't involved in decisions about their children's fates, "20/20" sent the implicit message that such attitudes may be acceptable by providing no detail, context, or background on the father in this case.

• Language conveys critically important meaning and shapes basic understanding. Calling someone a "birth mother" before she places her child in an adoptive home suggests she is carrying the baby for someone else, rather than making a wrenching decision of whether to become a parent herself. Similarly, the pregnant teenager on "20/20" was repeatedly described as "giving up" her newborn, dated terminology that does not accurately describe her insistence on an open adoption in order to remain an integral part of his life.

"Be My Baby" contained some decidedly beneficial elements. Most notably, it depicted open adoption as increasingly routine and positive, underscored by Ms. Walters's statement that she now believes it is a better, more respectful version of the process that made her a mother decades ago.

Ultimately, though, viewers didn't learn enough about the enormous changes taking place in adoption or about its significant role in reshaping our country. The program provided a piece of the puzzle, but without context.

For instance, while it explained the trend toward openness and inclusion in domestic infant adoption, the show didn't even mention that the fastest-growing number of adoptions today are by white parents of children of color from foster care and from abroad. Nor did it sufficiently stress that its elements were atypical, from the truncated interview process to the five competing couples all becoming adoptive parents within three months. And, most pointedly, it didn't acknowledge how radically the presence of TV cameras alters the behavior of everyone involved.

If ABC wanted to air a reality show, the least it could have done was show reality.

Adam Pertman is executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of 'Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America.'

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