Going for the gut: media's use of children

In Amsterdam airport this summer, an upscale British toy store prominently featured a foot-tall dancing baby.

While some travelers might have purchased the baby to recall the dream world of Fox TV hero Ally McBeal, most would have bought the realistically modeled infant for a more obvious reason: to see it gyrate on their desks.

The life-like doll can't be separated from its media parentage, a self-absorbed thirty-something adult in a popular weekly TV show where the characters often fret about the future and their potential roles as parents.

In a hip way it represents an increasingly visible media-driven trend to place children at the center of political, societal, and even personal problems considered to be both unsettling and intractable. Babies, toddlers, and youths have become poster children for vexing public problems.

The media practice of running advice-laden "news you can use," has metamorphasized into a habit of framing the news through the most visceral concern of many in their audience: How does this event, this issue, this new technology affect children?

For example, in a recent week, U.S. News and World Report's cover story headlined "How Kids Learn." It pictured a bespectacled toddler. Its accompanying website offers readers a printable book to "keep track of your child's progress." Time magazine's cover on genetic engineering depicts a cherubic infant. CNN's report on East Timor shows an image of a small child and his fearful parents. And The New York Times Magazine includes several stories on children and putative children (the cover story is about "making it in Hollywood ... before you look 20") and an article about world poverty suggesting in its subhead that "your taste for foie gras is starving children."

Other broad issues such as gun violence have similarly been linked with children. The vulnerability of children in Littleton, Colo., Conyers, Ga., and Granada Hills, Calif., has been used to seize the public's attention, to instill moral outrage, to provoke a response.

Children have become projections of adult agendas. Political initiatives are cast as being in the best interests of the nation's or the world's children.

In the coverage of international news in Kosovo, for example, children have become integrally intertwined with the conflict and its dnouement. It is seemingly natural for the media to dwell on children's plight.

Yet children may not be Kosovo's only or best "hope"- diplomatic negotiations, permanent peacekeepers, economic assistance may all be critical to Kosovo's "future." But those prospects do not seize an audience's emotions.

Images or word pictures of dead or victimized children may be dramatic, but their repetition suggests that what is needed to resolve a crisis is to save the children. Yet thoughtful members of the public as well as thoughtful reporters know that children at risk are rarely the originating cause of trouble. News coverage that features children is not inevitable. And it is not always appropriate. That is the problem with using children as icons.

Simplistic solutions aimed at children are Band-Aids at best - rules demanding see-through backpacks may deter a few children from bringing weapons to school, but they won't solve the problem of the accessibility of guns in American society. The media's use of images of children reflects a certain knowing cynicism. The character Ally McBeal may be an invention of an entertainment industry whose bottom line is to attract and hold the largest audience possible - but news institutions have much the same imperative.

It is not coincidence that both sides of the media business have figured out that we all in our various ways are motivated by visions of children dancing before our eyes.

*Susan Moeller is the author of 'Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Cover Disease, Famine, War and Death' (Routeldge), and the director of the journalism program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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