By NAKITA SINGH HANS
Media coverage of child care is surprisingly limited, with parents’ viewpoints seldom reported, despite the continuing demand for affordable care among Canadian families, according to a recent interdisciplinary study by two Ryerson professors and a student research team.
“Serious coverage of issues relating to child care, such as its availability, its effect on women’s lives, or the professional expertise of child care workers, were issues which were barely touched upon,” said Ann Rauhala, associate director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and an associate professor at the School of Journalism.
The study by Rauhala and sociology professor Patrizia Albanese examined coverage from four daily newspapers, the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Ottawa Citizen, between 2000 and 2007. Trained research assistants were asked to collect all articles about child care in the newspapers.
The results indicated that although the Toronto Star covered the issue more extensively, child care was a topic barely mentioned in any of the four papers. It wasn’t until the election campaign period of 2005 to 2006 that coverage spiked.
“Figures were at their highest then so we decided to look more closely at that particular election period,” she said.
Child care had emerged as a key issue in that campaign, with party platforms spanning a wide ideological range, from a well-funded national program to a dismantling of the skeletal framework that already existed.
“Stephen Harper seemed to be almost anti-child care. He was suggesting that a national child care system wasn’t necessary and promoted this point of view that we (he and his party) don’t care so much about what the experts say.”
Harper had said that he cared about what mattered to parents, not experts.
“So we wanted to look at who exactly was being quoted and who were the sources,” Rauhala said.
Using content analysis, researchers compared the use of sources in the 55 days before the start of the campaigning, 55 days of campaigning and 55 days following the 2006 election. They found that in all four daily newspapers, in all three time periods, politicians were the primary sources.
“Parents were barely mentioned. The people who were owning the platform, who were quoted first and most often, were invariably politicians and candidates,” Rauhala said.
In the 55 days before the election call, only 27 stories were published about child care. However, this figure jumped during the campaign to 208. The research showed that Stephen Harper was the most often cited first source in three of the four papers: the Star, the Post and the Citizen. Parents and child care advocates were rarely heard in the Globe, which seemed more inclined to use politicians as sources.
The absence of people who understand the needs and the potential of young children should be a real concern, Rauhala says.
“I think your average 65-year-old politician doesn’t have a lot of contact with a two or three year old. They don’t even know who they are or what they can do…We found in our research that experts are not being listened to. (Instead), politicians are holding forth.”
While the Harper campaign claimed that the Conservatives were the most attentive to the wishes and choices of families, Rauhala noted that few journalists seemed to pursue this cue and seek out parents’ views.
Even more surprising for Rauhala was the lack of voices from parents when a Liberal political aide, Scott Reid, criticized the Tories’ policy of giving families $1,200 annually per child under six.
In a television appearance on Dec. 11, 2005, Reid said that instead of giving people $25 a week to ‘blow’ on beer and popcorn, proper child care spaces needed to be created.
“The comment was seized upon by Conservatives and was used to demonstrate how Liberals were arrogant and out of touch with voters,” Rauhala said. “There is irony here: anyone who knew anything about child care knew that the Conservatives’ plan of giving people $100 a month toward child care wasn’t going to do anything for people.”
Rauhala and Albanese are currently conducting a detailed study on beer and popcorn coverage in the four newspapers.
“The story that emerges is that this off-beat remark really influenced the outcome of the election and, by influencing the outcome of the election, it very much influenced whether Canada was ever going to get a federally universal system of child care, which, frankly, we have been waiting for since the 1970’s.”
The study looked at how and how often the beer and popcorn issue was mentioned.
“We looked at dozens and dozens of stories and there are hardly any parents. There is this big story about how parents are outraged about beer and popcorn and yet, in four newspapers over six weeks I think we found no more than three or four parents quoted,” Rauhala said. “This tells you that people who don’t know what they are talking about are dominating the conversation when it comes to child care.”
Rauhala said she believes that many people don’t even realize how much is going on in the mind of a young child.
“They actually just think they are little blobs who don’t need much more than to eat, sleep and have their diapers changed, which is shocking because they are capable of a lot of change and growth and care.”
Another factor at the heart of child care, Rauhala said, is the need for improved working conditions that enable women to spend time with their young children.
“If you have a stay- at-home mother, who wants to spend five years at home with her child, that is a wonderful thing. But we don’t have employment laws, maternity leaves and open minds about part-time work that enable women to do that,” she said. “We all seem to act like it’s every person’s individual problem instead of seeing children as perhaps our most important collective asset.”