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Study finds public political discourse misses the mark on child care issues


Patrizia Albanese and Ann Rauhala are lead authors of a new study that examines media coverage of child care issues in four of Canada's largest daily newspapers.

Modern research tells us that the way media frame issues of public interest is critically important  in shaping public opinion. Canadians turn to their newspaper of choice to find out what they should know and how they should respond to the topics of the day. A cross-discipline research partnership at Ryerson University is exploring newspaper coverage on a topic that affects the majority of Canadian families: child care.

Ann Rauhala, of Ryerson’s School of Journalism, and Patrizia Albanese, interim chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology and a professor in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson, are lead authors of a research paper examining public discourse on child care in four of the country’s largest daily newspapers. The researchers found the public political discourse on child care to be uninformed and disengaged from the real issues facing Canadian families. Based on their research, both Albanese and Rauhala found that federal political parties used child care as a political talking point to differentiate themselves from one another, rather than an issue that they were dedicated to resolving.

While neither researcher was surprised by the dominance of political voices on the issue of child care, both were surprised by the overwhelming lack of representation from other groups, such as parents, child care experts and activists.

“At first, we were so excited to finally see child care on the agenda,” said Albanese. “When we went through and did an analysis on who was saying what about the issue – parents were nowhere to be seen. Child care experts were nowhere to be seen. It was unbelievable.”

Brought together by their mutual concern for the lack of representation of parents, activists and child care experts on the issue, the pair assembled an interdisciplinary research team of four Ryerson students to analyze media coverage from 2000 to 2007.

The team reviewed over 2300 stories on child care from The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post and The Ottawa Citizen. In each article, the team identified the primary source - the first person quoted in the article.

“Every journalist knows what matters is who you talk to and who you quote first,” said Rauhala.   

“That is the person who gets to determine the agenda and tone of the article.”

The research revealed a spike in child care coverage in the 2006 federal election, when child care was a hot button issue discussed on all party platforms. Further refining their research, the team looked specifically at the 55 days leading up to the election, the 55 days of the campaign and the 55 days following, which resulted in a total of 370 stories.

In each of the three time periods analyzed, politicians were most often the primary source in articles on child care. In fact, politicians were quoted as the primary source in more than 50 per cent of the articles reviewed whereas, on average, parents and child care experts were quoted as primary sources in less than ten percent of the articles.  Some margins were particularly startling - in the days immediately following the election, the percentage of articles quoting parents as a primary source dropped to 3.7 per cent, or just 5 of the 135 articles on child care.  

“There is a huge political irony about this,” said Rauhala.  “Steven Harper said, ‘It’s parents we care about. Give parents what they want.’ And yet, coverage of the issue most often quoted politicians. Parents, experts and children were absent in the public discourse on this issue.”

Their results also illustrated the ideological differences between the four papers.  While the majority of articles in each time frame did not expressly support a party platform, those that did fell in line with the political leaning of each paper.  For example,   The Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail more often quoted first sources supporting the Liberals, while the National Post most often quoted primary sources supporting the Conservative platform.

To alleviate this obvious imbalance, Rauhala and Albanese believe that there are strategies that parents, child care experts and activists can do to make their voices heard.  First and foremost, it is important to be aware of the issues related to child care and to understand the political agenda on the issue. Through interviews or written pieces such as op-eds, parents and experts should be prepared to make themselves available to media to have their concerns recognized. By the same token, journalists have the responsibility to look beyond the usual suspects when looking for sources. Making a concerted effort to include the concerns and opinions of parents and child care experts will result in more representative, comprehensive reporting.

Who Says What: Election Coverage and Sourcing of Child Care in Four Canadian Dailies was published in the February 2012 edition of the Journal of Child and Family Studies.  The project was started with an internal Ryerson interdisciplinary grant in 2007.