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Local TV News Coverage of Early Care and Education: Stories About Scandals and (Sometimes) Policy

In April, President Biden signed an executive order that directed federal agencies to seek solutions to the persistent problems of early care and education (ECE) access and lack of affordability.  (ECE encompasses the settings where young children receive care from someone other than a family member or their primary caregiver.)

However, this was a relatively small policy win given the size of the challenge, after federal legislation to fully fund ECE to make it more affordable and universally available failed in Congress last year. One way to understand the root of political challenges to addressing ECE is to consider how the news media present the problems and possible policy solutions. Our team, led by Margaret Tait, recently published the results of a study exploring local TV news coverage of early care and education (ECE) airing before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study is now available open access in the Journal of Child and Family Studies

Taking an approach similar to our analysis of  local TV news coverage of paid family leave, a team of trained coders conducted a content analysis of local news stories airing in 2018 and 2019, as well as from March through June of 2020 (during the first few months of the pandemic), on the four major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX) in media markets across the U.S. Local TV news remains an important medium through which many Americans receive health and social policy-related information. We were interested in learning about how issues of cost, quality, and access to ECE were framed in local TV news and the extent that policy, a potential solution to these issues, was a part of coverage. We were also interested in whether the COVID-19 pandemic might have catalyzed a different type of discussion about ECE in TV news. 

Local TV news coverage inconsistently discussed ECE policy. In 2018 and 2019, coverage frequently highlighted scandalous and adverse events occurring near or with staff from ECE facilities. (One example of scandalous content is a story detailing the arrest of an individual who works at an ECE facility; coverage of an adverse event might focus on a plane crash happening adjacent to an ECE center). Coverage focused on the individual problems associated with ECE may lead viewers to question the safety and legitimacy of ECE offerings in their community, hinder uptake and the potential for high quality ECE to promote population health equity, and limit public perceptions of systemic issues and their impacts. Such scandal-focused coverage may also fuel a potent counter-argument to government investments in ECE centers and services: that very young children should stay at home with their parents–usually mothers–during this time.  

Local TV news coverage airing during the early period of the COVID-19 pandemic, in contrast, focused more on the policy response and provisions related to ECE, such as additional funding for ECE providers caring for the children of essential workers. Another area of our team’s interest was in exploring whether research evidence (which, broadly speaking, demonstrates substantial benefits of ECE programs and services for youth development and family well-being) is presented in local TV news about ECE. We found that across both time periods, researchers and research evidence were seldom included in coverage. Policy advocates and researchers looking to advance ECE-related policy should consider avenues to garner news attention and potential opportunities to partner with local TV news to build awareness of the need for policy reform and share relevant research findings. 

The lack of robust attention to ECE in local TV news suggests that the public (and policy makers) may not be adequately informed about the challenges of ECE and the implications for the health and wellbeing of individuals and families, and that these issues are not consistently on the agenda of pressing matters being discussed at the local level. 

Read more related work from the COMM team: 

This study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Grant nos. 75347; 77645; and 77117 ). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. 

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