Did news accounts about weapons of mass destruction help set the stage for the war in Iraq? Do television reports about earthquakes or genocide stir Americans to action? The bottom line: Are the media as influential as they sometimes appear to be?
On the occasion of National Adoption Awareness Month, I'd like to offer a few (of the many) mountains of evidence from my world that the answer is an unequivocal "yes." And I'd like to suggest that the consequences - especially when the power of the press is exercised without sufficient knowledge or context - can be painful and profound.
The clearest current example is a white-hot, albeit little-reported, debate in Russia about whether to halt all international adoptions from that country. The stakes in the outcome are huge, potentially affecting tens of thousands of institutionalized children for whom adoption abroad represents the best hope of enjoying normal, fulfilling lives.
The genesis of the Russians' concern is legitimate and understandable. About a dozen children adopted from their orphanages in the past decade have died at the hands of new American parents; a Chicago woman was convicted of involuntary manslaughter just a few months ago.
A mother killing her son is undeniably news, and lots of reporters have written about it - primarily in breathless articles containing few insights. That's no surprise; generations of secrecy have left most of us, including journalists, without a solid understanding of adoption or its participants. One result is that stories relating to the subject too often are ill-informed and lack critical perspective, while the consumers of those stories too often don't have the experience or information to put events into context for themselves.
So, when the biological parent of a child does something heinous, like throwing her kids off a pier in San Francisco, no one thinks, "Good gracious, we can't allow families to be formed the old-fashioned way - look what the mothers do!" Moreover, no one suggests placing a moratorium on childbirth until parents stop hurting their children; rather, we focus on identifying the problems that cause such behavior and on how to remedy them.