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May 01, 2016

Shaping the News: Tips for Child Advocates

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

News shapes public opinion and sets the public agenda. It influences what policy makers talk about and guides policy debates. News can draw attention to issues in your community and drive change. Where do you begin if you have a story to tell, an issue that keeps coming up in practice that needs to be solved?

Pamela Mejia, MPH, MS, a researcher at the Berkeley Media Studies Group is leading research looking at how childhood trauma is portrayed in the news. Mejia and her team studied national, state and online news coverage of childhood trauma from 2008-2013, looking for trends.  Their work offers ideas for child advocates on leveraging news media about social justice and public health issues. 

Identify trends in news coverage

Meija and her team identified common elements in news stories about childhood trauma – what was being addressed and what wasn’t. They found news stories:

  • were driven by events or initiatives, 
  • discussed solutions, 
  • focused on treatment, not prevention, 
  • rarely addressed resilience
  • were dominated by health or mental health professionals
  • Reading and evaluating existing news coverage helps identify what “sells” and what reporters are writing about and what resonates with readers.

Identify news holes

The trends uncovered information about what appealed to reporters and was popular in news stories. They also showed what was being overlooked or not talked about relating to child trauma and generated ideas for new stories. For, example:

Prevention—‑Reporters may need help understanding the prevention perspective and angles on how to prevent childhood trauma rather than focusing on treating it after the fact.  An example is linking school mental health, food security and afterschool programs to violence prevention in schools.

Resilience—Is there a good local story to tell that will highlight this overlooked aspect? 

Expertise—What speakers need to be heard on the issues besides health and public health professionals? Refer journalists to sources in different sectors.

Identifying news holes reveals uncharted territory. Pay attention and think about what surprises you in the news coverage and what you’d like to learn more about. This information can help when pitching a new story to a reporter.

Frame your story

Framing relates to how an issue is communicated, packaged, and presented to readers. News stories about public health and social justice issues use two common frames to categorize information, identify themes, and make sense of them. 

Portrait framing focuses narrowly on an individual or incident. Most news stories are framed this way.

Landscape framing includes an individual or event but takes a broader view and also shows the environment or context surrounding that individual or event.

The frames that are repeated more often tend to influence readers’ 

interpretation of the information/issue. Identify what frames are commonly used to present information on your issue; use that to anticipate what readers think about an issue and what can be done to help them see it differently.

For more on news framing and message development, see:


Identify what sectors have a role to play

Meija and her team found childhood trauma news stories often appeared in stories about health. They wanted to learn how the issue could appear in news about business and education, two sectors that were missing from the conversation. What were the connections to these sectors? How could they play a role in preventing and addressing childhood trauma? 

They combed leading California newspapers, interviewed industry experts, and reviewed literature to identify themes in existing business and education media coverage that could be more explicitly tied to childhood trauma. For example, an article on school dropout rates and characteristics of students who leave school could highlight childhood trauma as a predictor of dropout and how addressing childhood trauma is a strategy to boost graduation rates. 

Similarly, on the business side, a story about health insurance could address the impact of trauma on insurance rates and health care costs. This exercise identified opportunities for these two sectors to join the conversation about childhood trauma. 

When evaluating existing news stories, think through what sectors are addressing your issue. Who’s missing from the table? What “hot” issues are those missing sectors covering and what opportunities exist to link those topics to your issue?

Know what’s newsworthy

 In deciding what news to report, reporters often look for one or more of the following elements:

  • Breakthroughs—Does the story mark an important “first”?

  • Broad interest appeal—Does the story affect a lot of people or relate to groups of special concern (children)?

  • Local interest—Is there a local tie?

  • Injustice—Is there an unfair situation? Could the media play a watchdog role?

  • Irony—What is ironic about the story? Is there some hypocrisy to highlight? A contradiction between what is and should be happening?

  • Conflict—Is there some drama or conflict to highlight?

  • Milestone—Is there a launch, expansion or anniversary to celebrate/draw attention to? 

  • Seasonal link—Can the story be connected to a seasonal or holiday event?

  • Celebrity link—Does a celebrity support your issue? 

  • Personal angle—Is there a person who can lend an authentic voice to your issue?

Which elements exist in or can be woven into your story? Highlight them when pitching your story.

Build relationships with reporters

Know who’s writing on your issue, who’s respected and who’s not, and who reaches your target audiences. Identify and establish these relationships by taking these steps:

  • Identify news outlets that reach your target audience.
  • Monitor those sources regularly. Who is writing about your issue?
  • Harvest bylines for contacts. 
  • Connect with writers through social media. 
  • Cultivate relationships with select reporters.
  • Anticipate reporters’ needs. Have resources ready.
  • Pitch newsworthy stories.
  • Become a reliable source (someone reporters can consult to tell stories that are different and haven’t been heard yet).

These tips will get you started thinking how to strategically tap the news media. The news reaches decision makers and opinion leaders at every level and shapes public opinion. Be part of the conversation and get your issues noticed by developing a plan and taking action. 

Pamela Meija presented the webinar, “The News about Childhood Trauma: Findings and Implications from Research and Evaluation,” hosted by Futures without Violence on March 16, 2016, 2-3:30 pm EST. 

Claire Chiamulera, legal editor, ABA Center on Children and the Law, is CLP’s editor.