Saturday, October 16, 2010

47 Children Saved From Abusive Homes

This is a story you aren't going to see on television news:
Police around the country rescued 47 children aged 6 months to 13 years from dreadful situations in 27 states.  The children were abused in many different ways.  Some of the kids came from seemingly normal homes others came from single parent homes.   would beat the child   Young girls raped by family members, a three year old child scalded with boiling water,  a two year old suffered even worseAlcohol played a role in the abuse of many of the children.

Outpourings of support came from around the world.  A consortium of 23 hospitals pledged to take care of all the medical needs of the children until they were 18.  Intensive psychological help was pledged for all the children through age 30.  Families opened their doors to take in the kids and seven different retail organizations pledged to keep the kids clothed in style until high school graduation.

Authorities promised $8 million to fund a cross-disciplinary task force of scholars and practitioners to study over 200 research projects to find patterns of child abuse, characteristics of abusers, successful abuse detection and prevention programs, and to develop a plan to cut child abuse by 70% in the US.

The National Governors Association and a bi-partisan group of senior Members of Congress and Senators pledged to work together to implement the task force's recommendations with complementary National and State legislation. 

All that above is a pipe dream I had while watching the miners as they were rescued from the Chilean mine.  The story this past
week was the kind of television moment that unites people all around the world.    

But I also thought about all the kids in abusive families who need to be rescued.  Why the miners and not the kids?

It got me thinking about Edward Jay Epstein's News From Nowhere.  Epstein studied network news creation in the late 60's.  He looked at how news stories were chosen and then how they were packaged.

While the changes in technology mean that his model probably needs some tweaks, I suspect the basic process of creating narratives is still recognizable today. 

At each network, the process by which national news is gathered, edited and presented to the public is more or less similar.  A limited number of subjects, usually no more than twenty or thirty, are selected each day as possible film stories by the the news executives, producers and assignment editors on the basis of some form of advance information, and camera crews are dispatched to the scene to capture the event, or a re-enactment of it, on 16-mm. film.  The filming is supervised by either a field producer, a correspondent, or in some cases, the cameraman himself.  The film is then either shipped directly back to one of the network’s headquarters in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, or if time is an important consideration, processed and edited at the nearest available facilities and transmitted to New York by cable.  Through editing and rearranging of the filmed scenes, a small fraction of the exposed film, usually less than 5 percent, is reconstructed into a story which has a predetermined form.  Reuven Frank, then executive producer of the NBC Evening News, instructed his staff in a memorandum initiating the half-hour network news program in 1963.
Every news story should, without any sacrifice of probity or responsibility, display the attributes of fiction, of drama.  It should have structure and conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, a middle and an end.  These are not only the essentials of drama;  they are the essentials of narrative.

So, all the news is wrapped into a narrative structure that neatly tells a good, dramatic story. Parts that don't fit the narrative are left out.

A sound track, using either the “live sound” recorded at the event or “canned” (previously recorded background sounds) from the network’s sound-effects library, is added to the edited story.  “Its symbolic truth, its power of evocation is enhanced by the supposed reality which the sounds which surround it stimulate," Reuven Frank continues in the same memorandum.  Finally a narration, written either by a correspondent or by a writer, synthesizes the piece, which is introduced and integrated into the news program by the anchorman or commentator. 

Network news organizations select not only which events will be portrayed as national and world news on television but which parts of the filmed portions of those events, when recombined by editing, will stand for the whole mosaic.  This necessarily involves choosing symbols which will have some more general meaning to a national audience.  “The picture is not a fact but a symbol,” Reuven Frank notes, “. . . the real child and its real crying become symbols of all children.”  [pp. 4-5]

So, Epstein explains, there are set story lines into which news stories have to fit.  The events that get onto the news are those events which are predictable (so they know to have camera people there), which take place in a location where a crew can be on hand, etc.  The coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is very different from the coverage of Vietnam where media had much more access to film the fighting. The US government does a much better job now of controlling what the American public sees.

And the story of the miners, which fits neatly - at least as it was shown on television - into Mr. Frank’s elements of drama,  is a perfect story.  We’ve known for two months now about the planned rescue and when the miners were supposed to be brought out of the mine.

But kids in abusive homes are a much harder story to cover.  All the miners were together in one place.  The kids are hidden from sight and scattered in many locations.  You’d have to have many different film crews in many places.  The miner story was characterized as a classic 'man against nature" story.  The narrative for abused kids isn’t as neat.  The 'saving the innocent victim" narrative comes in conflict with our narrative that children belong with their parents.   The situation in each individual suspected abusive home is much harder to prove than the trapped miners' need to be rescued. And interviewing the rescued kids would be more ethically challenging than interviewing the rescued miners. 

What we know as news then is shaped by the reporters of the news and their narratives of what it means.  And the news they report is shaped by what  fits the emotional, political, dramatic, and technical requirements of the news media. 

There are lots of kids trapped in abusive homes throughout the US and the rest of the world.  But we focus on the rescue of a small number of miners.  (There is no intent on my part to diminish what they went through, but merely to put the news coverage of their ordeal into perspective.)  And besides the kids, there are all the other miners that have been trapped and died in mine disasters around the world who we don’t learn about. 

And let's see how much we will find out about the mining company's responsibility for unsafe conditions and changes in the regulations of mines in Chile.  Those stories don't have the same dramatic impact as the rescue.  

One last thought:  In some ways the miners' story follows the dramatic narrative of the 1989 Alaska whale rescue, which is being made into a movie now in Anchorage. But the characters are being modified, I'm told, so that they make for a better movie.  Further complicating the accuracy of the our understandings of the world.  But making the movie potentially more likely to make a profit. 

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