Until They Get it Right
Tired of seeing yet another sensationalized report on adoption in the newspaper or on the five o' clock news? Here's how to help set the record straight.
by Adam Pertman
You open the newspaper with anticipation, knowing there's an article in it about adoption. But as you begin reading, a familiar wave of disappointment engulfs you. There it is again: yet another story that just doesn't tell it like it really is. When will the media get their act together?
Maybe when we give them a shove.
There's no doubt that attitudes toward adoption have changed for the better in recent years. A generation ago, families were likely to keep adoptions secret. Today, parents continually talk to their children about how their families were formed, make presentations about adoption in their children's schools, and celebrate adoption proudly and publicly. In fact, positive attitudes about adoption are on the rise. See, for example, the National Adoption Attitudes Survey [www.adoptivefamilies.com/articles.php?aid=537], released last year, which shows that two-thirds of all Americans now have both a favorable opinion about adoption and personal experience with it, up from just over half only five years ago.
Yet as a 25-year veteran journalist and an adoptive parent, I'm struck by how media coverage of adoption still too often focuses on aberrational events--horror stories that bear no resemblance to our families' experiences. Recent stories about children taken from Cambodian orphanages are full of such phrases as "baby selling," "adoption scams," "trafficking of children," and "greedy adoption agents." Accounts of the so-called "Internet Twins," who were adopted by couples in both California and England, featured "shady practitioners," "desperate adoptive parents," and "a birthmother with suspicious motives at best." And more than one story about adoption in the U.S. referred to children in foster care as "overwhelmingly damaged."
These stories have nothing to do with the happy lives of 99 percent of adoptive families. Yet we have to take them seriously. Most people's understanding of adoption comes from what they read in the newspaper and hear on television. Recall the case of Baby Jessica, returned to her biological parents in 1993. That long-ago episode is probably behind the widely held notion that birthparents often arrive without warning at adoptive parents' doorsteps to take back their children. In fact, such cases have always been exceedingly rare, and they almost never occur today.
If we want the media to change the way they portray adoption, we need to step in and do something. Because the potential damage is personal--to ourselves, to the institution that has enabled us to form our families, and, most important, to our children.
How You Can Steer the Story
You really can effect change in the way adoption is reported on and perceived, whether you act independently, on behalf of your family or local adoption support group, or in an organized effort with families across the country. What's the issue you feel most strongly about? Perhaps you want to do away with the stereotype of the troubled adoptee or discredit myths about birthmothers. Or you want to educate people about flawed lesson plans in schools and how to make them more adoption-friendly. You may want to point out that "Adopt a Highway" and "Adopt a Pet" campaigns can be confusing and hurtful to adopted children--and that the words we choose have very real effects on people. These are just a few of the many issues you can focus on in your effort to let the world know that adoption is a wonderful way to form a family. It will take some time and concerted effort, but it's well worth it.
Having spent a lot of my career on the receiving end of queries from people eager to see their stories in print, I offer the following tips. Keep these in mind as you approach reporters and editors in the hope of seeing adoption portrayed with accuracy and sensitivity.
1 Get friendly with the press, especially if you're part of an adoption support group or other organization.
Meet with local reporters and editors, introduce them to your members, and invite them to your events. And keep up the contact, knowing that 80 other people are simultaneously trying to connect with them but that 73 will give up after the first shot. Of course, you don't want to become a pest, so use discretion. But get in touch periodically, and, after a while, you won't be a stranger anymore.
Don't deluge them, but do send them information on what you're trying to accomplish. Help them understand not just the specific story you're trying to provide, but also the overall mission you're trying to accomplish. Unless they see how important it is, you'll be lost among the other 80.
2 Become an expert.
If there's a story in Florida about a child missing from foster care, that's an opportunity. You might call a local reporter and say, "You know, our state just implemented a policy to prevent something like that happening here. And here's how it happened...." Offer the reporter what you know, even regarding a story with which you have no direct connection. That will surprise her; reporters generally believe that anyone who calls them wants something.
The reporter may not quote you the first time you call. But she is likely to remember you as someone who knows about adoption--and that might come in handy the next time she needs a local authority or advocate to consult. This lays the groundwork for the day when you want your local media outlet to cover a story that hits closer to home. When that day comes, don't be shy about telling the reporter, "Hey, I've always come through for you, haven't I? This is a really good story."
3 Tie your local story to global news.
Reporters and editors love nothing more than a good yarn, one that captures the heart as well as the mind. Though you might think that someone else's story is more interesting than yours, that is often not true. Offer enough details, and you'll appeal not only to their imagination, but also to their awareness of impending deadlines.
Don't say, "I think I know a family who may be experiencing something similar. Do you want me to find out if they're willing to talk to you?" (This is what reporters hear 90 percent of the time.) You have a better shot if the first time you call (as early in the day as possible, by the way), you say: "The Miller family right here in town is going through an ordeal just like the one the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating in Whereveritis. Here's what happened to them, and here's their phone number. Ms. Miller and her son are anxious to talk to you." And then the clincher: "Oh, by the way, they're willing to be photographed." Reporters love to hear that.
Maybe you'll choose to use the occasion merely to get in the reporter's good graces. Or you might give the reporter a paragraph or two about the project your group is working on to address issues like the ones faced by the Millers. You can also say, "When you get your head up from this, give me a buzz. Our group is working on a project that [fill in the blank]. But don't worry about it now, you're busy." And if the reporter doesn't call in the next week or so, nudge him--gently.
4 Know when to pour it on.
Up to this point, I've recommended treading lightly, being polite, keeping in mind that journalists are inundated with leads and recognizing that it may take time to get their attention. Sometimes, however, the polite way is too slow and too uncertain. Sometimes we have to raise our voices and refuse to quiet down.
So, at tactically critical moments--for example, when a worthy bill reaches a crucial stage in your legislature--I suggest that you become a squeaky wheel. That means you don't just make a few polite phone calls to a reporter. Enlist the president of your group, your most prominent supporter in the community, and a few crying parents all to phone the reporter, the metro editor, the executive producer, maybe even the senior managing editor. Don't just write two or three letters to the editor. Tap your e-mail address book and get 50 people to write, or call, or whatever the situation demands. And if someone at the paper or the TV station asks, "Are you trying to orchestrate some sort of campaign?" you answer, "You bet I am." Then explain why you're doing it and what the stakes are.
Don't underestimate the power of speaking out at the right time and in overwhelming numbers. Last year, a new show called Maybe I'm Adopted was announced as part of the WB network's fall lineup. Adoptive parents all over the country deluged the WB with letters and phone calls, and the show's producers agreed to change the show's title to Maybe It's Me in time for its premiere. The producers told adoption advocates, "[Through] your input we learned that the title of the show could be hurtful to some." In other words, they finally got it.
I know that journalists and producers can be intimidating to approach. But most are hardworking professionals who do their best to do a good job. Besides, it is always better to deal with them than not deal with them. I can't tell you how many people have told me, "You know, I gave up on calling the Gazette. The last two stories they did were abysmal." The stories are not going to get any better on their own. The Gazette's staff think they're doing it right. If we don't pitch in to educate them, the changes will come too slowly--and our children shouldn't have to wait.
Adam Pertman is executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America. He's an adoptive father who lives with his family in Newton, Massachusetts.
©2003 Adoptive Families Magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited.
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