Adverse childhood experiences in the news: Successes and opportunities in coverage of childhood trauma (


Please find excerpts from a piece published in Issue 24 of the Berkeley Media Studies Group about where and how ACEs are covered in the news. It was published a few months ago but I missed it and am thankful it was shared with me last week. 


Major news outlets are more likely to profile individuals.

In stories about complex social issues, a common journalistic mechanism is to use the story of an individual, often referred to as a "poster child," to engage readers and illustrate larger patterns. For example, an article about an art therapy program for children who have experienced poverty and violence begins with the story of two brothers in the program who had experienced neighborhood violence and an abusive father.23

Journalists most often used this formula in in-depth stories about childhood trauma that appeared in major news outlets. Stories published by major news outlets were more likely to profile individual survivors of trauma than were stories from local papers (36%compared to 10%) and were more likely to quote individual survivors of trauma (24% of articles in major news, 12% of articles in local news).

These powerful, in-depth stories can allow for rich discussions of recovery and resilience. Indeed, discussion of resiliency or the possibility of hope and healing for survivors of childhood trauma was extremely common in articles that told stories about survivors (89%of articles). However, if articles do not connect these individual narratives to broader systemic patterns, larger societal issues, including the possibility of prevention, may be obscured or overshadowed. Stories featuring individual survivors were more likely to focus exclusively on treating trauma (71%) instead of preventing it (32%).

We also found that articles profiling individual survivors of trauma were more likely to assign responsibility for preventing or recovering from trauma at least partially to individuals or their families. Most of the articles in our sample did discuss the responsibility of institutions and others in the community to find solutions for trauma, even if they also called on individuals or families to take responsibility for addressing trauma. However, there were a handful of stories whose main recommendations focused solely on individual actions, urging survivors to, for example, "seek help"24 or "be proactive and address their heart health."25


Recommendations for journalists

Childhood trauma is a complex issue — one that can be difficult to report on effectively. Our recommendations focus on how journalists can tell nuanced stories that connect to structural issues surrounding ACEs and include prevention. Our suggestions are informed not only by the findings of the news analysis, but also by the insights of journalists who participated in gatherings convened by Berkeley Media Studies Group in 2015 and 2017. For each recommendation, we also provide a list of example questions to ask interviewees.

Introduce your audience to ACEs.

Most readers will not be familiar with the concept of adverse childhood experiences. At minimum, it will be necessary to define ACEs in language that is appropriate for your audience. Depending on the story, it may also be valuable to describe various aspects of the research behind ACEs, including the studies that have been conducted, and the health and other effects that have been associated with child-hood trauma.

As a reference, earlier in this news analysis, we include an in-depth description of the research about adverse childhood experiences and their effects, written by Jane Stevens, founder and publisher of ACEsConnection and ACEsTooHigh. This description, or similar language, could be edited and condensed depending on space constraints and the focus of the article.

Make connections to childhood trauma in reporting across beats.

Adverse childhood experiences help us understand the context that surrounds issues that reporters write about every day. Illustrating those connections can make for compelling stories. Reporters can ask themselves these questions to elevate the linkages between trauma and newsworthy issues as they report on a variety of topics:

  • Could a story about housing instability consider the future impact on children?
  • Could a piece about health care access and insurance explore the ways in which the current health care model fails to address ACEs before they produce chronic diseases?
  • Could a story about gun violence take into account the impact of childhood trauma on community violence and the role of institutions in preventing such trauma?
  • Could an article about immigration include research on how displacement affects children and how this affects long-term health outcomes?

Reporters could collaborate with colleagues working in education or business beats, for example. They could also connect with sources from other fields who can help vividly illustrate how childhood trauma impacts everyone — and why we all have a stake in addressing it.

To connect stories on a range of topics to the issue of childhood trauma, reporters can ask interview questions like:

  • How does this issue affect children and their families, both in the short-term and long-term?
  • How will the proposed policy affect children and their families?
  • Is childhood trauma one of the root causes of this issue?
  • What opportunities are there in this sector to address childhood trauma?

Click here to read full-length version and for a downloadable pdf. 


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