March 21, 2007

Media Myth-Making: The Moms-Go-Home Story and What it Means for Public Policy

E.J. Graff, senior researcher at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, has an excellent story, “The Opt-Out Myth,” in CJR magazine that goes beyond debunking the conventional wisdom about waves of women choosing to leave the workforce to raise children.

Graff deftly weaves together statistics and studies that show how the “moms-go-home” storyline focuses on a “tiny proportion of American women — white, highly educated, in well-paying professional/managerial jobs.”

The stories also look only at the lives of married women before divorce and fail to provide any historical context. “Their opening lines often suggest that a generation of women is flouting feminist expectations and heading back home. At the simplest factual level, that’s false,” writes Graff.

Most importantly, Graff explains the consequences of misleading media coverage :

The problem is that the moms-go-home storyline presents all those issues as personal rather than public — and does so in misleading ways. The stories’ statistics are selective, their anecdotes about upper-echelon white women are misleading, and their “counterintuitive” narrative line parrots conventional ideas about gender roles. Thus they erase most American families’ real experiences and the resulting social policy needs from view.

Here’s why that matters: if journalism repeatedly frames the wrong problem, then the folks who make public policy may very well deliver the wrong solution. If women are happily choosing to stay home with their babies, that’s a private decision. But it’s a public policy issue if most women (and men) need to work to support their families, and if the economy needs women’s skills to remain competitive. It’s a public policy issue if schools, jobs, and other American institutions are structured in ways that make it frustratingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, for parents to manage both their jobs and family responsibilities.

Brandeis’ Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism has posted a more complete version of the story, along with links to the original research and resources.


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