2 Rules for the Media When Talking about Adoption

Dawn Davenport


rules for the media to follow when discussion adoptionOne of my biggest pet peeves is when the media makes gratuitous mention of the adopted status of a celebrity’s child.  “So and so was photographed at the soccer game with her adopted son.”  Nothing sends me into “letter to the editor mode” faster than statements like this.  So you can imagine my reaction when one of our Creating a Family listeners emailed me to say that Good Housekeeping magazine referred to Sheryl Crow’s son as “her adopted son”.  Good Housekeeping?  No, not Good Housekeeping!  I love Good Housekeeping—their room makeovers are practical and the research geek in me lusts after their product reviews.  Besides, they are one of the few magazines I can read at my hair salon without blushing.  (I know I’m dating myself, but when did Redbook become “R” rated?  I’m not necessarily against the “R” rated material, I just prefer to read about how to perform better in bed when I’m not squeezed in between the middle school principal and my son’s Sunday School teacher while getting highlights.)  So of course, after reading her email, I was propelled onto my soapbox faster than you can say hissy fit.

Now I’ll admit I was primed for this particular hissy fit.  During the Michael Jackson love-fest, I heard on more one occasion major news outlets say that that Michael Jackson was probably not “the real father” to his children because his sperm likely did not create them.  I saw red at those statements too, but held my tongue and pen because I didn’t want to jump on the Michael Jackson bandwagon and because he is, well…not exactly the poster child for political correctness.

But Good Housekeeping and Sheryl Crow were a different matter all together.  My mind was spinning with thoughts of a letter writing campaign when I decided that I had better see the offending statement with my own eyes.  A quick trip to Superior Styles Salon and there, under a beautiful picture of Crow with her son, was the caption: “Wyatt [my adopted son] is definitely all mine. Little souls find their way to you whether they’re from your womb or someone else’s.” ~Sheryl Crow.

Nothing like pure intent and a positive statement about adoption to drain the righteous indignation right out of you.  Although the wording was awkward, I had to acknowledge that their heart was in the right place.  Unfortunately, pure intent is not enough.  Language matters and it particularly matters when it is in print and distributed to hundreds of thousands.  Seldom do journalists intentionally try to demean families formed by adoption, but that in fact is what they do when they unnecessary reference how a child joined his family.  This applies regardless if the child was adopted, born to a surrogate, or conceived through donor egg or sperm.

In fairness, the world and language of adoption and third party reproduction can be confusing and a political correctness minefield.  Rather than berate one of my favorite magazines, I channeled my righteous indignation into creating two simple rules to help them navigate.

1.  Only mention how a child joined a family if it is directly relevant to the story.

When a child is first adopted or born through surrogacy it is relevant because the story is the arrival.  The following year when the celebrity is photographed with the child, it is not.  If uncertain of relevance, I suggest this litmus test: If the child had been born by cesarean section, would it be necessary to mention that fact.  Yes, if the story is about medical complications the following year resulting from the birth; no, if the story is about the joys of new motherhood.  Ditto with adoption.  Yes, if the story is about the celebrity speaking at an adoption conference; no, if the celebrity is photographed sharing an ice cream cone with his daughter.  How a child enters the family is not a distinguishing characteristic that they carry through life.  At President Regan’s funeral, a surprising number of journalists referred to his son Michael, who had been adopted at birth 50+ years previously, as “his adopted son.”

If how the child or person joined her family may have some relevance to the story, the second question to ask is if this information must be used as an adjective description or could it be included later in the article when filling in background information.  When the Billings were tragically murdered a few weeks ago, a headline read “Adopted Children may have Witnessed the Murder.”  The fact that 12 of their children were adopted and most had special needs may have some relevance to the story or at least to the newsworthiness of the story, but had nothing to do with the horror of witnessing their parents’ murder.  It would be better to include this information in the following sentences, not in the opening description of the children.

2.  The people who are raising the child are the real parents and all children in the family are their own.

When Sarah Jessica Parker and Mathew Broderick announced the birth of their daughters through surrogacy, some journalist reported that they were unable to have more children of their own.  Parker may have been unable to carry these children, but they will most certainly be her own just as much as the son she gave birth to.  When Nicole Kidman gave birth to a daughter last year, she was frequently referred to as a “first time mom”, when in fact this was her third child, first birth.  Michael Jackson was indeed the “real” father of all three of his children regardless if his sperm created any of them.  Whoever loves and raises a child is the real parent, and once they join the family all of our kids are our own, completely and totally and for life.  Once formed, families are families regardless how they came to be.

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OK, now let’s apply those rules to the Good Housekeeping caption.  The journalist added the bracketed [my adopted son] because she thought it was necessary to clarify Crow’s statement.  She is probably right.  Words in brackets are used to clarify the meaning of the speaker, but when added inside a quote they should be words that the speaker would have said.  I don’t know Sheryl Crow other than through her music, but I am almost certain that she would not have referred to her son as her adopted son.  He is just plain her son, no adjective necessary.  This is an example where the adopted status of her son has relevance to the story, but need not be included as a descriptive label and certainly not within the quote.  I still love you Good Housekeeping, but next time, leave the quote alone and identify the speaker like this:  “~Sheryl Crow, speaking about the love of her life– her son whom she adopted last year.”

Image credit: jochemberends

28/07/2009 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 25 Comments

25 Responses to 2 Rules for the Media When Talking about Adoption

  1. Avatar Alida says:

    Amen, sista ….. very well-said, Dawn! To a mother of biological and adoptive children it does not matter … they are all her children …. unless like you said, context requires to state that such and such is adopted. Obviously and unfortunately, the reporter who wrote the article has no clue about the adoption world and some do’s and don’ts. Thanks for this post.

  2. Avatar Dawn says:

    Maria, you raise a good point. I agree that media coverage of celebrity adoptions has the potential to affect public attitudes and normalize adoption as a way to build a family. I think it it likely newsworthy or least tabloid worthy to write about the adoption. However, to continue to refer to the child’s adopted status years later when it is not relevant to the story undermines the idea that adopted kids are kids first and foremost and that families built by adoption are just plain old families. I think that continually referring to a child as the “adopted child” makes it seem that somehow the way the child entered the family continues to be relevant, which works against normalizing adoptions. I have noticed that transracially adopted kids are less often to be referred to as the “adopted child” perhaps because the journalist assumes it is obvious.

  3. Avatar Jean says:

    Great and interesting article here. Thanks for sharing matters about adoption. By the way, there’s a new social networking site dedicated to parents and kids, it’s called Bluepixo.com – it’s a place for Moms, Dads, and Kids!

  4. Avatar Dawn says:

    I did forward to GH, so we’ll see what happens. Like I said, I think they are a great and positive magazine, so I hope they’ll respond.

  5. Thank you for addressing two of my biggest pet peeves so eloquently.

  6. Agreed! Why on earth is that a necessary distinction?! Ugh…

  7. Avatar Lucinda Naia says:

    USAToday finally stopped referring to children as "adopted" – for awhile, it seemed like I wrote them every week to say what you shared in your article. On the other hand, BANG Showbiz (some "entertainment news" website that feeds my local website/newspaper) refused to listen to my suggestion. They think it's appropriate to differentiate, and I told them I'd no longer read any of their articles & I haven't.

  8. As a mom who adopted it makes me feels less of a mom. Makes me wonder sometimes if I have the same "rights" as a bio parent.

  9. Avatar Susan Clark says:

    That sort of thing upsets me too. Makes me wonder what the child thinks when they get old enough to understand what is being said. I am concerned about my situation since I am considering the sperm bank option to conceive because challenges that my boyfriend and I are having . People can be so insensitive.

  10. I'm glad I am not the only one who likes to write editors!

  11. makes you wonder, doesn't it? 😉

  12. Avatar Debbie says:

    While I do 100% agree with not having to note that a child is adopted or biological, I will say in Sheryl Crows behalf that the quote does appear as if she was speaking about adoption specifically….which would make sense to mention that the boy was adopted. I wonder if in every day conversation if she introduces her child as her adopted son or just her son. I have had to explain a few times in the few short months of bringing our daughter home – note I said daughter..not adopted daughter 🙂 that she was adopted. It is pretty obvious when you look at her or us..but the adopted part is only relevant to the particular conversation. It is not a label the child carries with her for every situation.

  13. Avatar Maria says:

    I agree that after a while how someone joins a family is really not relevant. Especially with what the examples given of older and even adult children of famous people being singled out. That said, I am so out of it that I did not learn about Sheryl Crow until this blog. Ultimately, I know that love is contagious. The example of a loving family, all kinds of families, can only be a good thing.

  14. Avatar Maria says:

    Although I agree with the insights in this article, there is something else that comes to mind. These unfortunate adjectives also help to open minds. I know of several people who have come around to the idea of adoption because they saw it as a “normal” thing to do nowadays. In my family there are several people who used to see a stigma to adoption. Now that they have been fed a steady stream of celebrity families that have adopted, they have evolved their thinking in record time. Anjelina, Madonna and the many other tabloid favorites have done more to persuade these family members than anything I’ve ever said. I hope these “adopted” children realize that their testimony does more to change hearts and minds than anything else could do. Hopefully, the next generation of prospective parents are being raised in such to be much more open to the possibilities of adoption.

  15. Linking to this today – still chewing on the good stuff you brought up! Thanks for the perspective . . .

  16. Avatar Lu in PHX says:

    I still remember how angry I was when the journalists referred to Michael (President Reagan’s son) as his “adopted son” when it was so absolutely irrelevant! Your two rules are simple, straightforward, and should be sent to every major media outlet (most especially the Associated Press).

  17. Here! Here! Well said. I find myself bristling about such clarifiers. I hope you forward this on to GH – I subscribe and have about 3 issues I haven’t read fully yet. I find that they are very attentive to well-thought out responses to faux pas such as these . . .

  18. Avatar Kim Bergman says:

    Very well written–perfectly articulates what I’ve been thinking everytime I hear about MJ’s kids!! Thank you for this thoughtful editorial, I hope it is widely read!!

  19. Avatar Sandy says:

    Same thing happened during an interview that CBS Sunday Morning show did with Sheryl Crow. Every time they spoke about her son, they had to say ‘adopted’ son. I still don’t understand why they needed to say that every single time.

  20. Avatar Stephanie says:

    Yes! Last week’s people magazine had THREE different instances of saying “adopted son/daughter” where it was totally unecessary. One was Hugh Jackman with his daughter and the other was the story of the Florida couple who had adopted 17 special needs kids, and had two of “their own” Why do people feel the need to do that?

  21. Avatar Jamie says:

    Well done, Dawn, I always appreciate your very reasonable, evenhanded, and usually humorous approach to the ups, downs, and corkscrews of adoption!

  22. Avatar Chandra plus 5 says:

    Thank you very much for simplifying these ideas. Why is it so hard for reporters and media to get it. they are our kids, we are their parents, we are real, they are natural, and it isn’t necessary to call them adopted all the time. Jeez!!!

  23. Avatar Jillian S says:

    You ought to send this to every magazine and newspaper and journalism school in the world. It’s not that hard to be sensitive, so why do so few papers and magazines do it? On behalf of adopted kids and adults everywhere and on behalf of adoptive parents everywhere, I thank you. If only you can get the stupid jerks who write these articles to listen.

  24. Avatar UltraMom says:

    Well said! Thank you for saying it. Now, like a previous commenter said, we need to get this out to the journalism community.

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