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Society's overall views on adoption are affected by a variety of factors, including individuals' personal experiences with adoption, either firsthand or through knowing someone who adopted or was adopted, discussions about adoption with other people, and the media and its depiction of adoption as a positive or negative experience.

Although it is not possible to quantify the overall effect of the media on people's views about adoption, some effect is very likely, particularly when considering the television media and its extensive reach to all segments of society. The effect of movies is also important on a lesser segment of society. Print media, albeit more selective, also impacts numerous individuals, as does radio broadcast media.

A 1988 study of the media and its depiction of adoption revealed a heavily negative bias. This study, performed by Dr. George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, concentrated on television, film and print coverage of adoption. The study was funded by the Catholic Adoptive Parents Association Inc. in New York City.


According to Gerbner's report,

Americans encounter vivid images of adoption, adopted children, and adoptive parents most often in television drama. Significant dramatic portrayals occur, on the average, at least six times a year.

According to Gerbner's analysis, "The treatment of adoption ranged from the highly sensitive and thoughtful to the hackneyed and stereotypic." He found the legal process of adoption as the predominant theme, appearing in nearly half of the television programs offering adoption themes.

Next most prominent, with almost one-third of the programs depicting some variation on this theme, was the "shady deal": baby buying, cheating birthmothers, stealing babies. Although illegal activities do occur in the real world of adoptions, they represent a tiny minority of all adoptions, and most infant adoptions are lawful; however, a primary purpose of electronic media such as television and movies is to entertain and dramatize. The average successful adoption would probably seem very boring to a television producer.

As a result, when the public continually views adoption scams, it is highly probable viewers will conclude that shady adoptions are an everyday occurrence. In addition, adoption itself is viewed more suspiciously, as are birthmothers considering adoption and prospective adoptive parents.


Portrayals of adoptions in 87 films from 1927 to 1987 were analyzed. Of these movies, 60% concentrated on the process of adoption, a pattern also seen in television. The researchers selected movies that seemed to typify plots over the long-term. "Bad Seed" themes were considered: in fact, a film entitled The Bad Seed was released in 1956 and depicted an adopted child with evil inherited traits.

These and similar films may have profoundly affected viewers' attitudes toward adoption, particularly the attitudes of Baby Boomers who were then children. Such film treatments cause concern over possible genetic predispositions toward "evil" and inherited bad genes.

Researchers stated that film coverage appeared to be less bound to "formulas" than is television coverage in depiction of adoption.

Adoptive parents have had some impact on media; for example, in 1989 when adoptive parents complained to the producers of a Disney movie about negative adoption remarks made by a character, the remarks were deleted from the movie.

Print Media

An analysis of adoption articles in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature revealed a similar pattern to television storylines on adoption.

Nearly one-third of the articles covered problem areas: obstacles to adoption because of the prospective parents' race, religion, marital status and so forth; negative behavior by adopted persons; baby or child selling; adopted children confronted with two mothers; birthparents "giving away" a child; adoptive parents committing crimes against adopted children; and lawsuits brought by adoptive parents.

An analysis of the New York Times Index revealed that criminal activities or court stories represented as much as one-third of all adoption-related stories in the New York Times.

"Litigation, rackets, abuses, and other illegalities linked to adoption, including suits over parenthood, claims of baby-switching and selling, race-related disputes, and various scandals are the most likely to make the subject of adoption-as indeed many other subjects-newsworthy," said Gerbner.

Concluded Gerbner, "Adoption is depicted as a troubling and troublesome issue .?.?. Useful and helpful information is available to those who seek it. But images and messages most viewers and readers encounter most of the time are more likely to project than to deflect the common problems adopted persons and their families face in our culture."

One common complaint of adopted individuals and adoptive parents about articles in print is the frequent singling out of a celebrity's adopted children and children born to the family when adoption plays no role whatsoever in the story. (See also ATTITUDES ABOUT ADOPTION.)

In 1991, a new group was formed to promote "decency and equality of treatment" of adoption by the media. The organization is Positive Adoption Attitudes in the Media (PAAM). Contact PAAM at

Box 15293
Chevy Chase, MD 20825
(202) 244-9092

George B. Gerbner with the assistance of Sr. Elvira Arcenas and Marc Rubner, Adoption in the Mass Media: A Preliminary Survey of Sources of Information and a Pilot Study, unpublished, The Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, November?21, 1988.

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