A Guide for Reporters Covering Adoptees and Adoption

Stories by reporters who often know nothing about the complex system of adoption are the primary ways most Americans not personally connected to it learn about the issue. To help reporters tell more fact-based and less biased stories, I have provided 16 questions for the media to consider when covering adoptees, birth families, and adoption (see below). I also have included an extensive collection of links to provide reporters this information. Several suggested contacts for the media are also listed below as well—all who can speak eloquently on adoptee rights and adoption law.

Number of Adoptees in the United States Adoption Boom Years

Penelope Maza published the most frequently cited population data study on the number of U.S. adoptees born in the United States from the 1940s through the 1970s in her paper called “Adoption Trends: 1944-1975” in 1984.

Background on How the Media Fail to Cover Adoption Issues and Adoptees

Today most Americans do not know about the history of adoption in the United States or how the United States’ legal system openly discriminates against millions of Americans solely by status of their birth as adoptees (and, as in most adoptees’ cases, illegitimately born babies).

What’s more, only academic experts likely are aware of the larger historic issue of illegitimacy and how that sociological idea—universal to the human experience throughout human history the world over—impacted and still impacts the way America’s adoption system and laws work.

Because of this knowledge gap and a long history of feel-good, adoption-reunion storytelling, most adoption stories fall into a typical pattern. The reporter finds an adoptee, now an adult, who is seeking their mother, or maybe siblings. Or siblings or half siblings in the same town or even in the same store or factory discover they are biologically related. Or an elderly adoptee finally meets their even older birth mother in a tearful reunion.

In nearly all of these stories, reporters avoid the basic facts about “why” this harm and long separation has happened in the first place to the adoptees and their biological families, notably the birth mothers. The “who,” meaning the people who created this legal system through lawmaking and policy, is never discussed. The “when” questions, concerning the circumstances and periods when the laws that promoted the separation of biological families were passed, are certainly ignored.

Instead, adoptees searching for their past are presented to the public as media spectacles for their momentary entertainment (think of Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator, yelling at the crowd he just amused with his lethal skills). Adoptee critics of this style of reporting have every right to refer to this brand of fact-lite news storytelling as “adoptee reunion p0rn.” [Note, I misspelled the word using a zero intentionally to prevent it from being blocked if shared.]

This pattern of lazy and often prejudicial storytelling by media outlets and their reporters can be fixed with the basic principles of good journalism. The solution should be that simple, if media outlets exercise common journalistic standards. Good journalists provide background information as well as key facts about the politics and history of their subjects. Good journalists questions those in power and help the powerless and the vulnerable. That should be no different for any story about adoption and adoptees denied their rights forcing them into expensive, time-wasting efforts to claim what legally is theirs as a human right.

Here are questions and some basic facts any reporter should ask and ask of themselves for any story that deals with the American adoption system, birth families, and adoptees.

16 Essential Questions for all Media and Reporters Covering Adoption and Adoptees

  1. How many adoptees in this state (of the adoptee) and in the United States were relinquished for adoption?
  2. How is this individual story part of the larger national story (transnational adoption, transracial adoption, single white mother relinquishment, black market adoptions, the treatment of women by U.S. churches, society, social service institutions, and government)?
  3. Is this adoption story typical of or different from the historic experience of U.S. adoption?
  4. What is the law of the state where the adoptee was born that prevents the adoptee from getting his or her records (not all states block adoptees from getting records)?
  5. When was the state law changed or written that created barriers that deny an adoptee their human right to know their ancestry and past?
  6. What do the primary vital records keepers, notably the state’s most senior vital records officials, have to say about denying adoptees their records, particularly in the era of DNA testing that is making adoption privacy laws even more obsolete?
  7. What do the senior officials at the adoption placement agency who handled the adoption (if there was an agency) have to say about denying adoptees their records, and about how many infants were relinquished by that agency in its history promoting adoption?
  8. Do the state vital records keepers know about the history of adoption that once allowed adoptees and birth parents to access records in most states before the 1950s?
  9. Question for the reporter: Is the reporter aware that most medical, scientific, and public health experts promote awareness of one’s medical and family history as a way to promote individual and population health?
  10. Question for the reporter: Does the reporter think that denying millions of adoptees this important health and medical information harms adoptees? (Yes, this question needs to be asked with every story, because of the overwhelming evidence that denying family and medical information may cause provable harm to many of the millions of adopted persons.)
  11. Question for the reporter: Has the reporter asked state vital records keepers or state lawmakers who may oppose opening adoption records their views on this issue of providing adoptees their records for health and public health reasons?
  12. Question for the reporter: Does the reporter know that many developed nations in the world with adoption systems provide adult adoptees unfettered access to their birth records when they turn 18?
  13. Question for the reporter: Is the reporter aware of the United Kingdom’s adoptee records law that has been implemented successfully since 1975, without any public policy or social problems?
  14. Question for the reporter: Does the reporter know what states provide adoptees and birth parents access to birth records of adoptees and what states do not through a series of legal barriers?
  15. Question for the reporter: Can the reporter answer this question if the adoptee cannot get their records by law: Why should everyone else who is not adopted, including convicted felons, be allowed to access their vital records and an adoptee be denied this legal right by law?
  16. Question for the reporter: Does the reporter think that having laws that deny equal legal rights to millions of persons represent a form of inequality? Note: This is not a trick question—it is the most obvious one, and therefore the one evaded because it forces the reporter to confront the cognitive dissonance that underlies the storytelling they may want to do by focusing on “reunion p0rn.”

Key contacts for reporters who focus on adoptee rights to records should include: Bastard Nation, the Adoptee Rights Law Center run by attorney Greg Luce of Minneapolis, and any of the state groups who promote adoptees’ legal and human rights to their records. If you want to speak to an academic expert, please contact Prof. Elizabeth J. Samuels (Harvard, JD), University of Baltimore, School of Law. The author, Rudy Owens, can speak about the history of adoption, adoption as a public health issue, and Michigan’s treatment of adoptees seeking their birth records. 

Note: The author, Rudy Owens, is a former journalist who holds an MA in journalism from the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as an MPH from the University of Washington School of Public Health. His memoir exploring the American adoption system, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, will be published in March 2018. The author is not affiliated with any of the media contacts listed above and is not a partner or member of their organizations. 

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