First, I totally get it. Been in this industry for a quarter of a century and most of my friends are colleagues with dozens more decades experience in print, radio and TV. You don’t have tell me: this industry is all about revenue and ratings. From the local newsletter to the global network — and all those extra perks of social media and web hits too — our ability to serve the public interest isn’t worth much if we aren’t actually reaching the public, so it makes sense we search out the content that scratches (or irritates) the itch.
And that’s kind of why this topic is so relevant.
That photo above is my kid on his second Christmas. He’s turning four this October. And being his mom has been, by far, the coolest job I’ve held. Before he came along, I understood the responsibility I had in our industry, but to be honest, I probably didn’t understand it fully. Now, I do.
My son has been nursing from my breast since the day he was born. And he will continue to breastfeed until he and I no longer want. So, what I’m writing about is pretty personal. It’s a topic I know. It matters to my child. And I think we can do better by him and all of our audience.
Over the last few years, I’ve seen quite a few stories about breastfeeding in public hit media outlets. Sometimes, with commentary. And sometimes, those commentaries are coming from stations you manage or publications you print or networks that employ you.
And here’s the thing:
Most of the time, it’s pretty negative. It’s divisive. It’s sexist. It’s not informative. And, it’s pretty offensive to the many of us who are actually on this journey with our bodies and our children. We tolerate it. We talk about it. We weigh in. But I’ve asked around, and you know, most people really don’t think their voices are being heard..
So, I put together a handy little prep cheat sheet and included thoughts from our target demo:
- Drop the polls about breastfeeding in public. Or at least re-frame them. Stop asking our audience if they think it’s appropriate. It’s not just lazy content, but it’s really pretty ignorant. 49 states offer legal protection to nursing mothers and their children. And many include enforcement provisions. Polling the public on whether or not a legally protected right is something someone ought to exercise is just really silly from that perspective. I mean, I get it, not all laws and rights in our nation are on par with healthy civilization. And part of the awesomeness of media is our First Amendment right to discourse and discussion. So, I understand “legal right” isn’t argument enough. But, in this case, we are discussing a biological norm that we’re actually named for. “Should a mammal feed her offspring if you are around?” is kind of what you’re asking. Doesn’t make much sense does it?
- Remember the context we’re discussing is children. I completely love and adore that our bodies are multifunctional and don’t get me wrong, my breasts are as awesome as objectification would want them. But they are also food vessels. And when we’re talking about breastfeeding, we’re talking about feeding first and foremost. If you’ve ever held a child’s hand in the morning after caressing your lover in the night, you already get this. Just because a body part is used one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way it is. The context of breastfeeding is always, absolutely, without question, the context of providing nourishment. Basically, every time one of our jocks or personalities suggests modesty, discretion or some other qualification, our station is responsible for staining a discussion about somebody’s children. When it comes to content on the subject, remember this rule: we’re literally only talking about brain food.
- Stop the sensationalism. Focus on journalism. Elevate the conversation. If a business has violated a statute, that’s our story, that’s our spin. We don’t have to perpetuate provocative by further qualifying the incident. Stick to the discrimination and fact check and fact check again. Remember rule two, the context is children.
- Mostly, keep it positive. There’s really no reason to make feeding a child compelling content. It’s not really that big of a deal. Some of us are fighting against some norms that suggest we’re doing something wrong just because we’re feeding our kid. And that sucks enough. If you could get in our corner and not pander to the lowest common denominator, I promise you that you’ll have our loyalty for life.
And that’s a pretty stellar demographic to have.
Of the 64 million W25–54 in the United States, a lot of them have or are having children (not to mention the highly coveted target 18–34). And we know that almost 80% of those women have breastfed at some point, with almost half continuing to in the first 6 months postpartum. That’s a huge chunk of audience.
And if we want to increase ratings and revenue, if our goal is distribution, we are trained to focus on content and content our audience wants. Believe me, no one wants to hear or read another “what do you think?” when it comes to where a little boy or girl is eating. As long as they are getting fed, that’s priority. Let’s face it, there are plenty enough stories where the opposite is happening. Think of it this way: 3.8 million children die from hunger annually, asking if it’s offensive that one gets fed in view is rather embarrassing.
There are so many better ways to frame these stories. But don’t take my word for it, hear what actual A18–54 are saying:
What is the FIRST thought/emotional response you have when public breastfeeding hits the news?
“Honestly it’s fear. Then pride.”
“Crap I don’t want to read the idiotic comments that are sure to pop up.”
“My first thought when a story breaks about a mom nursing in public and the inevitable question of ‘what do you think’ comes about, my first thought is ‘No. This isn’t open to public debate. This is feeding children, this has nothing to do with your viewing pleasure.’”
“Great, someone’s going to tell me how much they 'support public breastfeeding BUT…' Then tell me all the ways they actually don’t (use a cover, pump & bottle feed, hide in another room/bathroom).”
“First thought: I wish it wasn’t “news.” A woman feeding her child, in whatever way she chooses, be it covered/uncovered, in a public setting or privately tucked away, bottle or breast, formula or breast milk, should not be “news.” It SHOULD be an accepted practice that is no more newsworthy than an adult eating. But, alas, it does tend to be in the headlines, and I empathize with that mama who is just trying to feed her babe.”
Have you ever been told to leave a business or cover? How did that make you feel? (Have you ever witnessed/been with someone who has).
“I have been escorted to another room before nursing my daughter at a get-together with friends (even though I was using a cover). It made me feel isolated and alone and I didn’t like that.”
“Indirectly. Waiting in line to pick up my oldest from church’s kid area, one of the staff offered me a beach towel for my ‘comfort’. I was offended.”
“I have dealt with glares and cow comments when nothing was visible except my child's head.”
“I’ve been told to use a restroom to nurse my baby in Walmart. My family and friends always told me to cover.”
“No…not yet anyway.”
“So far no, thankfully. I haven’t yet reached a point of feeling at ease breastfeeding in public, even with a cover. Sadly, it’s because of the negativity I hear and see on a constant basis. I dread the idea of confrontation over feeding my child, but in the end my daughter matters more.”
What do you wish more people understood about normalizing?
“I wish more people understood the dynamics of how a woman’s mental health plays a big part of how much more of a happy mother she can be. That being able to nurse freely with out discrimination [matters] or being made to feel that providing food for your baby is indecent [hurts].”
“How it’s not sexual at all. Not one thing is sexual about breastfeeding. Some women go through hell to provide their child with food that will help them excel in life in many ways. How amazing is it that out bodies not only grow humans but also make tailored food for them to grow. On top of nipple pain, missed meals and endless hours of time committed to just one task. We shouldn’t have to face being shamed and wrongfully accused of such a horrible thing like perversion. That really boils my blood.”
“We don’t want attention, we want breastfeeding to be normalized so when others see it they don’t react. Ideally it would be as ordinary as seeing a young child eat chicken tenders.”
“We can’t expect breastfeeding to be appealing to new moms if we call it gross, disgusting, compare it lewd acts or voiding of waste. No one wants to sign up to be isolated for a year or to feel like every outing is monumental.”
Has hearing a media personality’s take on this issue ever caused you to switch channels or become loyal to station?*
“Hearing a media personality’s negative opinion has made me stop watching a certain show and become less loyal to that station.”
“I have yet to hear someone associated with a “station” say something positive. It has caused me to dislike certain public personalities & I will avoid them if they are ignorant & rude.”
“Opposing views don’t bother me because they force me to examine my own values and choices and deepen my convictions. I will tune out when I keep hearing the same tired, ignorant arguments, though.”
“Yes, I have turned off the TV after hearing some ignorant comments. I work hard to breastfeed my little one and I don’t need to hear negativity about it.”
“I stopped watching Kathie Lee & Hoda. I personally didn’t like them too much before but now I won’t watch them at all because they think and have publicly voiced their opinions about how women shouldn’t share breastfeeding photos on social media and need to cover up.”
“Wendy Williams is a show I used to watch but will not anymore because of her stance on nursing in public.”
“ABC showed a series of very positive breastfeeding stories following the incident [with Kathie Lee & Hoda] and have gained my support. I’m still hesitant to watch NBC programming.”
I didn’t only speak to women, here are answers from men on the same topic:
“I wonder what spin the media are going to make on such a beautiful, normal act. Unless there is a major breakthrough in how a mother can more successfully feed her child, I don’t see why it’s even in the news in the first place.”
“ ‘Here we go again…’ is probably the first thing. Then ‘what year is this?’ (why is uncovered breastfeeding still a problem for so many?)”
“I have not been in a position where someone has been asked to cover up or move. If I did see that I would intervene on behalf of the mother. It would not cause me to change the channel; however, I would encourage media execs to embrace it. With all the violence and hate in this world, we should embrace one of the most inspiring symbols of pure love and caring that exists.”
“Before I had friends bring attention to the issue, it wasn’t top of mind. Not my direct problem, not my world. But now, I’ve given it some thought and my take is it’s silly and often sadly gross that moms can’t breastfeed where and when needed. We treat pets better than how nursing moms are often treated. I would hope by the time my kids have kids, this is a non-issue.”
And some other thoughts that I think sum it up well:
“If I had the media’s ear I’d ask them to educate the public about why NIP is important legally and biologically. I never hear the media talk about negative impacts of NOT NIP such as potential for mastitis [and/or] social isolation which can compound postpartum depression. I don’t hear them address the women’s rights issues involved. I don’t hear any education.”
How cool is that? Actual men and women giving us feedback. Asking us to consider the content carefully and put it in rightful context. Train our talents, educate our audience, stick to solid facts. Prep the bits, research the issue and follow the fundamentals of media: serve the public interest every time the topic comes up.
Breastfeeding in public isn’t a controversial subject. It’s just children, like mine (maybe yours too) getting nourishment. And our role as ones with a platform could be to educate others on that simple fact. We could change the conversation and in turn, do better by our audience. With the number of men and women impacted by the topic, that’s sure to be a ratings success.
(and my little lad)
- Here is a list of every statute on the books in our nation.
- Here is the link to FCC guidelines for obscene/indecent material. Stop blurring the images. It’s not necessary.
- Here is an example of how businesses can equip and train their staff on what to do.
- Here is the federal law explaining lactation as just a part of the process of reproduction.
- And here is how silly it sounds to give public breastfeeding a pro/con forum.
- Because audience interaction is such an important element in our industry, a few ideas on better options for engagement:
Finally, here is a commitment to coverage that I signed and hope you will to:
*There may be additional stories regarding breastfeeding that will require coverage, including but not limited to: normalizing, workplace/school pumping rights, health/nutrition and autonomy. The same concepts would apply. The context is nourishment and/or legal rights.
If you would like to let the media know how they can improve their coverage, please consider signing this global petition.
This piece published on Medium.