Monday, September 9, 2013

Teen Birth Rates Down

It began with a print article about a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about birth rates in the US.  A portion of the report showed a decline in teen birth rates, which seems like a positive example of responsible behavior.  Then it got a little weird.

I started reading articles on the Internet looking for good ones to use as links in a discussion of responsibility and found many differing approaches to the same CDC report.  Some emphasized overall birthrates, whereas others featured headlines like this:  “Teenage Birth Rate Reached Record Low in 2012.” 

This is understandable.  Different news agencies might take slightly different slants.  However, the stories looked quite different in what they told and the expert quotes they chose.  I knew I was reading about the same CDC report, but the approaches, opinions and information presented were surprisingly different.  Here are some examples (with differences highlighted).

The expert in the US News report stated:  “the decline in the teen birth rate could be a sign that teenagers are having less sex, that they are using contraception more often, or a combination of the two.”  The same expert was cited by MSNBC as saying that improvement “is attributed to less sex and more contraception” and “positive peer influence.”  Whereas the NBC article used another source to say:  “Percentage of high school kids reporting ever having sexual intercourse…held steady at about 47 percent [from 2002] through 2011.”  Less sex could be, is, or may not be a factor.  CBS played it safe with:  “Experts attribute the decline to a range of factors, including less sex and more use of contraception.”

Going back to the "peer influence" comment on MSNBC, the ABC article tells us that the same expert told them: “teens themselves say parents, not peers or pop culture, most influence their decisions about sex.”

Not to give parents too much credit, MSNBC says: “The Obama administration has invested in approaches to prevent teen pregnancy… The Affordable Care Act includes funding for states to support programs promoting abstinence…”  But the ABC story tells it differently:  “The administration has funded teen pregnancy prevention initiatives, and opposed the abstinence-only refrain.” 

It is interesting that only the USA Today and the Parent Herald mentioned the teen rate by race even though it was a full-page graph in the original report.  USA Today wrote:  “Teen birthrates varied by race and origin with 46.3 births per 1,000 Hispanic teens, 15 to 19; 43.9 per 1,000 for black teens; 34.9 for American Indian or Alaska Native; 20.5 for whites; 9.7, for Asian or Pacific Islanders.”  Perhaps the others feared being labeled as racists (for stating facts?).  Huffington Post, Washington Post, CNN Money, and CBS gave only the rate of improvements for each group and not the base statistics.  MSNBC, US News, New York Daily News, and NBC made no mention of this portion of the report.  ABC made only general statements about the decline among Hispanics. 

This breakdown might be particularly important since, according to ABC:  “Kids born to teens are also more likely to become teen parents themselves and since there’s been a steady decline over the last few decades, we may be seeing a decrease in that cycle.”  Given that teen birth rates have a strong connections with the cycle of poverty and that a few articles (but not all) mentioned it is still far worse than that in other industrialized nations, this could be important data for focusing resources.

Not mentioned anywhere but in USA Today was the following quote from that same expert, which could be considered quite controversial or at least raises questions:  “We still have almost three-quarters of a million teen pregnancies per year in the United States with over 300,000 births.”  (This paragraph was even omitted from the print version I originally read which cited the USA Today as the source.)

The good news is that the teen birthrate is down.  Whatever the precise reason, this trend can be attributed to positive behavior in the dimension of responsibility on the part of the teens and probably their parents as well.  The slightly troubling news is that when various agencies read the same report and interview the same experts, they come away with different ideas about what’s important enough to pass along as facts and how to present it.  This applies not only to those that some people consider the extremes of political bias, but to all of them, even on seemingly non-political subjects.  That's why I must be careful when choosing my sources.

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