Newspaper Coverage of Adverse Childhood Experiences and Toxic Stress in the United States, 2014–2020: Consequences, Causes, and Solutions

Jonathan Purtle, Sarah Bowler, Maura Boughter-Dornfeld, Katherine L. Nelson, Sarah E. Gollust

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

4 Scopus citations


News media can shape public opinion about child adversity and influence the translation of research into public policy. Research about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress has increased dramatically in recent years, but little is known about how these concepts are covered in news media. We reviewed how newspapers in the United States have portrayed the consequences of, causes of, and solutions to address ACEs and toxic stress, examined trends in newspaper coverage, and assessed differences in coverage of ACEs versus toxic stress. Quantitative content analysis was conducted of 746 newspaper articles mentioning “adverse childhood experience(s)” and/or “toxic stress” published in 25 U.S. newspapers between January 1, 2014, and May 30, 2020. κ statistics of interrater reliability were calculated, and variables with κ ≥.60 were retained for quantitative analysis. We found that newspaper coverage of ACEs and toxic stress increased dramatically between 2014 and 2018 and then sharply declined. Only 13.3% of articles mentioned both ACEs and toxic stress. There were many statistically significant (p <.05) differences in the causes, consequences, and solutions identified in articles focused on ACEs versus toxic stress. Coverage of both concepts predominantly focused on consequences for individuals, not society. However, 54.6% of articles identified a structural cause of ACEs and/or toxic stress. Increased volume in newspaper coverage about ACEs and toxic stress could increase public awareness about the relationship between childhood adversity and adult outcomes. There is a need to portray ACEs and toxic stress as complementary concepts more coherently in news media.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)313-323
Number of pages11
JournalTrauma, Violence, and Abuse
Issue number1
Early online dateJul 16 2021
StatePublished - Jul 16 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This work was supported by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (76318).

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • child abuse
  • cultural contexts
  • media and violence
  • neglect


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