Monthly Archives: April 2008

Taking Issue with "Daddy Boot Camp"

The cover story in the May/June 2008 issue of Health Focus, a health magazine published by the Princeton Health Care System, describes a program that teaches fathers-to-be parenting skills. The program, although well-intentioned, reinforces sexual stereotypes and ultimately reduces, rather then increases, male involvement in substantive responsibilities of parenting.

Daddy Boot Camp is a one-day, three-hour course described in Health Focus as a “course designed for fathers-to-be to gain knowledge in parenting skills such as diapering, swaddling and feeding, and to develop hands-on skills for caring for their newborns.” It is the topic of the magazine’s lead story, featured on its cover and first two inside pages, as well as its Health Education Calendar.

As its name suggests, the Daddy Boot Camp program is based upon a military theme. Actual military boot camps are run by drill sergeants; the instructors in Daddy Boot Camps are called “drool sergeants.” Experienced fathers are known as veterans – the same term used for individuals who have completed their military service.

The theme is reinforced by the photographs accompanying the article. On the cover, two fathers, dressed in military fatigues, are pictured holding their baby daughters while a drool sergeant inspects their appearance. One of the fathers is wearing a pouch with matching military fatigue colors. But instead of weapons, the pouch contains a baby bottle and a stuffed animal. Similar photographs decorate the inside of the magazine. In one, the drool sergeant (dressed in military clothing) is holding the two infants from the cover. In another, a father wears a military helmet while feeding his daughter a bottle. The theme continues in the text of the article, which begins with “One-two-thee-four… what’s the baby crying for?”, a parody of the familiar chanting that soldiers use while marching.

Viewed collectively, the photographs and text of the Daddy Boot Camp article absolve men of the responsibility of caring for their newborn children. This is ironic because the intent of the program is to do just the opposite. To a limited extent, the program and article succeed in achieving this goal. The men who participate are taught several procedures that are helpful in caring for infants. Overall, however, the materials send a message that caring for a newborn child is not the primary responsibility of a man. Males who make a conscious decision to care for their newborns are doing something extra. They require special instruction and can be excused for not knowing (or wanting to know) how to care for babies.

The photographs depict a perfect world. The fathers and children are smiling and happy. There are no sobbing babies nor are there stressed-out parents trying to balance work, parenting and lack of sleep. The message is clear: Take one three-hour class on a Saturday morning and learn all that is needed to be a good parent. Conversely, the photos imply a negative message about mothers. Why can’t women learn care for their children with such ease and lack of stress?

The message of the photographs is reinforced throughout the text. The language makes it clear that parenting is not something that is natural for males:

“Every new father has the same fears and anxieties.”

“One of the dads was concerned he would ‘break’ his baby.”

Swaddling a baby is described as “a daunting task for almost everyone.”

Moreover, fatherhood is treated not as a joyful part of the human experience, but as a series of necessary tasks. The male instructors are described as “fathers who have been there,” a description that suggests they have been through difficult experiences. Men are urged to learn about breastfeeding and to read books about child care — not because these are the right things to do and are part of being a responsible parent, but because these are ways to avoid arguments with their spouses.

The military theme itself is disturbing since it juxtaposes nurturing a newborn child with an organization that teaches people how to kill other human beings. On another level, however, the military theme provides men with the comfort of retaining their masculinity while engaging in activities (parenting) that they may consider feminine. Again, this underscores the message that parenting is neither a natural activity nor a primary responsibility of men.

Other than the photographs of two infant girls, women are absent from the article. This absence – viewed in conjunction with the text – suggests that men and women have separate and distinct roles in parenting. According to the article, “The group setting provides just the right atmosphere for relaxed, frank discussions about fatherhood.”

Although women have no presence in the article, the Daddy Boot Camp website does offer a link to a “What Moms Need to Know About New Dads” section. Given the message contained in the article, the title of this section suggests more of the same. Unfortunately, the link only leads to a page indicating that the content of this section will be “coming soon” – a promise that fittingly underscores the overriding message of the article.

The Difficulty in Analyzing Newspaper Coverage

Although quantitative analysis has been used frequently in media research, its weaknesses often diminish its value — something that we should all keep in mind as we follow the upcoming elections in the press.

In his book Analysing Newspapers: An Approach from Critical Discourse Analysis, John Richardson explains that there are flaws in a process that “assumes if a word is used 20 times in one newspaper and only twice in a different newspaper, this is of significance.” For example, he notes that because his own research on the representation of Islam includes words such as violence, threat and terrorism, it could be interpreted – incorrectly –as being indicative that Muslims are linked to negative social activity.

A similar observation was made more recently by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in its analysis of media coverage of presidential candidates in 2007. Following a lengthy discussion of which candidates were dominating the coverage, the report acknowledges, “It is important to note that these data speak to the quantity of coverage given to each party’s candidates, not tone of that coverage. A story about Republicans could be favorable, unfavorable or neutral to that party. Likewise for Democrats.”

Remembering Dith Pran

When New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran covered a press conference or a news event in the area, he looked like any other photographer doing his job. Unless you knew otherwise, there were no signs that Dith was the man who endured four years of starvation and torture in Cambodia and that his story was the inspiration for the 1984 film The Killing Fields.

When I learned that Dith had passed away from pancreatic cancer Sunday night, I immediately recalled a brief encounter I had had with him back in 1997. The story tells a lot about the type of a person he was.

At the time, I was working as the public information officer in Woodbridge Township and our mayor, Jim McGreevey, was embarking on his first quest for the Governor’s Office. The New York Times was doing a profile on McGreevey and an editor asked me to provide some pictures of his work as mayor.

Being that this was long before the days when digital photography was commonplace, I had a stack of snapshots — most of them taken by the police department’s ID Bureau, which was much more adept (and rightfully so) at photographing crime scenes than municipal ceremonies.

I picked out about a dozen or so of what I thought were the best photos and set them aside for The Times. When Dith (who lived in Woodbridge) arrived at my office to collect them, I expected him simply to take the photos and be on his way. Instead, he carefully looked over each picture and politely informed me that I might want to reconsider my selections. He spotted things that only a photographer’s eye would see – an awkward glance, an unflattering shadow, a misplaced background object, etc. He took a look at the huge stack of pictures on my desk and explained that he had to go shoot an assignment, but would return to help me select the best photos of the mayor.

True to his word, he came back to Town Hall and spent the better part of an hour perusing pictures of press conferences, proclamation presentations and VFW dinners until he found several suitable photographs. I didn’t yet realize who he was, but I was touched by the fact that he cared enough about how the mayor would look in his newspaper that he would take time to look through several hundred photos – and explain to me why he chose some and rejected the others.

As he looked through the photos, we made small talk. When he learned that I lived in Hamilton, he asked for directions to the College of New Jersey in nearby Ewing, where he was scheduled to give a lecture. He also was interested in Woodbridge Township’s new web page. (Municipal web sites were just starting to make an appearance at the time.) He explained that he was starting his own web page and offered to show me the page while it was under construction. Still unaware of just who he was, I asked him about the subject of his web page.

“You know who I am?” he asked out of amusement.

Although I still didn’t know, I remained silent as his web page appeared on the screen of my computer revealing that he was the real life person upon whom The Killing Fields was based.

More than a decade has passed since this brief encounter, but I never forgot that Dith Pran – a man who had survived conditions more horrific than most of us will ever know –- cared enough to take time to help me do my job better.

May he rest in peace – a peace that clearly is deserved.

The Symbiotic Relationship between Government and the Media

A March 16 New York Post story reported that about 22,000 city building owners were behind on their water bills. Several of the entities which owed the most money were listed by name. Among them was Pratt Institute with a bill of $442,000.

The story, however, shows no evidence that the newspaper attempted to contact Pratt or any of the other entities for a comment or explanation.

In Pratt’s case, the school contends that due to errors involving a new meter installation, the city inaccurately estimated its water usage for more than six years. Apparently, Pratt and the city have reached agreement on what the school owes, Pratt has paid that bill in full, and the city is working to make sure the meter operates accurately.

In their classic 1988 essay The Propaganda Model, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky posited that the media have become too reliant on (and trusting of) government sources for information. Some would argue that, had the press more aggressively challenged the Bush Administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, there may not have been ample public and governmental support to launch the war in Iraq.

An unpaid water bill is not a life or death issue, but this story does provide a good example of what can happen when the press accepts what government provides them without taking time to report the full story.

Journalism During Wartime

Investigative Journalism in a Time of War is the title of a panel discussion being presented at Rutgers University by the Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The session will take place on Wednesday, April 16, starting at 6 p.m.

The featured speakers are Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist who has covered the Middle East for more than four years; and Jeremy Scahill, a correspondent for Democracy Now! and a contributor to The Nation magazine.

The program will take place in Room 135 of Scott Hall, 43 College Avenue, New Brunswick.

For details, visit or contact Professor Deepa Kumar at