Texas Tech University

Portrayal of Divorce in the Media Draws Different Reactions

George Watson

August 22, 2018

Narissra Punyanunt-Carter’s research shows reactions to how divorce is presented depend on accuracy and experience, but more needs to be done.

In 1992, script writers for Sesame Street created, filmed and produced an episode that never aired. The special episode covered the topic of divorce, but when it was tested in a special showing in front of 60 children at daycare centers across the U.S. more than 25 years ago, the response was overwhelmingly negative.

Children who viewed the episode became upset and confused at the messages the episode portrayed, fearful that what was said in the show would apply to their own parents, that arguments would lead to divorce and their parents would stop loving them. Given the reaction, the producers of Sesame Street scrapped the episode and never broadcast it. In fact, Sesame Street waited 20 years to address the issue again, but did so in a limited, special-edition DVD.

Narissra Punyanunt-Carter
Narissra Punyanunt-Carter

When it comes to children and media portrayals of divorce, there really is little to go by. Not many television shows for young children have touched the subject, and the family dynamic in most programs shows the traditional, two-parent family. This is something Texas Tech University College of Media & Communication associate professor and assistant dean for international affairs Narissra Punyanunt-Carter noticed in her own household.

“I started wondering whether or not my kids were getting a negative message from their cartoons and that the media is not giving them a proper portrayal of divorce,” said Punyanunt-Carter, a divorced mother of two boys. “It goes back to professor Eric Rasmussen's work on how we talk with children and mediating media. With children, watching whatever it may be, and even teens, we need to make sure they are processing the information correctly.”

Punyanunt-Carter wanted to start in a different place than young children. She wanted to determine whether or not media portrayals of divorce are accurate, so she began with the most readily available survey group at Texas Tech – college students.

“We thought college students had consumed a lot of media to that point, and they are some of the heaviest users of media, whether it's television or Netflix or whatever they watch,” Punyanunt-Carter said. “So I thought that I would really like to focus on what they are seeing, then from there we can go backward and try to determine that, if this is what college students are seeing, are younger kids seeing the same thing?”

Media perceptions

Punyanunt-Carter, along with co-authors Jenna R. Shimkowski, an assistant professor, and Mary S. Norman, an assistant professor of practice, in the Department of Communication Studies, and Malinda J. Colwell, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development & Family Studies in the College of Human Sciences, surveyed 100 college students to gauge their views on media portrayal of divorce.

In that group, a third of the students had experienced the effects of divorce firsthand, whether with parents or siblings. Their perception of how divorce is portrayed in the media had a different foundation than those who had not.

Students were asked to indicate how they thought about divorce and the media. Those responses were analyzed by researchers to determine whether the media portrayed divorce accurately, whether it was in a positive or negative light.

“Those who saw the positives were seeing things like double benefits, such as getting presents from both sides for Christmas and all these wonderful things,” Punyanunt-Carter said. “But others had negative perceptions, seeing how it destroys a family and how kids are emotionally shattered. So we were seeing two completely drastic reactions.

“There were also a couple of people who saw both the positives and negatives. They saw it as beneficial, especially if you are getting out of a hostile relationship and into a situation that is more neutral and better for the children.”

Another aspect of media messaging with divorce that was examined was whether those surveyed thought the media portrayed divorce accurately. Again, these perceptions were influenced by personal experience, and the reactions both confirmed and rejected the messages on both sides.

“Some would say, ‘Yes, absolutely, my parents went through a divorce and what they are seeing in the media confirmed their perceptions,'” Punyanunt-Carter said. “Then some would say it wasn't accurate at all, saying ‘Look at the Kardashians. I didn't get a Porsche and my mom didn't get all these things.' So they see drastic differences.”

Punyanunt-Carter said having those different viewpoints of divorce in the open helps. What is portrayed in the media is what people are consuming, and what is being consumed is what is processed. So having an understanding of the reactions to what is being consumed and how it is processed is the first step toward making sure divorce is accurately portrayed in the media.

The surveys also revealed other results. Some revealed that parents got along better after a divorce, that co-parenting occurred and proved to be beneficial for both parents and children. The negative perceptions of divorce showed relationships were devastated by fracturing, and that was somewhat unrealistic, or that divorce was too common when many knew it not to be true.

Finally those surveyed were asked whether the media portrayals of divorce impacted their life. Punyanunt-Carter said about a third of those surveyed said it was very impactful, while others said it had no impact or had some to minimal impact on how they process relationships.

“That's really meaningful because it shows that the media does have an impact on our perceptions and on how we view relationships,” Punyanunt-Carter said. “If you're watching people get divorced all the time, you're going to be more cautious of your own relationships.”

Media's responsibilities

Over the course of television history, the dynamic of the family has certainly changed, from “The Donna Reed Show” and “Leave It to Beaver” in the 1950s to “Modern Family” and “This is Us” today.

Punyanunt-Carter is concerned the dynamic is changing more toward the negative, or at least one that children will struggle to understand.

“I think that is something we should be aware of,” Punyanunt-Carter said. “If you go back to the whole reason why we started this research, the cartoons, they are showing the typical family to kids as the dominant type of family when, in reality, we know there are a lot of single parents and single moms that don't get that positive portrayal in the media as much.”

For Punyanunt-Carter, this research is just getting started. There are several other aspects of media and family portrayal she wants to investigate, including the effect of social media on divorce, the family script and how divorce is discussed in the family, how the media influences parents' discussions of divorce and how the step-family is portrayed in the media.

Eventually, she wants to investigate media messaging of divorce with younger-aged children, beginning with teens and working down to young children. Because they are not only perceptive but can be easily influenced, that last aspect of looking into divorce and the media must be approached cautiously.

“Usually for young children, the media is typically monitored by parents, and they have an idea of what their children are watching,” Punyanunt-Carter said. “So we have to be very sensitive to what parents are going to let us ask. We have to ask questions that are more geared toward the media they are watching, because they are consuming it in completely different ways. We might need parents to help facilitate that.”