While it is true that the news coverage of the epic health care debate in the Supreme Court represents one of the most important news stories in recent years, one story with implications for the future of the American republic, a potentially bigger news story, went largely ignored.

The traditional American family continues to break.

That's a key takeaway from a quadrennial study by the National Center for Health Statistics recently released. It was a large-scale study of more than 20,000 people. News coverage of the report was spotty and uneven at best.

Among the study's findings:

• A full 38 percent of women under age 44 have never been married.

• Less than one in three men in that age group are in a first marriage.

• Only about 50 percent of first marriages are surviving 20 years.

• The rate of cohabitation — living together before marriage — is growing rapidly. In 2002, about 9 percent of men were cohabiting. Today, that figure has grown to more than 12 percent — a 33 percent increase. (Evidently, about 60 percent now say they cohabit before marrying.)

• It is one third as likely that men are cohabiting as it is that they are in their first marriage.

• More than 50 percent of black or African American women under age 44 have never married.

• Education makes a big difference. While one in five women without a high school diploma live unmarried with a man, only about one in 20 with advanced degrees do. For men, those without a high school diploma are cohabitating at a rate of about one in four.

• U.S.-born Hispanic or Latino men are about half as likely as their foreign-born counterparts to be married.

• Religiousity and education also correlate with longer-lasting marriages.

• Cohabitation before marriage still correlates with a marriage more likely to end in divorce, especially among those not engaged. But those statistical differences seem to be narrowing as more people live in cohabitation.

It all paints a picture of the nation's most important institution facing continued assault and great peril. It suggests that the value of chastity continues to fade.

And without marriage, poverty and other problems rise among children. The foundation of the nation is cracking.

To be sure, this report received some important coverage in the news media. And, rigorous, useful analysis by intelligent people is also available.

But many important news organizations missed the news entirely.

Who missed it? If my Lexis-Nexis and Google searchs were accurate, only two major national newspapers wrote about it and only two smaller wire services covered it.

To be sure, these news organizations haven't ignored the story of the changing American family — as in a fascinating New York Times report on the troubling rise of out-of-wedlock births among women under 30. More than 50 percent of births to women under 30 now are outside of marriage.

Furthermore, we must be grateful to careful government researchers who spend their time writing these remarkable, extensive reports.

But there needs to be a greater focus on family issues by the national press. Here's why:

One of the most important insights that has emerged in recent decades from the study of the news media is that as the frequency of stories about certain issues rise, so does the public's perception of the importance of those issues.

Put another way, when you ask people what the most important issues are facing the county, they choose issues that correlate with how frequently issues are in the press. So, as news focuses on, say, the economy, so do voters.

And as voters focus on issues, so, naturally, do politicians. Things, therefore, get done.

Hence, the lack of coverage of these family issues by the mainstream press makes it less likely that people will talk about them and, therefore, less likely that any pressure will come to make policy change.

Are their useful governmental solutions to help address this crisis? Probably. Yet, these proposals have a hard time gaining traction amid low national attention.

10 comments on this story

What is the most important issue facing this county today? Obamacare? The economy? Possibly. Here's one vote that the declining norm of marriage may be the biggest threat to our long-term survival as a nation.

I, for one, think this issue needs more serious, focused, consistent and thoughtful attention by the nation's mainstream press. The coverage of this milestone study needed far more attention than it received.

The crisis of the American family is real and may be the most important issue in America today even if the press neglects it.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.