Over one quarter of the U.S. population is under the age of 18. But only 10% of all stories on local TV news are about youth or youth-related topics.
The representation of children in local broadcast news is crucial to the lives of children because 86% of adults watch it regularly and adults make most of the decisions about young people's lives. In fact, local news is also the primary source of information about youth for the two-thirds of American households who are not raising children.
Children Now, a youth media advocacy organization, released a study this fall called called "The Local Television News Media's Picture of Children" that breaks down the ways in which local news broadcasts across the country cover children and children's issues. The study counted and categorized the news segments about youth in the local broadcast media in six major American cities for an entire month in 2000. They found that the media not only under-represented children, but also "distorted the level of crime committed by and against children and rarely focused on public policy issues that affect them."
The study revealed that almost half of the local TV news stories about youth are about crime. Of these, 70% depicted children as victims and 11% depicted children as perpetrators. But, when it came to the depiction of young people of color, that trend was reversed. For instance, African-American males were at least two times more likely to be depicted as perpetrators than any other group. This group was depicted as perpetrators in 27% of crime stories, whereas 95% of white females in crime stories were depicted as victims.
The youth we spoke to were not surprised by these numbers. Eighteen-year old Dawn Dator of Los Angeles said that much of what she has been taught reinforces these stereotypes. "The media teaches us to be afraid of people of color," she said. "Young African-American men are shown as being heartless dangerous criminals or drug dealers.
Youth crime stories are often sensationalized on the front page of the paper, as in the case of last year's school shootings. The positive things kids do, on the other hand, are usually either buried in the middle or not covered at all.
According to U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Statistics, the violent juvenile crime offender rate dropped by more than 50% between 1993 and 1998, bringing it to the lowest level since the national victimization survey began in 1973. However, a 2000 Census poll revealed that nearly two thirds of adults believe that juvenile crime is on the rise.
The adults who believe that youth don't have a sense of right or wrong has increased from 46% in 1965 to 82% in 1998. The media is playing a large role in fostering this mis-conception. Rory Caygill, project director of the Youth Force Coalition in California says that the media's misrepresentation of youth as criminals has a huge impact on youth. After all, if a person has no sense of right and wrong, why put resources into supporting them? "It is much harder to get support for rehabilitation and prevention programs for young people," Says Caygill. "Instead the system operates on the mentality of 'do the crime, do the time.'"
The Local Television News Media's Picture of Children reports that in 81% of children's stories there was no connection between individual events (such as immediate health risks) and broader trends (such as lack of health care.) "This type of coverage" the study points out, "can lead to the perception of individuals being the cause of the problem, instead of placing public issues in a broader context." For example, although one in six children in the U.S. lives in poverty, only 0.9% of children's stories focused on poverty, welfare, or employment.
Some youth believe that avoiding the roots of the problems children face will prevent us from finding solutions. Scotten said that "Instead of just covering the crimes youth commit they should bring attention to why they are committing them." The focus on immediate risks paints a portrait of the "imperiled child" who is in constant danger of other children and of the broader environment. The "imperiled child" portrait takes center stage while the need for long-term solutions such as strengthening communities and providing children with positive and healthy opportunities for development is marginalized. Some of the evidence form the Children Now study also points to a striking shift that occurs when youth become teenager. Until then, they are often depicted as helpless and "imperiled," but once they get into high school they can suddenly be shown as criminals.
The study suggests that our nation needs local TV news to foster a healthier, more forward-thinking attitude towards children and children's issues. Increased coverage of public policy regarding children (which now comprises of less than 4% of all child-related stories) would encourage viewers to advocate for long-term solutions to children's problems such as increased access to health care and education. Sixteen-year-old Nydia Durazo said that she has seen some positive coverage of children's issues in her area. "Santa Ana has just been given millions of dollars to improve public facilities such as schools, so the news has focused a lot on after school programs and ambitious youth." High school Sophomore Bianca Poll of New York City wishes that the news would cover the children who have "pushed themselves out of the box in order to make a positive change in the world." She suggested that in order to get these stories on the air, youth should have more opportunities to intern in the mainstream media or to make their own media.
Youth are pointing out that if the mainstream media started talking to young people instead of being afraid of them, children would be covered more accurately. Currently, children spoke in only 17% of the stories that covered children's issues, while reporters spoke in 34% and other adults spoke in 49%.
What does the media have to say for themselves? Fox Channel Two admitted to Children Now that children often lose out "because they don't tend to hold press conferences."
They added: "News is generally being reduced to what is easy to cover rather than what is important."
In order to strengthen their voice, many youth around the country are uniting and forming organizations that advocate for young people and their issues. The Youth Force Coalition says that it is important that youth do some watchdogging. "Write letters and make phone calls to the television stations criticizing inaccuracies and demanding better coverage," they advise.
Elizabeth Miln-Kahn, 17, is an unschooler from Oakland, CA and a WireTap contributor and
Also from the WireTap Archive: The Violence with be Over-Televised, by Mairone Daniels