News Distorts Youth, Reports Say

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Newspapers and radio and television stations vastly over-report crimes committed by people under 21, distorting the public's image of youth and helping to foster harsher juvenile justice policies, says a new report by the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the D.C.-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ).

"Despite sharp declines in youth crime, the public expresses great fear of its young people,'" says "Off Balance: Youth, Race & Crime in the News," released last month by Building Blocks for Youth - a multi-organizational initiative that promotes juvenile justice reform and is funded by foundations and the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The report says news coverage that focuses on violence associated with youth, while ignoring the context in which that violence occurs and ignoring violence against minorities, has helped to create public myths about youth. The study says nearly two-thirds of people responding to one recent poll felt that juvenile crime was increasing, even though violent crime by youth is at its lowest point in the 25-year history of the National Crime Victimization Survey.

The report says news coverage that focuses on violence associated with youth, while ignoring the context in which that violence occurs and ignoring violence against minorities, has helped to create public myths about youth.

Also, 71 percent of people responding to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll believed that a school shooting was likely in their community. In reality, there is a one in two million chance of being killed in a school shooting.

The report was based on a computerized search of criminal justice and communications databases on content analyses of crime news, augmented by studies that assessed the content of crime, race and/or youth in the news.

71 percent of people responding to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll believed that a school shooting was likely in their community.

"The substantial majority of content analyses available indicate that the media is, in fact, exaggerating crime by young people and people of color," charged co-author Vincent Schiraldi, president of the CJCJ. "The problem is a combination of profit-driven newsrooms, which thrive on blood and gore, and predominantly white-run newsrooms whose editors, producers and reporters will continue to respond with more shock when whites are killed than when people of color are killed."

It's not that the media are out to make kids look bad, journalists say. "The problem is that there has long been a disconnect between the big picture reality of crime in America and the small snapshot we see in the morning paper or on the evening news," said Keith Woods, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, in Florida. "The result is that crime has been portrayed as younger, browner, more urban and more pervasive than it really was."

Several demographic groups, particularly minorities, have long complained that the country's news coverage paints a distorted picture of them. Part of the problem is that news coverage tends to be driven by events (such as crime), while less newsworthy stories get less frequent coverage and less prominent play, and are remembered less by readers.

"Off Balance" is part of a trend to examine media coverage of youth. Last December two groups - We Interrupt This Message, a national media training and strategy center, and Youth Force, a South Bronx youth advocacy group - released a report in which youths studied the youth coverage of the New York Times for three months.

"The New York Times over-represented youth as perpetrators of crime and under-represented youth as victims of crime," the report said. "Just as if someone reads an article about a young person robbing a store and doesn't read that youth crime is declining, s/he will begin looking at all young people as potential criminals. And picture crime stories about youth (without context) being printed or broadcast every day, multiple times a day. That is how we are being negatively stereotyped."

"Despite sharp declines in youth crime, the public expresses great fear of its young people,'" says "Off Balance: Youth, Race & Crime in the News."

"Times editors met with the group and said later that the report was not "a serious study of how journalism is done."

"We're not in the business of judging whether a crime should be reported or not reported because someone thinks juvenile justice becomes too punitive," Times Metro Editor Jonathan Landman told the Village Voice. "I have a problem with the report. It's not a report by kids looking at the paper and drawing conclusions. They're used as fronts by adults with a particular advocacy stance."

Several demographic groups, particularly minorities, have long complained that the country's news coverage paints a distorted picture of them.

The impact on public policy is just what concerns youth advocates. Edward Overstreet, associate executive director of Boysville of Michigan, that state's largest private provider of services for delinquent youth, said youth rarely appear in the news unless it's in a negative light. "When youth, especially minority youth, are portrayed as super-predators in the news, society becomes scared of its youth and policymakers create more punitive policies for youth offenders," he said. The media are not going to stop reporting youth crime; the debate is largely about context. "Generally speaking, the media give us the who, what, when and where of youth violence, but little about the important 'why' that can help us make sense of it,' Schiraldi said. "More context - what role did guns, alcohol abuse, access to weapons, child abuse play in an incident - would help the public and policy makers better understand the antecedents to youth violence and come up with more informed solutions."

The report says the news media should expand sources beyond police and the courts, bolster enterprise and investigative journalism, and conduct frequent audits of news content that can be shared with readers and viewers.

As for those who want to influence media coverage of youth, the report recommends: working with the media to give a more balanced picture of youth crime; initiating discussions with the local media about their coverage; making local youth-related data available; preparing young people to speak for themselves, then giving them the opportunity to do so; and being available to the media as an expert source.

For a copy of the report, call the CJCJ at (202) 737-7270, or visit www.buildingblocksforyouth.org.

-Jack Kresnak