Challenging the Media’s Anti-Youth Bullying

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The American news media’s relentless crusade against young people is becoming crazier by the day. Networks incessantly replay years-old video of a minor scuffle among girls and sick “teens gone wild” tapes as news anchors deplore girls’ apocalyptic mayhem. Herd journalists moo cloned clichés and inflated numbers to blame youth for supposedly surging homicide rates from Sacramento to Chicago to Philadelphia, even as FBI figures show youth perpetrate just 6 percent of murders, a near-record low.

Reporters’ and editors’ twisted infatuation with “teenage sex” spurred a mindless media stampede to spin a Massachusetts “high school pregnancy pact” legend with tales of high-fiving conspirators, homeless impregnators and similar lurid fantasies. Networks impaneled breathless “experts” (seemingly chosen for clownish ignorance) to blame the school’s daycare center and movies like “Juno” for this nonexistent “pact.” Sleazy rumor mongering, indictment by anecdote, “epidemics” manufactured from rare cases, unwarranted generalizations and ugly stereotyping are routine features of news coverage of young people.

The news media’s obsession with teenagers has nothing to do with caring. Reporters ignored the 2006 Child Maltreatment report’s alarming finding that 80,000 teens (ages 12 to 17) were confirmed victims of violent or sexual abuse by their parents—one every seven minutes. Few news editors care about teens getting raped, beaten and shot at home … unless, of course, other teens are the assailants and there’s video. Meanwhile, reporters shamelessly hype trivial MySpace and Internet dangers to shill for profit-grabbing interests.

As a daily newspaper reporter for 10 years, I once harbored pro-journalist sympathies. But today, after fact-checking hundreds of stories, I’m shocked at the media’s wholesale abandonment of factual and ethical standards when reporting on youth.

I could fill pages shredding the crude, youth-hating trash gracing Time, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, Fox, USA Today, Newsweek, The Associated Press and other flagship outlets (see Their insatiable lust for superficial sensationalism and the self-interested exploiters who feed it are endangering young people, poisoning reasoned policy deliberation and fueling harsh crackdowns.

Youth Today’s “Press Watch” column should be a true media analysis and criticism feature highlighting rare quality journalism while dissecting larger media myths. Unfortunately, instead of exposing rampant media corruption and bullying, Youth Today’s “Press Watch” rewards reckless reporters by parroting their mendacities.

A typically terrible “Press Watch” regurgitation was May’s “Teen Dating Abuse on the Rise, Experts Say.” This secondhand brief uncritically cited fashion mogul Liz (“Hip, Sexy, Urban, Energetic”) Claiborne Inc., which peddles wildly exaggerated “teen dating abuse” surveys to market its jewelry, clothing and “Love Is Respect” curriculum.

Claiborne and its adoring media regularly trumpet “staggering” “epidemics” of scary young-teen “hooking up,” “sex,” “violence” and “horrors.” Reporters, of course, didn’t check Claiborne’s actual survey, which found that 98 percent of 11- to 14-year-olds never had a partner hit, hurt or violently threaten them, and that 96 percent had never gone “further than kissing or making out.”

To balloon these calming realities into screaming press panics, Claiborne grossly inflated the definition of “a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship” to include “sitting next to each other in school,” “admitting that he/she likes the other person” and “calling or texting each other regularly.” “Hooking up” included “flirting” and “holding hands.” “Having sex” meant having friends or peers who guessed others “my age” might be “going further than kissing and making out.” “Dating abuse” included partners who “made you feel bad or embarrassed about yourself,” “made you nervous about doing something he/she doesn’t like,” or “tried to tell you how to dress” – even once.

By these lunatic criteria, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher “hooked up” in an “abusive relationship.” Parents, teachers, coaches and spouses are “abusers.”

Predictably, reporters don’t mention authoritative reports from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics that find that intimate partner violence among teens is plummeting. Older teens’ risk of murder, sexual violence and assault from intimate partners is lower than for ages 20 to 24 and 25 to 34, and barely higher than for ages 35 to 49. Younger teens have the lowest risks of any age except the elderly.

Exploitative media splashes instigated by press-savvy interests like Liz Claiborne that slander teens as assailants, rapists, stalkers and sluts constitute abusive stereotyping. Every analysis of articles and broadcasts I’ve done and seen – by the Berkeley Media Studies Group, Youth Media Council, RAND Institute, etc. – reveals the news media’s hostility against young people.

Today’s press is worse than unreliable on youth issues; it’s reliably bogus. Until the news media adopt respectful ethics governing youth coverage, young people’s mass abandonment of major media is a healthy trend elders should emulate.