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Young People & The Media

Dawn Butler MP leads Youth Participation Seminar at Westminster

The media’s portrayal of young people came under attack at a Commons chamber-style event for school kids in Westminster last week.

Condemning the press for its insatiable appetite for consistent negative representations on issues including underage sex, anti-social behaviour and bullying was a recurring theme.

Young people called for an annual day of positive images in the press plus the notion of becoming their own authors were flagged by young people as the big ideas to challenge this issue.

A Mori report highlighted this issue back in 2006  in addition to the British Youth Council (BYC) and Youthnet exploring this subject in depth through a campaign named ‘Respect’ launched in 2006.

The packed chamber of sixty one youths from school councils in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland resembled a similar youth parliament debate late last year the only difference being that this one was chaired by students themselves unlike our current Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow who took the lead last year.

During the debate, one student expressed that ‘We live in a sick community where all messages are negative, we are so used to seeing negativity and how events are amplified to fuel the negativity in that issue’.

Another comment during the debate by a student described the press as confusing commenting that ‘they compare outside Brixton tube with Kingston in Jamaica, this is what the media do, when I wear a shirt and tie I am respected, when I wear a hoodie in a car I’m a gang banger’.

98% of young people feel that the media always, often or sometimes represents them as anti-social. More than 80% feel they are represented by the media as a group to be feared. Almost nine in ten young people are bothered by the way they are represented by the media and 80% believe the way they are portrayed leads to older people respecting them less are just some of the findings in the report published in 2006 titled ‘The Voice Behind The Hood‘.

Although the work of Youthnet and BYC is to be commended, it is clear that something is not working given the overwhelming view of the debate was that negative portrayals remain rife in the British print media.

The notion of an annual positive image day was welcomed but, how affective will one day be to address such an imbalance and, to what extent will that combat this fear based perception? How to get the big players in the print/media world to embrace this idea is of course central to this becoming reality.

Becoming journalists themselves to create their own stories was another idea supported during the debate. Live East and Live South were both hailed as good magazines written by and for young people challenging these very issues. However, given that they don’t have the clout of the press chiefs, the concern of finding a wider solution on this issue will remain a big challenge.

The relationship between what is being reported and the influence it has on members of society and policy makers is one which requires debunking however, we do already see the links with people more generally accepting that any moral panic associated with a story does influence people’s perception which in turn fuels public fear.

This fear then informs policy makers and politicians to legislate, the anti-social law and respect agenda is a prime example of this given that this law allow curfews to be imposed and it gives the police to break up groups of young people if their presence is perceived as threatening (even if they are waiting for a bus). However, the question of whether the press image of young people being partly to blame for this law remains a contentious one.

One of the final comments made in yesterday’s debate during its conclusion was that ‘It’s not what the media reports, but how it reports it.’ This comment again points toward the moral panic tone attached to such negative reporting which tends to give those messages more weight than is actually warranted.

The responsibility factor for reporting in this particular manner remains an issue for editors all over the UK publishing world and does beg the question of whether reporters/journalists are trained to tackle this issue whilst writing any story on any issue.

Following the debate I asked Youth Minister Dawn Butler whether the annual positive image press day was to be a pledge in this years Labour party manifesto to which she replied ‘I’d love it, I need to speak to Ed Balls the education minister to see about that’. Given that the Labour Party recently included the lowering of the voting age to 16yr olds in their manifesto, perhaps there is time for them and other parties to consider seriously the voices of the youth of today.

By Tara Ram

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