Today the media portrayal of young people as a “problem” is widespread, but it is certainly not new. The demonisation of young people in Britain dates back at least to the 18th century, and tends to rise and fall in accord with broader changes and tensions in society.
In the post-Second World War era there was a rogues gallery of “delinquents”, from teddy boys, mods, rockers and skinheads through to punks, crusties and ravers.
However, while particular sub-cultures might have been labelled as “deviant” by the media (and by other custodians of official morality), they were also clearly seen as minorities – as sub-cultures.
The 1980s brought the dismantling of the welfare state, substantial deindustrialisation and the opening up of British society to global market forces.
As a result, being a young person has become increasingly risky, and the responsibilities for negotiating those risks have shifted away from collective provision and become highly individualised.
At the same time, the sense of threat around media representations of young people has become less and less restricted to sub-cultures, and increasingly prevalent across the category of “youth” itself.
Perhaps for the first time young people in general are becoming identified as “folk devils” – figures who come to be seen as threats to the values and interests of “civilised” society.
While legislation by the Tory government in the 1980s enshrined a more punitive attitude towards young people, the early 1990s saw a shift in the framing of young people in news media – notably the linking of youth and crime.
The tragic murder of the toddler James Bulger by two ten year old boys in 1993 marked a defining moment in translating the emerging attitudes towards young people in the news media.
It is clear that the idea of young people as a threat to law and order strongly intersects with class. It is not the sons and daughters of the middle class snorting cocaine in the back of taxi cabs who are being invoked as a threat, but the young working class.
The broader ideological role such representations play is to make the population fearful of specific groups, and more fearful of crime in general. This in turn allows the state to increase its powers as a “necessary” response to these mortal threats.
Predictably these threats are overblown. The 2006 British Crime Survey, which found that violent crime has fallen by 43 percent since 1995, has also conducted research into crime reporting in the media.
It found that readers of tabloid newspapers were more likely to think crime was rising than readers of broadsheets – a reflection of the high quantity and low quality of the coverage about crime in the tabloids.
The survey also found that perceptions of crime locally – where people could factor in their everyday experiences – were more in line with the statistical realities of falling crime than when people thought about the national picture.
In other words, the more that their thinking about crime was shaped by the media and the less it depended on experience, the more their fears of crime grew out of proportion.
But there is another side to this misrepresentation.
While being conjured up as “folk devils” to be feared at one end of the spectrum, young people are also key figures in the marketing, advertising and mass media business generally.
As celebrities of one sort or another, images of young people are key drivers helping to sell and fuel the consumerism of contemporary capitalism.
Broadcasters might like to think that their news agenda is different from the tabloid press. But although the tone is less hysterical, it is no more informed or informative.
I have been working with a team of researchers at Brunel university looking at how young people are portrayed on television news.
Our analysis covered 2,130 news items across all the main television channels during May 2006.
We found 286 stories in which young people were the main subject of the news item. Twenty eight percent of these stories focused on young celebrities such as footballers Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott.
This mirrored the wider role that young people play in commercial culture.
The overwhelming majority of the rest of the stories, 82 percent, focused on young people as either perpetrators or victims of crime.
Violent crime made up 90 percent of these crime related stories.
Across the entire sample violent crime figured in 304 cases. And in 42 percent of these, offenders or suspects were young people.
Yet while looming large in the popular imagination as threats
to people and property, young people themselves have little voice in news world.
Young people accounted for only 1 percent of all the sources for interviews and opinions that were on offer over the sample.
Predictably, crime was the major topic on which they were asked to speak.
These results show that even television news – our most public service orientated source of information and knowledge – is in effect turning young people into non-citizens to be feared.
This is not an argument for “good news” stories about young people, although that could do little harm.
This is about the one dimensional picture of young people’s lives which the media and news offers to us.
Where are the stories about how young people are affected by problems in housing, education, health, unemployment, parental abuse, politics and so forth? And where are even the most banal indicators in the coverage of crime that point beyond the individual person or event?
This encourages fear and condemnation rather than any understanding or criticism of some of the major political and economic institutions that are responsible for the tearing the social fabric apart.
The crisis around young people will only get worse if the quality of public debate does not get better.
Mike Wayne is a reader in film and TV studies at Brunel university
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