Suffer the little children. A report published last week, titled Introducing Generation Citizen, said that four-fifths of 14- to 17-year-olds feel that their age group is unfairly represented in the media. Of the 1,000 youngsters polled by the think-tank Demos, 85 per cent believe that negative portrayals are affecting their chances of getting a job.
This is not a new refrain. Several years ago, during my time at the Press Complaints Commission, I attended a meeting with members of the UK Youth Parliament to discuss media stereotypes. One young man was having none of our pussyfooting and demanded “direct action”, which seemed to amount to him having a column in the Indy or The Times (he wasn’t fussy which, as I remember).
To an extent, it’s hard to disagree with the precept that young people are often portrayed as lazy, troublesome, illiterate, yobbish and addicted to a variety of drugs, computer games and porn.
The Independent has a pretty good record of avoiding such simplistic notions. But, in any event, the idea that the media demonise young people is based on a fallacious understanding of the nature of news.
News is fundamentally about things which are out of the ordinary: wars, court hearings, cat-walk fashion, government hypocrisy, Premier League football. If young people are all perceived as lazy guttersnipes as the result of media coverage then, by the same token: all Ukrainians are violent revolutionaries; all ministers are liars; those with any fashion sense are wearing monstrous hats, hot pants and nothing else; anyone kicking a ball earns £300k a week; and journalists, of course, are the worst type of ne’er-do-well.
Media stereotyping can have a negative impact. There is, therefore, an ethical imperative to avoid simplistic interpretations of events. But it is too easy to conclude that the media dictate what people think. As with most stereotypes, while there is a grain of truth in that, it is by no means the complete picture.
Spelling things out isn’t always the right option
The recent death of a baby in south Wales, killed by the family’s dog, was unsurprisingly picked up by national news outlets. Some reports of the tragedy focused on what the child’s mother had apparently said to a neighbour: that the dog had eaten part of the baby. The detail, which was set out more specifically than I have done here, was genuinely shocking and The Sun’s decision to include the devastated mother’s words in its front-page headline is said to have resulted in copies being removed from local newsagents.
Other papers, including this one, reported the same detail, albeit with less prominence. Even so, I remain far from convinced that it was necessary or appropriate.
An unhelpful judicial comment
Many who believe in the importance of a free press will have been disappointed by the court decision last week that the use of terrorism laws to detain David Miranda, the partner and assistant of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was legitimate.
Yet perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the case was that Lord Justice Laws had found much of the evidence provided by Messrs Miranda and Greenwald “unhelpful” and that, in his view, “evidence for the claimant simply does not engage with the defendants’ testimony as to the substance of the threat posed by the theft of the security material and its possession by the claimant”.
Whatever your views on the verdict, that criticism of Miranda and Greenwald is stark. At a time when journalism’s reputation is at an all-time low, judicial disapproval doesn’t help.