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Media and Youth

Theres a number of ways to look at the topic of media and youth. All depend on whose viewpoint you are looking at the topic fromthe advertisers, the broadcasters, the researchers, or the youth themselves.

Advertisers see youth as a potential target. They recognize how valuable youth are. Unfortunately, they value youth not for their ideas, but for their disposable income. To access this income, they begin marketing to youth very early on. This corporate brainwashing often begins in early childhood where approximately 90% of the ads shown during childrens programmes promote food and drink products. The advertisers know that this early marketing will increase a persons familiarity with a product, and increase the likelihood that they will buy it later on.

Media broadcasters often see youth as a threat. Far too often, the media portrays young people in a negative light. Constantly focusing on youth crimes, particularly those crimes committed by minority men, creates the false impression that youth crime is rising, and that all minority men are criminals. Not only is this a completely false, racist and ageist stereotype, it also detracts from all the youth who are well adjusted, intelligent and accomplished.

Researchers often see youth as victims. They argue that exposure to the media has led to obesity, smoking, under age drinking, increased sexual activity, aggression, violence, and other criminal behaviour. They stress that youth need to be protected from the big bad media because its harming them. However, no clear link between the media and these behaviours in youth has ever been clearly established.

Many youth argue that they dont need to be protected. Many believe that they should have access to all information, without it being censored by the obscenity and indecency laws theoretically meant to protect them. While allowing youth, or anyone, access to censored material like hard core pornography is highly debatable, it does suggest that perhaps we should start listening to youth, and their thoughts about the media.

Youth are becoming media savvy activists and forming organizations like The Critical Resistance Youth Force, and Youth Force, to ensure their voices get heard. After years of being seen as a target audience, a stereotype, and as victims, youth are now empowering themselves to ensure that their views get noticed. Frankly, its about time we dropped our misconceptions about youth and listened to what they have to say.


Cases Study

By Nell Geiser

Making Trouble

Youth storm the media

Whether it's the New York Times, CBS or Seventeen magazine, teenagers are often criminalized, consumerized or erased in the media. But through activism in social justice movements and by claiming space for their own voices, young people across the country today are demanding a different kind of attention.

Growing up in a media-saturated world, youth activists have learned that spectacle, direct action and creativity can generate news coverage. Media savvy youth are applying this knowledge and getting results.

In 2000, California's Proposition 21 catalyzed Bay Area youth activists. The juvenile justice measure, backed by former Gov. Pete Wilson, has meant the further criminalization of youth of color, who suffer the brunt of anti-gang ordinances and laws that punish nonviolent drug offenses with stiff penalties. To get the measure on the ballot and eventually passed by a large margin, some of Wilson's corporate pals, such as Hilton Hotels, Chevron and Pacifica Gas and Electric, poured money into the Prop 21 campaign.

In response, energetic youth activists--members of groups like Youth United for Community Action, C-Beyond from Concord and the Third Eye Movement--formed a coalition of 40 youth-driven organizations called Critical Resistance Youth Force. They organized demonstrations, called "storming the funders," outside Hilton and PG&E offices throughout the area. Although mainstream media had been hesitant to cover the coalition's extensive educational campaigns, California news outlets responded when a few hundred kids outside corporate headquarters convinced Hilton to withdraw their support for Prop 21.

In Massachusetts, a statewide network of youth activists used a strategic appeal to the media when they mobilized to take on that state's high-stakes standardized test, known as MCAS. Taking a cue from Vietnam draft resisters, high school juniors from the Student Coalition for Alternatives to the MCAS (SCAM) symbolically burned their test score cards. Youth of color from inner-city Boston and more privileged white youth from the suburbs stood together over a trash can in the midst of a New England winter, demanding an end to the use of the MCAS as a graduation requirement. It?s hard for media to ignore such a well-organized and articulate group of young people--especially when they're burning state-issued documents.

Escaping the box

Even with successes like these, youth activists have realized the limitations inherent in mainstream media. Exploited as consumers and framed as criminals, teens are stuck in a media-constructed box.

According to Donnell Alexander and Aliza Dichter, authors of the Media Channel's Marketing to Kids guide, corporations like Nike, the Gap and Sprite spend over $2 billion per year advertising to kids. MTV, the quintessential youth media outlet, is a thinly veiled delivery mechanism to bring that lucrative demographic to advertisers. Today, the advertising blitz targets ever-younger "markets"; studies have shown that toy manufacturers and fast-food giants are designing ad campaigns for three-year-olds.

Advertisers and the media that serve them have a vested interest in making sure kids feel that their main social role is participating in consumer culture. Youth rarely find themselves mirrored in the media as engaged, active citizens.

Young activists who are finding out how to use the media in service of their causes are also limited by the prevailing picture of youth as super predators and gangsters. Across the board, media have contributed to a perception that most crimes are committed by youth (Fair's Extra!, 1-2/99). That, in turn, has led to harsh laws like Proposition 21 and zero-tolerance policies in schools and communities across the country. "Part of the problem," says Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute, "[is] the public's misperception that youth crime is increasing when it's really falling--even as kids behave better, we treat them worse."

Youth Force, a South Bronx-based high school group, decided to challenge this picture and provide a vision of how authentic coverage of youth might look. It teamed up with We Interrupt This Message, a national media training and strategy center, to conduct a study of the New York Times' coverage of youth crime.

Between the Lines: How the New York Times Frames Youth, the resulting report, found that the newspaper casts youth as violent perpetrators: In 54 percent of articles involving youth and crime over a three-month period in the Times, youth were portrayed primarily as perpetrators, and in 44 percent they were victims. In reality, in 1996, youth are victims of violent crime 12.5 times more often than they are perpetrators.

The carefully conducted study also documented differential coverage based on race. For example, white youth were quoted five times in their own defense, while the voices of youth of color who perpetrated crimes were never included in an article.

As youth of color, directly affected by misrepresentation of youth crime, the student authors of Between the Lines wanted to see a more balanced portrayal of youth victims and perpetrators, a larger analysis of causes and trends, and the addition of youth voices, now noticeably absent in stories about youth crime. The Metro Editor and Deputy Metro Editor of the Times agreed to meet with members of Youth Force, but gave the authors of the study a chilly reception--refusing even to shake their hands--and would not accept most of their criticisms or recommendations. At least, the teens noted, a group of youth media activists was able to put the New York Times editorial staff on the defensive.

Do it yourself

These and other youth media critics are finding ways to tell the mainstream media what needs to change. But when teens take media into their own hands, their voices are clear, undistorted--and low-budget. An explosion in zines (do-it-yourself publications) and youth-driven media of all kinds is a key piece of the youth movement nationally.

Broadsheets and underground papers have been around as long as rebellious youth. In the 1960s, projects like Liberation News Service and Underground Press Syndicate disseminated anti-war news and influenced the discourse of the New Left. Youth Liberation sent out tri-weekly packets of news and graphics to high school papers--both official and underground--catapulting high-school journalism beyond proms and student councils into radical politics.

Today, underground and grassroots media are thriving among high school activists. In Louisville, Kentucky, an entirely youth-produced zine called BRAT has repeatedly taken on both adult authority and youth apathy. Their motto, "Because your school paper sucks," sums up BRAT?s attitude toward mainstream media in general. Fundamentally a youth rights paper, BRAT came out of a campaign to end excessive youth curfews in Louisville. Since then, it has expanded into a glossy, 32-page quarterly with a circulation in the thousands that examines everything from the Zapatista model of governance to welfare reform.

In San Francisco, a bimonthly newspaper called Youth Outlook (YO!) puts out themed issues on topics like "Suburban Rage" and young temp workers in Silicon Valley. Supported by the Pacific News Service and staffed by teenage and early-twenties journalists, the paper is a vibrant example of articulate youth voices speaking outside the mainstream media.

In the April/May 2001 issue of YO!, "The Beat Within"--a regular back page devoted to the voices of youth in the juvenile justice system--featured urban youth commenting on suburban school shootings. One person wrote, "Street violence is about people trying to fit in... High school shootings are about kids who never did fit in," while another insisted, "I still think school is still safer than any other place you can be, except the airport." Unfortunately, mainstream news sources do not look to these analysts when they seek responses to school violence.

Other youth activist organizations self-publish zines to get the word out about their cause. From the Youth Education Life Line (YELL), an AIDS and safe sex education group in New York City, to the Youth Advisory Board of the Center for Commercial Free Public Education in Oakland, teens slap together good-looking zines to distribute in schools and throughout the community. These publications include manifestos, articles about fights with authoritarian administrations, poetry, political cartoons and graffiti. With the technology available to gather information and do slick layout, self-publishing is in its heyday. The on-line zine scene is also important, with underground newspaper web-rings and an ever increasing number of websites, such as and, devoted to anti-corporate youth culture and reporting.

Youth media activism is gaining steam, and it is clear that when young people become the media, their organizing is ever more powerful. As Dante Motes, a Bronx high school student who works at Youth Force, points out, "Instead of young people wanting to fight or just hanging out, they should be down and make a voice for themselves. If they don't, then who's going to be talking for us?"

Nell Geiser is a senior in high school in Boulder, Colorado. She is editing a book of interviews called Making Trouble: Voices From the Youth Activist Front. She can be reached at






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