Matthew Cormack - Jul 1, 2020

The Portrayal of Youth in The Media: Political Youth x The Factual

In June 2020, The Factual collaborated with UK social media platform Political Youth to do a cross-country comparison of Gen Z news habits. This article is written by Matthew Cormack, founder of Political Youth, as he reflects on his experiences as a Gen Z activist and news consumer. 

Negative stereotypes about youth perpetuated by the media can have severe and lasting impacts on their lives and future prospects. Media coverage of youth issues is rare, and even then, often inaccurate. This is creating a problem even more serious than purely one of misrepresentation: it is creating a problem of ignorance.

With that being said, misrepresentation remains an issue in the coverage youth do receive, with partial or biased reporting casting them in an unjustly negative light more often than not. In the UK at least, mainstream thought devoted to the portrayal of youth is rare. Back in 2004, the BBC and The Guardian both ran lengthy articles based on the findings of Market and Opinion Research International (MORI), now of Ipsos-MORI, the benchmark for polling and surveys in the UK. MORI researched the main daily national newspapers and a number of the biggest regional titles, and the findings were damning. Perhaps the most shocking was this key statistic: only 15% of articles took a neutral tone. 

The Guardian summarized the data as the following: 

Newspaper articles about youth, by newspaper type and tone

 

Tabloid

Broadsheet

Local

Negative

82

50

71

Neutral

8

36

9

Positive

11

15

20

% of 603 articles in 17 titles August 2 to 8 2004

As such, the issue of negative stereotypes for past coverage is clear. Since then, the only other study into this problem to receive national press coverage is a 10-year study by Desmos.  The sole mainstream article covering the study, published by the BBC, confirmed these stereotypes persist. It found that between 2004 and 2014, the words most commonly associated with "teenagers," "youth," and "young people" were "binge-drinking," "yobs," and "crime."

That so little thought has been put into something so clearly unresolved also poses a problem in itself. In theory, it likely means one of two things: either the negative coverage continues, or coverage as a whole has become even more inconspicuous. Both, to an extent, are true across the entire political spectrum.

Climate Strikes

In the past decade, with the exceptions of Greta Thunberg and perhaps Malala Yousafzai, there has been sparse coverage of the substance of major youth issues. For this article, we will take a closer look at the key issue Thunberg is fighting against: climate change. Student climate strikes are now a global phenomenon. There are commonly two facets to the reporting of these stories: (1) the number and overall quality of articles, and (2)  the specific content of the articles themselves.

In fairness, most news outlets did cover the September 2019 strikes regardless of their political leaning. However, the issue did not stay in the spotlight for particularly long: the news cycle moved on in a matter of hours and further articles in the following weeks are difficult to find - with the notable exception of Breitbart, who later ran an article about how a truck driver was slightly delayed due to the marches.

factual articles, gen z

To determine the credibility of these articles, we used IsThisCredible.com, a tool provided by The Factual. This tool rates articles based on four criteria: source diversity, objective tone, author expertise, and site expertise. Anything that is rated over 75% is deemed credible. To find out each article's rating, we simply had to paste the URL into their search engine.

Tackling the specific content of the articles, a pattern is fairly clear across the board. Across major news sites, the credibility of reporting on the climate strikes was low. So what was missing from the climate strike narrative? 

While news articles focused on  “students skipping school” (and invariably a quick debate or question as to whether that is justified), a couple of photos of signs, and that the march was for climate change, the articles were almost invariably prescriptive. Even the most reliable news outlets, such as the BBC, mention only the rallying cry that Trump must re-sign the Paris Accord.

In fact, across the top articles of the 10 mainstream news outlets put into IsThisCredible.com, there is no mention of a carbon tax, a single mention of halting fracking by the Guardian, no mention of instating nationwide renewable energy standards, and no mention of increased investment in renewable science — Faris Rajak Kotahatuhaha’s experimental attempt to raise the freezing point of Arctic water is a perfect example of what should be receiving more coverage, so discussions can be had over what projects deserve investment. After all, many of them are quite feasible solutions young people are pushing to deal with one of the most pressing issues of our time. Such ventures and ideas should not be consigned to the occasional letter in editorial, they need to be given real thought and discussion. The crux of the matter is news outlets across the board support style over substance, preferring a quick story as opposed to an in-depth explanation and analysis. Given there are so few articles on the issue in the first place, the lack of depth or substance is even more dangerous: neglecting the root of the issue now will only lead to greater problems in the future.

When solutions are being offered, it is important to listen or at the very least acknowledge them. Perpetuating the notion that youth are uninformed creates a vicious cycle of ignorance, for youth get wrongly branded and therefore ignored, while older generations continue to ignore innovative ideas.

Wider Prevalence 

This systemic problem applies throughout the media and on a whole range of different issues, not just climate change. There seems to be an inability to accept that young people often have well-founded concerns. Take Ann Coulter, a right-wing Fox News commentator, who called immigrant children “child actors”. Similar rhetoric targeting youth’s actions as emotional has been repeatedly used against survivors of school shootings. Tucker Carlson perhaps demonstrates this derision of youth best following the Parkland massacre, arguing “if they’re too young to buy guns, why should they be making my gun laws?”

Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, retorts “if kids are old enough to be shot, they’re old enough to have an opinion about being shot”. However, the Left is also guilty of misrepresenting the youth and far too often ignoring young people’s arguments and concerns. The debate over whether youth should be “bunking off” is all too frequently prioritized over the issue itself, whether that be the March for Our Lives or Fridays For Future. Bi-partisan political ventures fare little better, with institutions such as the UK Youth Parliament nothing more than token gestures.

Implications

The inaccurate portrayal of youth is not some isolated issue, and has implications across fields. Misrepresenting or ignoring thought through arguments on man-made climate change can and will have serious ramifications on wide-held public opinion and therefore policy. Social outlooks and views are also shaped, which can harm job prospects for the younger generation: the decade-long Desmos study also found that 80% of 14-17 year olds thought that negative portrayal harmed their job prospects. Dangerous negative stereotypes can be formed - none are more readily formed in the UK than in the reporting of knife crime, from which racial discrimination can arise all too easily as a result. How and where policing occurs, which areas people feel unsafe in, what is taught in schools, and even government policy on immigration can all be shaped by how knife crime amongst youths is reported. It’s important we get that information right and report the story fairly, rather than focusing on feeding a particular narrative or selling a few more copies.

How young people are portrayed in the media affects all facets of life, and the effects of how this portrayal pervades throughout society will continue to have effect for decades to come. If nothing else, this article should have opened your eyes to be more critical about the news you read about young people and the issues they care about. Given you are reading The Factual, it is clear you are already wary of what sources you get your news from, and the accuracy of certain outlets, journalists and articles. As well as understanding the credibility of news sources, it remains paramount to also consider what isn’t being said and what issues are not receiving coverage. As we try to navigate an uncertain future, critical personal thinking is more important than ever.

Where To Go

There is no easy solution. However, awareness of the negative stereotypes of youth in the media can help readers balance out coverage with what they likely observe day-to-day. Youth today, like previous generations, are much more complex than painted by the media.

Indeed, appreciating complexity in any topic will help readers be less quick to jump to conclusions. Tools like The Factual and Is this Credible? can help ensure you read credible news, on both sides of the political spectrum, and reach more balanced conclusions on the news today.

However, The Factual’s algorithm can only do so much: it cannot create articles out of thin air. It is impossible to have a discussion about a topic that no one is talking about. 

Social media is proving a somewhat effective counterbalance, although disinformation can spread like wildfire, so it is important to double-check any claims made on there. Two pages we can recommend are:

Written by Matthew Cormack

Matthew Cormack is the founder of Political Youth, a UK-based social media platform.

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