The managing editor ... on youth
representations in media
We feel we treat young people respectfully, but with fewer young people in newsrooms, it is hard to know if we have it right
When Chris Elliott wrote about ageism in this space four weeks ago, he asked whether there was a creeping trend in the Guardian towards language that is pejorative of elderly people. The column sparked a lively debate, but I was particularly on the look out for views about age in the lower numbers. Did readers have any concerns about representations of young people?
I was especially interested as I had recently taken part in a conference at Bath Spa University on children and the media. Discussion focused substantially on how to protect children online, but also considered how young people are portrayed in the press. Appeals for journalists to think differently ranged from the specific — the Anti-Bullying Alliance asked the media to avoid labelling kids who bully as "bullies", because it demonises the child rather than the behaviour — to the overarching.
The Youth Media Agency is leading a campaign, which claims the support of 105 groups, calling on the editors' code of practice committee — the body responsible for the code enforced by the PCC — to add age to clause 12 on discrimination. Currently, the clause says the press must avoid pejorative reference to an individual's "race, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or any physical or mental illness or disability". (The Guardian's editorial code like the editors' code it incorporates, has other clauses to protect children, and our online community standards guidelines prohibit attacks based on a person's age, but this would be new.) The YMA campaign also seeks a new clause: "Journalists should exercise a duty of care and avoid negative generalisations about children and young people."
According to the YMA's submission to the Leveson inquiry, 79% of young people they surveyed in 2011 were frustrated by how they are depicted. At a time when prospects for the younger generation can seem bleak — not least Neets reaching a million — it is unsurprising if concerns over unjust stereotyping are amplified. Vigilance over language and stereotypes is, of course, only half the equation that equals fairness. The other half is inclusion. A Guardian news editor, who recently gave a talk to schoolchildren from a disadvantaged area, says: "The one strong thing that came out of it from them was they thought they were either in the news for something bad (crime, drugs, etc) or something good (sports or exam results), but that for the vast majority of them, they are never written about." He thought this was "very true, but very much the nature of news".
Given the ubiquity of news today – TV, radio, papers, web and mobile devices – it is likely this is where many young people see their generation most reflected. But news, however told, has never been the perfect mirror of society or any group within it. The vast majority of life that ticks over nicely is not the story. Feature and specialist sections, as our news editor noted, are where we give a much broader view.
In fact, the Guardian receives very few complaints over coverage of young people. So I was interested that a reader with the username BoneIdleStudent (no code should bar self-pejoration) posted a comment below Chris's column saying we "utterly disregarded" their views. Although his comment pre-dated the launch of our new community-focused Guardian Students site, I still can't agree with this bad report.
From our "by kids, for kids" children's book site, to the 16- to 25-year-old entrepreneurs who re-imagined the future of business in our Work section, or the panel from Brixton-based Live magazine who responded to Ed Miliband's youth unemployment speech and regular features in sections such as Education and Family, I hope we're both asking and listening. But I am aware that, 25 years out of education, I don't see with a young person's eye.
On that point, it could be a piece in itself on how newsrooms are not as young as they were. Financial and technological turmoil in the industry has greatly reduced job opportunities for young journalists, particularly in the regional press. The evening paper on which my own dad started as a 16-year-old "cub reporter" — a term hardly heard these days — became a Thursday-only paper just last week. As traditional doors close, we must keep finding new doors to open to young voices.
3 June 2012