Opinion: The plight of 'ordinary kids' in the media

Howard Williamson
Tuesday, July 13, 2004

I have often accused youth researchers of being too preoccupied with studying the spectacular, deviant and bizarre. This makes for interesting reading, but distorts the ways in which we understand young people. For we can easily be led into believing the majority are into "resistance through rituals" or "new social movements" or "alternative youth culture". In contrast, surveys routinely point to the modest and conventional aspirations of most young people. These are the "ordinary kids", who have only rarely been subject to attention in youth research.

The same accusation might be levelled at the media, and this was thrown into relief at a debate last week hosted by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce on the subject of young people and trust in the media. The panel of experts comprised journalists, youth experts and the PR guru Max Clifford. Inevitably, the focus leaned towards the demonisation of young people, such as The Sun's Shop-A-Yob campaign, and, to a lesser extent, those who have come to media attention for their extraordinary achievements. It was Martin Townsend, the editor of the Sunday Express, who raised the issue of the "ordinary kids". He admitted to not having a clue who they were. They were not newsworthy.

All contributors, in rather different ways, conceded that the portrayal of young people in the media was unbalanced. Some said the press had no interest in providing any balanced account, that its priority was to sell newspapers. So it was "natural" to focus on antisocial young people or bravery awards. The plea from The National Youth Agency's Tom Wylie that if the media was to concentrate on "irresponsible" youth, it should do so in a "responsible" way got sidelined. John Bird, of Big Issue fame, called for apprenticeships and a national social service provided by young people.

Sadly, Townsend's interest in the ordinary kids got lost in the rant. After all, they are neither heroes nor villains and are essentially uninteresting.

But they do comprise the vast majority of young people. And it occurred to me that it is not the irresponsible coverage by the media of "yob culture" per se that is the issue, but the implications for "ordinary kids" who get sucked into the moral panic. Precisely because the media, through neglecting to put its sensational reporting in context, creates the impression that its stories have general applicability, the lives of ordinary kids are made more difficult. As a result, their capacity to chug along on constructive pathways to adulthood becomes more limited. That is the real travesty arising from the usually negative, stereotyping so prevalent in the media.

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