America’s News Media: A Cesspool of Anti-Youth Misinformation

America’s News Media: A Cesspool of Anti-Youth Misinformation

January 5, 2008

When I started analyzing media stories on young people 15 years ago, and recently posting these analyses on the new YouthFacts, I expected media criticism to be an ongoing feature of this website. After a year at this, continued review of news stories seems increasingly pointless.

Every media story on youth is mindlessly, numbingly the same. There’s no sense of news editor or reporter initiative, responsibility, professionalism, fairness, interest in accuracy, or even avoiding the most primitive insanity and hostile exploitation. YouthFacts’ fact-checking of media stories reveals a repeated series of identical falsehoods recycled over and over.

This week’s People Magazine exploitative spread on “teen pregnancy” (1/14/08),  ION Television’s pure-junk “Binge” feature (1/05/08), CBS News’ interest-dictated “teen sex” report (1/6/08) that all hyped distortions while evading every important issue, and continued media fiction on “teens and drugs,” “underage drinking,” “youth violence,” “teen suicide,” “teen sex,” the formulaic litany of myths recycled over and over, all purport to be “news,” “shocking,” “the latest truth.” They are none of these.

These stories repeat the same reports done 15, 10, five, four, three, and two years ago, and one year and six months and three months and six weeks ago, in cloned redundancy. They rely for “facts” on self-interested sources that gain publicity and bucks from milking lurid, fabricated fears of youth. They ignore all social issues such as poverty and family abuses that crucially affect youth behavior. They butcher science, make up statistics, generalize from rare events, bully teens, and sensationalize cultural trivia. They allow adults, led by the blatantly non-objective reporter, to smugly moralize while evading discussion of any issue that might trouble their middle-aged viewers and sponsors.

Far right to mainstream to leftist “alternative” media, reports on youth are all the same. There is no “alternative” media on youth. America’s news media reflect an aging culture that has gone beyond fear of its young people to anger, hostility, and now to outright efforts to harm young people. The privatized nature of American social policy today has reduced young people to a mere commodity whose image is manipulable through gut-grabbing advertising-style images and endless repetition to profit an array of politician, psychiatric, counseling, addiction treatment, drug-war, drug-reform, police, private security, prison, criminal justice reform, sexuality, abstinence, behavior modification, and similar lobbies—and, especially, today’s ratings-hungry news media.

The image of young people you see and read about in the news is utterly false, constructed from the needs of interest groups, the need to cover up increasingly disturbing behaviors among middle-aged adults, and the out-of-control fears of an aging America terrified of the racial diversity today’s young represent. The rigid rulesby which the news media fictionalizes young people, present in virtually every story, are as follows:

  1. Every youth (under age 25) problem must be presented as worse than ever, occurring at younger ages, and hardly present in innocent generations of past eras always depicted as pure, innocent, and perfect. These claims virtually always are completely fabricated.
  2. The only time a youth problem can be depicted as improving is when a favored interest group is positioned to grab credit. Rarely does any media report present solid evidence as to either the trend or who deserves credit.
  3. Under no circumstances can even the wildest, moonward claim affirming how bad young people are today be fact-checked. The worst behavior or attitude by a teen that can be found or fantasized must be depicted as that of all teens. Likewise , any calming statements—and, of course, any statements by teens that appear to contradict the experts—must be instantly refuted, ideally in condescending tones.
  4. Adults age 30 and older must always be presented as wise, healthy, and innocently unaware of teens’ terrible, hidden wrongdoings (with one exception, see 6 below). Facts that contradict this image, no matter how compelling, are not permitted.
  5. Social conditions may not be cited as the cause of youth behavior. Absolutely taboo are references to poverty, family abuses, parental addiction or mental troubles, or misbehaviors of adults in the community. When, by necessity, these may creep into a story, they must be minimized. Under NO circumstances may media reports advocate redistribution of wealth and other resources to reduce youth poverty; nor may curbs on adult pleasures be advocated.
  6. The only permissible causes of youth troubles are (a) popular culture images such as violence, sex, or advertising in the media, (b) internet and other technologies allowing unsupervised peer interactions and youthful connections to the larger world, (c) teenagers’ flawed brains, (c) peer pressure, and—the one exception to exonerating adults—(e) any parent or other adult who allows teenagers to behave in an adult fashion rather than imposing stern, juvenilizing discipline.
  7. Reporters must express exasperated moralistic positions of outrage against teens’ behaviors and openly support crackdowns and corrections. A report by one media outlet must faithfully copy previous reports by other outlets. No skepticism, independent research, or original takes are permitted. The only debate allowed is between established interest groups as to their own pet solutions to youth problems.
  8. The overriding rule: all reports on youth must flatter an aging audience, allowing ample opportunity for grownup expressions of self-righteousness, self-interest, self-indulgence, and self-flattery, no matter how baseless.

There’s little point in continuing to refute every story with the same evidence, since they’re all the same. Believe nothing you see in the media on children, teenagers, or young adults until you’ve fact-checked every statement, in which case you’ll find the opposite of the story’s claims is more likely to be accurate. I’d much appreciate communication from anyone whose investigations either confirm or cast doubt on my statements.