Last year at about this time, The Wall Street Journal ran a small item on its second front page about a woman in public relations who was curious to know just how do the media judge news. The article appeared on the bottom left-hand corner, in that two-column space that is devoted to quirky stories.
The woman was handling PR for a foundation of some kind. It had money to give to people working on projects that were aligned with the foundation’s cause. Lots of money, as I recall. The problem was she couldn’t get anyone to write about it.
In the article, the Journal reporter said the woman had approached the newspaper wondering why stories about the seamy side of life make their way into the media with such apparent ease, while a story that has something useful to convey gets ignored. The reporter then noted, with self-directed irony, that the story was only being written about now because of the provocative question that the woman had raised.
The media truly would have difficulty in accounting for the way they cover the news. Decisions on newsworthiness seem to be made by an uncritical, collective will, with very few journalists ever straying too far from where the pack has decided to feed. This applies as much to what gets covered as to how.
And nowhere are the media’s attempts at objectivity more dubious than in the way the media cover news about kids.
The point is made with guileless eloquence in this issue’s ‘The Way Kids Are’ column, written by Fernando J. Muñiz, co-chairman of the National Youth Network. Fernando begins his reflection with a simple, though fairly typical, incident. One evening, while watching the news, he was struck by an item on a kid who was arrested for bringing a handgun to school. The story went on and on about how horrible this was, including interviews with parents, other students and social workers.
Fernando observes: ‘That’s an awful lot of press coverage for one kid! But what about the young people who didn’t bring a gun to school that day? Where’s the coverage on them?’
Part of the answer is that news, by definition, focuses on the negative. News is about what goes wrong, about promises unfulfilled. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to read about all the safe landings that occurred in an airport.
However, the big difference between the coverage devoted to adults and news related to kids is that adults find plenty of outlets for their success stories. The business pages, the sports and entertainment magazines are filled with them.
And why are kids not there?
‘Well,’ Fernando writes,’when you’re 15 years old and you go to school, have a part-time job, your parents are on your case about your chores and you’re trying to save the world, it’s hard to take time out of your busy schedule to write press releases.’
The Annenberg Public Policy Center, a prominent Washington, D.C., think tank, published a study last year that found coverage of kids entertainment is virtually neglected by the national news media. A follow-up roundtable discussion involving entertainment journalists concluded that kids entertainment news is perceived as less important than adult news. The story went basically uncovered.
The net effect is serious.
Says Fernando: ‘Everything we hear about young people lately is negative. It’s no wonder that a recent study of the Ad Council showed that two-thirds of adults have a negative view of teens, even though a Louis Harris Poll of youth documented that nine out of 10 teens would be willing to get involved in activities that prevent crime. A study by Independent Sector found that six out of 10 young people already volunteer-a larger proportion than adults.’
Kids deserve better.