November 24, 2004

NEWS: Broadcast media: Screen stereotypes (UK)

By - 24/11/04
TV and radio shows have had mixed success at portraying young people fairly. Caspar van Vark looks at some programmes that are redressing the balance.

Those who keep an eye on the press will know that it rarely goes out of its way to champion young people. But you might think that among all the programmes on TV and radio, there would be lots of room for positive portrayals.

Not so, according to Iain Shaw, director of Media Education, an Edinburgh-based organisation that uses media projects to try to make positive changes in particular communities. "Young people are not fairly represented," he says. "But then, who is?"

Many young people are under few illusions about what programme-makers are interested in. Karen Sutherland, 17, a member of Media Education, says she has seen first-hand how images of young people can be manipulated.

"I saw a programme that had young people on it, and it was obvious they'd been drinking," she says. "But later it was discovered that the producers of the programme had bought the drinks."

Negative images

There was a recent uproar in Campbeltown, in Scotland, over a BBC2 documentary that portrayed the town's young people as bored, disillusioned and prone to alcohol abuse. The town's residents claim the film ignored all the positive sides of young people's lives, and a local youth group is now making a film to counter the documentary.

Ricky Evans, information worker at Kintyre Youth Enquiry Service, explains: "A group of young people here have done video training and are making a film called Campbeltown: The Real Story. It will show the positive aspects of being a young person in Campbeltown - safety, community spirit and all the things there are to do. We have a brass band made up primarily of people under 18 that has played in the Scottish Championships."

The film is expected to be ready before Christmas, and its makers hope it will be shown in the local cinema and distributed to statutory agencies.

It would be inaccurate to say broadcasters don't listen to their audience, or that young people are all unhappy with TV. Last spring, the National Children's Bureau (NCB) carried out a consultation with 100 young people in London and Omagh on behalf of the BBC to find out what they thought of the broadcaster's output. Lots of positive feedback came out of that, says Janine Shaw, head of participation at the NCB.

"A lot of young people can really relate to the young people they see in the media," she says. "The fictional characters they liked most had a balance between good and bad."

Some of the characters that met with approval were Malcolm and Stevie from Malcolm in the Middle. Stevie was seen as a role model because although he uses a wheelchair, he is seen to lead a normal life and has overcome bullying. And Sonia from EastEnders was seen as someone who had been through a lot but achieved her ambitions, and is not an unrealistic size-eight blonde.

"They could relate to a lot of characters, but often they thought they were too extreme," says Shaw. "It's the bully and the victim, and you don't get to see many like the majority of young people. It doesn't make good storylines."

Hold the front page

One significant piece of feedback in the NCB consultation was that young people wanted to see more positive news stories about young people. It is common for news items about young people to be about antisocial behaviour or teenage pregnancy rates. James Weeks, a producer at Sky News, says young people's issues are covered, but denies coverage is always negative.

"We cover young people's issues when they're strong enough to merit a place in the day's running order," he says. "We run 'good news' stories very frequently, but things that make news are very often bad things happening or bad people. Our portrayal of young people is no different from our portrayal of adults."

Young people themselves sometimes claim they aren't given a voice. "It's a shame, because I saw some young people on Newsnight who were perceived quite well," says Karen Sutherland. "Young people have lots to say but they aren't always listened to."

Weeks agrees that it's important to interview young people where relevant, but admits it isn't easy. "Relevant young people are very hard to find in a hurry," he says. "But we've built relationships with local schools, and we work with young journalists from Children's Express, who create material from their own perspective that gets broadcast alongside our material."

The BBC's Newsround also tries to give a voice to young people. It has a Press Pack: young reporters who are sent out to cover stories for the programme. There can be five in a week, and the scheme is going to be expanded in the New Year to allow young people to be editors for a day.

But the programme's remit is to broadcast to young people, says editor Ian Prince.

"The people that work here are professional journalists," he explains.

"It takes adults a while to get up to a level of expertise, and that's why Newsround is not made by young people."

BBC Scotland recently made an effort to give young people a voice with a programme called Teen Commandments.

It was a discussion programme hosted by former Big Brother winner Cameron Stout, and aired for five evenings in the first week of November.

"We're only talking to young people, so we're getting it straight from the horse's mouth," says Stout. "We're talking about things like pregnancy, drink and drugs, death, hopes for the future, family issues and school. Young people have a far better handle on their parents' thinking than their parents have on the young people's thinking."

You might think radio would be more accessible than TV. Student radio stations are common, and mainstream radio stations often have phone-ins.

No chance to talk

But Titus Lucas, who set up a radio station for young people in London called Issue FM, disagrees. "When young people call radio programmes, they are usually disregarded," he says. "If your point doesn't tally with the station's ethos, you don't get on."

Media Education in Edinburgh has run an annual Festival Radio project since 1994 that gives 30 young people aged 12 to 18 free access to Edinburgh Fringe shows and allows them to become reporters for a week. They're provided with training in interview techniques, recording equipment and audio editing to produce their own broadcasts, which are aired on radio stations throughout the UK.

Sheena MacDougall, Festival Radio project manager, says: "Festival Radio provides access to the festival for the young people involved, but also for their listeners. This year the broadcasts are being aired on Radio Lollipop, so children and young people in hospital get a flavour of the festival."

Rachel Jackson, 19, thinks radio gives young people more of a voice.

"On Kiss they have phone-ins on youth-related subjects," she says. "But on TV it's always things like young people committing crimes or having babies."

Iain Shaw from Media Education says young people jump at the chance to have views aired, but predicts a long struggle before they get a fair representation.

"Getting young people to present their ideas is not just a matter of placing them in front of the camera or microphone and pressing record," he says. "To get the true voice of young people on TV and radio needs a different approach." Young people, says Shaw, must be provided with the support and resources they need to communicate the ideas they want in the way they want. "Let's rethink what media is for and use it to create a powerful training and advocacy tool so that everyone, and young people in particular, can help create positive changes in their lives."


- Most young people are portrayed negatively. I'd like to see more young people getting praised for the good things they do. Rachel Jackson, 19

- Children's shows like Grange Hill portray children with a range of personalities and attributes. They depict young people in a more realistic way than some of the television soaps like EastEnders and Hollyoaks or the news, where young people are reduced to thugs and teenage mums. Tara Brown, 16

- Young people are usually so stereotyped on television. I definitely think that the news is worst. They never have any good things to say about young people, only bad. The soaps are more rounded. I like to watch Neighbours, Friends and Frasier, but I also watch the news. Sarah Hunter, 17

- Most of the coverage is negative and I don't think young people are taken seriously by adults. It would be interesting to have more programmes by young people because young people can be quite creative and they should have more opportunities to get involved in TV. Karen Sutherland, 17


- Seventy per cent of teenagers have a television in their bedroom. (Source: Alliance for Childhood)

- More than a quarter of 15-year-olds spend more than four hours watching television each day during the week. That rises to close to half at weekends. (Source: World Health Organisation)

- Nearly nine out of 10 people believe the Government should impose tougher restrictions on sexual images on children's TV and in children's magazines.

The poll of more than 1,000 in the BBC's Healthy Britain survey found 86 per cent wanted the Government to act over unsuitable images in television programmes and magazines aimed at children that might make them want to have sex at a younger age.

- Seventy per cent of young people, both able-bodied and disabled, feel attitudes towards disabled people would improve if there were more positive representations of them on TV. (Source: Whizz-Kidz).

Chris Schuepp
Young People's Media Network - Coordinator
c/o ecmc (European Centre for Media Competence)
Bergstrasse 8 / 10th floor
D-45770 Marl
Tel: +49 2365 502480
Mobile: +49 176 23107083
Fax: +49 12 125 125 21981
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