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Images of Youth
Media Representations of Young Australians
Any minority group is bound to have its own image, and its own problems. The difficulties faced by ethnic, racial, and religious minorities are well-known, but there is another group that is equally disadvantaged, but that is really even considered among the minority population. Across Australia, young people -- in particular secondary school students -- constitute a distinct minority group that is frequently maligned and exploited. Media accounts give little thought to smearing all children as irresponsible, drug-ridden, delinquents. Few media outlets bother also to consider the ways in which youthful employees are exploited through overwork, low pay, and substandard job conditions. Yet this special minority group is one of Australia's largest. Its members belong to every other racial, ethnic, and religious group. Its members are the future of us all. When will the media begin to honestly explore the real predicament of today's young people?
The charge that young people are too violent, too impulsive, and too irresponsible is an old one. The image of the juvenile delinquent goes back many decades. But until relatively recently, the delinquent was portrayed as but a small subset of the entire young population. Beginning to some extent in the 1950's, and taking firm hold in the 1960's, a particularly unfavorable picture of the whole of the next generation began to appear all over the industrialized world:
Resulting media images of juvenile delinquency, fuelled by growing youth sub- and counter-cultures such as Mods, Rockers, Teddy Boys and Skinheads in the United Kingdom, Hippies in the United States and Bodgies and Widgies in Australia, portrayed young people as a 'troublesome and ... problem category' [Emphasis added]. These images were provided by the period's music and films, perhaps best exemplified by James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, as well as by news media coverage.
Rebellion and immorality became characteristics associated par excellence with "troubled" teens. The continued existence of this viewpoint can be seen in today's newspapers, and on contemporary television and cinema screens. The title of a recent article in The Courier Mail gives a clue to the pervasiveness of this attitude -- "Fun is not what it used to be." (Marchant, 7 May 2005)
Sophie Marchant's article outlines the repressive measure taken by the City of Brisbane in regard to recent incidents of youth crime. In typical fashion, established authority reacts to the appalling behavior of a few by restricting the many. From now on, clubbers and potential clubbers in Brisbane will neither be permitted to enter or exit night spots after 3 AM. (Marchant, 7 May 2005) Such measures are symptomatic of what has come to be termed, the "High Risk Society":
In the high-risk society, youth are increasingly exposed to victimizing environments, where they may be physically, sexually, or emotionally injured by family members, caregivers, boyfriends, institutional agents, or life-denying features of the culture, such as beauty myths, widespread child pornography, and homophobia.
The growth of the High-Risk Society is accompanied by a belief that government must interfere in many aspects of normal, everyday life. Tough restrictions on the movements, pastimes, and even the hours, of teenagers are deemed not merely necessary, but essential for the safety of all.
Individual freedom is disappearing under the weight of increasingly frequent "scares." The background to such "interventions" is inevitably a considerable stock of outlandish stories that appear in all forms of the media. Strictly speaking, these stories are not untrue, but they are generally "played up," or even "overplayed." A story is splashed all over the pages of a major newspaper, and the public becomes convinced that what is, in reality, a fairly unusual occurrence is, in fact, widespread, and a threat to everyone. Rupert Murdoch has been one of the greatest proponents of this kind of journalism:
As sensational as possible without offending the political or moral sensibilities of the "common man." .. known the world over as Murdochian journalism -- the exaggerated story filled with invented quotes; the rewriting of cryptic laconic news-service wire copy into lavishly sensationalized yarns; the eye-shattering unusually ungrammatical, irrelevant, and gratuitously blood-curdling headline ( "Leper Rapes Virgin, Gives Birth to Monster Baby."
Given the use of such techniques, it is not at all surprising that much of the public has been lulled -- or entertained -- into believing that modern society is coming apart at the seems. "Government Urged to Appeal Teen's Sentence" trumpets the alarming case of a young man killed by a drunken teen -- the teen's friend then stole the victim's sneakers. (Leggatt, No Date) It is this second outrage that is the main theme of the piece. The thief was sentenced to one year's probation, a judgment Government is urged to appeal. Presumably, a much severer penalty is believed warranted, else other teens will begin knocking adults over the head so frequently that every Australian over the of age of twenty-one will require a construction helmet in order to step outside.
It is an oft-repeated them. During a recent election in New South Wales,
Once again the major parties intoned the election mantra of 'more police, more powers, more prisons'. We heard about ... zero tolerance policing, about grid sentencing, about the naming and shaming of juvenile offenders and there was much more tough talk on addressing alleged terror in the streets.
To listen to politicians, one would think absolutely anarchy had descended over our city streets. However, they do not create the concept -- they merely fan the flames. Unsupervised juveniles are viewed as the source of greater evils to come. Despite much emphasis on the importance of a "good education," and the moral uplifting of today's youth, the media continues to attack us with stories of the utter failure of all social measures. Notable successful in pushing the "zero tolerance" agenda, has been talk radio, a potently reactive sector of the modern media.
Angry citizens talk in real-time, their fiery discussions fueled by accommodatingly incendiary radio show hosts:
The power of talkback radio to mobilise the public was graphically illustrated in Perth in 1991 when announcer Howard Sattler, then of station 6PR, organised the so-called 'Rally for Justice.' Around 30-000 people attended the rally at Parliament House to pressure the government for harsher juvenile sentences ... The campaign was successful and in February 1992 the state Labor government implemented the harshest juvenile crime laws in the country
Scream something loud enough, and often enough, and people are certain to believe you. Leniency toward juvenile criminals may or may not be contributing to an increase a juvenile crime. A leniency problem may not even exist. What matters only is that the public believes the problem exists.
Nevertheless, today's media moguls know that violence and crime are not the only attributes of unregulated youth. As alluded to earlier, a young person may as easily be the exploited as the exploiter. Tens, and maybe hundreds, of thousands of Australian teens work at part-time jobs. They earn a little bit of money; not much, but enough to pay for their own entertainments and wants, and enough to help alleviate some of the burden on their parents. These teenagers are also an abundant source of cheap and pliant labor. Being new to the world of work, and largely unskilled, teens, on the whole, command only the lowest wages. As well, their inexperience makes them more amenable than adults to the untoward demands of their employers. Simply put, they do not have the work experience to realize that they are being exploited, or do not possess the clout to fight back against that very exploitation. Here once again, a certain attitude is put forth:
Children are relatively less significant demographically both because of the continuing trend for families to have at most two children but also because of the ageing population as elderly people live longer. However while children are an increasingly scarce resource in society, society does not appear to value them accordingly in the way it distributes income to families with children.
The media would appear to concur. "Low Pay, Long Hours: Kids Only Need Apply," was the alarming title given to an article that appeared in the Courier Mail. (Sweetman, 6 May 2005) The article is an example of a clever sensationalizing media technique -- the eyewitness account. It should come as no surprise to the reader to discover that Mr. Sweetman is himself a parent of teenaged children. Like any good eyewitness, he has firsthand -- well actually, secondhand -- experience of the problem of juvenile labor exploitation. Terry Sweetman regales us with horror stories of children forced to do work that "was beyond the capacity of adult full-time employees." (Sweetman, 6 May 2005) Children laboring under these Dickensian conditions are also compelled to pay useless union dues, and to work extremely long shifts, late hours, and so on. Surely such conditions must exist? Some "children" are being abused by their employers? After all, they are only kids ... A fine observation and…[continue]
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