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OPEN A NEWSPAPER, watch television news, or tune in to the latest whinge about 'kids today' from Ray Martin or John Laws, and it becomes obvious that the Australian news media has serious problems with your people, This is more a product of institutional bias produced by the conventions of news-making than the personal vendettas of individual journalists, but nevertheless news and current affairs contructs young people as, at best, 'the next major demographic wave' (1) and, at worst, 'the downfall of the Western world'. (2) Young people have a complex and 'multifaceted' relationship with the media: they are simultaneously consumers, producers and objects of media discourse. The media's representation of youth culture is a significant issue for young people and those working with them, because these representations play an important role in shaping how society understands youth and in determining the policies that impact upon them. (3)
Despite being an obvious concern for anyone who interacts with young people, sustained contemporary analysis of how young Australians are stereotyped by the news media is rare. Judith Bessant's and Richard Hil's, Youth Crime and the Media (4) and Mark Davis's Gangland (5) are exceptions; however, youth culture is constantly evolving. While many of the frameworks that journalists use to describe and analyse young people are as old as newspapers themselves, the increasingly subtle and complex methods used to frame youth in the news media, and the ideological implications of these, need to be addressed. This article explores how young people and youth culture are constructed by the news media in the early twenty-first century. It explores how young people's ambiguous and marginal social positioning manifests itself in journalistic discourse, both in Australia and internationally, and discusses contemporary trends in this coverage. One of the most disturbing signs in the news media's treatment of young people is the increasingly negative coverage this group of citizens receives and the potential impact this has, not only on the way older generations view youth, but on how young people view themselves.
Youth, the news media and binarism
Youth is a 'loaded', (6) 'scandalous' or 'dirty' (7) cultural category because it defies clear-cut binary oppositions, occupying an ambiguous space between 'childhood' and 'adulthood'. (8) Indeed, the notion of the teenager transgresses several 'of the most general, naturalised, and common-sense' social categories. (9) Youth signifies a period of adjustment from child to adult roles, transition from emotional dependence to independence, from puberty to sexual maturity and from childhood irresponsibility to the responsibility of adulthood. (10)
It is ironic, then, that Hartley (11) and Hebdige (12) argue that the news media works to construct young people and youth culture through the binary oppositions of 'problem' and 'fun'. This argument is supported by a 1992 study from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), which examined young people's representation in the NSW print media. (13) This study--which despite its age, remains a benchmark for understanding how the news media portray young people in this country--found:
* The news media represet young people in a limited and negative fashion, emphasizing their problems;
* Linguistic bias in reports about young people produces negative connotations around the word 'youth' (e.g. 'youth gangs);
* Young people's achievements are frequently patronized, trivialized or ignored, while their sporting achievement are over-emphasized. (14)
The binaries of 'problem' and 'fun' in which young people 'are portrayed either as over-the-edge violent sociopaths or vulgar brainless pleasure seekers, (15) influence how young people are understood in the community. They sell an image of youth in which some young people are constructed as inherently 'evil', 'abnormal' and 'dangerous' and others are constructed as inherently 'good' and 'normal'. (16)
Youth as 'problem'
Young people's profile in the news media is overwhelmingly negative' (17) and young people are most likely to appear in the news when their 'presence is a problem, or is regarded as a problem'. (18) This claim is supported by content analysis conducted in Australia, (19) New Zealand (20) and the US. (21) For audiences, these stories operate metonymically, …