"With great power comes great responsibility."
Since Peter Parker's uncle Ben didn't know he was Spiderman at the time he said this, and Peter Parker is a photographer when sans spandex, I consider this quote completely relevant to the subject of this post, and not at all geeky. Oh no.
Misrepresenting someone or something is a big thing. It has potentially vast repercussions, a fact recognised by defamation law, and by the huge fees paid to advertising and PR companies by major brands and public figures. But not everyone has the money or expert advice to take these routes to controlling how they are represented by others.
If someone suggested publicly that all black people are criminals this would be denounced not only as racist but as illegal. A paper that made this claim would almost certainly close its doors within weeks of such a headline. Such broad misrepresentations with their socially destructive and divisive effects can slip through, however, when made more insidiously. A public media outlet may be restricted to specific accusations against specific individuals, but is open to select which stories to feature. By choosing to make every instance of a crime committed by a black person front page news, and ensuring that the rest of the paper excludes all stories that prominently feature black people, a paper could artificially create the impression of a reality in which the outrageous claim above is the case, without having to state it outright.
Obviously such an abhorrent approach by a paper would not go unnoticed or uncommented upon, and the only people who would swallow such poison would be those who already share those views. However, with that seemingly extreme and theoretical situation in mind, consider how the mainstream media represents young people. How often do articles in papers and websites refer to 'young people' and how often is it in relation to negative social issues such as crime and antisocial behaviour? It may not be something you have actively monitored, but start now and keep a tally of negative references to young people against positive ones, and assuming your media consumption is fairly mainstream I can guarantee the scales will soon be tipping on the side of 'young hooligans' and 'feral youth' even if such extreme language is avoided by the more left wing titles.
Young people are most commonly presented in media stories as symptoms of a decaying and increasingly dangerous and decadent society, or as vulnerable victims of crime and neglect. Yes, media outlets are inevitably predisposed to feature stories in which the protagonists are broadly polarised into wrongdoers and the wronged, but adults in such narratives are usually given a more three dimensional portrayal that includes some degree of context to their lives. Furthermore, the journalist, pundits, witnesses and even readers are present in the debate around media narratives in today's tweeting, sharing, blogging society. All adults, yet not lumped under the banner heading 'adults' or any other over simplifying label.
Choices of imagery can also be significant in reinforcing attitudes without the need to provide any supporting evidence for the subtle inference it makes. Consider The Evening Standard's choice of photo accompanying every article of its gangs series last month. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/frontline-london-day-1-the-gangs-of-london-8838696.html
The article is about gangs, but it is the picture that links that loaded word with all its connotations of violence and crime with the fairly common sight of young men in hoodies. Never mind that this is a style choice any young person would be entitled to make, and that gathering in groups is both a right and a necessity for young people meeting socially.
If a story warrants news coverage, and young people are particularly central to it, why on earth are the voices of young people not featured? At the moment any young person who is contributing positively to society or simply succeeding in their own projects is apparently almost invisible to the mainstream media. Involving young people as commentators would allow a more balanced view of the diverse attitudes, perspectives, experiences and demographics included under that 'catch-all' label.
Luckily, today we are not reliant on mainstream media for our sole insight into a story. If something is clearly inaccurate or one-sided there are comment threads, Twitter storms and Facebook reactions to show that other views and experiences exist. The newspaper headlines may take centre stage, but at least the audience is aware of heckling from the cheap seats, and can choose to turn their back on the stage and join the debate.
Over the last three years PhotoVoice's Lookout project has been encouraging young people to take the initiative and add their voices to such debate around issues that affect them. Check out the full 'multimedia manifesto' at http://bit.ly/lookoutmanifesto
Youth voices are out there - it just needs the media to use their power responsibly. To quote Brandon, a young person from Peckham who took part in a Lookout course: "There are good young people out there, you just have to look for them. Don't just look for the bad".
For full article visit http://www.photovoice.org/blog/article/lets-talk-with-young-people-not-about-them
© Swammie Prescott 2012 / Catch22 / PhotoVoice
"This photo expresses one of the main stereotypes for teens. Just because there's a group of boys around doesn't mean you should feel insecure, not everyone is a threat! Stay positive!!"
© Francessca Bennett 2013 / Nottingham Photographers' Hub / PhotoVoice
"If only problems could be burnt. I'd use a tank of gas and a lighter. It's a good feeling to burn them and blow away the ashes."
© Aaron Campbell 2012 / Catch22 / PhotoVoice
"There are a lot of people living in this block. People that like to go to work and have a normal life. The gangs on the block make it hard for us to live a normal life."
© Keyarn Nelson 2012 / Catch22 / PhotoVoice
"I am not a shadow, I am a human being."