Media's Message To Children Is, `You're the Problem'

TEN-YEAR-OLD Shauntia Graham, a fifth-grader in Oakland, Calif., has a message for media executives: Your coverage of children is too negative.

Referring to grim news stories that repeatedly show young people as both the victims and perpetrators of crime, he says, ``I don't always want to see kids shot over drugs. I want to see kids accomplishing something.''

Another Oakland student, 13-year-old Shaunna Ray, agrees. Reporters and camera crews, she says, ``make it seem like everybody in the slums is shooting. They saturate the news with too much of what they find interesting.''

Shauntia and Shaunna's comments, made during a conference on children and the news media at Stanford University last week, echo the sentiments of other children across the country. In a national poll commissioned by Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy group, 60 percent of 11-to-16-year-olds said that news coverage of young people usually involves drugs, violence, or crime. Half said they feel angry, afraid, or depressed after watching the news. And 70 percent, tired of so much negative news, said they wanted more positive stories.

An accompanying study of five metropolitan newspapers and three TV networks, also released at the conference, concluded that news coverage of children is not balanced and that little emphasis is placed on solutions.

The study, the first of its kind, was conducted by Dale Kunkel, associate professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It found that 48 percent of television stories about children and 40 percent of newspaper articles about them were related to crime and violence.

In addition, the study noted that the emphasis placed on reports of crime ``may diminish the public's perception of the relative importance of other child-related concerns.''

That may be one reason why economic issues related to children -

child poverty, child care, and welfare - rank as the most neglected area of coverage. They account for just 4 percent of all newspaper and television news stories about children.

Child advocates attending the conference, sponsored by Children Now, warn that these negative media images contribute to a sense of hopelessness among young people. Children's behavior, they say, often reflects their self-image.

``If children don't see themselves as dead, arrested, hurt, or hunted, they see themselves as problems,'' explains Angela Glover Blackwell, executive director of the Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland-based public policy organization.

John Wright, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas and founder of the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children, puts it even more strongly when he says, ``In epidemiological terms, violence on television is a public-health risk to children.''

How can the media balance coverage showing young people on stretchers and in handcuffs with stories about National Merit Scholars and children engaged in constructive activities?

``Change comes from the top and bottom,'' says Jay Suber, a vice president of news-feature programs at CNN. At the top, he explains, ``visionaries in the industry'' must rethink their approach. At the bottom, viewers must make their opinions known.

``If you don't like what you see, call the station,'' Mr. Suber says, adding that stations take such complaints very seriously.

Ms. Blackwell sums up the task: ``We have to take responsibility for children. That translates into making it clear that we value them. We must acknowledge the humanity of children. We need to begin to tell a different story. We need to tell a heroic story.''

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