Transforming how the media portrays young people

By Sophia Burns

“The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” 

-Malcolm X

We all recognize how media influences our ideas about ourselves and the world and people around us. Media can be a powerful tool to understand and embrace people and places that are new to us; it also has the power to reinforce stereotypes and prejudices.  

In particular, words have the power to shape how the public views young people. That’s why it’s alarming that one in three articles about youth are focused on crime or antisocial behavior, according to a media study by Mori for Young People Now. What’s more, young people were only quoted in 8% of those stories.

As a result, words like "at-risk," "thug," and "vandals" are automatically associated with young people, particularly poor youth of color. These associations go beyond simple questions of representation—they have real consequences for young people’s livelihoods and ability to thrive individually and collectively. From the lack of job opportunities that pay a livable wage to discriminatory policies, practices, and treatment, youth experience the impacts of the stories being told about them in their everyday lives. 

It’s time to change that. This month, we’re kicking off our “We Are Not At-Risk” global campaign to demand an end to harmful narratives about youth in the media. The campaign was created by AFSC’s Youth in Action (YIA), a global network of youth leaders working together to strengthen their capacity to transform their respective communities. 

In 2018, YIA participants organized our first “We Are Not At-Risk” campaign to resist racism, colonialism, and imperialism by asking all people to rethink the way they talk about young people. This year’s campaign builds on that momentum, focusing on challenging the media to tell more well-rounded stories about youth.  

AFSC's Youth In Action, a global network of young leaders working together for change in their respective communities. 

Throughout history, narratives about groups of people have been used as tools for oppression—or liberation. One of the key tactics of colonialism is to control the narrative so that it benefits their interests. Colonialists use the power of narratives to create stories to dehumanize the people who they have colonized in order to justify and continue to extract land, perpetuate violence, and maintain power. 

From colonialism arises one of the most vicious methods of maintaining systemic power: racism. Racism places people in a fixed hierarchy created by Europeans to keep themselves on top and all others on the bottom based on false classifications. To keep power and control, colonialists needed to rid people of their cultures and histories. At the same time, they praised their own culture and history as “modern,” “right,” “beautiful,” and “civilized.” These narratives work in tandem to perpetuate and justify white supremacy, capitalism, and war.

At the same time, young people’s stories of heroes, legacies, and impact are intentionally left out and covered up. Stories of triumph, pride, and resistance are replaced by stories of delinquency and crime to reinforce social and cultural hierarchies. 

The media has continued to paint this negative picture of youth, especially poor youth of color, perpetuating histories of racism and colonialism. These narratives operate within institutions like schools and courtrooms and ultimately impact how young people and their communities are treated by the systems upheld by these institutions.

 At a time when media plays such a pronounced role in our lives, it is especially necessary to think deeply about the consequences of negative and biased representation. Communities have long known the impacts of being depicted as inherently violent, oversexualized, uneducated, and lazy, and have resisted the normalization of these representations. 

We also see the opportunities for systems-level change that exist in organizing around narrative change. Through our 2020 We Are Not At-Risk global campaign, we plan to seize these opportunities through local and global organizing efforts. 

There are 3 billion young people around the world. With that incredible number comes significant power to transform our realities. By creating platforms for young people to express their own narratives and holding those in positions of power accountable, we demand narratives that are humanistic, asset-based, and informed by youth’s diverse experiences. 

Today, youth storytellers are harnessing the power of art and collective action to start conversations with the media about who they are and the stories they want to tell. We are urging media outlets, journalists, and bloggers to take our pledge to pay attention to the way they describe young people in the media they create.