It shouldn’t take an earthquake

9 September 2010

Written by: Ryan Dunn

In the wake of the Christchurch earthquake, 2700 of the city’s students are on the streets helping out their neighbours.  The students have organized themselves into groups of volunteers via the facebook page Student Volunteer Base for Earthquake Clean Up and are knocking on doors to offer a hand with clean-up efforts.

It’s a nice story at a time when many New Zealanders’ lives have been turned upside down. But what exactly makes it newsworthy?

Let’s face it, it’s not often you open a newspaper and read a cheerful story about ‘the youth of today’. People born between 1977 and 1992, the so-called Gen-Y, are far more likely to be photographed with a beer bottle in hand and a screaming headline. At best they’re lazy, materialistic and hated by bosses; at worst they’re drunk, violent and ‘out of control’.

Why are younger people portrayed so negatively? And since when did ‘young people’ become a different tribe to ‘humans’?

These questions were on the minds of presenters at ‘Big Ideas: Young people and the media’: a session at last week’s New News 2010 conference.  Authors Emily Maguire and James West, and editor of The Monthly Ben Naparstek, spoke about the portrayal of young people in news stories and their own experiences of being viewed as a ‘young person’ by fellow journalists.

Emily Maguire is particularly familiar with the ‘sameness and repetition’ in stories about young people.  She’s concerned by the stereotypes of young women promoted in the media and the fact they seem to only ever be portrayed as ‘ruined’ or the ones doing the ‘ruining’. This dichotomy features heavily in Maguire’s work and forms the focus of Your Skirt’s Too Short, a young adult version of her book Princesses and Pornstars.

Maguire spoke of the mass media’s tendency to ‘pigeon hole and recycle’ news stories about young people, portraying them as somehow different to the rest of the population: ‘a strange tribe’.

She’s not alone in this observation. Mark Davis in his 1997 book Gangland: Cultural elites and the new generationalism observed a ‘general culture of demonization and neglect ‘which haunts young people in their relationships with governmental authorities and the media. Davis points to the media flurry around ‘youth gangs’ as a particular example of a moral panic that constructed young people as ‘outsiders’.

So what happens when these ‘outsiders’ try to get on the ‘inside’? Can a young person break through the seemingly hostile walls of media organizations and make their name as a writer or journalist?

‘Yes’ is the short answer from Maguire, West and Naparstek, but don’t expect the pigeon-holing and discrimination to end once you’re ‘in’.

When James West published his first book Beijing Blur at age 26, he was invited onto Phillips Adams’ Late Night Live where he found himself constantly referred to as the ’12 year old’.  It’s a small example of the skepticism a young journalist or author may encounter yet this attitude is far from uncommon.

When Ben Naparstek was appointed editor of The Monthly in May 2009, a chorus of disapproval rang throughout the publishing world. A lot of the remarks came off the back of previous staffing upheavals at The Monthly so any new editor would have likely attracted commentary. What’s notable about this instance was the focus on Ben’s age. The Monthly was described as ‘the only magazine of ideas in the world edited by the work experience kid’ by Jonathan Green on Crikey – a comment which has stayed with Naparstek.

After his appointment, Naparstek also did an interview with Caroline Overington where she enquired about his VCE results. Naparstek visibly cringed as he recalled ‘naively’ emailing Overington his results and then seeing himself described as ‘young enough to still spruik his high school results, sending The Australian the highlights to support his appointment to The Monthly editorship’.

It’s this type of hostility that Mark Davis refers to when he says ‘Younger people lack control over how they appear in the media; they are represented but aren’t allowed to represent themselves’.

Still, there are benefits to being young, ambitious and willing to put yourself out there. All three panelists were keen to emphasise that young people should not be deterred from entering the cultural establishment. West urged young people to ‘buck the sense that Gen Y are lazy and materialistic’ and pointed to Steph Bow, the 16 year old author of Girl Saves Boy, as an excellent example of a young writer making a success of herself.

West believes there’s even an advantage to being seen as ‘the token Gen Y person’: you can be called on to provide ‘expert’ opinion on issues affecting young people.

As someone frequently in this situation, Maguire warns there’s also a danger in being the ‘go-to’ person when someone wants to write an article on youth: you can easily find yourself ‘speaking for rather than to’ young people. Maguire acknowledges that she’s ‘young to maybe the baby-boomers’ but also ten years older than the young women she’s writing about and therefore not a substitute for their voices.

Maguire offers a simple way of cutting through the stereotypes and hyperbole surrounding young people: go and talk to them. It may sound obvious yet this conversation between the ‘strange tribe’, media and the rest of the population is distinctly lacking.

If young people are to be engaged rather than scrutinized, demonised and labeled as ‘different’ then a simple ‘hello’ seems a good starting point.

Why wait for an earthquake to start the conversation when we could begin it right now?

Sarah Green is a Master of Global Communications student and a member of the upstart editorial team.