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«Drawing on several ethnographies with youth participants, I identified and critiqued three frames that help to comprise the mainstream media’s ...»

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Frame Work: Helping Youth Counter Their

Misrepresentations in Media

Deirdre M. Kelly

Drawing on several ethnographies with youth participants, I identified and critiqued

three frames that help to comprise the mainstream media’s larger framework of

troubled and troubling youth: inner city youth as “gang bangers”; teen mothers as

“children having children” and “welfare bums”; and girls as fashion obsessed and

impressionable. I considered the relationship between news coverage of youth and educational programs and curriculum and explored the possibilities and limits of various strategies aimed at producing and circulating diverse youth self representations in the mainstream and alternative media, including involving youth as co researchers.

Key words: youth cultural studies, high school, participatory democracy En puisant dans plusieurs études ethnographiques faisant appel à la participation de jeunes, l’auteure fait l’analyse critique de trois volets qui aident à comprendre le cadre

plus vaste utilisé par les médias grand public relativement aux jeunes en difficulté :

les jeunes des quartiers défavorisés ou les membres des « gangs de rue », les mères adolescentes décrites comme « des enfants qui ont des enfants » et des bénéficiaires de l’aide sociale ainsi que les jeunes filles vues comme des obsédées de la mode et des personnes impressionnables. L’auteure étudie le lien entre la représentation des jeunes dans les médias et les programmes d’éducation tout en explorant les possibilités et les limites de quelques stratégies visant à favoriser la création et la diffusion de diverses autoreprésentations des jeunes dans les médias grand public et alternatifs, y compris celles associant les jeunes aux processus de définition et d’opérationalisation des recherches.

Mots clés : études culturelles sur les jeunes, école secondaire, démocratie participative.


CANADIAN JOURNAL OF EDUCATION 29, 1 (2006): 27 48 28 DEIRDRE M. KELLY For 15 years, my ethnographic research has spotlighted the perspectives and experiences of youth, many of whom have been marginalized by the practices of traditional schooling. In each of my major research studies, I have been struck again and again by the role that mainstream media have played in helping to construct these groups of youth as deviant or problematic within society. The youth groups include early school leavers (so called “dropouts” and “pushouts”), teen mothers, youth attending alternative or inner city schools, and, most recently, girl skateboarders.

A common theme emerges among the youth from all the studies.

Repeatedly they say they have been misrepresented and placed in a bad light in the media coverage that supposedly reflects their lives. Of course, complaints by any group about being misrepresented in the media, even those with power and privilege in society, are not uncommon. But, because of the age of these youth groups and other aspects of their lives or social locations, they have very little pull with the media or access to the media production process. These studies raise questions for researchers and educators alike: Beyond studying or teaching these youths, should we be helping them to insert their self representations into the mass media and to create their own media? Do we listen to the youth’s discourses rather than continue to discount their perceptions?

The need for youth self representations is particularly pressing in this period of standardization and conformity, as evidenced in the increasing use of large scale provincial, national, and international testing (e.g., Moll, 2003; Stack, this issue). In this article, I have shared the youth research participants’ perceptions about their portrayals in the media; drawn connections between the assumptions and images underlying both media representations of youth and punitive policies of schooling, an institution that is supposed to serve young people and improve their lives; and raised a few possibilities for how we might, directly and indirectly, increase the presence and diversity of youth self representations in the mainstream and alternative media. I aim to illuminate both the rhetorical and ideological work that media frames do as well as the activist work that youth could be, and in some cases, are already doing to counter these dominant frames.



A few examples drawn from my research over the years will demonstrate that youth serve as a discursive domain through which a variety of social anxieties or “crises” can be read.1 Media writers (as well as, of course, social activists, professionals, politicians, and researchers) frame youth in various ways to help their audiences make sense of the phenomena or events. “Frames and frameworks are ‘schemata of interpretation that enable individuals to locate, perceive, identify, and label’ events they have experienced directly or indirectly” (Binder, 1993, p. 754). These frames, composed of arguments, images, and metaphors, are selected and constructed from larger sets of cultural beliefs; they serve “an ideological function when the frames reinforce unequal social relations by those institutionally empowered to do so” (p. 755; cf. Edley, 2001).

The ideological frames are reproduced in the news media through a mentality and media practice that if a story “bleeds, it leads.” The editorial writers of the Vancouver Sun newspaper made this explicit to their readers in an editorial to explain why the news media dwell so much on “bad kids.” Prompting the need for this explanation was a McCreary Centre survey of British Columbia students in grades 7 12, which had shown the percentage of young people engaged in risky behaviours (having sex, not using contraception, smoking cigarettes, doing drugs, drinking and driving) had declined significantly over the

past number of years. According to the Vancouver Sun (2004):

The news is about conflict and conflict requires that people break the rules, so we hear, perhaps too often, about teenagers being killed in car accidents, through bullying or through drug abuse. The news is also about what’s new, what’s exceptional, and the survey confirms that troubled kids are the exception. (p.

A22) Unwilling to trouble its own “kids” as “trouble/d” frame any further, however, the rest of the editorial raised the specter of “our risk averse teens... afraid to take chances”: “No one ever developed a thriving business, or made a groundbreaking scientific discovery, or wrote great music, without going out on a limb and, in some cases, without risking 30 DEIRDRE M. KELLY everything” (p. A22). Stories perpetuating negative images of youth apparently appeal to many adults and sell newspapers (Males, 1999; cf.

Schissel, 1997), or at least many journalists believe that crime and sensationalism sell newspapers and act on that belief (Young, 2005).

A growing body of literature, dating to when critical sociologist Stanley Cohen (2002/1972) first launched the concept of moral panic, has documented the role of mass media in helping to incite public concerns about various youth (and other) issues. Recent studies have examined “new” youth crimes such as “wilding” (Welch, Price, & Yankey, 2002) and “schoolyard shootings” (Aitken & Marchant, 2003), “underachieving boys” (Griffin, 2000; Titus, 2004), and “runaways” (Staller, 2003). Most studies that I am aware of have been better at analyzing media representations and rhetorical framing and documenting concern and consensus among media producers than they have been at assessing various audience responses to the news (beyond opinion polls; but see Gilliam & Bales, 2001); illuminating causality (e.g., whether news media coverage reflects public concern or incites it); exploring the consequences of the expansion and diversification of media producers through the Internet at the same time that large corporations are consolidating ownership of traditional (TV, radio, newspapers), mainstream media; or linking moral panics to the working of our political economy and other material conditions (for further discussion, see Cohen, 2002, esp. pp.

xxvi xxxv; McRobbie & Thornton, 2000; Stabile, 2001).

It is beyond the scope of this article to fill these gaps in the literature on moral panics over youth. Rather, I have identified how news reporters and editors have framed issues around youth with whom I have done research in ways that marginalize explanations and information that might contradict the mainstream media’s larger framework of troubled and troubling youth. Critical media studies alert us to the heterogeneity of audiences and how the meanings of media texts are “negotiated in relation to viewers’ cultural and class background, gender, and the situational contexts of decoding and encoding” (Luke, 1999, p. 623). Here, I briefly highlight some young audience members’ responses to media coverage of youth; the “folk devils” (Cohen, 2002) of various moral panics talk back, as it were, to media representations.


Frame 1: Inner City Youth as “Gang Bangers” During 1993 1994, a team of graduate students and I did a case study of Vancouver Technical Secondary School, one of 21 schools across Canada comprising the Exemplary Schools Project and one of the few high schools in British Columbia to be officially designated as “inner city.” Although the school was selected as exemplary because of its turnaround success in improving exam scores, participation rates, and withdrawal rates as well as its schools within a school approach, my research team and I heard students and teachers alike complain about the mainstream media’s continued stereotyping of inner city youth (nonwhite, working class, and immigrant) and tarnishing of the school’s reputation.

In an incident that had occurred two years earlier, a Van Tech student was stabbed on the school grounds by a group of other youth.

Although the popular perception was that this incident was related to immigrant gangs, in reality it had evolved from a small student getting picked on by other youth in a restaurant. A larger student stood up and told the other students to leave the smaller student alone. A few days later, this larger student was slashed with knives by the youth who were in the restaurant, ostensibly because he had embarrassed them in front of their girlfriends, and this retaliation was an effort to save face. This incident set off a chain of inflammatory broadcasts and articles in the local media linking Van Tech with the supposed rise in teen violence.

According to a teacher, the stabbing incident was a “horrific, one of a kind event that hardly typifies what life at Van Tech is like. A grade 12 student perceived a social class bias (and I would add racial bias) at work in the mainstream media’s portrayal of Van Tech students as “gang


Nobody talks about the drug problem in the [upper income] West End, yet the moment a couple of grade 9 kids have a scrap at Van Tech, the cameramen and media rush over and talk about the gang problems at our school. East Van has always had a bad reputation, as far back as I can remember, that comes from I think the “higher class” West End. (Kelly, 1995, p. 12) 32 DEIRDRE M. KELLY Not all Van Tech students felt victimized, however, by the negative media coverage. A member of the boys’ basketball team, for example, noted: “The tough image gives us the chance to think of ourselves as stronger and tougher than the opposition. This, of course, might not be true.” Frame 2: Teen Mothers as “Children Having Children” and “Welfare Bums” In Pregnant with Meaning (Kelly, 2000), an ethnographic study of teen mothers and the politics of inclusive schooling, I analyzed print media representations of teen mothers and discerned two dominant frames.

The “wrong girl” frame of the bureaucratic experts suggested that girls from flawed backgrounds (poor and abusive) were making tragic mistakes and wrong choices. The “wrong family” frame of the social and economic conservatives propounded the idea that unmarried teen mothers on social assistance were immoral, promiscuous, and a drain on taxpayers.

The 50 young women whom I got to know during my multi year studies of both City and Town Schools in the mid 1990s challenged these stereotypes directly and indirectly. Anna, age 17 and on the honour roll at Town School, noted that talk shows (like “Oprah”) “never show someone like me who s actually doing their school and wants to do something with their life. They show the teen moms who have ten kids.” Were they to attempt to counter the stigmatizing representations of teen mothers (and single mothers generally) that were circulating in the media, the teen mothers I got to know felt that, by virtue of their age, those in power would not take them seriously. Anna, for example, told me that as a researcher, I was ideally located to go on television “as a spokesperson... and say, ‘I ve talked to all these girls,’ and have the actual facts instead of just us going [affecting a repentant tone], ‘We didn t mean to get pregnant’ (Kelly, 2000, p. 206).

During my fieldwork at City School, Mina (age 18) was featured in a news article in which the teen mother as victim of sexual abuse theme was prominent and a pull quote by the teacher in Mina’s Teen Age Parents Program read, “The fastest way from slut to angelhood is becoming a madonna.” The reporter, citing academic work by Debra Boyer, posited that young women who have been sexually abused may


later engage in behavior that others see as promiscuous; then, in a subconscious effort to move out of the bad girl category, they become pregnant and mothers. Mina (who came from a stable, working class home and claimed she had a good relationship with her parents) objected to how the reporter implied that she was “looking for something other than a boyfriend” (i.e., a “father figure”) and that “I was abused and looking for a dad who wasn t abusive, and I mean it wasn t that way” (Kelly, 2000, p. 208).

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