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Opinion & Essays - Apr, 1998 Issue #51


By: Lon Woodbury

Recent discussions with representatives of the mainstream media have convinced me the real story about teens with problems seems to be almost invisible to most of the national media. Despite the recent increase in public discussion about teens, the national media seems to just nibble around the edges. Isolated facts are thrown at us regarding teens with behavioral problems. Solutions seem to be presented in isolation, as if the specific person or program being discussed is the one single ray of hope. The public is seeking to understand why some teens make such negative decisions, and what might be done to help, but the mainstream media usually only gives either isolated anecdotes or analyses that often miss the point. 

I don’t presume to understand the world view of the representatives of the national media with whom I’ve talked. But, there seem to be some unwritten rules they are following. To me, its like their world view has blinders. 

The “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality emphasizes criticism, and low keys accomplishment. This evolved from the discovery in the early 19th century that startling people sells more newspapers than does educating people. In the late 20th century, this has evolved too often into an emphasis on “getting the dirt.” For example, one staff member of a daytime TV talk show last year asked me to help find someone who had a successful experience in one of the wilderness programs. She told me they wanted to present the truth about wilderness programs for children with behavioral/emotional problems! I gave her the name of a girl who was willing to talk to them. The girl not only had enthusiastically told me “the program saved my life,” but had married a boy she had met on that expedition and together, they were active in drug recovery, going to school and preparing for a full future. I thought “this would make a great story!” Not only would it present what these wilderness programs can do for teens with problems and, provide hope for parents wrestling with the same problems with their own children, but it added an element of romance and a happy ending. It seemed a good fit for afternoon TV to me! 

Instead, the TV program staff rejected using the girl, telling me “She didn’t seem enthusiastic enough about her experience.” Instead they used a boy who was very critical of his participation in an ill-conceived, disastrous boat program in the Caribbean. That became the example of what wilderness programs are about that the talk show presented to the American public. Not only did the host find it impossible to pass up a flashy expose, but it seems some of the staff don’t really have a firm grasp on the truth. 

Another tendency is to give public programs the benefit of the doubt, and view private programs with skepticism. This also has a long history going back to the days of the muckrakers during the turn of the century. For example, boot camps for adjudicated youths seem to fire the media’s imagination, even though even the US Justice Department studies show boot camps have not had any greater success with juveniles than the dismal record of traditional incarceration. 

On the other hand, private programs are frequently looked at through some other perspective such as how children’s rights are potentially violated. There seems to be a double standard here, where how a program is organized legally is more important than how effective it is in helping children. 

There’s the concept some media critics have referred to as “gullible cynicism.” That is, the media often seems to take allegations at full face value, but question the defense against those allegations as self-serving with little credibility. Those who have the apparent power in the situation seem to determine which is which, with assumed power being suspect, and perceived powerlessness being given the benefit of the doubt. The question of responsibility seems to get overlooked. 

Then there’s what might be called the herd instinct. Once a story breaks nationally, other outlets usually jump on board only modifying slightly from the original perspective. It seems to be very difficult for national reporters to take a chance by covering the story from a significantly different perspective. 

The national media coverage in January and February of this year about the California boy who was enrolled in a program in Jamaica exemplified all of the above tendencies. Even those I saw which presented a somewhat balanced view missed much of the substance, and thus much of the real story. 

Instead, a major focus of the story was on the controversial and flashy issue of the rights of minor children with regard to being transported to a program, rather than on the responsibility of the parents to provide what children need in order to grow up successfully. The District Attorney was presented as a sincere public figure acting “for the children,” with no question asked as to the possibility he might be posturing for political advantage. At the same time, at least one media outlet panned the school, implying it was self- serving, punitive, inept and more interested in money than the welfare of the children. 

In addition, the student’s charges were taken very seriously without any questioning whether he might just be manipulating the facts. To the contrary, at least one publication rejected its own writer’s positive impressions about the school in favor of a story implying the school was doing something that should be feared. And, after the story broke, all the media representatives that contacted me wanted to do something on the transport of the boy, which was the perspective of the original stories, instead of seriously looking at why the parents might have made that decision. 

To their credit, some reporters and editors did get past the flashy issue of children’s rights. Unfortunately, those reporters were mostly local, and collectively had less impact than the national media. But they at least got closer to the root questions which contains some substantial stories, such as: 

What can a parent do when a child starts throwing away his/her future, and local solutions don’t work? 

What is the root problem: widespread immaturity in many teens, or a lack of effective treatment or incarceration facilities? 

How wide spread is the problem of teens making self-destructive decisions? 

Are programs like the Jamaica program a legitimate last chance for a child insisting on making self-destructive decisions? 

Does it confuse the issue and mislead the public when the problem is assumed to primarily stem from the struggles of single parents, broken homes, minority children, inner city kids, gangs, etc? 

Is the issue of teens making poor decisions one that transcends economic, class and geographical boundaries, thus a common problem to all families in all parts and levels of the country? 

Is the appearance of private programs for kids with behavioral problems throughout the country a spontaneous movement representing the American tendency to solve problems by individual initiative, or something else? 

The real stories are yet to be told and seriously debated in the media. However, recommendations and criticisms from myself, other educational consultants and parents to the media make me confident someone in the national media is going to figure it out someday. 

Copyright © 1998, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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