Media Has An Active Role to Play in Ending Youth Violence – And Often It Misses the Mark

Katy Otto,
Blue television camera.

For nearly seven years I have worked in communications on the issues of youth, juvenile justice, and the legal system. In that time, I have had the distinct pleasure of getting to know individual young people who have been ensnared in the system, and heard their stories. Far too often, when media covers these youth and their stories, they focus only on the shocking, the salacious, the violent – an angle which likely not coincidentally drives clicks, traffic and revenue to their sites. In recent years, more interest has emerged from press in covering the abuse, violence and harm of youth prisons and facilities themselves; this has helped the public to understand what exactly happens to youth on their tax dime. 

What gets short shrift when it comes to media outlets is the more fulsome story of these young people. What factors led to their arrests? What role does race play in which children are policed, which face hyper punitive response, which are tried as adults? Telling their stories is further complicated by necessary laws protecting youth privacy in juvenile court so that they don’t face further harms of not being able to rent an apartment, go to college, get a job, and so forth. But there are ways the press can choose to delve more deeply; to look at root causes of youth violence and crime, to hear about the impact of the pandemic on young people, to expose the cracks in a system that purports to be about rehabilitation but is more often about anything but. 

Context matters, and stories about youth crime that do not dig deeper fail us all. Our carceral system treats the predominantly Black and Brown children held in youth prisons as liabilities our society must disappear. Instead of wondering how our country is failing its children when a child is determined to have caused harm and creating real opportunity to change, we warehouse children away in unspeakable conditions, often miles from their homes, communities and loved ones. These facilities are rampant with abuse, lack adequate educational and social opportunity, and increase the likelihood that a child will grow into an adult who goes deeper into the system. 

Media citing only the harms caused by youth influences judges. Particularly in the world of gotcha journalism and social media, judges increasingly are becoming afraid of exercising grace, leniency or compassion for fear of being thumbed as “the judge who let it happen.” Pipelines of children in the system then back up; young people sit idle for months on end for technical violations and minor offenses. The rallying cry in the past two years has been “build more beds” rather than asking our children and communities what divestments, neglect and alienation led to these circumstances. 

The creation of the Center for Just Journalism offers a rare opportunity for reporters, editors and producers to interrogate their practices and think about how their headlines, sourcing, reporting and story selection can influence our world for the better. How can good reporting help to break down cycles of revenge and retribution, with violence begetting more violence? How can we speak directly with youth involved in crime, as the Inquirer wisely did on its recent carjacking story, to better understand why these events are happening and what it is that youth truly need to choose better pathways? 

To build a world of peace and justice, with safety for all, we need a press that dares to engage its readers’ empathy, curiosity, and problem solving. We need the same from lawmakers, who also traffic in kneejerk response. An engaged populace will help us fight for policy solutions that actually work and don’t just disappear children, traumatize them and then act surprised when our communities remain unsafe. The failed "tough on crime" approach of the 90s won't do it. There are real policy solutions to youth violence we can invest in, that have been proven time and again. These include fully funded schools, access to robust health care including comprehensive mental health and addiction services, good paying family sustaining jobs, support for neighborhoods experiencing blight, rec centers and libraries, universal child care, and so forth. 

A press that contextualizes youth crime and talks about community divestment can help that world become a reality. Stories about restorative justice practices and models can help readers imagine a different approach to harm beyond our country’s addiction to punishment. Media can be honest, balanced and fair and take the time necessary to serve its readership with the entire picture. For our world to become the safe, just, peaceful place we all want and deserve, we must continue to call on the press to think about its responsibility to this end. 

 

About the Expert

Katy Otto joined Juvenile Law Center in 2016. With a background in communications, development and government relations, she is responsible for the organization’s overall messaging strategy and implementation. She is passionate about youth justice, and committed to ensuring that the public learns about the challenges facing youth in the child welfare and justice systems.

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