Zombie nation

When was the last time you opened your paper, and shuddered at a headline that involved ‘thugs’ ‘yobs’ or Glasgow grown favourite ‘neds’?

The answer should be: hopefully not in a while. The type of tabloid fodder that used to work us into an apoplectic state as we sat at our breakfast tables – where we could be attacked by yobs AT ANY TIME!! – is fortunately on the decline, or so research undertaken by CYCJ shows.

Perceptive souls that we are at CYCJ, we’d noticed a change in reporting style.  It seemed that there was less talk of ‘thugs’ being ‘caged’, and more of a neutral stance regarding young people.

We were curious (as we are about many things) about this. Are youth offenders being given an easier time in the media? And if so, is this due to the recent fall in youth crime across Scotland or are we just becoming more tolerant as a population? Or is there even a change at all?

To put this hypothesis to the test, our intrepid Research Fellow Nina Vaswani conducted a piece of research, the findings of which were shared at our recent event ‘No offence to neds: Exploring public perceptions and media reporting of young people involved in offending’. This took place as part of Engage with Strathclyde week, which showcased what Strathclyde does as a University for business, industry and the public.

No event on media would be complete without a journalist, so we were delighted when Herald journalist David Leask accepted our invitation. To ensure that everyone got their say, we invited a panel of  experts to keep things fired up. We’re grateful to Pete White, co-founder of Positive Prisons? Positive Futures; Louise Hill, Policy Lead at CELCIS; Stephen Birrell, Vice Chair of Dennistoun Community Council; and David Orr, a social worker practitioner with CYCJ, all of whom did not disappoint in initiating an animated discussion, with a plethora of audience contributions.

Following a missing headlines round Have I Got News For You style, which seemed to warm the ice if not exactly break it, Nina Vaswani presented on her findings. These were based on an analysis of six papers across Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen over six months in 2006 compared to six months in 2013.

Nina confirmed that youth crime has fallen steadily since 2006/2007 – and at a faster rate than adult crime, but do we see it that way? Not necessarily – the latest Scottish Crime and Justice Survey revealed that 85% of the general public perceive crime to have stayed the same or increased in the past two years, with many overestimating their likelihood of being a victim.

Furthermore, young people are perceived to commit 47% of crimes (MORI Ipsos), even though in Scotland that number is actually 16% (2012/2013).

But why should we be so concerned about what the media say?  It’s clear that the media is a huge influence on the public’s perceptions of crime, as two-thirds cite it as their main source of information about youth crime.  Fear of crime can have a tremendous impact on the lives of individuals and communities (given the headlines it is amazing that anyone stepped outside of their own front door in 2006).  And public fears, no matter whether they are misplaced or not, will always influence the actions of politicians, especially near to election time.

However, the story is changing. In 2006, almost half of headlines painted a negative picture of young people. In 2013, that was reduced to 28.9%. Add to that a 10% increase in young people being portrayed as victims of crime or circumstances, and it seems that things are looking up for young people – even if there hasn’t been a corresponding rise in coverage of them doing something positive.

Would the media agree with these findings? Fortunately, we had David Leask on hand to give us his thoughts, based on over 20 years of journalistic experience.

Whilst he didn’t challenge Nina’s research, David did point out that The Herald is signed up to the Scottish way of dealing with youth justice, ensuring fair and unbiased coverage. However, he conceded that not all papers do the same. He talked about ‘zombie facts’ – where untruths are repeated unchallenged across the media and consequently, society – urging the audience to “kill them off when you see them!” The panel backed him up, stressing that we all have a role to play in challenging inaccurate media. In a world where the Daily Mail comments section can often be more interesting than the article it’s attached to, perhaps this confirms that we are not simply accepting the words of journalists as truth.

David confirmed that crime reporting is down, due to a decrease in resources meaning less journalists being present in court rooms. He also observed that crime reporting can be higher in areas where crime rates are low – as this is what makes the story. A story about ‘man bites dog’ has a far higher shock rate than ‘dog bites man’ – simply because it’s so unexpected.

In the ensuing panel session, a lot of ground was covered, including raising the age of criminal responsibility, differences between media reporting in England and Scotland and how attitudes can change towards children in regards to age and gender – where a child can go from being ‘a cute wee vulnerable boy’ to a ‘monster’ fully in control of his actions.

One topic of particular interest was about the role of new media. The rise of social media and the prolific blogger means that everyone has a stage on which to discuss world events – which can have its own repercussions, not least the decline of print media.  “There is no such thing as tomorrow’s chip paper anymore – times have changed,” David Leask told the audience, before adding a somewhat ominous sounding double entendre: “We now know what makes you click!”

So where did all this debate get us to? Despite the final part of the afternoon being titled ‘Next steps’, we concluded that there are no conclusions! What is clear is that there’s a myriad of factors and drivers influencing how the media choose to report on crime, and how we as the public choose to interpret it. It’s a co-dependant relationship – yes, the media should report responsibly, but then we as readers have it in our power (especially in today’s digital society) to challenge this reporting – and challenge it we should. The ‘zombie facts’ are hopefully slowly but surely being slayed as we use the knowledge at our fingertips to make up our own minds.

But one encouraging outcome of this research is that we do seem to be getting less riled when it comes to youth crime – even if we are not aware of this. And obviously, it’s good news for us as a Centre that focuses on bettering the lives of Scotland’s young people!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the Daily Mail. Those comments won’t read themselves…

To find out more about this research, please email us on cycj@strath.ac.uk

About the blogger

Charlotte Bozic is Knowledge Exchange Officer for CYCJ. She manages the Centre’s marketing and communications activities, including digital marketing, media relations, design and branding. Read more about Charlotte.