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NY Times Slants Reports of Teen Violence

by Donna Ladd

The biggest danger to minors comes not from other minors but from adults,
Brown hair rumpled as though he'd just gotten out of bed, the handcuffed 15-year-old high school freshman walked across three front-page columns of the March 6 New York Times. His mammoth white jumpsuit dragged the ground. The name of the red-cheeked perp, who's charged as an adult for killing two students and wounding 13 others in Santee, California, appeared prominently under the photo. The story, by Todd S. Purdum, called the attack "the nation's deadliest school shooting since the April 1999 bloodbath at Columbine High."

Unacceptable, says Youth Force, a group of South Bronx teens advocating responsible coverage of kids. Member Shaquesha Alequin, 19, who coauthored a report released in February called "In Between the Lines: How The New York Times Frames Youth," sent Purdum a critique of his Santee articles, taking him to task for perpetuating myths about youth and failing to put the incident in proper context. Alequin says that in its first two days of covering Santee, the Times scored points by quoting several teens but lost ground by using the inflammatory photo rather than a yearbook shot and by running images of weeping and injured students. Nor did the Times mention the overall decline in youth violence. "And 'bloodbath,'" she says. "Hmmm. That's just bad reporting."

When Purdum twice called the Santee shooting the worst since Columbine, he left out two others listed by the National School Safety Center: the June 1999 shooting, possibly by an adult, of two Mexican American students on their way to school in California and the March 2000 killing of two African American teens by another African American teen at a Georgia high school dance.

"We were waiting for a handshake," she says. "We didn't get one." She says the staffers did not introduce themselves or let the teens make their presentation. "They didn't even know we had an agenda. Every time we tried to get a word in, they would cut us right off."

Purdum tells the Voice that he was "touched" by Alequin's "obvious sincerity," but his deadline did not allow time for digging up statistics. "I was surprised with her apparent lack of familiarity with age-old journalistic conventions, and the obvious constraints of daily journalism," he says. "If I had known youth violence was declining, I'd have been happy to put that in."

The Times should have known, Alequin says, because Youth Force gave the paper its report in December. Sponsored by several media-watchdog groups, she and eight other Youth Force teens, all students of color from the Arturo Schomburg Satellite Academy in the Bronx, analyzed Times coverage of young people as either victims or perpetrators, from January to March 2000. In the 93 relevant articles -- including 35 national and 51 Metro pieces -- the Times wrote about 132 perps and 117 victims. The group found the stories rarely discussed societal causes and mentioned only incarceration as a solution.

The teens also reported that the Times routinely portrayed youth of color more negatively. In 11 articles where race was identifiable, the Times never quoted black or Latino youth perpetrators directly, while white kids spoke in their own defense five times. White perps, according to the Youth Force analysis, were all pictured in yearbook photos or in a suit and tie, and all outside the courtroom. Two of three minority youths were shown in courtrooms, including a March 9, 2000, full-body photo of a Latino youth with shackles on his hands and feet. The March 6 photo of the accused Santee shooter gives Alequin no solace. "The fact that they used a picture of a white youth in handcuffs doesn't justify it," she says. "It's still a bad picture."

Youth Force asked for a meeting with the Times in December before posting its document at Alequin describes the Times editorialists and reporters, mostly from the Metro desk, as condescending. "We were waiting for a handshake," she says. "We didn't get one." She says the staffers did not introduce themselves or let the teens make their presentation. "They didn't even know we had an agenda. Every time we tried to get a word in, they would cut us right off. We're not journalists; it takes a while to learn how to continue talking when they're interrupting you."

Times Metro editor Jonathan Landman says his staff learned nothing from the meeting -- "No, nothing" -- and has no obligation to answer Youth Force's demands. He objects to the kids' grown-up backers, who include the groups We INTERRUPT This Message, the Berkeley Media Studies Group, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), and George Soros's Open Society Institute.

"We're not in the business of judging whether a crime should be reported or not reported because someone thinks juvenile justice becomes too punitive," Landman says. "I have a problem with the report. It's not a report by kids looking at the paper and drawing conclusions. They're used as fronts by adults with a particular advocacy stance. It's not uncommon when you set out to find something, by God, you find it."

But national statistics bolster Youth Force claims about the media's portrayal of kids. A new study prepared by the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Justice Policy Institute shows homicide coverage on network TV increased 473 percent between 1990 and 1998, even as murders declined by 32.9 percent. Killings committed by youth between 1993 and 1999 dropped 68 percent, but 62 percent of the public reported believing juvenile crime was on the increase.

The biggest danger to minors comes not from other minors but from adults, says Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The center's "School House Hype" report indicates that 11 American children die every two days at the hands of a parent or guardian compared to the nine children who died in school shootings all last year. But "the 'trend' is school shooting," Schiraldi says. "Parent killings are not something on the public's conscience."

School shootings, on the other hand, command attention. After the Santee tragedy, quickly linked to its "Kids & Violence: A Resource Guide," a package that includes a clickable map of school shootings and a school-violence trivia quiz. The guide says homicide is the number two cause of death for people aged 10 to 24. It does not, however, say how many of those murders are committed by adults, implying that kids alone have committed the violence.

"In three out of four cases," writes Youth Force, "the Big Bad Wolves who murder youth are adults, not other youth."

Reaching that conclusion took hundreds of hours of effort. The kids spent time training, writing, rewriting, coding, recoding, and learning how to talk to the media. Pia Infante, at 26 the project's oldest staffer, stands behind the group's work. The doubts expressed by Landman may be more a matter of "adultism that underestimates the analysis and capacity of young people" than a reflection of the merits of the project, she says.

Landman, for his part, sounds a little picked-on. Why choose the Times, out of all the newspapers in the country, to criticize for lack of context? "Do the Daily News, The Village Voice provide context?" he asks. "I think not. They all provide less. [Context is] what we do. Perhaps not enough." Youth Force could have found a much worse violator "in a world in which there are cop reality shows, tabloid newspapers, semi-reality, police shows, and so on."

Schiraldi isn't surprised by the disconnect between papers and their critics. "The media really has no clue as to how to deal with this at this point, and I'm not sure many in the media are concerned," he says. "You can't rely on newspapers."

This article first appeared in Village Voice

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Albion Monitor April 23, 2001 (

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