In cities across the country we've seen regressive youth justice and education policies that are supported — and even driven by — media narratives that criminalize black and brown youth. These narratives, which are sometimes overt and sometimes hidden, all result in serious, ongoing harm to our youth. The good news is that there are simple things that all of us who care about the fair treatment of youth of color can do to change the way the story is told.
Identify criminalizing media coverage of youth of color
The first step is to be alert. You can identify problematic narratives by using the following criteria to analyze media coverage.
Language choice: Watch out for dehumanizing language that describes youth of color as thugs or menaces. Pay particular attention to keywords like: “ex-con,” “felon,” or “militant,” and language around undocumented youth. Phrases like “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” cement the idea that a person’s very existence is criminal and that undocumented youth should be entitled to fewer rights and privileges.
Language posture: The media can frequently shift blame from the aggressor to the victim, especially when the victim is a student or youth of color. Passive phrases like “get yourself killed” or “got themselves killed” justify the use of excessive force and absolve the aggressor of responsibility, especially when the aggressor is a police officer. Encourage journalists to use active language like “x person shot y youth” to ensure black and brown youth are not criminalized in media coverage.
Background descriptions: Including certain details about a young person’s background can be criminalizing. Are previous arrests or convictions included in the description of youth victims? Are descriptions around a student’s disciplinary record included? These background details dehumanize youth of color and frequently define victims by their mistakes. Be on the lookout for irrelevant details like socioeconomic status (e.g. on welfare/food stamps/Section 8). These details are usually irrelevant to the story and reinforce the narrative of the inevitability of criminal behavior among poor people.
Image sourcing: Images are often a key component of criminalizing coverage of youth of color. Look out for news segment or articles that include mug shots rather than a yearbook or family photo. Images are powerful and mug shots inherently imply adulthood and criminality. White youth like Brock Turner, the infamous Stanford University student convicted of rape, are more likely to have flattering photos included in media coverage, even when convicted of heinous crimes.
Respond to coverage that criminalizes youth of color
Once you identify a narrative that criminalizes youth of color, take a few minutes to hold reporters, editors and outlets accountable.
Email reporters and editors: Don’t be shy about emailing reporters and editors to tell them your concerns about the coverage.
Call, call, call: The best person to engage is the person who has the power to correct and update an article or piece, the editor. Call the outlet and request to speak with the appropriate editor. Describe the problematic coverage and express your disappointment. Make sure to request a correction to the story during your conversation. You can gain more leverage by having your friends also call the editor requesting a change in the coverage.
Connect on social media: Social media offers great accessibility to journalists. Twitter and other social media platforms are used widely by journalists, so you should connect with them online. Remember, however, that no one likes being called out. On Twitter, make sure their Twitter handle is first in your tweet and that the first character of your tweet is the @-symbol. Twitter treats this as a reply and only shows this content to the people who follow both you and the reporter, which is likely just a handful of people. Have someone read your tweet prior to sending and ask them to put themselves in the shoes of the journalists to see if your response is appropriate and will be well received.
Amplify positive news
Ultimately, just highlighting the bad isn’t going to be enough to change how youth of color are portrayed in the press. We also need to take opportunities to highlight what news outlets do right and help them do even better.
Appreciate the good coverage: Send a note of thanks for a good story or for revisions to an inaccurate story. Share the piece on social media to boost traffic to the news organization's site and they will notice.
Create your own content: Sometimes we have to help the media along by feeding them better stories or even creating our own content. We can personally alert the media to positive stories about youth of color, and elevate the real youth justice story through op-eds and letters to the editor. A good example of a larger effort to change this larger narrative is Rethink Baltimore, a new awareness campaign highlighting the real story of youth of color in Baltimore.
The way youth of color are portrayed in the media is more than a mere impediment to our efforts to improve our justice systems. At the end of the day, the media narrative about youth of color is a form of violence against them that encourages inhumane individual- and system-level responses to their behavior. It is a poisoning of our cultural atmosphere that is toxic to everyone who breathes it in — particularly youth of color. Helping the media get this right should be a go-to strategy for all of us who seek justice.
Sarah Bryer is executive director and president of the National Juvenile Justice Network.