When Perceptions Are Not Reality: Youth role in crime exaggerated

By Sarah Xochitl Bervera, Malkia Amala Cyril, Ortega Yarborough, Rocio Nieves
Copyright 1998 San Francisco Chronicle
October 9, 1998

The country's obsession with juvenile crime fills headlines and leads newscasts. The stories so dominate the news that it's fair to ask: Are the nation's newspapers reporting the news or are they selling tragedy? And at what cost to the county?

A recent Gallup Poll found that adults have an exaggerated view of violent juvenile crime. The adults polled estimated that youth were responsible for 43 percent of violent crimes. The truth? FBI statistics show that juveniles are responsible for 13 percent of violent crime, less than a third of what the adults polled thought. In San Francisco last year, juveniles accounted for 3 percent of all homicides and 9 percent of all felony arrests.

So where do adults get their misperceptions? According to a Los Angeles Times poll, 65 percent of those polled said they primarily learn about crime from the media. What is the media saying about kids and crime and how are those reports creating such distorted perceptions?

A group of homeless youth completed a study this summer of The San Francisco Chronicle and its news coverage of youth and crime. The study's results document how The Chronicle and other media help perpetuate myths about youth crime.

The study, conducted jointly by the youth group UNYTE (Unity Now! Youth Training for Empowerment) and the nonprofit We Interrupt This Message, found news stories often portray youth as perpetrators of crime but rarely report when youth are victims of crime, especially when they are victims of adult crime. Almost three quarters of the news stories examined depicted youth as perpetrators of crime.

In reality, crime data show youth are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators. For every violent or sexual offense committed by a youth under 18 years of age, there are three such crimes committed against a youth by adults.

Of the 72 articles examined in the study, 50 did not explore the roots of youth crime, yet 15 called for tougher penalties, longer sentences or increased policing. No articles examined whether tougher penalties and incarceration actually reduce youth crime.

Considering that the recent "epidemic of youth crime" has resulted in youth sentences that, on average, are 60 percent longer than adult sentences for the same crime, there's an imperative need for this kind of reporting.

The study found no article that looked at poverty as a primary or potential factor in crime. When poverty is factored in, the "epidemic of youth crime" disappears. In 1993, the crime rate among teenagers living below the federal poverty line was the same as similarly impoverished adults in their 40s, and well below the crime rates of adults in their 20s and 30s. This type of uninformed news reporting obscures youth poverty, the factor most closely correlated with youth crime.

Distorted news coverage misinforms the public and leads to bad public policy, with damning consequences for homeless and at-risk youth whose lives are regulated by adults. These laws can cost young people their education, their family, even their lives.

The youth of UNYTE, who conducted the study, call for the media and policymakers alike to investigate the root causes of crime, and stop scapegoating youth for socioeconomic problems that victimize young people most.

After reviewing the study, The Chronicle was willing to work with UNYTE to monitor and improve news coverage. UNYTE is hopeful other media will follow The Chronicle's lead and be responsible for, and responsive to, youth and their profound need for fair, accurate news coverage.

Sarah Xochitl Bervera is the program associate at We Interrupt This Message, Malkia Amala Cyril is the director of UNYTE, Ortega Yarborough and Rocio Nieves are UNYTE members.

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