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Activist worries that media are exploiting youth

Are media exploiting young people, for the sake of a sensational story?

Robin Grant thinks so. In fact, she's even got a name for it: ephibiphobia.

Grant is the Founder and Coordinator of For the Love of Learning, which is described as "a non-profit, arts-based, education and entrepreneurship program for resilient youth."

In other words, they help youth who are at-risk' and dealing with a range of issues, everything from homelessness to illiteracy.

As a former journalist, Grant is upset at the way four young participants with For the Love of Learning were treated by media last week. The four were arrested after a mid-day brawl on Merrymeeting Road, with a number of charges laid, including assaulting a police officer.

In addition four pictures one for each defendant that appeared on page A7 of The Telegram (October 1), Grants says the story received TV news coverage (with video of the young people) on NTV and CBC, as well as VOCM and CBC Radio.

Correction and update: CBC Radio and TV did not cover this story.

"It's sad and they acted stupidly but the media fall-out was, in my impression, salacious and even traumatizing for the kids involved," Grant told me. "The youth involved are harmless hippies who clearly drank a lot and got out of hand, and I would agree, need to be held accountable for their actions. Nevertheless, the media decided almost unanimously to have a field day with them."

Grant acknowledges that her perspective is unique, because she works and knows the young people involved.

"I know these kids. Here at For the Love of Learning these specific young people are respected and respectful, kind, caring, sensitive and exceedingly thoughtful. They have families, friends, employers and are trying, trying, trying to live lives in our community. Something terribly wrong has happened here. Is the media championing the underdog, as we as journalists pledge to do, or is it instead exploiting the underdog."

Grant says there is a "great deal of naivety" in the media, and society in general, when it comes to perpetuating pejorative and even fearful stereotypes of misguided youth. She thinks the story might have been treated differently if, for example, the incident happened to clean-cut, preppy' looking youth in a well-to-do part of town.

"Yes I think their appearance, or the fact that they're youth, played a part in the sensationalizing of a relatively small news event," she said. "With regard to this Merrymeeting Road incident, these young people were not hurting anyone else, though they obviously raised the concerns of a neighbour. I think what we need here is perspective: they were not holding up a convenience store, breaking into someone's car or stealing even a loaf of bread. While I appreciate that they were disciplined for disturbing the peace, I think it's worthwhile to scratch the surface a little more. What I've come to realize is that a lot of these young people at risk or street youth some people would call them, resilient youth we at For the Love of Learning call them - have built up their own resentment around people in positions of "authority" (for example teachers, parents, police officers, the media, and so on) for a variety of complex and very legitimate reasons, generally circling around exploitation and abuse of power. In my opinion these kids don't "choose" to sit around and drink all day or panhandle, say, because they think it's fun or "cool." They do so because their trust in the world has been terribly, almost irrevocably shaken. And when I saw the media having a feeding frenzy with them it actually worried me to think that their resentment, their lack of trust, had been magnified yet again. It just made me sad."

Grant says news media hold tremendous power to shape public perception, and that journalists have a civic responsibility to strike a balance between championing and exploiting the underdog. After researching this issue, Grant has identified a phenomenon called ephibiphobia, or fear of youth.

"Ephibiphobia is said to be generally perpetuated by the media and most prolific in communities populated by an aging demographic," Grant said. "The media in England are particularly preoccupied with this phenomenon, as in they've built a social consensus around a genuine fear of youth' and gangs of youth in hoodies'."

There is some, though not a lot, of research material available online on this subject. There are resources and links here and a Canadian discussion forum here.

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