Classroom discussions and schoolyard banter draw heavily on television: the characters of EastEnders, the video stars of MTV, the semi-celebrities of Big Brother and the catchphrases of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? From Nasty Nick to "final answer?", television appears as one of the constants in an ever changing world. It would seem the perfect medium through which young people engage with adult society in which they are expected to take their place as informed, successful citizens.
Here, though, according to leading media researcher David Buckinghham, TV is rather less successful than it might be. His timely study looks at what young people think about the way children's news programmes report political issues. he explores how programme makers define the interests of young people, how they address this audience and whose viewpoints are represented in the process.
A rigorous qualitative research exercise involves content analysis of youth news programmes in Britain and the US and a series of in-depth interviews with groups of young people aged 11, 14 and 17 at schools in London and Pennsylvania. The programmes analysed range from BBC1's long-established Newsround and Channel 4's First Edition to the latter channel's youth magazine, Wise Up, Nickelodeon's Nick News and US school satellite service Channel One's Channel One News.
Drawing on a range of established sources, Buckingham's initial prognosis is not good. Young people appear to display a low level of political literacy, are unconcerned about political issues and show little inclination to address these shortcomings either through viewing television news or reading newspapers.
However, his own primary research reveals a much more complicated picture. Rather than apathetic, apolitical bystanders, his interviewees prove to be astute, media literate and concerned about a range of issues, albeit ones that "rub up against conventional definitions of politics".
Buckingham points out that, traditionally, TV news is largely "episodic" and focuses on matters of public conern: the workings of Parliament; party politics; inter-government relations; and the economy. By comparison children are concerned with "thematic" issues that affect them more directly: relationships with the police; environmental projects; gender; race; and justice. They appear to seek news programming that draws more on the "private" domain, addressing matters of identity and rights.
In this context, Buckingham suggests that the apparent lack of interest shown by the young in politics and "the news" results from their disaffection at being excluded from politics and from the unwillingness of television news to address politics that are relevant to them. Warning against patronising and trivialised approaches, young people, he reminds us, are "citizens", rather than "citizens in the making"; any news programme (or citizenship education) that ignores this is bound to fail. Television news, especially television news targeted at children, needs to do more to build connections between the private and public spheres without substituting one for the other.
Schools need to achieve a similar feat: "...the difficult challenge for teachers, as for news journalists, is to find ways of establishing the relevance of politics and of connecting the 'micro politics' of personal experience with the 'macro politics' of the public sphere".
Of course, this suggests a more radical approach to citizenship than some schools, journalists and politicians might feel comfortable with. None the less, Buckinghamis surely arguing for a model that reconceptualises both "news" and "politics" and holds out the promise of real political engagement. As he acknowledges, this kind of work does not produce neat answers, but it does provide an insight into the complexity of young people's attitudes to news and politics.
True to the approach that he advocates for journalists and teachers, he lets the young people on whom his study is based speak for themselves. This book will be of interest to all involved in citizenship education and the broader social curriculum.
Tony Breslin is general adviser(14-19 education) in the London borough of Enfield