Young turned off by remote control

4th February 2000 at 00:00
David Buckingham says teenagers do care about current affairs but are uninspired by mainstream news coverage

IN THE era of spin doctors and popularity polls, politics and the mass media have become inseparable. The media are our primary means of access to the world of political debate; and they largely define what counts as politics in the first place.

These concerns are a central aspect of citizenship education. Yet, as many teachers know, they are unlikely to generate much enthusiasm from students. The very mention of politics - or of news - is likely to produce groans of boredom.

Commentators frequently despair about young people's lack of interest in politics, and the ignorance to which it gives rise. Surveys repeatedly show that they know next to nothing about current affairs - and could not care less.

Thus, the proportion of young voters turning out at elections has steadily declined: only 40 per cent bothered to cast their vote in 1997. Likewise, young people have largely abandoned broadsheet papers and TV news. Of course, the young have always been less interested in these things than adults; but their disaffection with politics, and with news media, has significantly increased in recent years.

In my research, funded by the Spencer and Nuffield Foundations, I analysed news programmes aimed at young people, and interviewed a broad range of 11 to 17-year-olds in schools in Britain and the USA. These students were mostly very cynical about politics as conventionally defined - that is, about the actions of politicians. They were often condemned, not just as boring, but also as corrupt, uncaring, insincere and self-interested.

Some of this cynicism could be seen as superficial. Despite a general rejection of politics, many students were able to engage in complex debates about key political issues when encouraged to do so. When it came to youth crime, for example, or the environment, they were highly critical of authority figures. But they were also very astute in thinking through the advantages and disadvantages of particular policies, and assessing the validity of the evidence presented.

This research is not alone in suggesting that teenagers are capable of understanding complex political issues, and making sophisticated judgments about them, provided they are given the means to do so.

In general, however, these students rejected national politics in favour of more immediate concerns - the local environment, neighbourhood crime, family histories and consumer behaviour. They found it difficult to connect the "everyday politics" of their own exeriences with the official discourse of politics in the media.

Ultimately, this rejection of "official politics" stemmed not from apathy or ignorance, but from a sense of exclusion. Since they could not make any difference to what happened, why should they bother to find out about it?

What role might television play in counteracting this situation? I examined responses to a range of British and American news programmes for young people. Some - such as Channel 4's First Edition - were fairly conventional; while others - like Channel 4's access show, Wise Up, and Nickelodeon's Nick News - were more innovative.

These programmes are presented by young people and in place of the rigid neutrality of mainstream news, they contain strong personal views. They focus much more directly on individual experiences, and issues that matter to young people.

In general, these programmes were much preferred. They were perceived as less inclined to talk down to their audience; and their MTV-style formats were seen as much more stylish and engaging than mainstream news. However, these students did not simply want to be entertained. They also wanted to be informed and made to think; and the more adventurous approaches of Nick News and Wise Up were praised for achieving this.

My research confirms the need for innovation if news is to re-awaken the interest of younger audiences - and indeed of viewers in general. This is partly a matter of developing more lively, popular formats. But it also implies that greater efforts should be made, both to explain the causes and contexts of news events, and to enable viewers to see connections to their own lives.

Current definitions of citizenship education tend to regard it as a matter of making good the deficits in students' political knowledge. The more difficult challenge for teachers, as for journalists, is to find ways of establishing the relevance of politics to young people's experiences.

This will not be accomplished by "dumping" information on students, or issuing them with injunctions to do their civic duty. It will require a definition of politics that goes beyond the formal operations of political institutions. Citizenship education would do well to begin with the media that are most accessible to young people, and examine how they deal with the everyday politics of young people's lives.

David Buckingham is professor of

education at the Institute of

Education, London. His book,The Making of Citizens, is published this month by Routledge. For more details, see:

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