Media portrayal of children has a profound impact on attitudes to children and childhood, and is an important influence on adults’ behaviour towards children.
Media depictions provide role models for young people, influencing their attitudes and expectations. The way in which the media represent, or even ignore, children can influence decisions taken on their behalf, and how the rest of society regards them.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, the media’s portrayal of children perpetuates a collection of myths:
- Families in developing countries, children living in poverty and victims of war and disaster lose their individuality and humanity. They are often portrayed as helpless sufferers, unable to act, think or speak for themselves.
- Coverage of children’s issues tends to focus on the sensational while ignoring the broad array of issues confronting children.
- Media reports about children are usually one-offs, with no analysis or follow-up.
- Children’s confidentiality is not always respected.
- When children do feature in the news, they are often portrayed as stereotypes such as ‘starving children in Africa’ and ‘irresponsible teenagers’.
As well as the representation of children as a group, different children may be portrayed by the media in different ways. For instance, boys are often portrayed as 'dangerous', even though official crime statistics show boys are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than girls.
A critical deficiency identified in a discussion on rights and justice in a study of the Latin American media was was the limited inclusion of issues relating to race/ethnicity. Only 0.27 per cent of the pieces on the universe of children and adolescents made reference to factors involving race/ethnicity. The coverage of gender was virtually non-existent, appearing in only 0.07 per cent of the analysed content.
Meanwhile, according to UNICEF, "Information on the extent to which indigenous children are denied their rights to survival, health-care services and education relative to the national average is limited." (State of the World's Children 2006, p.19)
In many states the access of minority communities to the media is seriously limited or in some cases completely restricted. A lack of linguistic plurality within the media environment has been described as a form of ‘soft assimilation’ in that the only available media is the language of the majority and does not reflect a content which is sensitive to minority needs, preferences and issues.
The pages that follow explain how the media's portrayal of children can exacerbate discrimination against children as a body and against particular children. It offers guidance on influencing the media's portrayal of children.