Getting the ‘True Story’: Editors explain the rationale behind news decisions
What do adults think of teens?

By Sara Hahn, 18, Mayfield Sr. HS
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Does America hate teenagers?

I hope not. But after studying the front page of the Los Angeles Times for the month of March, I can see why adults fear and distrust teens. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they think that teens are out to kill us all. In one headline, an Indonesian teen claimed, "My job is to throw bombs and burn houses." Another "commemorated" the three-year anniversary of the Jonesboro, Arkansas murders, where two teens killed five people at their school. And then there was Santee, where 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams opened fire, killing two and injuring 13, and El Cajon, where 18-year-old Jason Hoffman wounded four people with a shotgun before he was shot by a security officer.

Something is missing from the headlines of the L.A. Times. Teens aren’t blood-thirsty lunatics or sex-crazed drug addicts. But if an adult picks up the paper every day, and all they see are stories like these, then of course they’re going to think that teens are dangerous. There are 2.6 million kids under the age of 18 in Southern California, 70 million in the United States, and I know they’re not all like Charles Andrew Williams or Jason Hoffman. The L.A. Times isn’t painting the right picture.

Maybe editors put stories like these on the front page because they know it will attract more readers and sell more papers. Is anyone going to read a paper with a headline that says "Teens Make Positive Contributions to Society"? But we’re a mixed bag; there are so many ways that teens are affecting society, and it’s not all bad. But just take a look at what made headlines in March.

"Evicting the Homeless Youths of Hollywood." A March 2 article said that many kids who ran away from home have been squatting in abandoned buildings in Hollywood. Now that Hollywood is trying to rebuild, the squatters are being pushed out, which means they’re cut off from counseling and medical services in the neighborhood. Although I could see that the reporter was trying to be sympathetic to teens, I felt that most adults reading this would think that teens are druggies, punks and losers living on the street. According to the paper, three-quarters of the kids living in Hollywood reported drinking, smoking pot, and most said they’d tried LSD and coke.

"Triggers of Violence Still Elusive." After the Santee shootings, a March 7 article said that there were ways to "read the risk" of kids with a potential for violence, "but no one can predict an individual’s behavior." Does that mean any teen could be the next Santee-style killer? The story then jumps to page 14, where the headline says "Most Children With Problems Don’t Become Violent." But this positive message is overshadowed by the article, which dehumanizes teens into lab rats. The Times printed a list of "risk factors" suggesting, for example, that if a child is male, with weak social ties and from a broken home, he could be a menace to society.

‘My job is to throw bombs’

Another disturbing headline: " ‘My Job is to Throw Bombs and Burn Houses,’ Moluccan Boy Says." This March 14 article profiled a war between the Christian and Muslim youth in Indonesia. A 14-year-old Protestant stated, "I didn’t set out to kill, but because they started first, I have to kill them." The Times discussed this "murder and mayhem at the hands of children," where teens make pipe bombs covered with nails and wire.

That’s just the beginning. There are headlines about teens like "Tragedy, Terror and Heroism," "Nightmare Evolves From the Suburban Dream," and "Arrests Reflect Fear of More School Violence."

I figured that maybe positive stories about teens weren’t showing up on the front page, but could still be found somewhere in the Times’ A-section. So I went searching in all the month’s newspapers to find out if maybe I was misguided. But very few articles were positive. One said that there was a new boom in the U.S. student population; another said the high school exit exam was in "limbo." But most of the articles were related to Santee, as well as an article about a 14-year-old girl who shot a classmate in Pennsylvania, student Web sites that were pushing First Amendment rights, a teen who took a bomb to school in Connecticut, a 14-year-old boy who killed a six-year-old and got a life sentence, a 12-year-old in China who set herself on fire. What? Does anyone else think that this isn’t exactly what’s going on in the average teen’s life?

I wanted to find out if I was the only person who was bothered by this, so I asked some of my friends what they thought. And, since I was curious, I asked some parents, too. Does anyone else care about the way teens are portrayed today?

"I totally care," said my friend Elspeth Carden, 17. "I think if the L.A. Times only prints the bad things about teens, you can’t get the entire picture. So many teens are doing other things than shootings and blowing up schools."

Where’s the good news?

My friend Elspeth recently received a huge honor—the Los Angeles Archdiocese Award, which is given to students from schools in the Los Angeles area for her contributions to the community in volunteer work at her local hospital—she’s put in many hours. She hasn’t been interviewed or profiled by a single newspaper about her achievement. It seems to me as if papers don’t want to know about the positive things going on in the community.

A friend’s parent told me that she knows not all teens are vicious murderers. However, negative news about teens concerns her. She said, "I’m worried about very basic values. I think your generation is just overwhelmed with input, and not given a whole lot of guidance."

Look, I’m not attacking the L.A. Times—they’re in the business of printing news, and the events that happened in March did have an impact on society. I’m more worried about the climate that the L.A. Times is creating. It’s making adults fearful and distrustful of teens. It’s making the media think they can continue to make teens look like monsters. And it’s making teens like myself wonder if anyone actually likes us.

Teens are making a positive impact. You might find positive stories about teens in L.A. Youth or your local newspapers. And if you look past the front page of the Times, you might find an occasional upbeat article about youth in other sections of the Times. The Times’ Sunday magazine did an April 22 cover story called "Growing Up In L.A.: Seventeen Kids Reveal the Joys, Aspirations and Fears of Their Daily Lives." The same day, the Opinion section featured Susan Rabinowitz, head of the Teen Clinic at Children’s Hospital, who has a lot of good things to say about teens.

The next time I browse the headlines of the L.A. Times, I’m going to remember: that there’s a lot more to teens than what makes the headlines. According to the Times, teens may be crazy, homicidal and out-of-control—but I don’t buy it.
See page 20 to find out what L.A. Times editors have to say about their negative coverage of youth.

"Despite sharp declines in youth crime, the public expresses great fear of its own young people. Although violent crime by youth in 1998 was at its lowest point in the 25-year history of the National Crime Victimization Survey, 6 percent of poll respondents felt that juvenile crime was on the increase. In the 1998-99 school year, there was less than a one-in-two-million chance of being killed in a school in America, yet 71 percent of respondents to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll felt that a school shooting was likely in their community."

—Off Balance: Youth, Race & Crime in the News, a study disseminated through Building Blocks for Youth at