Looking deeper

Visibility and invisibility of youth, youth policy and race in the San Jose Mercury News

From: Youth Media Council, May 20, 2005
Posted June 10, 2005

View the original report (PDF version)
Study Design
by the Youth Media Council Research Conducted by Allen Almendarez, Dewayne Colbert, Jerome Elzie and Rochelle Johnson of the Youth Justice Project, with support from Oshen Turman, Robert Trujillo and Leconté Dill Report Produced by Jen Soriano, Youth Media Council Design by Amy Sonnie


News coverage of youth shapes public attitudes and decisions about young people. Over the last 10 years, California has incarcerated more and more young people, while continuing to cut social services and close schools.(1) This trend is true in every part of California, including San Jose, California. San Jose is home both to Silicon Valley — one of the most lucrative technology industries in the nation — and a large working-class, multi-racial non-white citizen and immigrant population. San Jose is comprised of both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, where youth and young adults make up nearly one-third of the population,(2) and youth of color from Native, Asian, Latino, and Black communities comprise approximately 50 percent of the total youth population. Economic disparity, racial diversity and structural racism are part of the character of this region and pose a complex story to tell, particularly when the characters are young, poor, and considered neither a key consumer base or an influential audience.

The San Jose Mercury News is the leading newspaper for the San Jose region affecting public opinion and policy throughout the Bay Area. With such potential impact on the political decisions of a region, particularly one with such extreme disparity and diversity, stories about youth and youth policy must be balanced and fair, offering accurate portrayals not only of incidents and individuals, but of systems, trends and polices. The San Jose Mercury News is charged with telling the complex story of a region, reflecting the electricity of conflict and the momentum of change. Taking this challenge seriously, the Mercury News asked the Youth Media Council to support a closer look at their coverage of youth and youth policy. The Youth Media Council applauds the San Jose Mercury News for taking time, energy and using their resources to examine and improve their media content.

What We Did

Between May 1-7, 2005, the YOUTH MEDIA COUNCIL (YMC) — an Oakland-based youth membership-organization dedicated to improving news coverage of youth and youth policy — and the YOUTH JUSTICE PROJECT (YJP) — a YMC member organization dedicated to developing formerly incarcerated youth into advocates for social change — monitored the San Jose Mercury News to see if stories about youth measure up to the standards of fair, accurate and balanced journalism.

Previous studies of news content have documented that racially biased content and images pervade news coverage about young people. These studies have also shown a disproportionate focus on youth crime, during periods when juvenile crime is actually declining, and have noted the exclusion of coverage on important indicators of youth well being such as education and youth poverty.(3) In addition, the same studies found that white adults, especially police and prosecutors, are the primary sources in stories about youth, while young people’s voices are missing. Given that two-thirds of the public make important policy decisions based on information they receive from news media, imbalanced news media creates a dangerous climate for youth.

Following these trends, YMC staff and YJP youth leaders, sought answers to the following questions: Is the San Jose Mercury News covering youth policy developments in juvenile justice, education, and child welfare? In coverage of youth, who gets to speak and who doesn’t? How is race/racism discussed in youth policy stories? What, if any, loaded language or images are found in stories about youth and youth policy?

We are proud to share our findings and recommendations with the San Jose Mercury News and thank the paper’s diversity committee for inviting us to participate in their community input process.


Mercury News content was free of language and images that brand youth as gangsters, violent, or out-of-control. Zero out of 71 youth and youth policy stories contained language that labeled youth as gangsters, gang-bangers, violent, or out-of-control, and no stories showed images of youth in the street, in courtrooms, handcuffed or behind bars.

While the Mercury News is above average in its coverage of youth and young adult recreation, it fails to cover important developments in youth policy. Of 357 total San Jose Mercury News Stories, 71 were about youth and only 22 specifically addressed youth policy issues. Eighteen stories looked at education policy, only four looked at child welfare policy, and none discussed juvenile justice policy. In comparison, 121 stories were devoted to crime or corporations.

CHART: Comparison of Youth Policy Stories to Total Number of Stories, May 1-7, 2005


Of 18 stories about education policy, only one focused on the impacts of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Other education policy stories focused on local and state issues such as teacher tenure and merit pay, but did not discuss policy impacts on students.

Child Welfare & Poverty
There were only four stories on child welfare policy, despite important developments in this area such as overhauls in state and federal processes for evaluating child welfare systems. Additionally, there were no stories that focused on or examined child poverty.

Juvenile Justice
While the San Jose Mercury News bucks the industry trend of focusing on youth perpetrators of crime disproportionate to the rates at which youth actually commit crimes, the Mercury News failed to mention juvenile justice policy in any of its crime stories or any other stories about youth policy.(4) While there were 18 stories about youth and crime, there were zero stories about juvenile justice policy.

There are currently significant policy developments in the field, including Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal to overhaul the California Youth Authority. There was additionally no mention of the anniversary of Proposition 21, passed 5 years ago this Spring — an anniversary that merits critical investigation into the impacts of the policy on young people and youth detention rates, particularly young people of color and their communities statewide.

There are dozens of groups throughout the Bay Area working on juvenile justice reform. Covering crime without providing context about a system that is undergoing significant reforms, generates episodic stories that promote fear instead of offering in-depth information readers can use to make important civic decisions.

CHART: Number of Youth Policy Stories by Policy Area


Adults speak three times more often than youth and young adults in stories about youth and youth policy. Youth appeared as sources in only six of 22 stories about youth policy, and are quoted in recreational stories three times as often as they are quoted in policy stories.

On the positive side, the adults who do speak are more often youth advocates than police, prosecutors or politicians — a commendable break in the industry trend of sourcing law enforcement officials rather than allowing youth and youth advocates to speak for themselves.

Not a single youth or youth policy story mentioned or discussed racism or its impacts on youth and their communities. And in 63.4 percent of all youth and youth policy stories race is not mentioned at all.

Where race is mentioned, the representation is disproportionate to the population of diverse ethnic groups in the region. In almost 50 percent of the stories in which race is mentioned or shown, the subjects and sources are white. While, only eight out of 71 youth and policy stories mention or show Latino/as (11.2%); four mention or show Asians or Pacific Islanders (5.6%); four mention or show Arabs or Middle Eastern people (5.6%); three stories mention or show Black people (4.2%); and only one story mentions or shows South Asians (1.4%). This is in stark contrast to the population of these ethnic groups, which combined make up more than half of the population in both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

In addition, the four stories that mention Arabs or Middle Easterners were about war in the Middle East, not about local Arab/Middle Eastern communities and their concerns.

Racial impacts of youth policy were mentioned in only one article, which discussed international students visiting from China and India.

CHART: Proportion of Youth Stories in which Race is Visible and Invisible



Given the controversy over impacts of state and federal education policies like No Child Left Behind and Governor Schwarzenegger’s de-funding of Proposition 98; given the disproportionately harsh penalties facing youth, especially youth of color, and the significant reforms communities are demanding from California’s juvenile justice system; and given cuts to child welfare funding and significant gaps in California’s foster care system, the Mercury News has a responsibility to cover developments in these issues in an accurate, fair and balanced way.

The Mercury News should increase the number of youth policy stories in coverage, specifically around juvenile justice and child welfare, and should prioritize the voices of youth and young adults in these stories.

To make this possible, we recommend that the Mercury News re-instate the youth beat that was once a temporary staff position, and deepen the role of this position so that fulltime hours can be devoted to exploring the impacts of youth policy and to cultivating relationships between the Mercury News and youth sources working on these issues.

Youth policy stories should address the impact of structural racism and poverty, and discuss disproportionate impact of social policies on youth of color and their families. Issues like state takeovers of school districts made up primarily of youth of color, the negative impacts of testing on students of color, and harsher sentences for youth of color compared to white youth convicted of similar crimes are issues that merit deeper investigation to inform readers about the shortcomings of policies that affect youth most.

There is a wealth of well-researched reports about structural racism and its impacts on youth policy. The Mercury News should use these reports to give context to policy stories. Reporters and editors can use the list of resources on page 10 of this report to find some of this data on how policies impact diverse populations.

The Mercury News should prioritize the voices of youth spokespeople, especially in stories about issues that impact them most. Young people are more than a humaninterest story. There are hundreds of groups in and around the South Bay with young people working to make change. These young people have critical perspectives on important news issues.

The Mercury News should make their community input process a series of annual events open to more community members, especially from marginalized communities. In addition to its teen page, the Mercury News could create a “Two Cents” column similar to the San Francisco Chronicle’s, but specifically for youth. And like the Washington Post does with the Heritage Foundation, we urge the San Jose Mercury News to work with local policy groups who have access to often-marginalized perspectives on important policy issues — such the Youth Media Council, Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, and the Applied Research Center. Reporters can use the attached list of Policy Sources to deepen their relationships with youth and youth advocates working in the youth policy arena.


The San Jose Mercury News is raising the bar for unbiased coverage of youth and should be commended for avoiding language and images that criminalize youth of color. However, the Mercury News falls short in covering youth as sources and subjects impacted by policy change, and is silent on problems of structural racism in the institutions that affect youth most: government, schools, and the juvenile justice system.

While the Mercury News mentions youth and young adults in a significant number of lifestyle stories focusing on the achievements of outstanding youth, there is a lack of news stories that explore the impacts of policies on young people and their communities. This imbalance can lead to uninformed decision-making by politicians and other civic officials. Episodic stories paint a fraction of the picture necessary for readers to understand the landscape in which we live. Thematic stories that highlight youth and young people as subjects, include their perspectives, and explore the institutional roots of current problems can lead to sound policies that address the real lived conditions of youth from marginalized communities.

We encourage the Mercury News to take a deeper look at the young people who make up more than one-third of their market population. Youth are more than human-interest subjects and vulnerable victims, they are vibrant change-makers and civic actors who deserve to be represented and engaged in Mercury News coverage. Youth in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties also represent a wide array of racial groups who bear the brunt of many important political issues that must be reflected and explored in coverage.

Given this, we hope the San Jose Mercury News will follow two key recommendations from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics:

By exposing the unpopular truth about structural racism and its effects on young people, and by including youth perspectives on the decisions that impact them most, the San Jose Mercury News would set an example for all print media seeking to maintain integrity and deepen civic participation at a time of increasing market pressures to produce tabloid news.

We thank the San Jose Mercury News for its efforts and hope that the editors and reporters will continue to work with youth organizing groups and policy groups to put these recommendations into practice.



1 National Council on Crime and Delinquency, www.nccd-crc.org; MotherJones magazine (2001). Debt to Society: Special Report. http://www.motherjones.com/news/special_reports/prisons/atlas.html

2 US Census Bureau, California QuickFacts. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/o6/06085.html

3 Youth Media Council (2001). Speaking for Ourselves; Dorfman, Lori & Vincent Schiraldi (2001). Off Balance: Youth, Race & Crime in the News. See www.buildingblocksforyouth.org/media; Children Now (2001). The Local Television News Media’s Picture of Children.

4 Dorfman, Lori & Vincent Schiraldi (2001). Off Balance: Youth, Race & Crime in the News. See www.buildingblocksforyouth.org/media.

5 Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, http://spj.org/ethics_code.asp


1611 Telegraph Avenue, Suite 510
Oakland, CA 94612
info (AT) youthmediacouncil.org
510-444-0640 x 314

Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth
459 Vienna Street
San Francisco, CA 94112
Ldill (AT) colemanadvocates.org
415-239-0161 x 824

View the original PDF version of the report at www.youthmediacouncil.org for a listing of policy sources and resources for deepening context on race & public policy.

Youth Media Council © 2005. All Rights Reserved.This report was made possible by the generous support of The Tides Foundation, with additional support from the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Foundation, Open Society Institute, Libra Foundation, Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, San Francisco Foundation, Vanguard Foundation, Overbrook Foundation, and the Youth Justice Funding Collaborative. We extend a thank you to all those who make our work possible..