Friday, April 8, 2011

Shock window

The most disgraceful piece of journalism this past week
remains the New Zealand Herald’s top story of Monday
morning, the one headlined


This was the story that said ‘Criminal assaults by children
of primary school age soared last year… Crime statistics
show the number of children under 9 apprehended for
assaults last year was 64, almost double the 33 recorded
in 2009.’

It was disgraceful first because of the headline, which
branded 64 young children ‘thugs’ without providing a
shred of evidence for the claim. Apart from stating that
44 of the 64 were boys and that four children were
apprehended for serious assaults causing injury and 52
for common assault, the story provided no further
breakdown of the statistics, so Herald readers were left
in the dark as to exactly what sorts of assaults occurred,
in what circumstances, whether each one was an
isolated incident and for that matter whether, following
'apprehension,' any charges were proved.

It’s not even clear whether these assaults were child-on-
child or child-on-adult, or indeed—so lazily are the
statistics presented—whether there’s been a rise in the
number of discrete assaults as well as a rise in the
number of children committing them.

It was disgraceful second because how a rise in recorded
offences on such a small scale could be said to be soaring
(or to warrant a sensationalized front-page headline in
the first place) defies comprehension and insults
common sense. The most recently available figures for
the number of children aged nine or less attending
school show a national roll call of 289,203. Sixty-four is
0.02212% of that, or a fiftieth of one per cent. The
nation’s primary-school playgrounds and classrooms are
clearly not being inundated by a tide of juvenile violence;
the only thing juvenile about the situation is the Herald’s
attempt to beat its chest with moral indignation.

(Further proof of that is the citing of the figure for assaults
in the 10-13 age group: 827 apprehensions last year,
compared with 770 in 2009. That’s a statistically
insignificant increase of 7.4%. Needless to say, the Herald
saw no headline in that.)

And it was disgraceful third because the story made no
attempt to locate the incidence of assaults by children in
the context of the tougher economic times the country has
been going through, other than to quote a psychologist’s
reference to breakdown of parental control. If there really
is a growing problem with children becoming more
physically violent (and despite the latest moral panic
about bullying, no serious evidence of it has yet emerged),
then a responsible newspaper would not be treating
examples of it as if they’d occurred in a parallel universe
stripped of context and meaning.

The use of the word ‘thugs’ comes out of that universe—a
place beyond the real world’s gravitational pull and visited,
if not inhabited, by the headline-makers at the Herald.

As I said in my media comment on Radio New Zealand
National on Tuesday the Herald still publishes a great deal
of quality journalism. A day won't go past that I don't find
something of value in its pages or on its website.
Unfortunately, virtually none of it now appears on the front
page or at the top of the site, where stories about sex, crime
and violence now predominate. It's like entering a
bookshop like Unity, knowing there's good stuff on the
shelves inside, but first having to get past a shop window
that's promoting war games, action toys and soft porn.

It may be argued that it's only one page, and worth putting
up with for the sake of the rest of the paper, but the
contagion has spread to page 3, now often given over to
lurid court cases and gossip about the stars—and if page 3
falls, can pages 4 and 5 be far behind?

The only shred of comfort one can take from Monday's
desperate beat-up in the Herald is that no other major
media, as far as I have been able to tell, thought the story
worth repeating or following up on.

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