What must children make of this phone hacking scandal and all the controversy surrounding News International, the methods some journalists use to get stories and the relationship between the media and politicians?
“First News” is a newspaper aimed at 14 to 17 year olds and it’s covering the story in depth with a profile of Rebekah Brooks “the woman at the heart of the hacking scandal”, details of the resignations from The Met and how all this is making life uncomfortable for the Prime Minister.
BBC Newsround is also covering the story with its usual excellent journalism and although they might sometimes give the impression they’re only interested in mobile phones and hideous music made with auto-tune you can be sure our young people know exactly what’s going on with this.
When I was that age the fall of communism and the end of apartheid were two of the biggest stories. Me and my friends grew up watching the world become a fairer and more open place with the Berlin Wall coming down and the release of Nelson Mandela having a massive impact. Both these events were considered impossible just a few months before they happened.
As a result my generation grew up taking it for granted that no-one would be discriminated against because of the colour of their skin. While some parents and grandparents remember a world where certain words and attitudes might have been tolerated or even acceptable, for the vast majority of us, it’s cut and dried and we quite rightly have zero tolerance of racism.
So what do changing attitudes and the current scandal mean for newspapers?
Well, they face a battle to get children to read them in the first place because the whole concept of buying something that contains stories that don’t interest them is entirely alien to young people. But even more than that I believe the adults of tomorrow will place a premium on honesty and take it for granted in the way I take it for granted that no-one should be discriminated against because of the colour of their skin.
This is a generation of people prepared to share everything about themselves on Facebook. They’re growing up expecting everyone to know where they are, what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, even when this ends up causing them embarassment or gets them into trouble.
Yes, some will hit 18 and “clean up” their on-line profiles; in fact there’s evidence some of the recent Facebook profile deletions may be students coming out of their degrees and panicking about what potential employers might discover.
But overall young people are developing an expectation that they themselves, adults, businesses and most certainly the media should be absolutely honest, fair and totally open and transparent at all times. In short, it’s getting harder to lie.
The latest crop of music stars like Jesse J, Rihanna, Adele and The Wanted have their own websites and are highly active in social media which means they communicate direct – and sometimes even one to one – with their fans. This means speculative stories about them in tabloids and magazines are worthless. Why would a 12 year old Nicki Minaj fan bother reading about a relationship she may or may not have had when they’ve already got the official version of events?
Young people aren’t daft – they’re taking all this in and it’s affecting their view of the world. No longer is the media a big booming powerful influential voice that tells them what’s going on. Instead, it’s considered something slightly grubby and imperfect that they expect to be able to interact with and shape to suit themselves. They want to make it better.
I think there’s an opportunity here for mainstream media businesses to engage with young people now. Think beyond specific publiations or programmes for “kids” or focus groups trying to anticipate what the future’s going to look like. Ask the people who’re going to be calling the shots. Find a group of responsible teenagers and let them get involved in the production of the newspaper or broadcast news bulletins now. Ask what they think of the stories you run and the methods used to generate them. It would make for a highly engaging school project and give you valuable new ideas. You could change the particular young people involved every couple of months.
Better still – and this applies to all businesses, not just the media – why not consider doing something revolutionary… and put a 16 year old on the board.
If the very thought of that just made you scoff, ask yourself why.
And the answer, I suspect, will lead you to discover what you’re doing wrong.