Dissecting a Media Scare

Shortly before I went on break, someone e-mailed me a segment from WDAZ News (Grand Forks, North Dakota) focused on the "newest youth trend" -- "Emo" (or as the reporter helpfully explains, "emotional people.") It struck me as a textbook example of the ways that youth subcultures get misrepresented on television news and the ways that adult anxieties about kids who don't look, dress, and act "normal" get turned into hysteria by misreporting. I have long argued that we need media literacy for adults far more urgently than we need it for kids, so I figured we might use this space to collectively dissect this video and the various ways that it constructs Emos* as a threat to public safety. So, dear viewers, let me invite you to join me in a game of what's wrong with this picture?

1. Look closely -- there were no actual Emos consulted in the production of this segment. The reporter spoke with a local police officer who emerges here as the expert on this youth trend (despite the fact that he knew nothing of the subculture before his daughter told him about Emos) and then went to the local high school, talked to a few "average" students about what they think about those "other" kids who are all "emotional" and stuff. This means one of several possibilities: the reporter couldn't find any actual Emo in Grand Fork; the reporter has no idea what an Emo looks like; and the reporter couldn't care less if there are any actual Emos who might have a point of view in this story. (Of course, given how subculture members most often get treated on news segments like this one, this may be a blessing in disguise!)

2. Literal mindedness is the hallmark of most coverage of youth subcultures. Subcultures adopt often hyperbolic style to express their resistance to dominant culture but it is not a simple matter to understand what that style means and one should be highly reluctant to ascribe any single meaning to the style. In this case, though, the reporter isn't even responding to any actual subcultural practices: they are responding -- let's assume unknowingly-- to parodies of the subculture created by outsiders who themselves know little about what's going on. I took a look at some of the sites which flash quickly across the screen during the segment -- Insta Emo Kit -- for example and it is clear that they are as close to a checklist of what you have to do to become a good little Emo as George W. and his classmates red the Preppy Handbook to figure out how to get through Yale. We fill out check lists for a great many reasons. As a native Southerner, I am sucker for checklists that start with "15 reasons you may be a redneck" for example. But most of them are not exactly a guiding set of principles by which we organize our existence or rank ourselves. Subcultures don't typically come with membership cards and instructional manuals and if you think you found one, I'd be looking for the little emoticons that demonstrate that more than likely the author is smiling at you.

Consider, for example, this passage from the site:

The height of achievement for an emo boy is to live to forty while mooching off his parents and clutching their inheritance. This will allow the emo boy to go to emo concerts in the future and listen to the same old derivative music that got its start in the punk movement back in the 70's. Ah, we mean the 90's. If any emo music you listen to has its roots in anything before 1998, then you're old school and therefore not emo.

Does this sound like something that was written by a leader of the Emo movement? Or for that matter, by anyone even remotely sympathetic to the Emo subculture? Is it possible that the reporter didn't bother to read the website that the story suggests is the key to understanding Emos?

3. The next step is to remove the subculture from any larger historical or cultural context. Maybe there were no Emos in North Dakota until a few months ago. Maybe the reporter is looking for that extra-timely factor that gives a story like this one a sense of urgency and might even push us towards a crisis mentality. Nothing like this has ever happened in North Dakota before and by jiminy, we've got to put a stop to it right away.

4. The next step is to link the subculture to some risky behavior -- in this case, the reporter makes literal the old journalist story, "If it bleeds, it leads" by equating being an Emo with cutting. There is no actual evidence beyond a few sketchy websites to demonstrate any direct links between the two. There's no attempt to figure out how common such practices might be within this community. There's no recognition that cutting is a symptom of clinical depression which occurs across many different segments of the population. It is simply taken as given that if your son or daughter goes all Emo on you, there's a high likelihood they are going to be looking for a way to cut themselves up.

5. Recanting is always helpful. Pay attention to the rather gothy girl in this segment who starts out trying to offer some sympathetic account of why these kids act the way they do and then uses every trick in the book to disassociate herself from being seen as an emo. If even your friends won't stand by you, then there has to be something seriously wrong with you, or at least that's the logic the newscasters are using. Note also the opportunistic use of quotations: does this girl really think that cutting yourself is just another form of creative expression or was that a slip of the tongue that the journalists are using here to create a through-line for their piece?

*I should warn you that I have had very little exposure to Emo culture myself but you don't have to know much to see how badly they are being misrepresented here. A reader notes that they are usually called Emo or Emo Kids, not Emos. I have left the text as is so it doesn't render the comment senseless but know that you probably shouldn't trust me on the plural form. I haven't gone back to check the video but I am pretty sure they do use Emos throughout.

So Why Should We Care?

A little while back, reader David A. wrote a response to my blog post about the Politics of Fear, saying what a number of others have suggested -- that I take all of this too seriously.

Here's what he had to say:

I am always amused by our politician's efforts in regulating the internet, for our own good of course. I think you take them way too seriously, Henry. Efforts to rein in violent video games will have no more effect on their sales than the CAN-SPAM Act had on the amount of spam I get in my inbox. It's all a dog and pony show. The reason they can make propose such irresponsible, and quite possibly unconstitutional legislation, is that is that they know it will have no effect on anything -- for a wide variety of legal, technological and commercial reasons. Furthermore, they get the no-risk benefit of appearing to be "doing something" about the problem.

What the politicians fail to realize is just how foolish and ineffectual it makes them look from the prospective of up-and-coming generations of voters. How is anyone going to take them seriously in the future?

All of this sounds reasonable. We can fall prey to a moral panic about moral panics. But here's why I remain concerned:

1. Governments have no legitimate business holding hearings on matters to which they have neither the authority nor the resolve to pass actual legislation. In Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, I reprinted my account of testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee investigation into youth and violence after Columbine. The hearings were described by one of the Senators who participated as a "ritual humiliation" of the American entertainment industry and were intended to create a chilling effect around popular culture, intimidating the media industry into making decisions which they could not be legally compelled to make otherwise. Such hearings, in and of themselves, do damage to the range of ideas in circulation in our society, precisely because the hearings themselves can not face legal challenges, and because they invite us to take likely the protections of free speech in the Federal Constitution, undermining respect for what should remain solid walls against government constraints on expression.

2. Political leaders and newscasters, alike, can lead moral authority to thugs who operate outside of government constraints and at a much more local and immediate level. Even if no laws get passed, or the laws that get passed are overturned through the courts, they have given moral authority to parents who are over-reacting to their son or daughter's thrashing about trying to define their identities, to principles and teachers who pass policies at the most local level that can make it a utter hell to receive a public education in this country, and to bullies who want an excuse to beat up any kid who looks, acts, or thinks differently than the fine folks in Grand Forks, North Dakota. In the case of Columbine, there were any number of horrors committed at local levels by people who wanted to protect their teens from the horrors that the folks in Washington DC were warning them about and they went further than Sam Brownback or Joseph Lieberman would have ever imagined but I didn't exactly see either Republicans or Democrats standing up and suggesting that these people were abusing their authority in this matter.

Having staked out a position in opposition to DOPA, I now receive a steady stream of angry letters from yahoos of this ilk. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a letter we received from a concerned parent:

Teens need to live genuine lives, not virtual lives. And your position that by monitoring teen use of the Internet we risk the trust of our teenagers is completely indefensible. The overwhelming majority of teenagers are untrustworthy almost by definition. Anyone who accepts at face value what a teenager says is either an idiot or a teenager or both.

The unfortunate reality for those who, like you, abandon reality in preference to its digital approximation is that as parents of teenagers we are legally bound to the activities of our juvenile dependents. If one of our teenagers violates the law, we, the parents, will be served a summons along with our child. And make no mistake, a 16 year old is still a child. Hence, it is only prudent that as responsible parents we keep a close eye and a tight reign on our children as they enter the wonders and horrors of the Internet...

With all due respect, we really don't need another apologist for irresponsible

Teenaged behavior.

Hey, it's an improvement over what I usually get called! Sure, this guy was probably cranky about his teenage daughter before MySpace came along, but the last time we need is to give this guy more firepower.

3. Such laws do pass and do have some real impact on those youth who have the most to lose. While DOPA failed to pass the Senate, there are still very real risks that similar legislation (The Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act) will sail through Congress this go around and even if it doesn't, at last count there were anti-social networking laws under consideration in more than 20 States, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. Many of these laws will pass. Some will be overturned in court. Many of them will make it harder for schools and libraries to provide instruction to students about rationale use of social networks. Some will block teens whose only access is through schools and public libraries from access to the online experiences which are formative for their classmates. There's something at stake here, folks, and most likely, it is at stake in your own state or local community.

Do such laws block the long-term development towards a more participatory culture? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But they can certainly inflect misery on the lives of an awful lot of young people along the way. We don't want to over-react but we can't afford to be complacent. Let's not panic but let's take action