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Study Shows That Older People Enjoy Negative News Coverage About Young People; But Are Youth Really the Reason Older Americans Feel Ostracized?

Posted: 09/03/10 10:46 AM ET

There's been plenty of negative news coverage about youth lately. Parsons student plunges to death after night of binge drinking. Paris Hilton arrested for cocaine. The cast of Jersey Shore (fill in the blank).

Grandma might be asking what's wrong with this new generation of self-destructive youngsters. But as it turns out, the mischievous antics of youth might be the very reason she tunes into the news each day.

Researchers at The Ohio State University and Zeppelin University Friedrichshafen, in Germany, have discovered that older people enjoy negative stories about young people. The reason? Watching kids embarrass themselves bolsters their own self-esteem. There's nothing like an image of Lindsay Lohan in handcuffs to boost the old ego.

In conducting their study, the researchers presented 276 subjects with several stories about either young or old people, accompanied by photos. Each subject read either one of two versions of each story; one version painted the main character in a positive light, while the other presented that character in a negative light. The researchers found that older readers were more inclined to read the negative stories about youth. After participants were finished reading, they were measured in their self-esteem. The more negative stories older people read about younger individuals, the higher their self-esteem tended to be.

The first question, then, becomes: Do media outlets know about this phenomenon, and have they shaped their content in order to appease their older, schadenfreude-prone viewers?

To put this to the test, I ran a Google News search on Foxnews.com and MSNBC.com, tallying all the stories on Lindsay Lohan and Angelina Jolie over the past month. Lohan, of course, is famous for her high jinx, but Jolie has taken on a humanitarian's sheen, leading to more positive news coverage. According to Pew Research Center, MSNBC has a younger demographic (median age: 41.8) than Fox News (median age: 60.3) Thus, my hypothesis was that Fox would go heavier on the Lohan stories and lighter on the Angie articles.

Sure enough, Lohan appeared in Fox stories 231 times, compared with her 162 stories on MSNBC. For Jolie, the tables were turned. She had only 64 hits on Fox, but 133 hits on MSNBC.

I did another search, this time on Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant-turned-workingman's hero, and Ben Roethlisberger, the bad-boy Steelers quarterback charged with sexually assaulting a female co-ed. (For Roethlisberger, I measured the Web hits over the course of a year.) Again, the numbers supported the study: Slater, whose stories were positive, got 60 hits on Fox and 87 hits on MSNBC; Big Ben got 184 hits on Fox, but only 54 on MSNBC.

(I should note that I also ran a search on Paris Hilton, and her hits were almost dead-even -- 211 for MSNBC and 206 for Fox. It appears that some A-list train wrecks transcend the laws of statistics.)

My own slapdash Web searches, of course, are hardly academic, susceptible to way too many variables to be taken at face value. And I highly doubt that producers and editors are conniving in back rooms about how to bring more negative youth stories to their older audiences.

But the study, which appears in the September issue of the Journal of Communication, digs at two deeper cultural issues that warrant attention.

First, it's hard not to appreciate the irony that comes along with this study. Older Americans seem to be lashing out against the misguided antics of youth while at the same time reveling in the stories that feature them: actresses in rehab, athletes in court , Snooki in various states of undress. And for the media, therein lies the problem; when older people voice their anger about the very coverage they get off on, producers will continue peddling negative coverage about kids.

And what are we left with? To answer this question, I challenge you to think of three national news stories this year that put a 20- or 30-something on a pedestal, or have otherwise championed the merits of a young hero. Go ahead and try. I tried myself, and the closest I got was Steven Slater, who earned 15 minutes of fame by chewing out a passenger, grabbing a few beers and sliding off into the sunset.

Second, the authors of the study posit that older people enjoy negative stories about young people because of their own lack of self-confidence, due to their perception that they live in a culture that's dominated by the young. "We think that older people perceive themselves to have lower status in our youth-centered society," says Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, an expert in media communications and the lead researcher in the study.

There's some truth to that. According to a cover story that ran in The New York Times Magazine last month, today's 20-somethings have paved the way for a new category within the lifespan: "emerging adulthood." The writer, Robin Marantz Henig, explains that many 20-somethings shed the mantle of fixed identity, hopscotching between different jobs, partners and living environments.

But while the changing mores of youth serve as a partial explanation for older Americans' worries, I think it might go further than that. We may live in a youth-centered culture, but too often, young people might just be easy scapegoats for older Americans upset by wider cultural changes afoot.

Society has presented us with certain transformations that that some older Americans never believed they'd live to see. We have a mixed-race president. Legalized marriage has come to Iowa (Oh, ya got trouble!). The Latino population is growing. Mosques are being proposed. The horror!

It's true that kids are behaving differently than before, flitting from identity to identity, refusing to entrench themselves, which causes a certain amount of unease among the older generation. "Older people have greater certainty regarding their identity," says Knobloch-Westerwick.

But really, youth behavior is one of just many dramatic changes in society that challenge those very identities, and for some of these folks -- the Tea Partiers, the mosque protesters, the anti-gay-marriage set -- the need to cling to a bygone era has never been more pronounced. The way they see it, youth are the problem. But rather than blaming young people for their own lack of confidence, they should first consider their own unwillingness to adapt to the wider landscape of cultural change, for better or for worse.