OPINION: Knife crime and young people: what role does the media play?

How does the media’s portrayal of knife crime impact those affected? Why are levels of knife crime so high, and what are the promising solutions that should be explored?  

Lauren Bisp talks us through her research, which looks for answers to these crucial questions.

Words: Lauren Bisp

In the last ten years, knife crime has risen by 46%, and I recently undertook research to understand why. I asked young people, community leaders and youth workers alike why knives were carried, the effect the media has on knife crime, what they feel the community is doing to help and what more could be done. 

Many young people who carry knives do so due to circumstances, often coming from systemically disadvantaged backgrounds and complex home lives and experiencing poor mental health. Throughout my research, it became apparent that most young people carry knives because they want to feel protected, not because they’re out to kill. Some young people likened being caught on the street without a knife to leaving the house without a phone: it simply didn’t happen.

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In order to find a cure for knife crime, we have to work from the bottom up, says Martin Bisp, CEO of Empire Fighting Chance.

Knife crime is not the disease, just a serious symptom of it, and to be able to tackle it you need to understand why it is happening. You need to work from the bottom up and tackle systemic disadvantages, poverty, and complex home lives.

If you are born in an area of deprivation, you are significantly more likely to be affected by knife crime. The risk of victimisation doubles if you’re unemployed.

In order to begin to tackle knife crime, this link needs to be understood. Research by the Intergenerational Foundation and by the Guardian has found that the lack of opportunity presented to those born in areas of deprivation – which includes poorer education, fewer employment opportunities and a lack of community projects – means young people continuously experience structural barriers to achieving their goals and therefore simply feel as though they have less to lose in the face of violence. Other research has found that young people feel a sense of societal alienation; if the system doesn’t care for them, why should they care for the system?

Poster from the Ben Kinsella Trust, which works to tackle knife crime

A young person I spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous, mirrored this sentiment.

A lot of the people I know who carry knives and stuff, they’re just not bothered, nothing really fazes them because they’re going to go through worse.

Research found that politicians and the mainstream media often present a narrative which blames “violent” individuals, parents, and sometimes entire communities rather than acknowledging that their social and economic policies are flawed.

The effect of the media was also a key element of my research.

The 2018 report from the Youth Violence Commission found that over 90% of young people are exposed to online violence at least once a week, and the media is often cited as a catalyst for violent behaviour. Despite this, the Youth Violence Commission believe that placing the blame on violence in the media simply serves as a mainstream distraction from systemic failure.

Another young person I spoke to discussed the perception they believe the media creates:

They make it seem like all black kids are in gangs, but really there are white kids in gangs as well. They discriminate, like us black kids are all rude, or all selling drugs.

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Delroy Hibbert, managing director of Freestyle Bristol, explained that the audience of the media indirectly affects young people:

A lot of young people don’t pay attention to or read the mainstream news, but their parents do. It can distort their parents’ view of what’s going on, which will have an indirect effect.

He’s right. The majority of those under 24 use social media as their main news source, while the majority of those aged 34 and over watch the mainstream news platforms.

Research has found that the media shapes people’s opinions and perceptions of society, and that it is important to have a diverse newsroom in order to ensure a balanced representation and the elimination of discriminatory reporting. Despite this, in 2020, only 7% of media leaders were BAME, which has been linked to the disparities in the way the press reports on crimes.

Discussion group, “What does BAME mean to you?” at Freestyle Bristol. Image: Delroy Hibbert, @crossingthedanny

Research has found that the media’s reporting of crimes can lead to ethnic minorities being stereotyped as criminals, anti-Black attitudes being present, and society supporting disproportionately longer sentences for those who belong to an ethnic minority.

One thing which the media does well, however, is to raise awareness of topics which need attention, such as current approaches to tackling knife crime, as seen through the coverage on bleed kits.

On February 6th, a bleed kit was installed in memory of Dontae Davis at the Salvation Army in Lawrence Hill. Leanne Reynolds is the one-woman crusader who fundraised and campaigned for several years to get bleed kits installed in Bristol. Depending on the funding received, her tireless efforts will see 150 bleed kits placed around Bristol and the wider Southwest. I was lucky enough to talk to Leanne as part of my research, and she explained bleed kits further:

I don’t think we’re going to be able to prevent people from stabbing eachother, so I’m going for another angle. This way, at least another kid doesn’t have to die. Once I roll out the first one in February, I will then be focusing on teaching you how to use it.

Bleed kits contain all the necessary equipment to control a catastrophic bleed while waiting for an ambulance. Those present at a stabbing can call 999 and be directed to the nearest bleed kit, where they will then be talked through how to use the kit by the emergency operator on the phone. These are lifesaving devices and can be found at the Empire Fighting Chance gym in Easton and the Salvation Army in Lawrence Hill, among other locations.

Freestyle Bristol’s Youth Music Session in partnership with Southmead Development Trust. Image: The Sanctuary, @sanctuary_bs10

Over the last ten years, £880 million worth of cuts made to youth services have resulted in the closure of over 750 youth organisations across the UK, dramatically reducing the choice of places in which young people can spend their time. These cuts are believed to be the biggest reason for the drastic rise in knife crime.

Evidence from the British Youth Council suggests that approaches such as youth work, which work outside of formal systems such as the justice system rather than directly associated with it, are much more effective and will have better success when tackling knife crime. My research mirrored these findings.

Everybody I spoke to believed that an increase in youth work could be the answer to a reduction in knife crime. Youth work provides diversionary activities to young people, giving them a sense of community and belonging, which in turn can divert them from turning to the streets and getting involved with gangs and knives.

Football Friday session from Freestyle Bristol & Full Circle Docklands. Image: Omar Powell, @leftwantingmo

Over the past decade, the UK has seen a 70% decline in funding provided to youth services, resulting in the closure of over 700 youth centres. It became apparent throughout my research that youth work and workers have a huge influence on young people’s lives, as they introduce them to role models, communities, and activity. These cuts can be, and have been, fatal.

One of the young people I spoke to explained this further:

They’re a role model, they have a big impact on people’s lives, and how they think.

Throughout my research, many young people said that often, through no fault of their own, young people at risk of knife crime come from environments and home lives which are chaotic. They often lack the figure of a role model, and sometimes they look for this in gangs, which eventually drives them to knife crime. By intervening in a young person’s life early, youth workers are able to act as role models, which could potentially save a life and decrease the use of knives.

Empire Fighting Chance coach at Felix Nights, Freestyle Bristol’s youth project in Easton. Image: Delroy Hibbert

With this knowledge in mind, we must ask: if youth workers and youth organisations are able to make such a difference, then why are they constantly being cut?

In order to start reducing knife crime and saving lives, initiatives such as bleed kits need to be backed and funding needs to be re-invested into communities. Young people and youth workers should be asked what they believe would help, and parents and teachers need to be taught how to spot, and subsequently deal with, knife crime. A public health approach should be taken on a city-wide basis, to allow efforts, funding and strategy to be properly focused on what would work for each location, and the needs of young people, on a more concentrated basis, rather than assuming every young person across the nation can be supported in the same way.

Organisations and Resources:

Empire Fighting Chance: A charity for those aged 8-25 using a combination of non-contact boxing and personal support.

Freestyle Bristol: A leading youth provider in Bristol delivering youth activities and digital resources.

Fearless: A totally anonymous place to report knife crime information.

The Ben Kinsella Trust: Resources for parents with concerns about knife crime.

Bristol Knife Bin and Bleed Kit Campaign: Support and learn about the Knife Bin and Bleed Kit initiative.