Teenage Wasteland: Media Inaccuracy, or Something Else?

When is a 19-year-old not an adult? When it serves someone else’s purpose to label him a “teenager.”

Adults Only
(“Adults Only,” by Pam Morris, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

According to CNN,

Before authorities arrested him at O’Hare International Airport and accused him of attempting to provide aid to ISIS, a teen from the Chicago suburbs left behind a letter for his parents.

Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, wrote that he was leaving the United States and on the way to join ISIS, according to a criminal complaint. He invited his family to join him in the three-page letter, which authorities found in the bedroom he shared with a sibling in Bolingbrook, Illinois. But he warned them not to tell anyone about his travel plans, the complaint said.

The headline — which seems disingenuous in the extreme, given the opening paragraphs — is, “Was arrested teen on his way to join ISIS?”

Throughout the CNN article, as well as on NBC and ABC and other outlets, the young man is referred to as a “teen.” Correct in the strict sense of the word, perhaps, but misleading: this was an adult, of legal age, despite being technically a teenager.

Someone casually reading the headline could make the honest mistake that this was a minor, rather than an adult responsible for his actions. To persist in calling him a “teen” is to imply that his choice to pursue affiliation with ISIS was some youthful folly, rather than a deliberate decision.

The correct news headline — the accurate news headline — would have been “Chicago Man Arrested on His Way to Join ISIS.”

I leave it to the reader to consider why journalists and editors might have made this choice.

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