Challenging perceptions of knife crime

In this guest blog, No Knives, Better Lives (NKBL) explain why they’re taking a different approach to challenging public and media attitudes towards knife crime in Scotland.

NKBL is a national prevention programme in Scotland funded by the Scottish Government and run by a team in YouthLink Scotland, the national agency for youth work. NKBL was started in 2009 as a response to the high incidence of knife carrying and crime, particularly amongst young people.

Knife crime has decreased dramatically in Scotland over the past ten years. Fact. But you could be forgiven for thinking it was a lot more prevalent than it is, thanks to the coverage in the media. Children and young people tell us they are frightened of knife attacks in their schools and streets, describing nightmarish situations akin to school shootings seen in the States.

But that is not the situation here in Scotland. Over the past ten years, the rate of crimes of handling offensive weapons has reduced by 64% and since 2006-07 the number of under 18s convicted of handling an offensive weapon has fallen by 81%.

So how do we get this message and the facts across?

Incidents are reported in the media with accompanying images of faceless people in hoodies brandishing knives in the reader’s face. Using terms like ‘epidemic’, ‘emergency’, it’s no wonder this creates the idea of an imminent threat for young people. We talk about a whole systems approach to youth justice, but up until this point, it hasn’t included the media. We saw there was a gap in the types of images provided by conventional stock image companies. They were all the same type of image as described above.

NKBL approach

As the rate of knife crime in Scotland has changed, so too has our approach. Where previously we thought that showing scary images of large knives or the gory consequences of stabbings would scare young people away from knife carrying, we now believe that this could inadvertently have the opposite effect. When we focus on the fact the most common motivators for young people to carry knives is fear and protection, pairing this with ‘scare tactics’ doesn’t make much sense.

The NKBL approach is based on a youth work approach whereby:

  • Young people choose to get involved;
  • Young people are partners in their learning;
  • We start from where young people are.

Our programme is now shaped around the 4 R’s of prevention: risks, responsibility, reassurance, resilience. Reassurance is about confidently saying that a minority of young people are involved in knife crime in Scotland. This is perhaps the biggest step change and this ties in directly with what the statistics are telling us:

Reassurance – Hardly anyone carries a knife

Responsibility – It’s okay to report knife carrying

Risks – You are more at risk of harm if you carry a knife

Resilience – Have the confidence to resist knife carrying in the first place

Taking Stock

Inspired by the project, ‘One Thousand Words’, by Zero Tolerance and Scottish Women’s Aid, which aimed to show the reality of domestic abuse, we asked ourselves where we could use our expertise of prevention and bring in a photographer to translate that into usable photos for the media.

With Becky Duncan, director of Open Aye, a photographer specialising in social documentary for the third sector, we set to work.

An important part of this project for us was co-designing the images with young people, particularly those with experience of offending behaviour. The focus of NKBL has always been primary prevention but as knife crime shrinks, it is crucial we reach out to young people from communities in which knife culture is still entrenched.

We held three workshops with young people in the Good Shepherd Centre and HMYOI Polmont. For some of the young people, knife crime remained a very present daily reality. Sadly, for a few, they believed it was a situation that was never going to change. They even thought that statistics showing the decline in knife crime is ‘fake news’.

Although initially sceptical of the project, the young people were keen to give us their views on the images currently used and how we could improve them. The consensus in the workshops was that the only way to prevent knife crime was to show the very real consequence of getting caught, and all that entails.

The young people even acted out a number of scenarios they wanted to see in the photos. The arrest photos and the knife in the Police Scotland evidence bag were two ideas we were able to translate directly into the final collection.

The final collection is split into two themes – the consequences of knife carrying, and the positive aspect of being a young person in Scotland. We have produced a brochure to accompany the images which gives tips for journalists on embedding elements of the NKBL prevention approach when reporting on knife crime.

For us, getting the media involved is another piece of the prevention puzzle and an effective way of getting messages out to communities. We hope that our collection will be a useful resource for journalist and picture editors across the UK, and will be a catalyst for changing the way knife crime is reported.

View the full Taking Stock collection here.

Image courtesy of NKBL Stock Images

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University of Strathclyde
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