Shelf Life: The Kids in the Newsroom

What young activists and student journalists can teach the old guard


| September-October 2008



Kids in the Newsroom

image courtesy of Radio Rootz

Earlier this year, MTV debuted The Paper, a show that followed the real-life drama of a high school newspaper and its staff of student editors with designer eyeglasses and strong personalities. Former teen journalists may not identify with the histrionic newsroom of The Paper—the tears, the screaming, the team-building exercises, the iPhones—but one high-strung episode did strike a familiar chord: In “The Final Showdown,” the assistant principal nearly yanks a front-page news story at the last minute.

This brush with censorship will, unfortunately, resonate with young editors past and present. In the last two years, school officials have cracked down on student newspapers for criticizing an antismoking ad campaign (Globe, Arizona), debating the n-word (St. Louis, Missouri), and publishing a photo of a student burning the U.S. flag (Shasta, California), among other transgressions.

Away from school grounds, in nonprofit offices and tricked-out recording studios, youth-media programs do for young people what high school newspapers cannot: capture their stories and perspectives unbound, through radio, film, print, or television. Ingrid Hu Dahl, editor of the Youth Media Reporter, estimates that there are around 100 such organizations in this country, a number that’s grown in recent years because “people are catching on that school systems don’t operate in ways that empower young people.”

It is no doubt empowering for those whose perspectives are kept out of the mainstream—particularly young people of color, who are often the focus of youth-media programs—to express themselves with a slick short film or evocative piece of writing, and then hold the finished product in their hands. But then what?

Storytelling is important, but stopping there “actually does a disservice to young people,” says Kat Aaron, codirector of People’s Production House, a media justice organization in New York City. “Some youth media programs provide a vantage into the lives of ‘at-risk’ youth,” Aaron says, but don’t equip the kids with ways to change their situations and communities. The most interesting work comes from organizations that encourage young people to investigate the issues they care about and get involved in the broader movements associated with those topics.