Shelf Life: The Kids in the Newsroom

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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.

Adventures in Radio and Film

“Maybe our situation is one that the whole country is in, trying to figure out how to be safe and how to be free at the same time.” So concludes a group of high school reporters during a radio documentary about tough security practices at their school. They interviewed students, teachers, parents, and the principal to weigh the pros and cons of the metal detectors and backpack scans they endure every morning before class. (“It’s sort of like going through an airport–but imagine going through airport security every single morning,” says one beleaguered student.)

The young documentarians are students with Radio Rootz, a People’s Production House program that trains youth in media literacy and radio journalism–research, interviewing, fact checking, and the whole unglamorous shebang. Documentaries like Freedom vs. Safety (School Security) play on public radio stations across the country and are shared through Generation PRX, an online youth radio network. I can’t speak for past years, but this year’s works are inspired: Rootz students deliver solid, serious journalism about the dangers of My-Space, the challenges of being a young African American fencer, and the ups and downs of New York’s new small-schools initiative while maintaining the refreshing enthusiasm and vernacular of teenagehood.

This earnest but playful spirit also motivates projects like America’s Next Top Immigrant, a satiric film produced by immigrant and refugee students at Global Action Project (GAP), a nonprofit that runs video-journalism programs for young people of color and GLBT youth in New York. In the film, seven immigrant contestants compete to achieve the American Dream. “It’s very dramatic and hilarious,” says GAP outreach director Binh Ly, “and it gets at some of the core issues of systematic inequality in our country.”

Last summer, GAP youth created Unsockumented, a six-and-a-half-minute dark comedy starring an ethnically diverse crew of sock-puppet students who discuss the economic pressures faced by undocumented young people and the exploitation they are likely to encounter when they enter low-skills jobs after high school. GAP shared the video with organizations lobbying for the DREAM Act, proposed federal legislation that would have allowed qualified undocumented students access to higher-education benefits (it ultimately failed to pass). “You have to believe that the media they produce could have great potential,” Ly says, “beyond just having them raise their voice and learn media skills.”

Youth Rights Media in New Haven, Connecticut, Baltimore-based Wide Angle Youth Media, the Bay Area Video Coalition, Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s Youth Channel, and Beyondmedia Education in Chicago also work with young people to produce excellent, justice-oriented video and television documentaries.

The Written Word Hangs On

Good old-fashioned written work hasn’t gone completely out of style. Politics is a major theme for YO! Youth Outlook, a program of New America Media, which has a dedicated young-adult audience online and is set to relaunch its print edition this fall. This year, YO! has focused on the election and immigration beats, though arts and education reporting frequently pop up as well. The program works with a lot of recently incarcerated youth, says YO! publisher Kevin Weston, and even pays its reporters, which is a rarity in the field. “Their work is valuable,” he says, “and we want to be able to teach that and model that to them.”

Represent, a magazine written by young people in various realms of the child-welfare system (group homes, foster homes, etc.), focuses on themes relevant to “youth in care”: relationships with birth parents, aging out of the foster care system, addiction, friendship. Before these articles go to print, though, teens go through a lengthy editing process–sometimes spanning several months and more than a dozen drafts–to steer what often begins as a rant into something that will resonate better with both peer readers and policy makers, social workers, and educators. I also recommend WireTap, a social change-focused online magazine for slightly older young people (16 to 28), which houses a set of resources for new writers on its website.

“I cannot wait for this generation of journalists to take the reins,” Kat Aaron says. “They have so much to teach other journalists about how you can combine social engagement and serious journalistic skills and humor and creativity in a totally new way.”

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