Youth on the Trail
Katie Bolinger Jordan Denari (All photos courtesy of Y-Press)
At age 11, politics snagged Justin Byers’ attention. A Y-Press team had just returned from covering the 2004 presidential political conventions and Justin wanted some of the action. So that year, he signed up for the youth-media organization’s spring training.
Four years and many headlines later, Justin committed to a yearlong project—Y-Press’s election coverage. In the fall of 2007, What Kids Can Do, a national nonprofit that supports youth voice and action, recruited Y-Press to cover the upcoming presidential election from a youth perspective. The partnership created a dedicated “beat” for Justin and his 19 peers, steeping them in the latest election news, research and coverage. It also assured them a spot on WKCD’s Web site, which reaches a wide audience, from policy makers to youth organizers.
Dubbed “Youth on the Trail” by WKCD, the Y-Press team reports drew immediate attention, beginning in February 2008. The stories ranged from the effects of user-generated content on the campaign to voter-registration outreach to non-college bound teens.
The reports included radio reporter’s notebooks, which analyzed and responded to particular events, and profiles of politically active youth throughout the U.S. The diversity of the youth voices and views featured in Y-Press’s coverage reflected the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the Y-Press team. Taken together, the articles, profiles, and audio commentaries would form the foundation of Y-Press’s election coverage and the content on both the WKCD and Y-Press Web sites. See: http://www.whatkidscando.org/featurestories/2008/09_eight_weeks/pdf/YPress%20Youth%20Profiles.pdf and http://www.ypress.org/news/dnc.
For WKCD, the Y-Press partnership brought coverage of the unprecedented involvement of youth in the 2008 election as close to the ground as it could get.
Given the vibrant role that young people promised to play in this presidential campaign, it was clear that the Y-Press news bureau needed to find innovative ways to cover youth involvement and share a youth perspective in mainstream media. Since the election in 2004, young people have plunged head first into new uses of technology. They are expressing their ideas using blogs, podcasts and campaigning for candidates through social networking sites. Y-Press realized it must take advantage of multiple delivery platforms.
The benefits and challenges to Y-Press reporters were substantial. A team approach ensured consistency, an in-depth knowledge base, and the foundation of Y-Press’s coverage. The chance to have such a dedicated beat stirred both the curiosity and the confidence of Y-Press journalists. “You become a resident expert in politics,” said Y-Presser Katie Bolinger “constantly exploring and seeing what else there is to know about the field.”
Radio: An Old Standby, But New Use
Early on, the team decided that radio would play a significant part of the coverage. Radio, a far different medium from the days of FDR’s fireside chats, can now be heard online and archived to listen to at any time.
And while radio provided a new audience, it accomplished something much more. Traditionally print has provided the anchor coverage. Soon after pieces began airing and podcasting on WFYI-FM, the area’s public radio station and on its Web site, listeners began responding. While print includes ages of the young journalists, the fact that it was a young person reporting could not be mistaken. Hearing a young person’s voice made it clear to the audience, and they were impressed.
The approach was simple. Young journalists covered an event and used material from their reporting and personal experiences. For example, when Sen. Obama spoke at a town hall meeting in Plainfield, Ind., a question from the audience queried him on domestic violence. That question with his response anchored the reporter’s notebook, which included her domestic shelter volunteer experiences and the questions Obama’s response got her thinking about.
Jordan Denari interviews Barack Obama.
The lengthy primary season provided Y-Press with several coups. Since 1964, Indiana’s primary has not mattered, but given the race Sens. McCain, Obama and Clinton were in Indiana multiple times, pressing the flesh to win votes. Having requested interview time with the major candidates since fall of 2007 and having no success, the three seemed unattainable. However, in the months leading up to the primary, Y-Press was able to snag all three, and their radio reporter notebooks provided listeners another perspective.
Millie Cripe interviews Hillary Clinton.
When it came time for the presidential conventions, Indiana Public Broadcasting worked with the team to make the reports available to member stations across the state, extending the audience and visibility for youth media.
In addition, the audio segments found a place on the radio station’s Web site, as well as WKCD and Y-Press’s, extending the reach and adding another mainstream delivery platform. Also, Generation PRX featured the radio commentaries in its monthly newsletter, alerting others to the audio pieces and PRX made them available to other public radio stations.
Research Using Social Networking Sites
Interviews with the candidates demanded reporting persistence. Young journalists recognize this challenge, but finding young political activists who were also not old enough to vote, proved even more difficult.
Scouring the country for teenage political activists worth profiling—Democratic, Independent, or Republican—required inventive detective work. The commitment to include a huge diversity of opinions in the activists profiled—ideally a youth in almost every state—upped the ante. The Y-Press team members soon found that they couldn’t rely on a single e-mail to locate a young activist but needed to follow up and revise their queries as needed, sometimes again and again.
Social networking sites proved to be a powerful research tool for young people under 18. In total, the team produced 39 profiles of young people from 30 states, including Molly Kawahata, 17, from Palo Alto, Calif. Shortly after Sen. Obama announced his run for president, Molly volunteered first at her high school and then at the state level to support the campaign. Soon promoted, she started training young people to emulate her success in California.
And other people and organizations took notice of the efforts of young people like Molly. The National Constitution Center actually developed a portion of its exhibit to highlight the work of these young political activists. Searching the Internet to find politically savvy youth for its national-traveling exhibit about the “Road to the White House,” the exhibit developers thought it would be easy. Coming up empty-handed, they were elated when they found Y-Press’s young activist profiles. According to Melissa Carruth, the senior exhibits manager, “(The stories of these young people) will continue to inspire everyone, especially kids, who come and visit to become more active in this and future elections.” Eight young people are featured in the Philadelphia-based center’s exhibit, which early next year will travel to presidential libraries and other locations.
Challenges in the Coverage
One obstacle that the team didn’t anticipate was lack of access at the presidential conventions—traditionally the centerpiece of Y-Press’s presidential election reporting.
Just five weeks before the convention, youth-media organizations across the country learned that requests for credentials had been turned down. Across the board, the Republicans denied media credentials to anyone under 18. The compromise the Republican credentialing office offered was limiting the team to journalists 18 and above.
This was not a viable option for Y-Press given the ages of the “beat” team. Accustomed to smooth sailing, Y-Press, like many others, had already planned the many details of its coverage plans, from sleeping accommodations to reporting assignments on the convention floor, so the decision was made to forge ahead.
With political coverage appearing in The Indianapolis Star for over 18 years, youth journalists have developed relationships and respect from state politicians over an extended period of time. A congressman and GOP chair of the state party supported the media credential request and using those alliances to advocate for and testify about the professionalism of the group was critical. While late in the game, it may support the case for youth-media four years from now.
Still the decision, according to Y-Presser Tommaso Verderame, 15, was baffling in light of the fact that both parties were trying to do more to reach out to young people to elicit their interest, involvement and—potentially—their votes.
Advice from the Field
Start early to legitimize the coverage.
In 1992, 1996 and 2004 teams began preparation early in the year, but the actual reporting began in the summer. This year, the issues were identified early in the primary season and stories produced throughout the year, informing coverage for the presidential national conventions.
• David Glass, 17: “I think that it makes us feel more legitimate that we’re covering it from the beginning and not just jumping in like at the conventions. You see every other like newspaper or magazine or news organization covering that stuff from the very beginning.”
Establish an “election beat,” adding depth to coverage.
Election coverage committed the team to the subject of politics. The focus helped reporters delve deeper, sharpen their expertise and produce creative story angles.
• Jake Thornburgh, 15: “You have to stay on top of it and you have to research and you have to really focus. But it also gives you the option to explore that topic and take out different pieces from that topic and explore those a little bit more. It gives you the option of a lot of different things while you still focus on one thing.”
Use creative networks to locate interviewees.
Using the Internet, social networking sites, cold calls, reporters stepped outside their comfort zones and followed every lead, figuring out new methods of contacting often hard-to-reach middle and high school students while retaining a sense of professionalism.
• Jordan Denari, 17: “It is also really important to know the boundaries—how you can contact some young people versus the press secretary of one of the presidential candidates. There is kind of a line, you know, professionalism, we have to make sure we follow.”
Use multiple media outlets to effectively expand audiences.
The coverage strategy emulated the business strategies that many media companies have pursued in recent years. Besides print, radio and audio-slide shows were produced. Adding media platforms also changed the audience.
• Hrishi Deshpande, 13: “I definitely think we attracted a broader audience. People who don’t necessarily go to the Internet and say, ‘I’m gonna Google Y-Press.’ But people listening on the radio (heard it and said), ‘Hey this is something cool.’”
On the team, include “veterans” with convention experience.
At the onset, five team members shared their expertise from 2004 and assumed leadership roles, brainstorming ideas to change the coverage and offer support and insight to the novices.
• Tommaso Verderame, 14: “The role of the veterans is obvious—they know what it takes. An obvious framework is always helpful. From the beginning we all knew, regardless of whether it was accomplished or not, what we had to do. A framework will help us at the convention, too.”
The Consequences of Not Taking Youth Seriously
Assuming there is a true youth political movement in the country, today, it makes sense for political parties to recognize the contributions and investments young people have to offer.
Youth have been more politically active than at any time since 1972 (the year the voting age became 18). Then, 55 percent of voters under age 25 cast votes. After hitting its peak during the Vietnam War era, the youth vote declined for three decades. Now those numbers are increasing; according to CIRCLE, in the 2004 presidential election, the national youth voter turnout rate rose nine percentage points compared with 2000, reaching 49 percent.
The GOP’s decision to deny Y-Press and other youth organizations access at the recent convention raises questions about a free press and age restrictions.
Youth beats in U.S. presidential politics and civic life are critical to keeping the public informed and addressing issues that youth are passionate about and wrestling with. To ignore young people because they cannot vote, when educational institutions have as their missions to educate civic-minded citizens, is not a wise idea. A knowledgeable electorate is a key to democracy.
It’s not enough to have adult reporters speak for youth—whether the subject is politics or sexual behavior.
While the attitude of political candidates towards youth has seemingly changed, beginning with Bill Clinton who credited MTV with helping him get elected, in reality not much has. Although the Democratic National Convention had opportunities for young people to give input, such as its newly formed Youth Caucus, direct involvement at the prime-time convention was limited even at the DNC.
Age restrictions are difficult to accept in an era when young people are highly skilled at finding and sharing information. In this new media culture, youth are more than just consumers of digital content; they are also active participants and creators, developing content, debating and interacting with others, and taking action—even launching their own initiatives and organizations.
All of the candidates in the 2008 presidential campaign, to one extent or another, have said it’s vital to make young people part of a representative democracy. Long before this election, youth reporters longed to hold politicians accountable for their records on youth issues, such as education, health care and poverty. With only weeks left until the presidential election, the youth vote may be the deciding factor. This, certainly, would be a welcome change.
It is important that youth-media organizations continue to press for representation at the political conventions. Youth media could borrow a page from bloggers. This media form was in its infancy in 2004 and only a small number of bloggers received credentials. However, this year the group had an entire media tent at the Democratic Convention. Continuing the conversation about age restrictions and advocating as a group will be necessary for youth media to attain a similar growth in status. Starting now will be critical to ensure that youth media has a place at the conventions in 2012.
Katie Bolinger, 18, is a senior at Pike High School in Indianapolis who plans on studying music education in college. She has been a member of Y-Press since 2002, and she attended both the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver and the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston.
Jordan Denari, 17, has been a member of Y-Press for five years. In 2004, she reported for Y-Press from the Republican National Convention in New York, and this year covered the Democratic National Convention from Denver. Outside her volunteer time at Y-Press, Jordan plays basketball and leads a social justice club at her school.
Lynn Sygiel is the Y-Press bureau director, opening it in 1990. Located in Indianapolis, Ind., it was a Children’s Express bureau until 1999. Since 1984, she has worked with young people to cover the presidential national conventions.
Barbara Cervone coordinated Walter H. Annenberg’s $500 million “Challenge” to improve the nation’s public schools from its inception in January 1994 until June 2000. As national coordinator she directed the research, communications, and sharing and learning among the Challenge’s 18 school reform projects. Previously, Dr. Cervone served as associate director of the Rhode Island Foundation, one of the country’s ten largest community foundations. She has been a consultant in program evaluation and an investigator for several national education research projects. She also has written extensively about school reform. Early in her career, she worked in the alternative school movement, first as a researcher and later as the coordinator of a network of alternative high schools in ten states. Barbara Cervone lives in Providence, Rhode Island.