It’s a Big Screen After All? How Connecting with New Audiences Strengthens Youth Media
I am a youth media facilitator at Wide Angle Youth Media, a nonprofit located in Baltimore, MD that combines youth development and civic engagement with video and media production. As a tool for framing dialogue around community issues, youth media is capable of having a serious impact on audiences outside the field, but too often the distribution and the screening of end products preaches to the choir. I worry that the genre I help young people make will be inexorably marginalized, never really recognized as a legitimate and real form of media outside of youth media programs.
Though our youth receive many opportunities to share their work with others through local screenings, film festivals, public television, and online distribution via Wide Angle, many of the audiences for these events are not necessarily the people our youth would most like to talk to; for example, our young people are often more interested in receiving recognition from their peers. In finding out who young people want to talk to and strategizing ways to provide youth with the technical and creative means to best talk to that group, youth tend to make work that, reflexively, is more meaningful to themselves. In order to strengthen the field of youth media we have to find ways to improve how our end products are relevant to audiences outside our immediate networks; the challenges of doing this, in turn, should strengthen the quality of the media literacy training that our participants receive.
Youth Media Audience and the Small World Problem
At the core, I think we at Wide Angle are interested in relationships; we are interested in relationships as facilitated by media, as a means of connecting people to other people, connecting people to ideas, and for connecting youth to the world around them through the process of making media. However, as a result of the complexity of video production, the youth-development aspects of youth media and other issues inside the core group of youth producers often supercede the use of end media products to actually mediate between groups of people.
It can be difficult to gain the attention of new types of audiences for youth media. Wide Angle’s events and screenings typically target youth in our programs, their families, their friends, other youth and adults already involved in after-school programs, arts education, and individuals invested in nonprofits and funding. The audiences for this work tend to already value youth perspectives and hold generally liberal social and political viewpoints. We have worked hard to increase and diversify our audience, but the path of least resistance usually leads to said persons.
In order to reach new kinds of audiences and broaden recognition, we must seek out and build relationships with persons and organizations that bridge networks. Mathematicians and sociologists studying the so-called “Small World Problem,” which is concerned with how isolated groups of people are in fact connected, look for what are called “random connectors in a network”—essentially, people that are able to span subcultures and groups that tend to be insular. Such persons, psychologist Judith Kleinfeld suggests, “can vastly decrease the distance between points” (Kleinfeld, 2002). Identifying connectors between the youth media world and diverse audiences can be a complex and time-consuming task that may require a reallocation of staff and student time, but it is necessary in order to broaden recognition of the field.
Youth Media Stylistics
While interviewing students at the end of my first year at Wide Angle, I asked, “What would you like to do better in your next project?” The most common response was that they would like to make work that would appeal more to their peers. While this particular concern is a subset of the larger problem of the narrow audience for youth media, I think it is apt to frame the argument, especially in the context of how the style of our youth media is related to the audience we are able to cultivate. The youths’ reaction suggests that they believe their work does not receive sufficient recognition, and that, ultimately, the youth are not making the kind of work they wish they could. By being disconnected from their peers, or other target audiences, their work is ultimately disconnected from themselves.
Though Wide Angle’s video productions have included animations and scripted works of fiction, documentaries make up the majority of our catalogue. Most of our youth start with learning basic documentary style video because it requires less preparation before filming, it acts as a vehicle for learning basic camera technique, and it provides an accessible way of engaging with their community. But, after being involved several such productions, our youth became anxious to try and find new ways to communicate their ideas and to explore media.
In making youth media with middle-school and high-school students, we are engaging with an age group that is under tremendous pressure to conform and identify themselves in relation to popular tastes, especially in media. When youth begin to make their own media, it can be difficult to overcome their initial desire to reproduce what they see in dominant media. Trying to emulate what they have seen before can run the risk of being frustrating—there simply isn’t time, equipment, and expertise to recreate what they have seen in a music video on television; the desire to “compete” with popular media in this way can also stunt youth development by making youth less willing to experiment and explore.
However, it can be even more difficult to win over their peers who, being unfamiliar with media technology and production, have little patience for media that does not match up with what they are familiar with in television and film. Thus, when attempting to engage with other youth, we are not merely competing with pre-established views on the content of the work; we are also competing stylistically with expectations derived from dominant forms of media. We are engaged in renegotiating what “good” media is and what it looks like.
As a media educator, I am excited to explore different ways of making media, but, at times, the youth with whom I work have felt that they were expected to make documentary style productions because that is what they have made previously, and possibly also because other staff and I have a history of making documentary-style productions. As staff we had to reevaluate our own biases and be aware of how of our own tastes may dictate the expectations of the youth with whom we work. In order to keep both our youth and our audiences engaged, we must help young people to plant their own stylistic feet in the ground and to make conscious, critical decisions about the style of their productions.
Examples from Wide Angle
Although we do not have a large staff at Wide Angle, we have the benefit of a variety of different technical talents. One way we have attempted to keep staff biases from dictating style to students is by identifying youth interests first and then pairing them with appropriate staff. Guest artists and other organizational partners provide youth with the proper expertise to learn how to make the sort of media that really interests them.
Facilitators should work with youth to identify the stylistic skills they need in order to attract the attention of their target audience, while still addressing the content of the media they are making. We have found that this often results in a more exciting piece of media for both the youth and for their intended audience. Additionally, youth are often enthusiastic to learn new technical skills; working in this way gives youth in our programs a chance to specialize their skills and etch out personalized ways in which they can push our programs forward. At Wide Angle, our high school students have found the following ways to make media that appeals more to their own stylistic interests:
• Young people decided to rely less on verité aesthetics and begin doing more scripted work. When they do use documentary conventions, they have augmented the typical “talking head” interview style with animations, scripted montages, and other elements that add an additional layer of interest to the project.
• Our students have tried to focus more and more on youth perspectives and interests by avoiding over-reliance on “expert interviews” with adults. While these sorts of interviews were informative, our youth felt they did not appeal as much to their peers. Seeing people like themselves on screen sometimes goes a long to way to make a youth audience feel connected to the issue.
• Our students have become more aware that the subject matter and style of their production will dictate potential audiences, and that they should plan for their desired audience at the outset of production. Some of Wide Angle’s most successful projects have resonated with youth on the basis of their content. Schooling Baltimore Street, a documentary about youth activism in response to school funding cuts, provides a positive perspective on what is, essentially, rebelling against school authority to demand one’s rights.
• A recent Wide Angle production, Young Love?, uses a variety of tactics, including a game show parody and other satirical elements aimed at the depiction of romance in television and film to examine youth perspectives on sex and relationships. In this instance, the media connects well with youth because youth are central characters in the work, the work addressed topics of interest to youth, and the projects made use of stylistic elements that break out of the documentary mold. Additionally, our youth made use of genre and style parody as a workaround for not being able to actually reproduce the look and feel of a work of mainstream media, and as a means of commenting on the conventions of mainstream media depictions of romance.
• Teens in our programs have become more aware that their identities as youth provide them with filming opportunities that would not be possible for adults working in a professional production environment. In Wide Angle’s Division Problems, middle school students documented youth gangs in Baltimore, featuring street interviews with gang members.
Recently, some of our students began a production on teen gambling at their public high school. It would have been next to impossible for an adult to gain access to a public school to make a film on this topic. It is important that our youth, as well as outside audiences, understand that youth media can be qualitatively different than adult media and that youth have a powerful ability to explore issues in ways that are not open for adults.
Suggestions to the Field
In order for youth media to expand into new audiences and new viewer demographics, we have to be “random connectors,” making work that is able to bridge groups and cultural tastes towards different genres of media, and develop outreach plans that are able to cross subcultural interests and affiliations.
• In understanding that youth have different privileges from adults, it is important to think of how youth can be the “random connectors” that are needed. Last year, our youth produced a short video on surveillance cameras in Baltimore City and managed to get an interview with the official in charge of the program. No police representative would probably have done such an interview for a typical grassroots media production, but because the department was interested in talking with youth, we were able to get our foot in the door, even though the youth did not ultimately share the department’s opinions on the surveillance issue.
• Placing the focus on the youth-development aspects of youth media and other issues inside the core group of media producers often relegates the use of their products to a grant-obligated afterthought. Focusing on the use of the media should improve the quality of the students’ education by requiring youth to view their work as having a public life and to consider how they would like their media to impact others. Without these components, youth media loses its civic relevance and becomes indistinguishable from arts education.
• For Wide Angle, the simplest way in which we reach new audiences is by piggy-backing on other organizations’ events. These sorts of small-scale and short-duration partnerships allow us to tap into someone else’s network with minimal fuss.
• At the same time our youth have worked to make their media more appealing to their peers, we have to consider the way in which their peers may be accustomed to viewing media. There may be basic media literacy hurdles to be crossed before the average high school-aged youth is willing and able to have a dialogue with or about a film. Therefore, selecting the right venue or situation in which to view a film is as important to making good use of our end products as the stylistic decisions we make in production. For instance, youth may have better engagement with a work of youth media if it is shown and discussed in a well-facilitated classroom setting.
• Festival screenings remain one of the main ways in which small, independent media gain recognition within their field. There are a growing number of youth media festivals at local, national, and international levels, but these are often separate from larger film festivals. Larger festivals often have a youth film category that consists of adult-made films designed for a youth audience. Increased involvement of youth media as a film category at such festivals would be an indicator of the growth and development of youth media as a field.
I became involved in youth and community-based media because, as an artist, I found it difficult to make a significant impact on people’s lives from within a gallery setting. Video and other forms of media can speak in a vernacular that can be more accessible for a general audience.
Making and using youth media encourages relationship-building and civic engagement.
Screenings and presentations of youth media encourage discussion, and youth media can sometimes initiate dialogue on an issue in a way that adult-made media cannot. As youth media practitioners, we must work to keep youth media relevant to people outside our field. We must preserve the civic aspects of youth media that distinguish it from arts education and from youth development, for it attends best to these roles at the very time it is of greatest use to the larger community.
David Sloan has worked as a community-based media artist and activist since 2006, when he assisted Cira Pascual Marquina to curate the Headquarters exhibition at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. He received his MFA in Community Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2008 and currently works with youth as a media literacy educator with Wide Angle Youth Media and the Baltimore Algebra Project. www.wideanglemedia.org
Kleinfeld, Judith. “Could it be a Big World After All? The ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ Myth,” Society. University of Alaska Fairbanks: January / February 2002.