What We Can Teach “We Media”

On July 7, 2005, the day of the London bombings, the BBC received a deluge of photos, videos, and emails from eyewitnesses to the attacks. Though not from professional journalists, much of the citizen-submitted media was of high quality, and the BBC incorporated it into its own reporting. It even set up instant diaries for specific citizen journalists to tell their stories.
Since then, the citizen journalism movement—also known as “we media” or “participatory journalism,” in which ordinary citizens report on their communities via blogs, cameraphones, video, and the web—has received heightened attention. News organizations eager to embrace “we media” are trying to figure out how best to do that while remaining accountable to the citizen-submitted information they run. Participatory journalism activists have become increasingly concerned that the movement may actually not be participatory enough, accessible only to those wealthy enough to own the latest technology.

Practitioners could leverage the hype surrounding “we media” as a chance to publicize youth-made media as well as our educational methods. It could also lead to new sources of funding.

Curiously absent from these discussions is a recognition that the youth media field—arguably the prototype for citizen journalism—has already grappled with these same issues of inclusiveness and accountability and arrived at working solutions. While it’s unfortunate that youth media has been overlooked in discussions surrounding citizen journalism, the publicity now surrounding participatory media also points to opportunities for the field. Youth media practitioners could leverage the hype surrounding “we media,” including the ensuing conferences and writings about the phenomena, as a chance to publicize youth-made media as well as our educational methods. It could also lead to new sources of funding.
At a recent conference on participatory journalism, the Associated Press reported, Farai Chideya, a correspondent for National Public Radio in Los Angeles and founder of Pop and Politics, lamented that without access to technology, many poor people of color may not be able to participate in making and distributing news online.
In an article on the Digital Divide Network, Educational Development Center for Media & Community program director Andy Carvin echoed Chideya’s concern. The media phenomenon will remain “skewed to well-off, well-educated populations as long as disenfranchised groups, such as low-income populations, people of color, and people with disabilities don’t have equal access or the skills to participate,” he wrote.
Youth media practitioners need to join this discussion. To address Chideya and Carvin’s concern, we could point out that for 20 years youth media organizations have found ways to include one of the most disenfranchised groups of people: low-income youth. For example, we can point to projects like The Beat Within, which publishes poetry by young people living in juvenile detention centers in California; Voices in Arizona and Native Lens in Washington, two media groups engaging young people on reservations; and Represent and L.A. Youth, both magazines that work with foster youth.
When news organizations wonder how to collaborate with citizen journalists to get high-quality, first-person angles on news, we should mention longstanding partnerships between youth media groups and news organizations such as that between Scripps Howard News and Children’s PressLine, between National Public Radio and Youth Radio, Voices and the Arizona Daily Star, and the more recent collaboration between the teen-written Sex, Etc. newsletter and MTV.
We should inform news groups and “we media” activists about the media educator model commonly used by many youth nonprofits. This model not only makes media tools available to teens, but also pairs them with educators, often professional journalists who provide young people with training, workshops, and proven practices that help them tell their stories effectively.
If news organizations or citizen journalism activists express concern that this method may not work with adults, the youth media field already has evidence that it does. Pacific News Service‘s youth media projects eventually led to multiple ethnic media projects. Appalshop provides media equipment and training to adults as well as teens living in the Kentucky Appalachians. Represent spawned Rise, a newsletter written by parents who have lost their kids to foster care.
News organizations that adopt the media educator model would no longer need to wait passively for high-quality submissions from citizen journalists. They could send media educators to run workshops in the communities they wish to engage, as Bridges to Understanding does. Bridges, a Seattle-based digital storytelling project, sends trained educators around the world to help youth living in indigenous communities document their lives.
Newspapers might send not only journalists, but also media educators to Iraq and other countries mired in war and civil conflict, where they can guide soldiers and local citizens to tell their stories in their own words. This kind of collaboration between a journalist and citizen occasionally occurs by chance, as with the moving diary of a young girl living in Iraq during the U.S. invasion excerpted in the Washington Post last fall.
But if news organizations were to employ media educators, they could get these types of first-person takes on news intentionally and regularly. Chances are they would also stumble across story angles and leads that could be found no other way. When I edited a magazine written by teens in foster care, I had access to a number of untapped stories I would never have heard of simply because I had sustained, trusting relationships with young people living in the system.
Of course, it may be a ways off before the citizen journalism movement or news organizations begin modeling programs based on youth media groups. But those of us in the field can make it happen much more quickly by actively entering the dialogue surrounding the burgeoning phenomena. By attending conferences and participating in related online discussions, we can make it common knowledge that youth media has an extensive body of knowledge to contribute. Youth media organizations might apply for funding to run workshops helping news groups develop their own systems for acquiring high-quality citizen media, or to teach activists how to engage citizen reporters from a broad range of backgrounds.
These are all issues that the citizen journalism movement is beginning to address and to spend money on. When holding so many solutions, we should not wait to be invited to the discussion.

Citizen journalism is attracting fanfare, funding, and heated online discussions. Youth media—the movement’s prototype—needs to get involved.