Youth Media in the Aftermath of Disaster

Media coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath showed myriad representations of suffering and loss. While heartrending, images of destruction were often de-contextualized, and journalists from the national media and documentarians who popped in for some coverage often misunderstood New Orleans’ complex urban experience.
Partly in response to these representations, a broad range of youth media initiatives emerged in the years following the storm, producing new work by, for and about New Orleans youth. These initiatives ran the gamut of form and content, yet similarities between the projects emerged. These organizations had the common goal of promoting youth media as a necessary tool for expression and communication during crisis.
The sudden uptick in youth media production in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina posed an interesting question for our respective institutions. The New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC) is a 38-year-old community media arts nonprofit dedicated to providing access to creative media technologies; Tulane University is an academic institution with tremendous local impact, as the largest employer in New Orleans.

After the storm, both NOVAC and Tulane struggled with how to respond to the changing landscape of local representation. Tulane now requires all students to complete over 80 hours of service in the community, providing an eager population to help area non-profits. And recently, Tulane and NOVAC began to collaborate on community media initiatives.
While we welcomed the proliferation of voices within the community clamoring to be heard and were awed by the many resources suddenly available to local community groups, we, like everyone else, struggled to find our place in the vast web of the rebuilding process.
It quickly became apparent that our most important function lay in helping the myriad community media initiatives work together in order to better coordinate resources. As relatively larger institutions in the field, we felt we could help amplify the many emerging voices throughout the city by connecting them to larger audiences and opportunities, and—perhaps most saliently—by connecting them to one another.
To youth media providers in areas struggling to rebound from the effects of urban disaster of any variety, we offer some insights into improving and sustaining youth media initiatives through partnerships and the coordination of resources.
NOLA Youth Media—Growth and Challenges
The NOLA youth media initiatives have begun a new chapter for youth media production in the area—one that was especially welcome since many public schools and after-school enrichment programs closed or reorganized after the storm.
One organization began with a social service worker who taped interviews with children engaged in telling their Katrina stories through artwork. Another started by distributing still cameras to young family members in a flooded neighborhood. Still a third handed out camcorders for teenagers to collect footage of the violence in their locales post-Katrina.
Some of these projects began through the efforts of a single person or author, others with the force of national institutions behind them. In some cases, large multi-national corporations partnered with local community organizations to create youth media educational modules, such as the Pearson Foundation’s Digital Arts Camp. However, without broad cooperation and coordination, we observed that these independent youth media initiatives were significantly more vulnerable to the attendant dangers in the field.
For instance, larger national institutions, in cooperation with a string of corporate partners, provided computers, software, cameras, and phones to local media educators and practitioners to create educational programming. The partners had an interest in publicizing this activity, and many New Orleans youth found themselves inadvertently promoting a sponsor’s marketing or branding campaign. While this is a common issue with any corporate philanthropy, small start-up youth media organizations either did not have the resources or the access to recommendations and best practices within the field to help them navigate this tricky quid pro quo.
Second, the inflow of cash and media interest from government and other public and private sources immediately following Katrina momentarily multiplied resources; however, in the long run, it generated new silos in what could otherwise be an opportunity for partnership. Without coordination, many smaller groups find themselves duplicating resources and resolving local problems that could have a more lasting impact had these efforts been connected to larger regional partnerships.
Finally, most first-time community youth media modules that we encountered did not have the resources to train or work with students from pre- through post-production. As a result, many students were handed pre-scripted storylines and/or professionals were hired to finish the work once the training module was complete—often foregoing the important processes of pre and post-production training altogether.
These three scenarios are potentially problematic for several reasons, some of which include:
• Missing opportunities to teach students essential elements of, and the important process of, media making;
• Compromising the integrity and authenticity of student voice by redirecting stories in the pre-production or post-production process; and,
• Jeopardizing intellectual property rights of minors as student work is re-written and re-branded.
The focus on getting the product to market, whether to raise awareness or institutional funding, can result in less reflection around the process by which young people represent themselves. As a result, what might appear to be the faces and voices of many New Orleans youth are likely to reflect fewer projects involving youth-led story development, post-production and distribution.
Suggestions to the Field
In light of our experience in New Orleans, we offer recommendations for any institution trying to support a sudden and much needed proliferation of youth media initiatives in a region that is marked by disaster.
Coordinate Resources. Meet with other groups, youth media or otherwise, to share outreach and support services. Some organizations may have a venue or resources, such as a school or community center, to reach students before, during and after an educational module. Local or national networks might be partners for distribution to ensure that youth voices are heard.
Establish partnerships locally. Youth media organizations may find the landscape too competitive for funding and capacity building to risk collaborating with one another. However, other types of partnerships can be hugely beneficial. Regional nonprofits or other institutions working on rebuilding may provide excellent subject matter for documentary production and may have outreach or marketing resources to contribute to a project in exchange for free publicity.
For example, creating broadcast-quality original content that showcases the important work of regional community efforts that provides meaningful training and workforce development for the youth media participants creates a kind of “triple bottom line” that leverages and maximizes tight resources. With any partnership, all sides should codify and be clear about the specific expectations and boundaries of the relationship to prevent misunderstandings.
Advocate for and provide resources for academic and ethical rigor. We tend to think of media literacy narrowly as the education of our young subjects, but we propose this is an ongoing learning process that involves adult educators, administrators and academia. The goal of media literacy, for example, should be to provide everyone with the tools to access, analyze, and create the representations that are meaningful to themselves, to their local communities, and within a national and international media landscape.
Established youth media organizations can identify and provide a textual and theoretical framework to anchor students, educators and administrators alike. A media literacy primer ought to include a set of accepted journalistic standards and practices around information and funding sources, including direct or indirect financial remuneration and informed consent for adults and minors alike.
Theorize representation. Discuss issues of representation that are endemic to documentary practice and show examples of media representations that have been made about the community. Use these images to talk about what aspects of the community are being under-represented, whose stories are missing, and how can they be told. This should be an ongoing and collective process involving as many media institutions and initiatives as possible.
Encourage process and youth-production. Encourage authentic voice and authorship from the participants by ensuring that the project allows enough time for young people to be involved in the media-making process, from pre- through post-production. If resources preclude this, explore alternatives for maximizing resources (e.g., an “exquisite corpse” project where each group undertakes only one section of a larger, collaborative piece). Avoid having the instructors, sponsors, or adult producers “finish” the piece for students, a common practice due to meager resources but one that can be detrimental to the process and impact of youth media.
Next Steps
The landscape that we portray is, by no means, unique to New Orleans or the gulf south. Most youth media initiatives in urban areas struggle to strike a balance between the quality of the training program and what it yields, with critical budget and capacity restraints. Most programs could stand to see their programs strengthened through smart, strategic partnerships. And many have struggled to develop young people’s authentic voices and storytelling potential, working hard to make those voices heard far and wide.
However, the extreme media and financial focus on the region in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have made these concerns that much more acute. Supporting grassroots youth media initiatives can allow a particular region to speak for itself, particularly if that region is being disproportionately spoken for. Every region will struggle periodically with the relationship that larger, more established institutions play in relation to emerging, grassroots youth media initiatives. Understanding how best to support and coordinate these like-minded efforts is a good way to ensure the larger health and long-term sustainability of the field as a whole.
Elizabeth Dunnebacke is the executive director of the New Orleans Video Access Center. She is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area and has lived in New Orleans since 2004 with her husband and daughter.
Vicki Mayer is associate professor of communication at Tulane University. She teaches and writes about media producers and audiences that are normally not considered by media industries. Her forthcoming book is entitled Below the Line: Producers and Production Studies in the New Television Economy.