J-Schools, High Schools, and Youth Media: Bringing Journalism Back into the Classroom

When most people think of Minnesota, they conjure visions of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone and names like Gunnar and Sven. Few outside the state are aware that the Land of 10,000 Lakes is also home to the largest Somali community in the U.S., and names like Sorayah and Mohammed are becoming more common. However, these names are not common in the by-lines of news stories published in the Twin Cities. Journalism educators must engage with new immigrant communities to inspire interest in the news, interest that is often suppressed by the lack of representation of people of color in journalism. Equally important, they must reach out to youth of color—a generation that is losing touch with journalism.
Since the outbreak of civil war in Somalia, the Twin Cities (TC) has been a major site of resettlement for Somalis. Unfortunately, their relationship with local media reflects patterns found with other immigrants: depictions of Somalis in mainstream media emphasize crime and “deviant” behavior, and portray them as un-assimilable into American culture. And, because the majority of Somalis are Muslim, stereotypes and fears associated with anti-Muslim sentiments have affected the news coverage of this community as well. The experiences of Somalis in the TC are representative of how people of color are generally portrayed by mainstream news media.
Partnerships between high schools, universities, and youth media educators can encourage youth that have been marginalized by news media to remain engaged, to use their critical faculties to create better news for their communities, and create media vehicles that can introduce the wider community to their perspectives. These partnerships should be encouraged even more today, as many urban schools cannot afford to support regular journalism education, and local youth media programs have a limited number of room for youth producers (as a result of limited funds, resources and capacity). Classroom-based outreach partnerships provide one way to give students of color with an introduction to journalism they might never get elsewhere.
Journalism by and for Somali Youth—The Ubah Project
As part of my outreach efforts as Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity & Equality, I started a journalism workshop with a freshman English class at Ubah Medical Academy (UMA). UMA is a charter high school, founded by Somalis who settled in the TC in the 1990s. This workshop grew from an initial request by an English teacher at Ubah to have someone give a talk about diversity in the news. From that initial contact, the idea for a pilot project emerged. Our goal was to create interest in news reading and journalism production amongst students who, as one remarked, fear that the news media just “say whatever they want” about Somalis and act “as spies” in Somali neighborhoods.
The class had 18 students, all of whom were first-year high schoolers. Few of them had any experience with the news beyond watching TV news occasionally with their families. Initial discussions revealed that the students did not have much regard for the news, unsurprising given that studies consistently show that racial, ethnic, and religious minorities are regularly stereotyped and scape-goated in local and national news (e.g., Chavez, 2001). Thus, one of our main tasks was to introduce them to another side of journalism and provide space for them to make a positive—yet still critically-oriented—connection with the news.
Re-introducing the News
After some basic skill building exercises on the 5W’s and H (who, what, where, when, why and how), we began identifying sources used by journalists to convey information to readers. Importantly, we asked the students to think about alternative sources journalists could have consulted as part of their work. We brought in stories about Somali and Muslim Americans from locally- and nationally-based internet and print publications, such as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Sports Illustrated. When evaluating sources in these stories, these teens were quick to see the imbalance between non-Somali and Somali sources. In order to provide readers with more background knowledge or varied opinions about the Somali community, they came up with myriad individuals and institutions, such as local mosques, doctors, and community center staff members that could be consulted by journalists.
Likewise, when we had the students think of ways to source a story to give national and international stories a local angle, they were quick to identify resources close to home in addition to local government agencies. This national/local assignment eventually led to one of the first front-page stories for their news website: “A dog in the White House, why not in my house?” While reading a story about the Obama family’s new dog, the students remarked that Muslims do not allow dogs in their homes, but none of the reports they heard or read about the First Family’s dog ever mentioned that fact. Using their interviewing skills, the students created a battery of questions to survey classmates about the dog in the White House, and came up with an astute mix of opinions and reflections about Muslim practices and how they interact with the dominant religious culture of Christianity. Thus, the students were able to correct an omission in mainstream coverage on their own terms, and published it within days of brainstorming the ideas.
During the focus groups we conducted at the end of the project, many students still voiced strong criticisms of mainstream news media’s treatment of Somalis and Muslims. However, these critics also told us that they had a new appreciation for the work journalists do to research and write articles. Moreover, the majority of students said they were paying more attention to the news; many also added that they were going on-line to find alternatives to the TV news that dominated news access in their homes. Importantly, most of the students agreed with a statement made by their classmate: “I think it was fun, learning how to write and learning how to become a journalist and a good interviewer. I liked being the interviewer instead of being interviewed.”
Suggestions to the Field
Our experience at UMA suggests six ways youth media practitioners can think about partnering with academics, particularly in journalism schools.
Consider bringing in guest scholars who can historicize and deconstruct the relationship between news and people of color. Expert testimony will both provide validation of their criticisms of news media, and give students a critical vocabulary to describe patterns of racial, ethnic, and religious representations.
Have students create stories about their own communities and which feature the voices and opinions of their peers and elders. As described earlier, we had the students take national headlines (the White House dog) and brainstorm ways to connect the story to their experiences and concerns. These exercises allowed the students to see themselves and their community as important sites of resources, opinions, and experiences that were sorely needed to diversify the public’s understanding of their culture and religion.
Consider doing only a web-based publication. Again, our students experienced great satisfaction seeing their work posted immediately after editing, and were excited that their paper would be accessible to anyone with the capacity to launch a Google search. Journalism schools have hundreds of web-savvy undergrads who can volunteer time to help create and publicize web-based publications, which allows community and university partners to see progress, and to easily spread word of the students’ achievements.
Investigate opportunities to work with journalism schools. Accredited journalism schools are charged with increasing the diversity of their student bodies and the content of their curricula. Engaging with youth media programs can be part of this process by producing a more diverse pool of students with an interest in journalism. Contact school administrators, or, as UMA teachers did, look on-line for professors whose research focuses on issues of equity and multiculturalism.
Contact offices at universities that are charged with facilitating community partnerships with researchers and service-learning opportunities for undergraduates. For example, the University of Minnesota has the Urban Research and Outreach/ Engagement Center, which is tasked with creating community partnerships to revitalize neighborhoods. The university also has an Office of Community Involvement and Service Learning that works with faculty members to create opportunities for university students to do volunteer work as part of course work. Faculty members who are new (and not so new) to the community may not be aware of the youth media groups in action. Sending out feelers to these offices can generate project ideas that may garner volunteers, grant money, and other resources for youth media projects.
Next Steps
As a result of participating in UMA, two of the young women went on to apply and gain admission to Three-Sixty, a youth media-journalism program in St. Paul, continuing their confidence in the profession. As these students and others demonstrate, partnerships between journalism educators and youth media can help young people cultivate a critical appreciation for the practice of journalism and its impact on society. This provides them with a sense of ownership of the news, a reason to remain engaged with news media to monitor progress and, hopefully, help them become part of the generation that makes the news more accountable to and reflective of our multicultural citizenry.
*You can view stories written by the students at the U.M.A. Journalism website at: http://my.hsj.org/Schools/Newspaper/tabid/100/view/frontpage/editionid/24078/articleid/279187/Default.aspx
Catherine R. Squires is the Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Maureen Schriner is a Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Minnesota.
Chavez, Leo (2001). Covering Immigration: Popular Images and the Politics of the Nation (University of California Press).