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: and
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.

2008 Youth Media Blog-o-Thon: Interview

The 2008 Youth Media Blog-o-Thon, created by YO! Youth Outlook/New American Media and Wire Tap Magazine in San Francisco, CA has had two episodes focused on the Election. Early October, YMR interviewed Jamilah King of WireTap Magazine and Eming Piansay of YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia/New American Media to gain key insights in their vision for the Blog-o-Thon, partnership, and next steps.
About the Interviewees:
Jamilah King, 23, is the associate editor for Wiretap Magazine. Born and raised in San Francisco, her writing focuses mainly on race, arts and issues that affecting young communities of color. She’s working as a labor organizer in California and New York. Her writing has also appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Pop and Politics.
Eming Piansay, 22, is a student at San Francisco State University Journalism Department. She is a multimedia producer and blog editor for YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia and contributes to Asian Week/Beyond Borders.

YMR: What initiated the partnership between Wire Tap Magazine and Youth Outlook to start the Youth Media Blog-o-Thon?
Jamilah King: As two San Francisco-based Youth Media outlets, we felt like it was sensible and necessary partnership to make. The blog-a-thon was originally Neela Banerjee’s idea. As Managing Editor for YO!, her work focuses mostly on Bay Area youth issues. Both of our organizations put considerable effort into developing young bloggers, writers and journalists. Since WireTap has a national audience that tends to be a few years older, we felt that together we could gather a diverse collection of young writers whose issues were both local and national in scope.
[We chose] blogs [because they] have the potential to be democratic spaces. They are usually free [and] a little less intimidating than professional publications [such as] online and print. That’s not to say that problems don’t arise—bloggers of color routinely have their opinions attacked, and the internet is plagued by the same systemic barriers that exist in society. [Overall, blogs] are tremendously empowering to publish your words and stories, and have readers relate and comment on them.
YMR: You wanted to bridge youth media orgs across the field to dialogue around specific issues. Was this youth-driven? Was it successful in inserting youth voice in the national agenda?
King: The organizers of the blog-a-thon are all relatively young. Kristina Rizga and Neela Banerjee are both in the early thirties; Eming Pinsay, who was also instrumental is getting the blog-a-thon off the ground, and I are around 22-years-old. Initially, both Eming and I did a lot of outreach to our personal networks. For our first blog-a-thon, young bloggers like 24-year-old Atlanta-based organizer Kori Chen ( participated, as well as Colin Ehara, a 25-year-old grad student, activist and musician (
We’re still measuring the results. With each blog-a-thon, the number of participants grows. Most of our topics—elections, sex, money, violence—are closely aligned with the national youth agenda, which was crafted by members of GenVote (, of which WireTap is a member. The Youth Agenda asks for explicit action to issues that directly effect young people like access to healthcare and comprehensive sex education? [These] examples show that the issues we’re concerned with don’t exist in a vacuum; they are national issues that should be made national priorities.
YMR: In February 2008, you launched the Election 2008 topic. What drove the conversation and what were youth contributors saying?
King: Our first blog-a-thon began with a discussion about the presidential elections. Among the issues we discussed were the viability of candidates and the primacy of race and gender in our country. Are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton examples of how far we’ve come in addressing racial and gender barriers, or are they merely exceptions to the rule? Both Eming and I contributed, as well as 25-year-old spoken word artist Adriel Luis, who wrote an Open Letter to Hillary Clinton and Eugene from Boston Progress Radio who tackled the silence surrounding issues of immigration and detention.
For a more comprehensive look at what we discussed, please check out the following links:
Calling All Youth Media Bloggers (YO!)
Elections Blog-a-thon update (WireTap)
YMR: One YO! blogger states: “I’m standing at the peak of an election process that has been propelled forward by the young generation of voters.” It seems that the youth media field is also standing at this peak—can this blog effectively propel the opinions and youth generated media onto the radar of policy and decision makers?
King: Definitely. Youth media is part of a broader youth movement that recognizes the potential and responsibility that young folks have to shape their futures.
On a more basic level, the media landscape is changing. The internet in general, and blogs, in particular, yield a tremendous amount of power to affect people’s perspectives. They make our access to information quicker and more opinionated. Since young folks have grown up in a digital age, we tend to be more intuitive when it comes to the internet. Thanks to grassroots-led movements in hip-hop and student organizing, we’re learning how to use our internet savvy with practical political methods that effect change.
An example of this would be in San Francisco, where students at June Jordan School for Equity staged a walk-out and peace rally to protest gun violence (see more: They were able to mobilize their teachers, parents, community members and classmates and hold a tremendous rally that got lots of media attention and will hopefully have a tremendous effect on the upcoming November elections where Prop 6 (the Runner Initiative), a dangerous anti-youth ballot initiative.
YMR: Oct 22-Oct 29 you are launching another Election 2008 blog-o-thon for youth producers in and out of the field to amplify their words nationally. But this time, you specifically want to reach decision makers. How are you going about this?
Eming Piansay: With the current state of the economy, health care, the war in Iraq these issues, though they were brought to light in our February [blog-o-thon], are still very much relevant now. The youth population is about to head into four years of a new administration and these issues are the ones that are going to make or break their relationship with the incoming administration. [It] is important that young people have the opportunity to have a discussion about these issues because at some point, [young people] will [have] to deal with them.
King: Our first blog-a-thon on elections was focused more on the presidential primaries. Of course, presidential politics is a theme we’ll continue to explore this time around, but we’re also trying to focus on more local issues that have a direct and immediate impact on youth.
We have timed this blog-a-thon to happen a couple weeks before elections to infuse a youth perspective into what has become a very divisive media discussion of the candidates. We’re trying to focus more on issues—healthcare, immigration, education—as a way of putting pressure on the next president to not only use our willpower to win office, but to address our community’s needs.
It’s a process. Really, we’re building off of the momentum created by the excitement of this election. We targeted youth media makers primarily because we’re all doing very important work in our communities. WireTap is part of GenVote, which is pushing the Youth Agenda and Vote Hip Hop ( GenVote ( is a national alliance of 18 national organizations that do work around issues that effect young people, so the agenda points came from our collective experiences and common interests. We’re pushing for the next president to see our potential, see how many folks are behind us, and realize that it’s in the nation’s interests to tackle youth issues.
YMR: What role does youth media organizations & specifically, youth generated media, play on having voting and electoral power?
Eming: YO! and youth media organizations aim to educate young people on important voter issues that are not major issues discussed by the main stream media. By doing so, it is our hope to impart knowledge and enlighten young voters on issues they may not have been aware of before.
King: We can play a tremendous role. First off, if we’re old enough to vote, we can take our beliefs into the polls in November. We also have the power to influence our parents and communities. It’s also incredibly important to infuse a youth perspective before elections in order to show that we have opinions and are organized. [We] are the future, and whether it’s now or ten years from now, our experiences will shape the destiny of our country.
YMR: What role does youth media organizations & specifically, youth generated media, play in weighing in the vote/having electoral power—and to stay on the radar of decision makers so that the youth vote momentum continues post Nov 5?
Eming: Reaching out to the youth vote is a very important tool for all persons in government. By reaching out to young people/youth media decision makers would be able to get a perspective that they wouldn’t normally get. By going to schools and actually talking to young people face to face they would essentially help themselves but also give young people a better sense of who is running their government.
King: Recently, GenVote released the Youth Agenda. We’re working together, as well as with other coalitions, to map out practical plans for impacting the next administration. Obviously, a lot depends on who’s elected, but either way, we want to make sure that we have a set agenda. Young people have played a tremendous role in this election, from The League of Young Voters registering thousands of new voters, or the University of California Student Association registering over 40,000 new voters, to the 24-year-old founder of Facebook leading the Obama campaign’s online strategy. We have the technological saavy and political insight to earn the ear of the next president.
Concretely, there are several participants in this edition of the blog-a-thon who are involved in direct voter outreach. This month, we’ve included participants from Trick or Vote (, a national non-partisan costume canvass. They’ve been working to register new voters through the Bus Project ( Khmer Girls in Action (, a community organization based in Long Beach, CA is also a participant in this month’s blog-a-thon. The organization is made up mainly of young Asian Pacific Islander women, and they’ve banded together to make PSA’s in opposition to California’s proposition 8, which would require parental notification for underage abortions.
These are just our initial steps toward bridging youth media, grassroots organizing and electoral politics. You can’t have one without the other, and I think the youth movement—which includes media and organizing—has done a great job recently of coming together and forming a common vision. Whether it’s rallying around Green Collar Jobs, Tuition Relief, or more grassroots efforts, [we have] become organized enough to win concrete changes no matter who gets elected to the White House in November.
YMR: Would you say that blogging is paramount for the youth media field (both young people and practitioners) to dialogue with one another across the U.S. and around the globe?
King: I would say that blogging is one step in the fight for social change, but it can only go so far. Ideally, it has to be supplemented by on-the-ground organizing on all levels— grassroots, student and electoral-based. Your message will only travel as far as you promote it, and then it’s up to individuals and communities to take action, and fight against issues that affect them. With the recent student walk out in San Francisco, online tools—such as YouTube and Web 2.0 media—played a huge role. But at the end of the day, it was folks getting out into the streets and making their voices heard that made their actions so powerful.
Of course, technology allows us to communicate with people around the globe at the click of a button. So we can share our victories, strategies and experiences with people around the globe and build stronger movements. The battles we’re waging are situated in a global economic system, so this type of worldwide access is crucial.
[It is] crucial for youth producers and adult practitioners to help more young people gain access [and] develop the skills to [produce] media that can accompany grassroots movements. [Blogging is] a great alternative for producing news that affects us. Often in the mainstream media, young people, particularly young folks of color, are criminalized. So this kind of do-it-yourself media allows young folks to create positive images and tell stories that matter.
Of course, there are challenges. Blogging takes time and resources that very busy young folks, organizers and staff don’t have. We’re currently working to develop a new layout for the blog-a-thon’s that centralizes it in one place so it will be easier to navigate.
YMR: How might other youth media orgs learn from your partnership between YO! and Wiretap? What are the outcomes? Successes? Challenges?
Eming: Collaborations between youth media is a gold mine of information. By sharing resources, we have doubled our efforts in something that on our own might have been harder to achieve. With the success of our prior blog-a-thons we have generated a lot of healthy, interesting discussions that can be expanded into our topics for blog-a-thons. By gathering together different youth writers we have created a web of communication that we personally haven’t seen in cross/web/blogging communication.
King: We’re really grateful to have a great partnership with Youth Outlook. First, we have very open dialogue and similar missions. It also helps that we’re located blocks away from each other. There aren’t any egos and we’re very clear about our mission: YO! works primarily with Bay Area-based high school-aged youth. WireTap works primarily with folks across the country who tend to be college age and older. We both bring tremendous resources to the table—YO! brings their strong local networks, they awesome reporters and editors and their connections to local schools and community groups. I think we at WireTap bring in regional diversity and our own political networks.
The challenges: both of our organizations have limited capacity and resources. We do a great job at making the best of what we have, but it’s often challenging to do practical things, like build a stronger infrastructure for the blog-a-thon, recruit younger writers in schools and spend the time to manage the blog-a-thon on top of our daily work routine.
As for what others can learn—it’s easy! There’s no reason other youth media organizations shouldn’t be reaching out and working with one another more often. I think the first bit hurdle is to do it. We’re often busy working with our content, trying to develop our content and our writers, that we often overlook partnerships as an essential tool in strengthening our staff, membership base, content and the broader movement toward social justice. As youth organizations, we can always use more resources, and I think the partnership between WireTap and YO! is an example of how easy and useful such partnerships can be.
Last Wednesday, we kicked off the fifth youth media blog-a-thon. This months topic is elections—both on the national and local levels. So far we’ve gotten a good number of responses, ranging from Khmer Girls in Action speaking out against California’s latest attempt to make it harder for young women to get abortions, to why political geeks are back in style and how the Obama campaign has reinvigorated community organizers.
For a full list of what’s been said so far, check out the stories below. Read, comment, respond and feel free to pass them along:
Khmer Girls in Action (Video): No on Prop 4
Becoming a Man (Steven Liang, WireTap): Grappling with manhood, homophobia, and gay marriage in my parents home country.
From Cynicism to Hope (Lynne Nguyen, Washington Community Action Network): This election demonstrates the potential for grassroots community organizing.
Our Next Prez on Latin America (April Aguirre, Chi Remezcla)
Why I’m Voting for Obama (El Guante): He’s not perfect, but he’s a step in the right direction.
Political Geeks Rule (Alex Berke, The Bus Project): From doorknocking to voter registration, political nerdery is the new chic.
Obama: Not Enough to End Racism in America (April Joy Damian, Young People For)
Best of the Worst (Silvano Pontoniere, Youth Outlook)
Senate Candidate Launches Campus Tour (Sarah Burris, WireTap): Kansas Senate candidate hosts week long youth tour on college tax credit.
Politically Unplugged (Eming Piansay, Youth Outlook)

Election Year: How Can Youth Walk the Walk?

There were so many journalists on the floor of Invesco Field in Denver, where Barack Obama gave his party nomination acceptance speech, that you couldn’t turn around without bumping into someone with a camera or a microphone. Among them were Jill Petrie and Evan Wood, two youth media reporters with Children’s Press Line. They had just interviewed Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and as he breezed by again he waved hello to the young reporters.
The moment was striking to me, a writer covering the presidential election, because it demonstrated how the divides between political power, the media, and young people are collapsing. With the Internet and affordable technology, any citizen is able to document and comment on politics, but young people seem particularly well-positioned to combine their technological skills, media savvy, and passion to be a meaningful part of the political process.
Young People as Political Voices
The 2008 election has opened several opportunities for youth media. First, it puts young people, whose voter turnout has been increasing, in the spotlight.
Although the conventional wisdom is that you can’t depend on the youth vote, said Stephanie Young, a communications associate of MTV’s Rock the Vote, the combination of young people’s overwhelming involvement in the primaries and the skyrocketing number of youth media makers is challenging stereotypes of young people.
“Pundits and the mainstream media put youth in the apathetic pigeonhole and report from that perspective,” Young said. “Young journalists are presenting a more hopeful, positive image of the youth voter.”
Jill Petrie, a high school senior from Colorado recruited by Children’s Press Line to report on the Democratic convention, echoed the sentiment. “There’s an attitude among adults that young people are ignorant or apathetic about politics,” she said. “Youth media can show them that’s not always true.”
Second, youth media election coverage—which extends from conventional, press-passed access, to citizen journalism, to creative online videos and messages—has also given the public an opportunity to hear young people’s voices on substantive issues. (For example, collates youth voices.)
In a recent survey, Rock the Vote found the four most important issues to young people were, in order, jobs and the economy; health insurance; the Iraq war; and the cost of education. Although these issues roughly correspond to the priorities of the public at large, they are particularly meaningful to young people.
Most will be graduating from school and seeking work during the next president’s administration. Many will not have health insurance; right now over 13 million young people are not covered. Young people make up the bulk of the U.S. military fighting forces, and they are overwhelming affected by tuition rates and access to student loans.
Youth media gives young people the opportunity to bring these issues to the fore. “It’s important to let kids ask adult questions,” said Petrie. “A lot of times I’ve been asked to ask politicians things like, ‘What’s your favorite sit-com?’ Instead, I want to know what they’re going to do to reform education in America.”
In short, young people are among the more vulnerable members of our society, and they are also among the least heard. Youth media in an election year gives young people the opportunity to weigh in on the very real issues and policies that affect them—providing that editors and the audience listen.
Katina Paron, the program director of Children’s Press Line, points out that mainstream media outlets, important partners in distributing youth media, are often more interested in kids’ stories than in kids’ opinions on issues. “I don’t know any youth media professional who doesn’t take kids seriously,” she said. “The question is what editors want. A lot of adults want to hear about young people’s personal experiences.”
One way to balance the competing demands for the personal and the political is to create media that grounds political opinions in personal experiences. Children’s Press Line in particular seeks to ground their stories on health insurance and immigration, for instance, in the experiences of young people themselves. This satisfies young people’s desire to grapple with substantive political issues while meeting the public’s desire to learn more about young people’s lives.
Distinct Opportunities for Youth Media
While the content of young people’s and adults’ political opinions resembles each other, the form often varies. Youth media—grounded in the language, attitudes, and culture of young people—can often break through when other political media can’t.
“Young people need to see and hear political media that isn’t intimidating,” said Young of Rock the Vote. “When you’re not in that world, you don’t necessarily understand all the language or the details. It can be overwhelming. Youth media allows politics to reach lots of different people.” The informality of blogs, for instance, which blends opinion and news, is attractive to young people, Young said, and their expectations of media may not exactly mirror adults’.
Young recommended letting young people be creative, come up with their own ways to tell stories, and use their own voices. “We have a unique way of communicating with one another,” she said. “Let us go on our own paths.”
Youth media can also create dialogue between young people. While politicians and pundits are focused on young people between 18-28, who are old enough to vote and perhaps even have some discretionary income, youth media made by and for those under-18 have an opportunity to establish a political framework for our country’s youngest citizens.
For instance, Bay Area Video Coalition broadcast the presidential debates live for the young people in their video and audio youth media class, reinforcing the message that youth are listening and prepared to respond.
Christopher Tribble, the founder of True Media Foundation and creator of BE HEARD!, believes political education starts in middle school. “That’s when young people start thinking about social values. We should be asking them, ‘Where would you like to see the country in ten years?’”
BE HEARD!, which operates out of a fully-equipped production bus, travels to public spaces to find locally-based stories. This summer, BE HEARD! set up shop at the pedestrian mall in downtown Denver, a few blocks from the convention center. Students interviewed young delegates and reported on what the adults were doing; however, they also established communication with one another. “It’s important for youth to know what other youth are thinking,” Tribble said. “The conversation can be political, but it can also assure young people that they’re not alone.”
Youth Media, Political Journalism, and Civic Engagement
The 2008 election has been historic for all sorts of reasons, the opportunities for youth media among them. For those in the youth media field, an election year increases an interest in public opinion, particularly young people’s opinions, and young people stand a greater chance of having their voices and ideas heard. In addition, the heightened political climate provides a context for young people to talk to each other about politically charged ideas, and often youth media can connect with young people in ways that adult media cannot.
From a political journalism perspective, the youth media around the 2008 election demonstrates a shift in both civic engagement and the media. Historically, the media has wielded disproportionate power in distributing political ideas and establishing the narrative of campaigns. This year, thousands more voices—including those of young people—have competed with the mainstream media to challenge the candidates, advocate for ideas, and comment on the race. Although it threatens the business model of newspapers and magazines, this plurality of voices would seem to be good for a democracy: how can our government represent us if a majority of people cannot be heard?
What’s more, young people, by virtue of their very freshness to the political scene, offer perspectives that are often overlooked. Most campaign coverage focuses on the horse race—the tactics and strategies campaigns are using to win. Without access to the information or media spin most professional journalists have, young people are in a good position to offer genuine insight or probing questions on the substance of the campaigns.
Finally, the increasing organization and impact of youth media provides an important framework for young people’s continued involvement in politics. Any of us becomes more engaged when we think we have a role to play, and when we have a chance to interact with people and ideas rather than consider them abstractly or from a distance—youth media provides creative, complex, relevant opportunities to think through and respond to the issues that will define all of our futures. When I ran into Petrie and Wood at Invesco Field, I was delighted because it meant that young people were not only in the center of the action, but recognized as belonging there.
Kelly Nuxoll, a freelance writer and advocate for civic education, has been covering the presidential election since July 2007 for the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus. In 2004, she was the Email Manager for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.