Youth Journalism: Connecting Lives with Public Policies

Young Americans’ news consumption has declined markedly over the past decade, causing widespread concern about their apathy and ignorance of public affairs. In a 2008 survey by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, for example, about a third of people between the ages of 18 to 25 said they got no news on a typical day, up from 25 percent in 1998.
The survey also found that only 10 percent of those with social networking profiles regularly get news from these sites. Other research suggests that teens avoid news in part because the steady diet of conflict and crisis makes the world seem too threatening. They don’t believe they have the power to change it.
As educators, we know that young people are looking not just to find their voices but to find their power. Becoming knowledgeable about public affairs and being able to find information, check facts and set out diverse viewpoints empower youth to enter public debate and help shape public thinking and decisions about issues that are important in their lives. By helping teens examine the connection between their lives and public policies, youth media educators can help create both engaged citizens and enlightened producers of news. Otherwise, without informed, engaged citizens, how can democracy survive? And how will government be forced to better serve the young, the poor and the marginalized if those citizens do not take action?
Based on my experience directing ThreeSixty Journalism, a youth journalism program serving mostly low-income and minority teens in the Twin Cities, I am convinced that youth media practitioners can help teens develop a healthier appetite for news of what’s happening in the world and a more critical eye toward the media they consume. Along with teaching technical skills, creativity and self-expression, we should feel responsible for helping build citizens.
One needn’t be a journalist to learn and teach these skills. In the age of the “citizen journalist,” plenty of good, on-line resources are available to help teach the rigor and pleasure of asking questions, checking facts and writing articles that inform and engage others. In the youth media field especially, the tools and practices of journalism mirror the fundamental concept of story-telling, engagement, and local political change.
Connecting Stories to Public Issues
Helping young people create a bridge between themselves and public debate requires adult leaders who know both what’s going on in our teens’ lives and in the larger, social and political sphere. The reward for helping young people connect the dots can be twofold: greater knowledge and critical thinking skills among our teens; and a more informed, powerful voice of youth in public policy discussions on everything from high-stakes testing to sex education policy.
It is always humbling to see the wide gap between my journalist’s knowledge of current events and that of the 14- to 20-year-olds we work with. In our two-week residential camp in June, for example, most of the teens had only a general idea of the violent street protests raging in Iran– where citizen journalists produced some of the more important coverage via Twitter message, YouTube videos and cell phone photos.
But several of the teens knew every twist in the saga of Jon and Kate Gosselin, stars of “Jon and Kate Plus 8,” who had announced they were divorcing. Never having heard of them, I was shocked to find the Gosselins on the cover of People magazine the following week. For many of our teens, pop culture overwhelmingly dominates their media diet.
I want students to know and care more about what is happening in the world around them, from St. Paul to Tehran. But I need to know more about their media as well. The more adult leaders know about the media our students consume, the more we can seize opportunities to tie pop culture events to deep issues closer to home. Chris Brown’s admission that he beat Rihanna provided an opportunity to look at dating violence among our youth, for example.
Still, few teens arrive wanting to write about pop culture. They come with ideas related to their own experiences. A teen mom wants to write about teen pregnancy. A young man with Attention Deficit Disorder (otherwise known as A.D.D.) wants to write about his conflict over whether to keep taking pills that increase his concentration but also make him lose weight and have trouble sleeping.
We value those personal ideas because the urgency teens feel to tell them is a powerful motivator and because other teens respond strongly to authentic personal stories. But contributing to the public conversation includes more information and perspectives than the strictly personal. Young people can ask questions, get information and seek other viewpoints that will deepen their own understanding and that of other teens. Self-expression, the core of many youth media programs, is important but insufficient. Along with learning to speak up, teens should learn to listen to different viewpoints, assess the evidence, challenge assumptions, write clearly and change their minds. Journalistic skills can help achieve that.
Getting teens excited about gathering facts, interviewing sources and venturing from the personal to the political is not always easy. Especially since most teens come to youth media with two types of writing experience—the highly personal, such as diaries or poetry, and the highly academic, such as term papers.
But teens live with the consequences of countless public policy decisions—from immigration laws to school budgets, testing policies to drinking laws. Youth media can help young people look beyond the personal and see how public policy affects their lives and how they in turn can influence those policies.
For example, when teens cite lack of access to contraceptives as one reason for rising pregnancy rates, youth media makers can look at how well public health policies, health care insurance and in-school clinics serve their peers. This brings a new perspective to the public debate and empowers teens to be active citizens, not helpless bystanders.
Citizen-Journalistic Tips for the Field
Here are some tips on how to encourage teens in youth media programs to take themselves, their ideas and their role as storytellers and citizens seriously:
Encourage teen media producers to aim high. For example, interviewing mayors, legislators and principals in addition to their peers; reading newspapers, academic research and papers; and, legislative briefs along with Facebook pages and blogs.
Point out that they are serving an audience of other teens. What information do their peers need to make good decisions? Why should they care about the story? How can the author or media-maker serve them? Getting positive feedback from other teens during the editorial process and once the story is published is a powerful motivation to continue.
Encourage teens to think of themselves as storytellers and citizens. Educators ought to distill a sense of responsibility to stay informed about what is happening in students’ communities. In addition, encourage students that they have the right to ask questions, get information, and share what they learn by telling compelling stories via words, video, photos and sound.
Multiply the number of adult allies. Having strong relationships with adult editors helps persuade teens to venture outside their comfort zone. Staff and volunteer journalists can help coach individual students through the process and help them arrange key interviews. Often adults must read the materials first to ensure that the teen understands complex material. Establishing a relationship of trust is necessary if we are to push teens to do two or three rewrites to give more clarity, power or information to the finished piece.
Use existing resources. Journalism skills are the basis of good story-telling to/from a community, and ones that are relevant to all youth media programs regardless of the medium used. There are great opportunities for collaborations and partnerships between youth media programs that teach journalistic skills and those that are more focused on creativity and self-expression. Along with ThreeSixty, some established youth media programs with a strong commitment to journalism skills include LA Youth, Youth Outlook in San Francisco, VOX Communications in Atlanta, Youth Communication in New York, What Kids Can Do in Rhode Island, The Beat Within in Oakland & D.C., Headliners in Great Britain, Young Chicago Authors, Children’s Pressline and Indy Kids in New York, and Teen Voices in Boston.
In addition, the growth of on-line media has led to an explosion of on-line resources for journalism training for ordinary citizens. A few good ones include:
Be bold about seeking public platforms for student work. LA Youth, one of the nation’s oldest and most respected youth media programs, has used its teens’ expertise to convene community discussions. Last year, for example, the group hosted a community forum on juvenile crime issues with judges, media and youth workers gathered for a discussion led by LA Youth writers. In November, LA Youth will convene another discussion about LA’s drop-out rate. Founder and executive director Donna Myrow aims to have LA Youth more systematically educate the public, media and policy makers about teen issues, particularly those of marginalized teens. She also wants to move public discussion from individual teen behavior to that of policymakers whose decisions impact teens and their behavior.
Next Steps
Working as a journalist is harder than school, many students tell us. But the ones who stick with it understand that the process is necessary if they want to be trusted, have impact and be taken seriously. And they say they learn to ask questions, write clearly, think critically and become more interested in what is happening in the world and their communities.
Here’s what Ady Perez, a junior at Cristo Rey High School in Minneapolis, wrote about her ThreeSixty experience: “I have learned to not settle for an ‘okay’ article. I learned to read it and then reread it over and over and get different people’s point of view and help to make it much better.”
The higher the quality, the more compelling the focus of our teens’ work, the larger the audience we will attract. We can push for youth-produced work to get published in local media and on-line outlets like the Huffington Post. When our groups tackle major topics, we can invite video content from other local youth media organization as part of the coverage.
The more policymakers see and hear the strong, informed, compelling voice of youth, the more they’ll be forced to listen.
Lynda McDonnell is the executive director of ThreeSixty Journalism, a non-profit youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before joining ThreeSixty in 2002, she worked as an editor and reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Tribune. McDonnell is a hiker, a singer and a writer. She is also the mother of two grown sons and grandmother of a grandson with a lovely, cockeyed smile.