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.

Obamania: A Reflection on New Media Tactics Drawing Youth to the Voting Booth

Thanks to Senator Barack Obama, media coverage of this year’s Presidential election has attracted millions of new young voters to the political process. Though the success of his campaign can be tied to several reasons, the most important is his use of new media tools to introduce youth and others to his brand and message.
Ask anyone what comes to mind when they hear the name Barack Obama and they say two words: Hope and Change.
Youth media practitioners have been at the forefront of identifying how to reach young people with the growing number of communication tools and online social networking sites that are accessible to us (Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, cellphones, internet, film, video, podcast, radio, and others). The Obama candidacy provides an important reference point to appreciate the impact youth practitioners have had on the development of new media and its appeal on youth.
The Obama campaign’s use of both traditional and new media tools has helped build a strong fundraising machine, register voters and increase the youth voting bloc. Yet it is equally important to note that the groundwork for the use of these tools and the continued experimentation and application continues to take place in youth media programs throughout the country with both non-voting age and voting age youth.
If you want to get youth civically engaged you can no longer simply call a protest rally. Today you send a text message; get on Myspace; send out an evite, or include artists who have a message to offer that young people want to hear. Just look at the November 2008 issue of VIBE and you’ll find artists from Jay-Z to Nas endorsing Senator Obama and asking young people to get out and vote.
Youth media practitioners understood long ago the simple fact that the messenger and medium is as important as the message itself. That is why they have worked to give youth the resources and tools to tell their stories to get more young people engaged to address issues that are dear to them: peer pressure, discrimination, poverty, education, healthcare, ending the war, and jobs.
Turning our eye to this election, it’s important to recognize Obama’s rise among youth and others was thanks to his understanding of the power and pitfalls of new media.
In the Shadow of 2004
While the voting age of 18 was set in 1972, it was only in 2004 and this current Presidential Election that we have seen a major surge in youth turnout. Anticipating the need to get young people civically engaged and in some cases make some money, a number of non-traditional voting advocates began to crawl out of the woodwork to jump on the youth vote wagon. In 2004, Sean Combs aka Puffy aka P Diddy aka Diddy led the way with his “Vote or Die” t-shirts, Russell Simmons and the Hip Hop Action Summit hosted events throughout the country drawing sold out crowds. Then we had traditional groups like Rock the Vote blasting the television airwaves with ads on MTV.
Thanks to such efforts, according to CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), nearly 4.6 million more young people cast votes in 2004 compared to 2000. Yet, despite the increase in numbers, and the fact the majority of the youth vote went for the Kerry/Edwards ticket (55% to 44% for Bush/Cheney), the Democrats failed to win back the White House.
When all the ballots were accounted for in Ohio, many of us who worked on Get Out The Vote (GOTV) initiatives documenting the campaign as bloggers or journalists were left asking the question: Where do we go from here? In the despair, there was a silver lining that came from a young junior Senator from Illinois who gave a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004—his name: Barack Obama. Another silver lining was the growth of the number of youth media organizations that used the election as a way to get young people engaged in the process so they could offer their unique perspective.
One way of measuring the growth of youth media projects during the 2004 election is the funding support that many groups received. Investment in groups like Children’s Pressline four years ago demonstrated that there an increase in support and a recognition on the power of youth media. One of the key takeaway or learned lessons from this was that youth practitioners found creative ways to incorporate the election cycle and build partnerships across the youth media field. These partnerships and approaches helped lay the groundwork for organizations to engage youth of all ages in civic action this election.
Even when they are not producing their own content, youth media organizations are providing the space for younger filmmakers to share their work. This year for example the Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s Youth Channel has hosted screenings of a film by 19 year old David D. Burstein. The film, “18 in ’08,” according to the producer “is a call for young people to overturn traditional under-representation in election campaigns and get involved.” “We wanted to show it because it’s relevant,” said Derrick Dawkins MNN Youth Channel Production Coordinator. “It’s a good tool to engage young people and open up dialogue for them to talk about how they should get involved.”
Before and after the 2004 election, it was clear that elections would become a central rallying point for youth groups to not only get groups civically engaged but to find ways to collaborate and empower youth and provide them with the training and skills to tell their stories and offer their perspective.
Media and Elections
This election season has seen unprecedented TV ratings. Senator Obama, Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin all broke record ratings for Primetime acceptance speeches during the coverage of the DNC and RNC conventions. Each respectively drew nearly 40 million viewers during their speeches, more than the number of people according to MSNBC who watched this year’s Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing, the American Idol finals, or the Academy Awards. This close attention to the election says two things: people are engaged and they want to know about the issues and the candidates.
One of the most important roles that any media can play during an election is to help educate potential voters on the issues and those running for office—and new media tools tied to building online and offline social networks are perfect to share information among young voters who otherwise might not tune in to traditional news. We know that without some sense of the issues, a person is less likely to vote. Add in other factors such as income, race, earnings, age, and education then you get a pretty clear picture of why elections have gone against the interest of those under the age of 35. People have to feel their issues or concerns will be addressed, that there is a reason for them to get involved. For a number of young people Senator Obama has offered a sense of empowerment and that somone will listen to them.
My parents, and a number of the baby boom and older voting population get up every Sunday morning and watch the news programs (Meet the Press, Sunday Morning CBS etc) and to read the papers. As a journalistic endeavor, this kind of media tries to provide fair and balanced perspectives on the issues and the candidates themselves. However, the format and issues are not always appealing to young viewers.
Youth media helps offer another perspective that is not often captured in the media. They offer another angle and insight that tells the stories of young people and how they are facing the challenges and dreaming of the future. It was this power of storytelling through various media that turned out the youth vote—appealing to popular culture and not simply to the nightly news sound bite.
Obama, Web 2.0 and Youth Supporters
New media (Facebook, YouTube, blogs, etc)—tools that youth utilize—have been a major contributing factor in building up Senator Obama’s brand and rock star esque status while simultaneously drawing more youth of legal voting age into the political process. Youth media practitioners and Obama realize the power of the internet to share stories was key to mobilize youth and others. On Facebook alone there are 18 million young people between the ages of 18-29.
In the Washington Post’s article, “Obama’s Wide Web,” Jose Antonio Vargas coins, “Triple O – Obama’s Online Operation.” Vargas writes that “[This] year’s primary season, spanning six months, proved that online buzz and activity can translate to offline, on-the-ground results. Indeed, the Web has been crucial to how Obama raises money, communicates his message and, most important, recruits, energizes and turns out his supporters.” Senator Obama’s ultimate success in gaining the Democratic nomination had a great deal to do with him knowing how to utilize the power of media, specifically new media and its appeal to youth.
The media’s coverage of Senator Obama has created a cult-like, pop icon appeal that has attracted old and young alike to a historic campaign steeped in the messages of hope and change, themes that resonate with younger voters. Youth working with community based groups using media as an organizing and educational tool have given youth the skills to engage. For example, Rock the Vote has created specific resources on how to use new media tools such as the internet, and text messaging to give youth the power to get involved and get their voices and opinions heard.
Wiretap Magazine has also developed a similar project in partnership with Rock the Vote where youth journalists are reporting from across the country and setting up online video blogs and podcasts. Some more examples of these uses of online outlets getting young people engaged in the vote, are sites like MTVthink which has assigned 50 youth bloggers representing each state in the union to blog and report back from a youth angle what’s happening on the campaign trail in their state or city. Young people are attracted to making their own media and sharing their point of view. They recommend blogs as one of the best ways to engage in the process. It’s easy to do through open source sites such as blogspot.
As a result, it was young people and practitioners/youth media educators/programs that ultimately decided the outcome of the Iowa Caucus. 57% of youth supported Senator Barack Obama to help him win against his other opponents, which set the one-term junior senator from Illinois more known for his oratorical skills and less for his ability to organize and win primaries. It has been a long journey for the youth electorate since the cold Iowa night where they came out in record numbers. But what Obama understood and what Hillary learned too late was that the news had shifted to online blogs, YouTube and other online outlets—the very outlets reaching youth. If Obama happens to win the White House, and the deciding factor happens to be a couple of million youth voters in crucial swing states, we’ll be able to point to his ability to utilize the Web 2.0 technology in harnessing youth and new voters to turn out in record numbers.
Youth Generated Media – Challenges and Opportunities
“Unlike previous youth voter initatives, the League is not looking to ‘appeal’ to young voters—it is young voters.” – The League of Independent Voters
Youth media practitioners who have been documenting and working with youth to build this movement can take some of the credit for the Obama campaign successes. For all of us who have been working in the field of youth media, the internet has become a tool that has allowed us and the youth we work with to get our voices and views heard. No longer do we have to wait to have a reporter or journalist come out to cover a protest, rally or press event. We are our own press, covering our own stories and sharing them virally on the internet.
This political season especially has provided fertile ground for youth groups but also it has presented challenges. The fact is no matter how much they try, mainstream media fails to really capture the impact that youth have had on elections. It has been youth led media that has told this story and made sure it has been at the forefront of this election year.
Wiretap Editor Tomas Palermo said that, “It’s sad, but it seems for mainstream media they’re satisfied to get a few sound bites from Ivy League colleges and that sums up the youth vote angle for them. I believe other forms of media have done a better job, in particular the CNN/YouTube presidential debates have resonated.”
In comparing Obama and McCain, Palermo also shared that, “my perception is that the Obama campaign is making better use of new media technology, including text messaging, social networks, twitter and video to engage young voters. The McCain campaign doesn’t seem to be recruiting young voters, especially low-income and youth of color voters at all, nor using new media technologies effectively.”
This year Wiretap has reported extensively on the youth vote from various perspectives through weekly features, blogs, videos and podcasts. In addition, Wiretap and the Generation Vote coalition have launched Vote Hip-Hop (, a contest for emcees, poets, graffiti artists, video performers, artists and other hip-hop artists who want to express their perspective on why this election matters to them. Artists upload their work to the Vote Hip-Hop site, and will be contesting for $500 and other prizes.
For Palermo, the learned lesson for youth media organizations is that they “should start immediately hiring youth to design the next generation of sites and media tools for youth voter engagement. Youth need to be hired, and focus grouped and educated about what they can do to get involved. Youth are a powerful block, in particular Millennials, who will be a huge force in American politics from now onward.”
Alisha Cowan-Vieira, Executive Director of Project Set and formally of Think MTV, offered these additional thoughts on what the campaigns learned from youth generated media. “I feel like both campaigns have made it very evident that they are aware of how important it is to engage with young people through social networking—this is demonstrated by their presence on sites like Facebook, Myspace and Youtube,” said Cowan-Vieira. “But I also think it’s obvious that the Obama campaign has been more effective at doing so.”
Going forward the question is what could our organizations and groups dedicated to youth media learn from this moment in terms of solidifying our growing presence as a legitimate voice and force beyond election cycles?
The clear takeaway for many of is that we are the current and future reporters, documentarians, videographers, web-designers, and photographers that will capture the history of elections, and the story will not end with Obama reaching the White House. While this is a historic moment, the stories of young people—those who can or can’t vote—go beyond the ballot box. After the elections we still have stories to tell about our neighborhoods, our schools, our city governments, the stories that often go unnoticed in the mainstream media.
These moments are a reflection to know that we have the resources, skills and talent to create the media even when the media fails to hear our voices. At least for once, it seems a candidate like Obama, gets it.
Rashid is a Senior Account Executive with FENTON Communications. He sits on the board of Wiretap Magazine, Youth Media Reporter and Project Set.