Can a Democracy Survive without Reliable Information?

Our culture of news and information has never been richer or more democratic—anyone with an Internet connection can contribute to the public conversation and dig deeply into complex topics.
Citizens with little or no journalism training are now the gatekeepers of public information who readily create, publish and disseminate information. But expanding the concept of “journalism” to include cell-phone videos and social networking sites is a double-edged sword.
Developments that make this digital media reality so full of potential also make it fraught. That’s why news literacy training—as well as increasingly relevant youth media programs—are so vital.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 70% of respondents feel overwhelmed by the amount of news and information from different sources, and 72% think most sources of news are biased.
How do we know what information is trustworthy? How do we distinguish credible information from raw information, misinformation and propaganda? And if all information is viewed as created equal, why would anyone seek out quality journalism—especially if the public thinks it is all driven by commercial, political or personal bias anyway?
Because the focus on standardized testing in schools has tended to push civics or current events courses out of classrooms, schools today frequently do not address these questions. A consensus is developing both across the United States and in Europe that national efforts are needed to create a savvy, digital-age citizenry that is informed and engaged. The nascent news literacy movement has begun to meet this challenge.
The New Literacy Project
The News Literacy Project (NLP)—which has just completed its first full year in seven middle schools and high schools in New York City, Bethesda, MD, and Chicago, IL—is giving students the skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news and information in all its forms.
The project is creating partnerships between current and former journalists and social studies, history and English teachers. Its lessons are built on a foundation of four essential questions:
• Why does news matter?
• Why is the First Amendment protection of free speech so vital to American democracy?
• How can students know what to believe?
• What challenges and opportunities do the Internet and digital media create?
NLP has a growing cadre of more than 150 journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winners, broadcast reporters and producers and book authors, who volunteer their time in the classroom. Many have been recruited through the project’s 15 participating news organizations. These include The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, CNN, NPR and ABC and NBC News. More than 75 journalists made classroom presentations in the past school year.
The journalists work with teachers on lesson plans and drop-in units that focus on the project’s major themes and engagement with the students. The material is presented through hands-on exercises, videos and the journalists’ own compelling stories. The curriculum also addresses such new media mainstays as viral e-mail, Google and other search engines, and Wikipedia.
Through NLP, participating teachers can request journalists whose expertise fits their curriculum; for example, a social studies teacher might seek a political reporter for a government class, while a colleague focusing on international issues might request a former foreign correspondent.
The project’s unit culminates with every student doing a project. Students have created their own newspapers (with a hard news story, a feature, an opinion piece and a review), produced video and broadcast reports and done videos, raps and online games about what they learned about news literacy and would like to teach others.
A video highlighting seven student projects at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., can be viewed at
The project aims to give students the critical thinking skills needed to be smarter and more frequent consumers and creators of credible information across all media and platforms. Students are learning how to distinguish verified information from raw messages, spin, gossip and opinion, and are being encouraged to seek news and information that will ultimately make them better-informed citizens and voters.
As Kathy Kiely, a USA Today reporter and one of our journalist fellows, tells students: People who are citizens in an information age have got to learn to think like journalists.
What Students Say
To better understand the impact of News Literacy Project (NLP), we interviewed one of our students, Courtney Griffin, who attends the Reavis School in Chicago, Illinois. Courtney is 14 and just graduated from the eighth grade. She completed the NLP’s unit as part of an extended day program. She and her classmates produced a 6 1/2-minute broadcast piece on peer pressure that Courtney narrated. The piece can be heard at
Courtney’s future plans are to graduate college and major in business. She sees the media as “a very significant thing to learn about at all ages because people should know what is occurring around their national community, moreover, the entire world.”
NLP: What did you think about the news before doing the News Literacy Project?
Courtney Griffin: I always thought the news was important, so I tried to keep up with everything. I watched the news a lot before the project because I knew it was important to know what was happening around me—in the community and also around the country.
NLP: What activities did you do with the News Literacy Project?
Griffin: We learned about the [News Literacy Project] word wall terms, and watched a video about what makes news interesting to people. We also explored a website about journalists who were executed, and talked about why someone would want to do this. We read some things about propaganda too, and looked at some examples of it.
NLP: What did you learn from them (ideas, words, concepts, etc.)?
Griffin: Besides propaganda, we talked and learned a lot about standards, sources, vetting, and the First Amendment—especially the freedom of the press and how that is needed so that people know what is really going on. We also learned about anonymous sources—that if someone does not want their name to be cited, the journalist will keep it furtive; but anonymous sources are not always trusted by others.
NLP: Which journalists came to speak to your class (include their news organizations) and what did they talk about?
Griffin: Natalie Moore (WBEZ), Lynette Kalsnes (WBEZ), and Irene Tostado (Univision). They taught us how to plan our radio sequences, how to do good interviews, write our narration, choose music, and they showed us examples of the work they do. Natalie played one of her reports about a “food desert” in Englewood, then explained how she did it and that it takes a lot of time to get the most interesting stuff on tape. Irene talked about propaganda and the limits to free speech. She also helped us format our radio piece and write the script for the narration using research we did on the Internet.
NLP: What were the most surprising, important or interesting things you learned from them?
Griffin: What was surprising was all the time it took to make a proper radio piece. Basically everything was interesting, but Natalie’s report really caught my attention. It was about neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores that sell fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables. These places are considered food deserts.
NLP: If you had to write a headline about the News Literacy Project at your school, what would it say?
Griffin: “After News Literacy Project Becomes Operative at Reavis, Students Want to Join” [Interviewer’s note: Griffin said that at the beginning of the after-school program very few students were interested NLP, but now people are interested to join next year. Her headline was to get more attention to the program, which was competing with other programs offered at the same time].
NLP: What kind of project did you do with the News Literacy Project?
Griffin: My group did a [radio] report on peer pressure because we thought that is what affects our students the most at Reavis. I was the narrator, and the job was very difficult because I had to continuously record pieces over and over again until they were right.
NLP: What did you learn from it?
Griffin: I learned that the majority of students who attend Reavis give in to peer pressure. But I also learned that not all peer pressure is bad—there is good peer pressure, too. Peer pressure to do the right things, like study.
NLP: How has your view of news and information changed as a result of the News Literacy Project? If so, how?
Griffin: At first, I thought that it wasn’t difficult to get accurate information about something that has occurred, but my opinions changed. For example, a news reporter has to check and see if there were witnesses when an event happened, and then they have to vet the witness to see if they are telling the truth. Now I have the experience of what news reporters have to go through to put a factual story together.
NLP: Has your news or information habits or practices (how you get news, what you believe, how you search for information on the Internet, or handle email and texting) changed as a result? If so, in what ways?
Griffin: Yes. I don’t forward emails anymore because if it’s false, I don’t want other people to believe it. I also check multiple sources for accurate information and read everything on the page. I learned that everything you receive is not factual—sometimes you have to check your sources instead of just listening to what one report says, unless it i
s from a known news station.
NLP: What do you think is the most important thing you gained from the News Literacy Project?
Griffin: The knowledge and language of journalism—it helps me understand how to handle information and resources.
NLP: What have you learned about news literacy that you think needs to be shared with other students?
Griffin: I learned that it is important to learn certain words and concepts so that [you can] understand what it is you are receiving [in the news].
The interview above with Courtney Griffin showcases the unique blend of news literacy concepts with creating media stories and news, helping her to “handle information and resources.” Investigating a story or topic always requires evaluating information and finding credible facts and sources. Youth media programs who support young people as they create their own stories and media might find the following tips useful to identify bias and fact check.
Tips: Evaluating Information
The following is reprinted from Edutopia magazine with permission from the NLP:
Think critically about news and information: Who created the information? Can you tell? For what purpose? Is the information verified? If so, how? What are the sources? What is the documentation? Is it presented in a way that is fair?
Ask yourself, “What is it that I’m viewing?:” Is it news? Opinion? Gossip? Raw information? Advertising? Propaganda? How can you tell?
Look for bias in news and information: Watch for loaded or inflammatory words. Does the author clearly have an agenda? Is more than one side of a story or argument presented? Is the subject of the report given a chance to respond?
View high-quality journalism as a benchmark against which to measure other sources of information: This step includes an independent and dispassionate search for reliable, accurate information, verification rather than assertion, a commitment to fairness, transparency about how information was obtained, and accountability when mistakes are made.
Beware of information found on Wikipedia; it can be changed by anyone at any time. This fact makes it uncertain that you are getting accurate information at a given moment. However, the primary sources linked in Wikipedia entries are a rich trove of reliable information.
Act responsibly with information you share and create: Exercise civility, respect, and care in your online communications; remember that information on the Internet lives forever and you have no control over who sees it or what they do with it. Do not expect emails to be private.
Do not allow yourself be fooled: Nobody likes to be taken in. If it sounds too good or too incredible to be true, it probably isn’t true. Good places to check urban myths are the Annenberg Policy Center’s and
Next Steps
As NLP and our colleagues begin to write the opening chapters of the national news literacy movement, youth media can join our efforts to expand within our current locations, to add schools in additional communities and to find ways to raise the profile and expand the reach of news literacy education nationwide.
Working in partnership is beneficial as both arenas increasingly rely on digital media in our programs. Like youth media, NLP hopes to engage students with their peers online, outside of our classrooms and around the country. We hope to provide a forum for students to share their work and become active news literacy watchdogs. (of news literacy.) We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with youth media programs in the field that provide outlets for students to develop their journalism and communication skills across myriad platforms.
NLP is also looking for creative partners in schools and communities nationwide. You can learn more about the project at If you are interested in becoming involved, please send an inquiry to or contact Kate Farrell, the project’s program coordinator.
Alan C. Miller is the founder and executive director of the News Literacy Project. He was an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times for 14 years and worked for the paper for 21 years. He won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2003.

Media and News Literacy in Seattle

In March 2009 I visited a social studies class at Chief Sealth High School here in Seattle, Washington. The 12th grade class was just starting a unit on global water issues, so their teacher asked me to come in and talk about some of the reporting I’d done in East Africa the year before. I introduced myself as a radio journalist and right away a hand shot up in the front row.
“What’s a journalist?” asked a high school senior, in total earnestness.
My immediate reaction was shock: how could an 18-year-old not know what a journalist is? I felt lost—a foundational element of what I had come to talk about was missing. But we plunged ahead with a news literacy question: “Where do you get your news?” Some answers you would expect—the local paper, web sites, NPR—and some were surprising, such as These answers helped the class engage in a conversation about news and radio and the difference between news and advertising.
Common Language Project
As a founding member of the Common Language Project (CLP), a nonprofit multimedia journalism organization based in Seattle, I cover underreported local and international issues. Since 2006 the CLP has reported on child labor in Pakistan, immigration and deportation in the Pacific Northwest, and climate change and water access in Ethiopia and Kenya, to name a few.
At the CLP, we can barely keep up with the demand from teachers for our journalists to visit their classrooms. Our network of teachers has found a range of ways to fit our work into their lesson planning. Some work us into units dealing with the issues we’ve reported on, like global health, climate change, or education, others into journalism classes, and others into media literacy units within social studies curricula. We want to maintain this diversity of class subjects, but we are also looking to expand our program to meet teacher demand while creating an opportunity to track the long-term impact of media literacy education on students.
Media Literacy: An Important Exercise
Youth media organizations often teach media literacy prior to producing media. For example, at Reel Grrls, a filmmaking program for teenage girls in Seattle where I work part time, media literacy is a key aspect of every program. Reel Grrls has found that participants need a larger context in order to understand how the media works before they can start to tell their own stories. Girls in the program have gone on to produce award-winning films that have shown in hundreds of film festivals all over the world. Many graduates of the program say that gaining a basic knowledge of media literacy was a pivotal moment in developing their ability to become storytellers.
The inspiration to start talking to students about media literacy came during the CLP’s first international reporting project, when our team reported from Israel and the Palestinian Territories during the Israeli-Lebanese War of 2006. Being submerged in the locally produced news reporting of the conflict inspired one of the first media literacy exercises the Common Language Project developed.
As a trainer, I brought a copy of the English-language news monthly Egypt Today to help students compare with Newsweek coverage. Both magazines featured articles on the conflict. Egypt Today ran a several-page spread of full color photos depicting desperate people searching for friends and family in the dusty rubble of a freshly-bombed apartment complex; another photo showed a dead body before it had been covered with a sheet. In contrast, Newsweek used an infographic as its main illustration: stick figures in red and blue to indicate the numbers of injuries and deaths on either side of the conflict.
Students love this exercise. Many respond to the idea that our media are sanitizing our information for us. They enjoy a rebellious, typical teenage reaction to being told what to think. Others pick up on the emotional manipulation inherent in printing pictures of extreme suffering—or in choosing not to print them. We love to facilitate these discussions, helping students think about how—and who—is processing their information for them. And perhaps even more importantly, to foster a love for what we call the ‘mind-boggler,’ or questions that do not have one simple answer—where wrestling with every side of the issue is what is most important.
In another exercise, we show students a chart mapping the crossover in membership on the boards of directors of major corporations with those of news outlets. At first, our chart is typically met with the familiar mild annoyance that any teacher might expect when asking high school students to read a graph. But as the discussion develops, students quickly grasp the concept of conflict of interest, and suddenly start to make intellectual leaps to many different issues in their lives.
Students consistently tell us that realizing this information empowers them to understand their role in the information landscape and to consider the motivation of other players. A student we visited in 2007 offered a succinct answer to one of our evaluation questions—“What information presented was the most useful to you?”—simply: “Mainstream media chooses what becomes news.”
News and Media Literacy
In January 2011, the Common Language Project plans to launch a Digital Literacy Initiative in Seattle in partnership with public high school teachers and the University of Washington. Our program will bring journalists into classrooms around the city for a series of visits exploring news, media and digital literacy, local investigative journalism, and international reporting, with the goal of fostering an understanding of the news and how it gets produced. We see news and media literacy as two critical thinking tools—we know that students who receive this training will go on to become more engaged, empowered citizens.
In the summer time, these students will be invited to a summer camp that will offer the chance to try their own hands at investigative reporting and media production. They will learn the basics of research and reporting, visit newsrooms around the city, and produce multimedia stories on their own communities.
Next Steps
The Chief Sealth High School student who asked what a journalist was turned out to be one of the most engaged in the class. But her knowledge of the role of journalism in democracy, of how to distinguish between forms of media and of how to access reliable information about the world around her was sadly underdeveloped. She understood so much about how the world works—but not about how that information had reached her.
Something is missing from our public school curriculum when a high school senior does not know what a journalist does, or why it is important to think about where his or her information is coming from. We are pushing Seattle to become a key city in the national news and media literacy movement. We want that 18-year-old student to be the last high school senior who doesn’t know what a journalist is.
Jessica Partnow is a radio producer and cofounder of the Common Language Project, a new media nonprofit based at the University of Washington that reports in-depth stories for newspapers, public radio and television, and online outlets. She teaches an undergraduate course in Entrepreneurial Journalism as well as high school workshops on news and media literacy, and spends two days a week working at Reel Grrls, a filmmaking program for teenage girls.

The Urban Journalism workshop Program: A Case Study

There is not a single journalist in the United States who has not witnessed—or been personally affected by—the chaos that has befallen many newsrooms in the past few years: mass layoffs, furloughs and slashed news budgets. For those of us who have spent many years engaged in programs to get high school students to pursue journalism careers, we have asked ourselves if it is even responsible engaging in such pursuits.
Ironically, at the same time the news business has seen massive cutbacks, news consumption has remained steady and even increased. Therefore, it is essential that educators train young people to be responsible media consumers. Due to the advent of technology, younger generations are constantly bombarded with information. As a result, students must be taught to distinguish news from all the media and information masquerading as news.
About Urban Journalism Workshop Program
“Is it responsible to even suggest careers in journalism, given the state of the industry?” The answer is yes, but we must expand our missions to include training responsible young media consumers and news creators. Over the years, the Cleveland Urban Journalism Workshop (UJW) program—which is solely operated by journalist volunteers—has prompted several students to pursue journalism careers.
Beginning in the 1980s, many chapters of the National Association of Black Journalists began holding journalism workshops. The primary goal was to encourage minorities to pursue journalism careers. Most UJWs, like Cleveland’s, held six-hour sessions on Saturdays for eight weeks.
Even if many of us did not realize it, news literacy was one of the several unstated goals that had emerged in UJW over the years. Workshop alums in non-journalism careers say that the lasting impact of UJW helped them become better writers and to understand important concepts like fairness and balance. In addition, many say that the socio-economic and racial mix of their workshop peers was the first time they had meaningful contact with students unlike themselves. According to the U.S. Census data, Cleveland persistently ranks as one of the most segregated cities in the country, and learning about journalism and news is important to get accurate information to diverse audiences.
The UJW is not sponsored by a school district or academic institution; however, for about a decade we have partnered with John Carroll University in University Heights. The college assigns a faculty member to attend the workshop and the University sponsors our graduation ceremony. The program recruits about 30 students per workshop from throughout Northeast Ohio across inner city and elite schools. Some of our students are sent by guidance counselors identified as “challenging” since program participation typically results with increased critical thinking skills and improved academic success.
The UJW structure includes:
• morning sessions
• a news quiz
• lectures on journalism principles and news literacy
• a “newsmakers” segment, which simulates a press conference
• multi-media projects
Like most programs that focus on storytelling or journalism, we start with the five Ws and H: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? These are not only key to news writing, but news literacy, as it frames learning with creating savvy news consumers. As part of our newly expanded mission, the committee decided to sprinkle news literacy into our existing format. Next year, we hope to implement more formal components.
Media is a big part of the workshop. For example, we held a session at a television station; and, another was based entirely on still photography and some video. The last three weeks are devoted to writing articles and doing multi-media projects for the UJW print and online products.
The multi-media projects students produce can be viewed at the following link, which includes a video commentary on censorship, a short feature on teen robotics and a sidebar interview on teen stress with a young woman who is the only working member of her family. Student work also appears throughout the workshop on the UJW blog.
News Literacy
As the UJW has evolved, news literacy has become more and more important. Instead of quizzing students about a week’s news events, we now ask students to offer opinions about how different media cover a story and analyze news content overall. Instructors teach a lecture titled, “What is News?” and many volunteers work one-on-one with students, who reinforce and apply news literacy principles in their teaching.
We found that although news literacy was introduced in the lectures, many students did not fully grasp the concept until they worked one-on-one with journalists in reporting/writing their own stories for the UJW newspaper. Students needed educators to help identify and point out the differences. We emphasized how students should scrutinize clues to accuracy before accepting information as reliable. Students explored the difference between news and gossip—a topic that is close to the fabric of their school experience. In this era of social media, blogging, text messages and emails blur what news is reliable.
This year, we introduced a question asking session to elicit the students’ opinions about how an event was covered. The answers often sparked lively discussion about fairness and balance and how a single topic is covered in different forms of media. Students learned how to identify reliable sources of information—for example, government data and reports or academic citations—to critically analyze whether or not mainstream media used reliable sources in their stories.
Students were given different types of examples in which media failed to use reliable sources. We discussed phrases like “Channel X News has learned” and contrasted that with the use of anonymous sources. This gave instructors the opportunity to discuss relying on rumors or hearsay versus reporting involving anonymous sources. The discussion revolved around how many print and broadcast operations have very strict guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources. Instructors discussed why many of them prohibit the use of anonymous sources all together.
Critical to these discussions was the importance of knowing opposing viewpoints. For example, the class analyzed a radio report on trans-racial adoptions. Sources quoted as supporting trans-racial adoptions included representatives from academic institutions and professional organizations that had done research on the topic. The only sources quoted as opposing trans-racial adoptions were random customers at a local barbershop.
Next Steps
Students benefit from a habit of critically analyzing information they consume. Youth journalism and media programs should incorporate news literacy into their curricula. By doing this, they are giving students a skill to use immediately and throughout their lifetimes. For youth media educators, the UJW is a case study that helps present how accuracy is the most important element of news and that correction is necessary to inaccuracy.
Thinking like a journalist includes seeking truth and reporting and interpreting information; minimizing harm and treating human beings with respect; acting independently, free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know; and, being accountable to one’s listeners, readers, viewers and one another. Steer youth media producers away from Wikipedia as a primary source of information and help train youth to analyze different forms of information and sources from the internet, radio, video and print. As storytellers, students require insight into the principles of journalism—fairness, accuracy, balance and objectivity.
Olivera Perkins is a reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She has been an Urban Journalism Workshop volunteer for more than 15 years.

Youth Media: A Professional Development Strategy

In Boston, where there is a long history of racial segregation, social realities are exponentially exaggerated by the persistently negative and stereotypical mainstream media. Young people in Boston are apt to perpetuate these negative stereotypes because media plays a pivotal role in shaping their identities and attitudes.
What young people need is a lens through which they can see all the positive representations and untold stories in their communities, and tools to tell these stories. Press Pass TV aims to provide young people with the tools to critically process the information they see on television, to rise above the influence and to shape a healthy image of self and others.
We have found that when professional development is integrated with a curriculum designed to train young people to produce powerful stories, we counteract the effects of mainstream media’s stereotypes on youth and the local community.
About Press Pass TV

At Press Pass TV we envision a world of engaged and informed individuals, where youth are leaders and our communities are inspired by media that supports a healthy democracy based on truth, benefiting the greater good.
Press Pass TV is a non-profit that trains youth to produce socially responsible video journalism, which promotes a more diverse media, empowers communities, and increases civic engagement. We partner with local non-profits and offer innovative courses which engage youth in becoming “change agents” and provide professional skills, raising young people’s chances to have a happy and successful life. Here is an example of a story that Press Pass TV youth reporters “broke” and was subsequently picked up by NBC and other major channels:

With issues such a domestic violence, incarceration, educational disparities and transportation rights, our news stories have become tools for community mobilization and organizing. Even with these difficult topics, Press Pass TV remains solution-oriented and dedicated to giving a voice to those most affected. In particular, Press Pass highlights the positive, hopeful, and untold stories of Boston.

In our program, youth are not bombarded with the negative statistics recapitulated by mainstream media, but instead are given the “so what” and the “now what.” In other words, we use media to build a bridge of understanding from how these issues affect them to the tools they can use to take action and change their plight. Press Pass TV offers programs that start with media literacy (using games created by the youth such as Media Jeopardy) and end in hands-on media production.
At Press Pass TV we have found a way to support both creativity and professionalism in a model where these skills complement each other. We provide professional development and time management workshops at the beginning of each program. As a result, our program runs more efficiently, gives our students valuable transferable skills and results in higher quality content. Ultimately, this approach improves the reach of distribution of the content our young people produce, while equipping them to be active participants in their community.
Our professional development workshop takes youth through a curriculum covering topics such as email and work place etiquette, resume development, and professional interpersonal skills (including how to leave a voicemail, shake hands, say no, etc.). It is important to note that this success has been achieved despite the fact that Press Pass TV only recently started paying youth for their work (the majority of our work has been done on a volunteer basis).
Suggestions to the Field
Set high expectations for youth while providing specific tools and pathways to meet them. At Press Pass TV, we have found that the low expectations our community sets for the young people we serve is one of the greatest barriers they face when striving to reach their full potential. In fact, low expectations often further victimize “at-risk” youth rather than empower them. We have watched our young people meet and exceed the high expectations we lay out for them, and this gives them a sense of pride and empowerment.
Add a broader relevancy to the work the youth are producing, by connecting youth to major decision makers and striving to distribute their media broadly. Young people are more engaged in their work when they know they have a strong voice in their field. At Press Pass TV, we encourage youth to interview politicians, businessmen and artists alike, to produce content that contributes to public dialogue and fosters healthy communities.
Incorporate the ways youth adapt to your city when designing your professional development workshops. The key to a professional development workshop is meeting youth where they are. We found that our youth had a hard time showing up on time for reasons as simple as being unable to read a map or know how to use Google maps. Therefore, we go over how to navigate the MBTA (public transportation) and discuss how weather impacts travel time in Boston.
Design professional development workshops with the help of youth or with your program alumni, to eliminate the “top-down” approach that often does not resonate with young people. Work together to identify barriers that prevent your participants from achieving their full professional potential and then create and provide the tools that will support that growth.
Avoid assuming common knowledge—just because you know the difference between “cc” and “bcc” doesn’t mean they do. You can get a sense of what they do and do not already know by observing them at work. For instance, at Press Pass TV the main reason production would slow down was around “follow-up” on leads. We observed that the majority of youth would not leave voice-mails and when they did, crucial contact information was left out. A simple remedy was to create a “phone script.”
Call to the Field
Since the implementation of our “professional development” workshops, Press Pass TV no longer struggles with program attendance and work effectiveness. By setting clear and accessible standards of production, our youth produced content now has distribution through all Public Access channels in Massachusetts as well as nationally through Free Speech TV. We have quickly built a reputation in the city for our fair reporting and our deep ties to the community.
We see professional development as a crucial cornerstone in building the skills necessary for a successful and happy life. Regardless of whether or not the youth you work with will go into media production careers, teaching them how to manage their time, skills and resources will ensure success in their higher education and will level the playing field when it comes to employment opportunities. In short, by joining a strong professional development component with media production we can achieve much needed systemic change.
“Having your voice respected and a say in your destiny is an unalienable human right. I do this work because I believe in the value of our communities, the richness of diversity, and the power of our stories to transform. I dedicate my work to giving the silenced people, issues, and communities a voice.” Joanna Marinova, is the co-director of Program and Operations at Press Pass TV. With a B.S. in International Relations and Economics from the University of Toronto, Joanna has solid corporate experience having worked for Citizens Bank and Wellington Financial Management. She was the founder and president of Women in Life Learning, a Toronto based nonprofit. Joanna has over 7 years of experience and a proven track record in management, operations and development work in nonprofits.

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:
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).

An Ally for Youth When it Counts

Every summer since 1999, I have volunteered my services to a local youth media organization called VOX Teen Communications. My “day job” is as a news designer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s (AJC) editorial pages. I once believed that getting more youth voices on our opinion pages was a good way to grow a younger readership. However, after years of working with teens through VOX, I find myself less concerned with my employer’s circulation and more dedicated to giving young writers the best publishing experience I can.
In the summer of 2005, I had the opportunity to mentor a 16-year-old Somali girl named Ayan Hussein get a very difficult, personal story published in our paper. The experience tested the resolve of all involved and forced some lessons on us before it was over. These lessons included how to be an advocate for young writers, how to negotiate cultural differences, how to support a teen facing outside pressures and most of all, how to guide a young writer through a large bureaucratic process with her voice intact and her spirit empowered.
Ayan and I first met as part of the Raise Your Voice Summer Program sponsored by VOX Teen Communications ( Each summer, VOX teaches 16 teenage writers and journalists journalism fundamentals and community leadership. One of the most popular attractions of the program is the one-on-one mentorship with news-industry professionals. As mentors, our immediate goal is to help each teen get an article published in the AJC. We coach our teens to select a topic that the paper might want to publish, give advice on how to cover the topic, and help pitch the finished article to one of our paper’s section editors.
First impressions
The subject matter Ayan wished to write about was challenging. During our initial meeting, she told me she wanted her article to be a personalized introduction to the Somali practice of female circumcision (also called female genital mutilation, or FGM). In her words, “I wanted to educate myself on what happened to me when I was 7 years old through the research that I would be doing. The article would also benefit other victims of the ritual.”
Ayan took this opportunity very seriously. She explains, “[When I gave Pete my first draft], I was sure that he was going to judge me when he was done reading it. I was wrong. He said that it looked good and the only thing missing was the reliable resources and interviews from people in the community. [Female circumcision] has always been in my mind but never talked about because it is taboo. [Yet] I had stories of my personal struggle that I went through since coming to America…this was a chance to share my stories with [a wider audience].”
Soon Ayan was telling me how her family was scattered between the U.S. and Kenya; how her first years in the United States were lonely and difficult; how she lived with her father and younger sister in a tiny apartment; and how her educational ambitions were at odds with her family’s plans for her.
No one in her family had more than a fifth-grade education. Joining the VOX summer program made Ayan’s father fearful that such activities would westernize her beyond his recognition. Ayan explained that most young Somali women were expected to drop out of school and go to work, or marry young and start families.
I quickly realized that there was more at stake here than a writer getting something off her chest. I knew I would need a plan for how to support her without being a disrupting force on her relationships with her family, culture and community.
To that end, I decided that I would do my best to create options for her and leave as many choices as possible up to her. It was my hope that giving her options would increase her confidence and leadership as we progressed toward publication.
Choices, choices
I explained to Ayan that we had several choices where her article could be published. If she kept a detached voice, her article could run as an explanatory news story in our weekly international section called Atlanta & the World. This would require more research and reporting. The advantage of doing a detached, reported-news article would be to expand the scope of her writing from a first-person piece to one that would allow her to explore the context of her experience.
On the other hand, there were advantages to keeping her subjective voice too. By running her article as a first-person piece on our daily op-ed page, she would have more opportunity to reflect on her experience. We already had a daily op-ed venue for young writers called “New Attitudes” that was tried and true, but I felt that Ayan’s story deserved a bigger treatment.
The third option was creating a longer piece intended for the Sunday opinion section, @issue. Publishing a teen writer in the @issue section would be new territory for the AJC, and I warned Ayan that the experience of dealing with several layers of editors could be frustrating for her. In response, Ayan only asked which venue had the largest readership. Getting her message out was paramount. As our “primetime” space, the @issue section would be a gamble—we would get a larger readership, but also more scrutiny from the paper’s editors. More editors always means more changes, and I worried that we might change or even lose Ayan’s voice.
Over the next several days, I checked on Ayan as she progressed on her research. I made some suggestions on where to look for materials and asked if there was any way I could help. At times, her research was emotionally difficult. Ayan explains, “To my surprise, I realized [during my research] that there were three types of female circumcision. At one point I came across a picture taken after the procedure and I almost vomited—I could not hold back tears. I phoned Pete and I will never forget what he said. Instead of telling me to be strong or just move on and not to visit the website again, he said that I was a good writer and I have plenty of stories to work on—that female circumcision was not the only option we had.”
It was still early in the process, and I reminded Ayan that we could go to Plan B if necessary. Ayan reflects, “As a result of Pete giving me options, I chose to stick with the topic. I realized that I didn’t have to continue [with the topic] but that I wanted to.”
Working with the editor
After a round of editing, I arranged a pitch meeting between Ayan and the @issue editor Richard Halicks. Pitch meetings are crucial to a teen writer’s ultimate experience in the VOX summer program. Pitch meetings allow both the teen writer and editor to get to know each other—even before the article is discussed. Doing so creates a partnership, rather than introducing another authority figure for the teen to deal with. It’s also a great time to discuss expectations.
Richard—a very nurturing editor—was enthusiastic about getting her article into his section. However, he wanted to know whether Ayan’s parents knew what she was writing. Although he would not ask for their permission, he wanted to make sure that Ayan understood the consequences of making them part of her story. Ayan replied that she had discussed her article with her father, who was cool to the idea, but did not forbid it.
With that, Richard and Ayan created their own working dynamic. Richard wanted more reporting on the practice of FGM, and sent Ayan for quotes from the Somali community. Ayan seemed to enjoy working with Richard. They haggled over word choices and traded ideas over how to begin and end the piece. You would have thought she was a regular staff reporter.
Over the next two weeks, my role would be to talk to each of them separately to make sure Ayan was meeting Richard’s expectations, and that Richard’s changes were not diluting Ayan’s voice. I further mediated by touching base with staff at VOX to deliver progress reports and ensure that Ayan was not overwhelmed.
A major roadblock
With all parties happy with the article, and with three days before publication, Richard took the piece to his editors. The intent of this meeting was to inform the editors what was going in the @issue section, and also to run interference on Ayan’s behalf if those editors had any concerns. Unfortunately, they had a big one.
The editors wanted some kind of signed note—either from a doctor or parent—verifying that Ayan had the FGM procedure. In the summer of 2005, the journalism scandals involving Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley were still fresh, and for some editors, having a “good feeling” about a writer wasn’t enough (especially a young freelancer we hadn’t worked with before).
Richard and I were crestfallen. We discussed ways to change Ayan’s piece so that we would not have to ask for such verification. For instance, we could pitch it as a news story, without the personal angle. Or give the story over to VOX, which would be happy to publish it as-is in their monthly newspaper. Whatever the answer, we would be going to press in three days regardless.
I contacted the VOX office for advice. Program director Meredith Tetloff said that she would explain the situation to Ayan, and stress that the choice was still hers. I was very thankful that VOX was there as a safety net. I knew that the concerns at VOX would be unclouded by the production concerns at my office.
A difficult choice
Ayan’s first reaction to the news was disbelief. She explains, “At first I thought that it was a joke. But then it sunk in slowly. I understood where they were coming from. The worst part was [asking] my father to write the letter and then sign it.”
Ayan became more determined to get her father’s signature and I could tell she was looking for encouragement from me. I reminded her that she had choices, that the article would be published and that people would be moved wherever they read it.
Later that evening, Ayan called me. She sounded like she had just run a race. I could hear raised voices in the background. The talk had been difficult, but productive. She later told me, “It took hours of talking to [my father]. He finally signed it. I believe that he did it because deep inside he agreed with what I was doing.” Though far from enthusiastic, her father had contributed his signature to a scrawled note saying that Ayan had indeed had the FGM procedure.
With that behind us, we were back on track. Ayan explains, “The next day, [I] spoke to Meredith at VOX about what had happened with my dad and she was comforting.” Meredith and I paid close attention to Ayan’s mood over the next week. She seemed exhausted, and as she says, “I almost changed my mind about the article but thank God I had a good support group at VOX.”
A few days later, Ayan’s article was published on the cover of our “primetime” @issue section and her mood was lifted considerably. In fact, the article led to many great things for Ayan as she entered her senior year of high school. Ayan says that although many in her community were angry about the article, others were now coming to her to share their experiences. She explains, “I have also had open conversations about this ritual with friends, something that I could not do before. I had friends, victims of the ritual who admire me for writing the article but [whose] parents hate me for publishing the piece. I also [received] letters from people who read the article and congratulated me for my bravery. All I care about was that my message was loud and clear to both victims and strangers of female circumcision.”
In the published version of Ayan’s article, she writes, “I wish I had the power to prevent any other 7-year-old girl from getting circumcised. My privacy was invaded that afternoon, and it still haunts me to this day. Sharing my story is difficult, but it is an important step toward my healing.”
My work with Ayan continued after the success of her article. Over the next year, she emerged as a campus leader and a hero to local Somali women. NPR (partnered with Youth Radio) broadcast a first-person segment on her story. She became involved with international and refugee groups. And she continued to write for VOX. Last fall, I began helping her copy edit college and scholarship applications. Ten months later, she is a Gates Millennial Scholar bound for the University of Georgia with a shiny new laptop.
Lessons learned
Getting more youth writers involved in mainstream media outlets can be a challenge, but a very rewarding one. The VOX Raise Your Voice Summer Program is an excellent model in youth media/mainstream media partnership. Even with my long involvement with the program, my experience as Ayan’s mentor taught me to completely rethink the value of the publishing experience and how to improve upon it for teen’s benefit.
For instance, it is not enough to treat young writers with patience and “kid gloves.” Teens are up to any challenge if the right rapport is struck upfront. As with our productive pitch meeting, having teens meet with their editor(s) face-to-face creates a partnership.
Furnish teens with choices throughout the process. Put as many decisions in the teen’s hands as possible. Be clear on your expectations and what they can expect from you.
Be prepared to support teens in ways that are outside the sphere of typical journalism and editing. Also, be mindful of outside pressures affecting the teen. Tread very lightly when dealing with cultural and family connections.
Be an advocate for teens. Ask them how you can help. Run interference on their behalf when the bureaucracy threatens to swallow their voice. Give them a chance to challenge decisions. As with our productive pitch meeting, having teens meet with their editor(s) face-to-face creates a partnership.
Remember that bigger venues bring more scrutiny, more editors, more verification and more headaches. Leave yourself time to address the unexpected. And always have a Plan B at hand if it all goes south.
Along with that, tell the teen (and your superiors) what’s ahead. Despite our best efforts, this is unfortunately where Richard and I failed Ayan. Her biggest hurdle came at the very end of the process and was unduly stressful. It possibly could have been avoided had we involved our own editors earlier on.
And finally, encourage strong cooperation between the youth organization and the professional newsroom. The dual goals of teen-building and voice-raising demand it.
My experience with Ayan reminded me that youth media is a means to an end, but not the end itself. As valuable as the published artifact is, what makes the experience a lasting one for the teen is the ownership and realization of their ambitions. By providing choices, a mentor helps the teen chart their own path. Do this, and you’ll be amazed where they lead.
Pete Corson has been a news designer for the Editorial department of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1998. He has volunteered with VOX Teen Communications since 1999, where he has helped coordinate the summer mentorship program. He is married and lives in Atlanta.

Princeton University Summer Journalism Program

Princeton is offering a 10-day all-expenses-paid summer journalism program held in August 2-7, 2007 at Princeton University for students from under resourced financial backgrounds. Students live on campus, meet the president and dean, and are supported by alumni and students who attended the program in previous summers. All application materials, rules and regulations are available here. If you have any questions, email: