Election Year: How Can Youth Walk the Walk?

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