Teen Journalists Give Youth a Voice

This fall, when the CBS show "48 Hours" put video cameras in the hands of teen-agers and asked them to tell their own stories, many youths across the country might well have thought, "It's about time." Over the last decade, young people have become increasingly frustrated by what they perceive as the media's inaccurate, or at least incomplete, portrayal of their lives and concerns, according to opinion surveys.Dinah Perez, a 16-year-old high school student at San Fernando High School, in Los Angeles, shares this frustration: "I believe there are a lot of teen-agers who are going to make it out there. Not all of us are bad. People should just give us a chance."But she and hundreds of other teens like her around the country, aren't waiting around to be given that chance. Dinah has become a reporter herself, a volunteer for the monthly LA Youth. Taking matters into their own hands, more and more young people are writing and reporting news about their lives. They're doing it with the help of dedicated adults in newspapers or television shows that are largely teen-operated. "Our mission is to give youth a voice, and we do that primarily by putting this powerful medium in their hands. It's something they create," says Libby Hartigan, editorial adviser for LA Youth. The eight-year-old paper is one of 15 programs modeled after Youth Communication, a Chicago-based organization founded 20 years ago by Anne Christine Heintz, a Chicago nun. Like several other organizations around the country, Youth Communication is trying to foster more positive images of teens by letting them speak for themselves. In one poll, 61 percent of young people (ages 11 to 16) held that the media typically portrays young people involved in crimes, drugs or violence, said Vicky Rideout, program director at Children Now in Oakland, Calif. The child-advocacy organization conducted the survey two years ago. Those polled "were looking for positive stories about kids doing good things, staying out of trouble, being proactive about the environment. And they weren't finding them," said Rideout. One sign of the upsurge in youth media is a current exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Curator Brian Goldfarb has gathered hundreds of examples of teen media, from videos and web sites to graffiti and "zines," or magazines that cover cyberpunk, skateboarding and other rages. The video selection includes "Love Between a Boy and Girl," which follows a San Francisco youth grappling with AIDS, gang culture and teen relationships. These and other teen projects are a reaction in part to the mainstream media's "sensationalistic images of teen-agers on drugs, being violent or having violence done to them," said Goldfarb. But this hardly means that teen media are ducking the hard issues, according to Goldfarb and others. In fact, teen news organizations are willing to "tackle issues that some [mainstream] papers might not be willing to confront," said Donna Myrow, executive director of the LA Youth board of directors. An example is Chicago's New Expression." That teen-run paper has broken several sensational stories, including coverage of a teen pornography ring, cocaine trafficking in high schools and questionable police tactics used against suspect youth gang members. LA Youth ran a series on sex that included a young man's account of his first sexual experience -- a subject that almost proved too touchy even for that vehicle, according to advisor Hartigan.[EDITORS: STORY COULD END HERE.]Another example of teens talking to teens is New Youth Connections with a circulation of 65,000 in all five boroughs of New York City. "Kids who read it say they like it because it's real; it's based on teen-agers' experiences, in their own language," said Andrea Estepa, editorial adviser. A recent issue of New Youth Connections featured stories on the highs and lows of drug usage, the experiences of a young woman who plays wheelchair basketball and an account of a teen's reaction to her father's terminal illness. A recognized pioneer in youth media is Children's Express, a nonprofit youth organization and news service, launched in 1975. Based in Washington, D.C., Children's Express has bureaus in five cities that circulate stories nationally. Once each month, The New York Times News Service carries Children Express stories -- a mix of opinion pieces, personal experiences and news, including coverage of national presidential conventions. "We have a broader audience," said Lynn Sygiel, editorial adviser for the Children's Express bureau in Indianapolis. "Adults as well as kids are reading CE stories. We hope the community will get to know their kids better as a result." For Amit Paley, 14, of Newton, Mass., teen journalism is not just about teens. As part of the "48 Hours" Class of 2000 project, he produced a video diary of the Democratic and Republican national conventions last summer and interviewed Hillary Clinton. "Even the issues that may seem removed -- like Social Security -- are very important to us because we wonder whether there will be any Social Security by the time we need it, and yet we are paying the taxes for it," said Paley, a freshman at Roxbury Latin School in Boston. "We're showing adults that we do care what happens. It's our world -- we're going to inherit it."SIDEBAR 1: Teens Seek Self-Expression Through Their Own MediaEditorial advisers for teen media usually describe their role as that of a coach, guiding neophyte journalists away from potentially libelous statements and helping them make ethical decisions. One thing they do not always do is insist upon the journalistic axiom of complete objectivity. "We are advocates for youth, and we aren't at all shy about that," said Libby Hartigan, adviser for LA Youth and a former reporter for the Daily News of Los Angeles. "Most of our pieces are similar to the opinion or lifestyle pages of mainstream media." But that approach, coupled with more freedom, is exactly what sold Dinah Perez, 16, on writing for LA Youth. "At my high school paper, we couldn't write about things the principal didn't approve of," said Dinah. "And everything was just getting the facts and quotes down. I feel more comfortable writing freely and expressing the way I feel." That's not to say these papers don't prepare teens for careers in traditional journalism. According to a survey done by Youth Communication in Chicago, nearly 300 of the program's 1,300 alumni are involved in the field of journalism. A case in point is Katie Galloway, 25, who is producing teen video diaries for "48 Hours" as part of the CBS Class of 2000 Project. Galloway began writing articles for her local newspaper when she was 16. "I remember being frustrated by adults' misperceptions of teens when I was that age. So it's great to be able to give kids a voice now."***COPYRIGHT The American News Service Contacts: Katie Galloway, producer, Broadcast News Networks, New York, N.Y., 212-779-0500, ext. 311.Donna Myrow, executive director, LA Youth, Los Angeles, Calif., 213-938-9194. Libby Hartigan, editorial adviser, LA Youth, Los Angeles, Calif., 213-938-9194. Vicky Rideout, program director, Children Now, Oakland, Calif., 510-763-2444. Brian Goldfarb, curator, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, N.Y., 212-219-1222. Andrea Estepa, editorial adviser, New Youth Connections, New York, N.Y., 212-242-3270. Bill Brooks, executive director, Youth Communication, Chicago, Ill., 312-641-6397. Lynn Sygiel, director, Children's Express news bureau, Indianapolis, Ind., 317-921-4125. Monette Austin, editor-in-chief, Children's Express, Washington, D.C., 202-737-7377. Amit Paley, student, Newton, Mass., 617-244-9536.


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