Youth media: Why does it fly under the radar?

I’m just back from Diversifying Participation,  one of the best conferences I have ever attended.  Thank you, MacArthur Foundation and the UC Irvine Humanities Research Institute.

I’ve been to many media conferences, which focus on what media do. This conference was about what people do, with a particular focus on young people of color.   The sessions were a mix of topics about learning (how do kids learn and use digital media) and about media (the content that emerges from this interaction).   Many sessions highlighted media that youth are creating, and I learned about a broad range of work centered on newsy topics but largely isolated from mainstream news media. A few examples:

  • In Orange, N.J., high school students participated in [murmur], a documentary oral history project that records stories and memories  about specific geographic locations.  In each location there is a  [murmur] sign with a telephone number that to call to  listen to that story while standing where the story takes place.

And if you want to go beyond the “news” lens, you’ll find kids engaged in social activism based on Harry Potter themes at the Harry Potter Alliance, MIT’s Scratch, where kids age 6-18 have created, remixed and shared more than 700,000 interactive stories, animations and games, and BlackCloud.org, enabling high school “citizen scientists” to monitor air quality in their South L.A. homes and learn how to take action.

To me, this content is authentic, fresh and fascinating.  I hadn’t seen or heard about most of it, despite working for the last 20 years in media and following industry news pretty closely.  Why isn’t this content more visible? There are explanations in both the media industry works as well as among nonprofits, foundations and universities that fund most youth media efforts.

In the media world, I blame exceedingly narrow definitions of news, something that has bugged me for years.   So much of news is event-driven, requiring a dramatic, timely or topical hook.  The Internet’s endless thirst for breaking news, combined with staff cutbacks, has resulted in an even greater focus on event coverage.  Youth content isn’t breaking news, and the content often includes personal opinion or advocacy.  It doesn’t fit neatly into any category. If news organizations do happen to run across the kind of content linked above, they would most likely treat it as a human interest story (look at what those kids did!).  Instead, newsrooms should see these smart and observant young people as a resource to enhance their newsgathering team.

This brings me to another problem: media organizations have never known what to do about reaching young people.  In newspapers, there is sometimes the weekly “kids page” and the “high school journalism page.”  But those pages ended up being containers for content that adults thought kids should create, versus what was really on their minds.  This new wave of youth-created interactive content offers a fresh opportunity to bring young voices into the mix.

In the foundation and nonprofit worlds, youth media is most often treated as “youth development,” meaning the primary purpose of the work is to educate and empower young people as storytellers. What happens to the media they create is secondary.  It ends up being posted on obscure web pages and not cross-promoted via YouTube, Facebook and other social media channels. This is a lost opportunity, and foundations should do more to emphasize the importance of promoting and distributing this important content.  And they should encourage grantees to pursue the idea of media partnerships, such as the one that Youth Radio has with NPR, that allow youth content to reach wider audience.

For those interested in keeping tabs on youth media, I recommend the Youth Media Reporter, the professional journal of the youth media field.

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4 Comments

  1. February 21, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Hi Mary Lou,
    Welcome to blogging. This comment of yours is entirely prescient and deserves more airplay.

    >> This brings me to another problem: media organizations have never known what to do about reaching young people. In newspapers, there is sometimes the weekly “kids page” and the “high school journalism page.” But those pages ended up being containers for content that adults thought kids should create, versus what was really on their minds. This new wave of youth-created interactive content offers a fresh opportunity to bring young voices into the mix.

    I think part of the problem is that we live in a culture of “push” media still and its only the few marginal extremes that find their way into using participatory tools to engage.

    I also think that if this stuff is mandated by schools, it’ll die. I think it has to be grassroots, work its way through informal groups and initiatives.

    You might be interested in our work at BettrAt — We were a MacArthur DML grantee. We’re very much interested in cultures of participation and helping people create new media to reflect who they are. Our 4 part framework for learning, CGRS, Create/Gather/Share/Reflect, has been at the core of the prototypes and proof of concept we’ve achieved to date.

    In any event, I’m interested in how your work progresses and will follow along.

    BTW, have you seen Vocalo? http://vocalo.org/

    • February 21, 2010 at 2:16 pm

      Hi Ash and thanks for your comment. BettrAt sounds interesting – just signed up for your alpha. I hadn’t heard of Vocalo but I like it! I’m stunned at the range of projects MacArthur has funded in this area. Your grantee meetings must be amazing.

      -Mary Lou

  2. February 21, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Thanks Mary Lou!

    Actually, I don’t know if Vocalo is connected to MacA, didn’t want to send that signal, but I know a number of classmates of mine at the Institute of Design (a school focused on human centered innovation)

    We’re in a closed pilot with Girl Scouts right now but I’d be happy to invite you to the alpha really soon 🙂

    Thanks!

  3. September 13, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    […] the potential of youth media to become valuable contributors to local journalism.  However, one of my critiques of youth media has been that great stories and pictures sit unseen on web sites because little effort is invested […]


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