While major news stories such as the pandemic, climate change, and the movement for social justice often impact the lives of young people, their voices are not always represented.
PBS NEWSHOUR Student Reporting Labs is striving to elevate youth voices by giving teens the ability to produce news stories about their generation’s achievements and challenges. In doing so, the program hopes to encourage more inclusive content—a core principle of the PBS Editorial Standards—as well as more civic engagement and informed media consumers.
Student Reporting Labs is in more than 150 high schools, middle schools, and after-school programs across the country. Some schools work with their local PBS member stations to broadcast the students’ reports or share them on social media. And some of the reports air nationally on PBS NEWSHOUR.
Mary Williams, an alumna of the program who produced several pieces for NEWSHOUR, said Student Reporting Labs changed her opinion that news was just for older people.
“The news is relevant to people in high school and college because they are future voters, taxpayers, educators, and parents,” she said. “… Now when I see the news, it’s personal. The economy, education system, and the Earth’s current state [aren’t] just my parents’ problems to worry about. It’s mine, too.”
The program’s youth-driven approach to video journalism—from the reporters, to the sources, to the topics covered—brings a valuable perspective to public media.
The PBS Editorial Standards state: “Producers should incorporate diverse perspectives as a way of making content more inclusive, accurate, and complete.” PBS believes inclusiveness “means that content should reflect the views of people from different backgrounds, such as geographic areas, ethnicities, genders, age groups, religious beliefs, political viewpoints, and income levels.”
Student Reporting Labs was created after founder Leah Clapman visited classrooms to talk about the news and kept hearing from students that they weren’t paying attention to it. She wanted to bring students into news production—to be both creators and consumers of the news, said Elis Estrada, the program’s senior director.
Participating schools receive a welcome packet from Student Reporting Labs at the beginning of the school year that includes a project-based curriculum. Students’ assignments start with “Rapid Responses,” where they go out into the community to get interviews about a certain topic. Then, as students build their journalism skills, the assignments get more challenging, Estrada said. The program’s Youth Media Producers provide the students with feedback.
“One of the great things about journalism is that students talk to adults, and students engage their communities, and ask them questions, said Chris Lazarski, who teaches journalism at Wauwatosa West High School in Wisconsin. “It’s an outstanding learning framework. Journalism provides students with so many thinking skills.”
In recent years, the students have covered topics ranging from climate change and politics to education and mental health.
Some students get once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. A senior in Virginia interviewed environmental activist Greta Thunberg. A middle school lab in Iowa went to a local caucus for the Democratic presidential race and created a video. And one of Lazarski’s students, Anyiah Chambers, reported on her experience at the polls.
Chambers was a poll worker during the Wisconsin primary of the presidential election in 2020. The primary was controversial because it occurred amid the pandemic. Through Student Reporting Labs, Chambers chronicled the long line of voters in the morning, explained curb-side voting, and showed herself wearing a protective mask and gown. She used her iPhone to record the 12-minute vlog.
“Anyiah was in the right place at the right time, but she was also trained to think like a journalist, which I think is important as kids are kind of going out and covering these stories,” Lazarski said.
Americans ages 18 to 23, the leading edge of Generation Z, accounted for 10 percent of eligible voters in the 2020 elections, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2016, only 4 percent of Gen Z was old enough to vote.
In preparation for the election season, Student Reporting Labs created an #Election2020 Journalism Toolkit to help students get engaged and ensure their voices are reflected in news coverage. The toolkit offered tips on how to set up an interview with a politician, explained why covering policy issues is important, and provided lesson plans.
At the beginning of 2020, the program expected election coverage and the presidential race to be the biggest news of the year. The pandemic changed everything, and the youth journalism program quickly pivoted to largely covering COVID-19.
With millions of students returning to schools in person in the fall of 2021, NEWSHOUR was able to use the Student Reporting Labs network to broadcast reactions of 15 students from across the country expressing their fears and concerns.
Similarly, NEWSHOUR was able to use the network of students to offer a different perspective during its coverage of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The program aired a collection of reactions from young people who were born after the terrorist attacks happened and what that has meant for their generation.
For information about partner stations, how to apply, or how to bring Student Reporting Labs to your school, visit studentreportinglabs.org.
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