When young people are invited to explore topics that matter to them, be prepared for editorial challenges, ethical dilemmas, and controversy once the story airs. In some ways, that’s how you know young people are taking on deep and meaningful questions. Here are three key questions to talk about with young people in advance, in order to set some policies to govern how you’ll work.
1. How do you maintain a firewall between the editorial and business sides of youth media production? It is always a good idea to sit down as a group of adult and youth producers to discuss specific scenarios where pressure from funders or outlets or school administration or even an editor’s personal politics might encroach upon content, and together answer, “What will we do?”
2. Is it worthwhile to pursue stories from a youth perspective that might reflect poorly on young people, and if so, why and how? Youth Radio editors feel strongly that difficult stories are among the most important to tell. The commentary where a teenager whose father is gay grapples with his own homophobia. The story from a girl who’s not sure if she’s ready to let go of the privilege her wavy hair brings by switching to dreadlocks. The perspective from a young man who condemns the shield law protecting journalists’ anonymous sources because he says it’s been used against him to protect racist police. These kinds of stories reveal complexities in young people’s lives and invite rich discussions among youth producers, their adult collaborators, and audiences.
3. Do you offer protection for young people who might face trouble for going on record about their experiences, and if so, in what forms? Youth Radio has walked away from broadcast opportunities when an outlet insisted on using a source’s first and last name, and when we collaboratively determined that doing so would present too great a risk. Overall, adult editors do not see it is as their role to make decisions on behalf of young people about the stories they want to tell—only to facilitate tough conversations about possible intended and unintended consequences of making any given story public, and about how a young person might frame a narrative in such a way that counters conclusions listeners might otherwise draw. It would be naïve, though, to claim that anyone can fully control how audiences receive, interpret, and repurpose any author’s creative output, and that is perhaps among the most important lessons young people learn when they produce media for public release.