With election buzz in the air, youth media producers are rallying to bring teen perspectives to national politics, which raises a familiar question: How much work does a young journalist need to do to capture the interest of an audience not necessarily used to taking young people’s views seriously? On the one hand, we’re thrilled when young people are actually consulted as analysts with expertise that goes beyond their status as youth—like when NPR recently asked Nico Savidge to comment on the scandal surrounding steroid use in baseball, and plenty of their questions sounded not particularly youth-centric, which is great. But on the other hand, adult producers are often the ones who encourage young commentators to make a clear case for why adults should heed what they have to say, by virtue of their distinct generational vantage point, so often distorted or ignored in mainstream media.
The issue reminds me of a conversation I had with a Youth Radio commentator a few years ago, when she cranked out a perspective on the new SAT, which included an essay section in addition to the usual pages and pages of multiple choice. I captured the exchange in field notes (and say more about it in our forthcoming book):
March 16, 2005
Today I worked with RK on a commentary about the new SAT…Her main point was that the pundits’ response to the new test—that it finally could accurately measure intelligence—was a joke. In fact, the new writing portion further privileged people like RK, who aren’t freaked out by timed writing and who’ve had strong grammar instruction.
What was missing in the piece, I thought, was any first-person, insider sense of what the test was actually like, and I told her that. I said, Look, there’s something you have here that no adult has—you actually just took the test. But I have no sense of that here. She cut me off mid-sentence and said, All that stuff will make it too long. She went on: I know you guys, for a lot of our stories, the point is to be the cute young person who shares their experience. But this is a piece where I want to just make a point. Adults do that all the time in the media, so this is a case where that’s what I want to do. I asked, But is that good radio? Is that what you want to listen to? Adults going off on their opinion or analysis with no narrative? … That said, I thought her remark about us wanting “cute” kids to tell their stories, was telling and important…
We ended up with RK adding just a few very short lines with specific details about the test (the question posed in her essay section, and what she meant by “grammatical,” using a concrete example, in her description of the new writing section). She said it seemed to her the writing section was really a way for test makers to judge whether test takers could “correct” ebonics “mistakes.”
Months after this commentary aired on a local outlet, I asked R what she remembered about it, and whether she might want to elaborate on her thoughts about the editorial process. R acknowledged that for this topic, adding some narrative to her analysis of the S.A.T. made the piece more interesting for the listener, and that the conversation sharpened her argument. But more generally, she said, “I am sensitive to the fact that it’s a little condescending to ask me to make it a personal story, as if I don’t have a political perspective that’s not necessarily based in experience…A part of me appreciates that you’re trying to push me to see how the political is personal because it is, but I am sensitive… to the desire to compartmentalize. I don’t think you do that, but you know what the stations want. It’s kind of safe to keep youth in this voice.”
Youth media producers like to think that by introducing young people’s voices to mainstream coverage, we are being disruptive. R says sometimes “keeping youth in this voice” can be the opposite–a way of playing it safe, not going far enough to challenge the limits imposed upon young people’s participation in public debates. In many ways this is the tension that makes youth media such an interesting field to work in, because there is no formula for youth-adult collaboration, no quotient for what’s risky enough to make a difference.