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Topics: Civic Communication

Children's Express News Service
A Voice and the Courage to Use It

by Robert Clampitt & Stephen Silha

Reprinted with permission from Media Studies Journal, Fall 1994, a publication of The Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University, New York. Copyright © 1994. All rights reserved.

Robert Clampitt is founder and president of Children's Express. Stephen Silha is a free-lance writer and communications consultant who has worked with Children's Express for 10 years.

IF NEWS MEDIA really want to cover communities effectively, they will need to rethink dramatically how they cover children and children's issues. Like canaries in a coal mine, the voices of American children have for years been signaling DANGER AHEAD! The nation is just beginning to listen. A powerful way for media to "mediate" the future is to invite children to become part of the journalistic enterprise—both as vital subjects and as reporters and editors.

"Kids' issues are not just a 'special interest,'" comments Suki Cheong, 16, a Children's Express editor. "They affect all of us—the youth gangs and violence, the drug culture, teen mothers on welfare. Adults are paying in fear and taxes to salvage the lives of these kids we've neglected."

In a country where 3.9 million children live in severely distressed neighborhoods, where the juvenile violent-crime arrest rate increased by 50 percent between 1985 and 1991, where births to single teens increased by 20 percent and the teen violent death rate rose by 13 percent in the same six years, we know that it is critical that children's voices (not just their bullets) be included in the national dialogue.

These statistics, along with growing awareness of the rot in juvenile institutions, social services, foster care and education, all signal an emergency that raises deepest concerns about our future as a nation.

In 1985, when the children's news organization Children's Express convened its first national symposium on the media and children's issues (there have been three), not one of the 35 news executives and journalists who participated knew of any American newspaper or broadcast outlet that had assigned a beat reporter to cover children's issues. Yet all of us knew that the news media are the vital link between children in trouble and the public, the politicians and the policy-makers.

The media's neglect of children was documented early in a 1976 study by Everette E. Dennis and Michal Sadoff that concluded that even when media did cover children's issues such as problems in schools, they tended to cover them from the perspective of adult administrators and government policy-makers, with little attention paid to children's own experience of school or community. This is still the case.

ON THE OTHER HAND, some newspapers and television stations have done good reporting, with powerful results that illustrate the potential impact the media can have on the lives of children. In 1983, for example, the Gannett News Service and a Gannett-owned television station in Oklahoma documented horrendous abuses of children in juvenile institutions. It took a year, but in the end the institutions were closed. In 1984, The Tennessean of Nashville, Tenn., ran a five-month series, "Tennessee's Shame: The Forgotten Children." The governor and legislature acted in response and passed legislation to raise children's "standard of need." In 1985, the Lorain, Ohio Morning Journal committed 25 staff members to an extended series on foster care, child abuse, the courts and a range of other issues.

The Kentucky Post in Covington declared 1986 its Year of the Child, and all of the Posts 45 full-time editorial staff were involved in a series that took an unflinching look at child prostitution, abuse in detention centers, kids and drugs, child suicides and the foster care system. "The Post dealt with so many issues in such a way that its impact on the community would be effective," wrote the teen editors who awarded the series that year's Children's Express Journalism Award for adult reporting on children in trouble.

The Indianapolis Star, where Children's Express produces a full page every Monday, has been moving children's issues to the front page. In 1993, both the Chicago Tribune and the Detroit Free Press launched initiatives on behalf of children. The Tribune vowed to cover every homicide of a child on page one and to tell the human and institutional stories behind each death. The Free Press launched a more extensive community leadership initiative, "Children First," which raised money, involved child-welfare organizations, held public forums and published solution-oriented reports and resource lists.

These and other series resulted in very substantial action on behalf of children. Legislation was passed, youth-serving staffs were increased, independent review boards were established and institutions closed, and social service agencies united to tackle the problems. In addition, some staff members of media organizations were inspired to take on roles as community volunteers.

Will children's coverage be another media fad? It's too soon to tell. Beginning in January 1995, public broadcasting and other major partners will launch a two-year, solution-oriented "national campaign to reduce youth violence in an unprecedented effort to promote peacemaking, recognize successful local programs and encourage citizen involvement in community violence reduction efforts." Moreover, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has established the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families at the University of Maryland, and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism is establishing a fellowship program for Children and the News, funded by the Prudential Foundation to begin in fall 1995.

BUT MOST REPORTING on children's issues still concentrates on tragedy or fortuity. Very little of even the best reporting incorporates the voices of children, so when children are included, the stories can come as a surprise. "For me it was weird to see kids that had so many worries," comments Kathleen Hustad, a 16-year-old Children's Express editor. "When I was a kid, I liked watching cartoons, I liked riding my Big Wheel and playing Star Wars. These kids today have to worry about being safe and being inside.... I think a lot of American people have the impression that childhood is carefree, that it's innocent, but for a lot of people it's really not."

For almost 20 years, Children's Express has enabled children and teens to participate actively in dialogues about youth issues—homelessness, poverty and violence, sibling rivalries, teen pregnancy, foster care and institutional abuse, drugs and alcoholic parents—bringing the voices, experiences and concerns of young people to adult and youth audiences through newspapers, books, radio and television, hearings and symposia. Throughout much of that time, Children's Express has also urged the adult news media to provide more and better coverage of vital issues affecting children and teens and to use youth voices in stories about their issues.

At Children's Express' first national symposium on the media and children's issues in 1985, publishers, editors and journalists from every part of the country spent two days learning about stories that they weren't covering—youth culture, child care, health and hunger, poverty and juvenile justice. Children's Express reporters, 13 and under, presided over most of the sessions.

Claude Sitton, then editor of the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer, opened the symposium: "As a society, we tend to adore children as individuals, but . . . we tend to ignore them as a group. Oh, we build schools and we publish children's books and we fill Saturday morning with kids' cartoons, but beyond that, we mostly ignore children. Yet no other group is more vulnerable to misfortune, and no other is more critical to our future. . . . I know from 35 years of news work that we deal daily with issues that affect children. And yet . . . we don't focus very well. Stories and editorials fail to connect the issues . . . to children. We deny Americans the information, the perspective and the initiative to solve the problems that affect children."

INDEED, THE MEDIA are only part of a larger societal neglect. Children who do not grow up in loving families suffer from a kind of handicap our society has yet to address. Though news media coverage of children's issues has expanded greatly since 1985, still only a handful of reporters are assigned to cover children's lives. Still missing from such coverage, for the most part, are the voices of children and teens, who are clearly experts on their own experience and feelings.

Underlying this exclusion of children's voices when covering children's issues is a cultural perception of children as powerless and inarticulate, as noncontributing members of the community for whom others are responsible or as simply a media "audience" or "market segment" to be lured in with colorful graphics and connect-the-dots puzzles. As Robin Doussard, former features editor for the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sun-Sentinel, put it, "One of the very basic problems in covering children is that not only are they not free agents, but they're not articulate. We live and die on a good quote."

But that's a gross misperception. Take this example from Jose, a 10-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., whose quotes could easily keep a story alive. "We live in an apartment," he begins. "I like listening to music, and I'm scared whenever I go outside.

"I would love to move out 'cause there's too much violence on this block. Most of the time, I'm terrified. I used to be very active when I was a little kid, but now I'm just scared because my mother cries every night. I never told anybody.

"I don't know what to do because when the violence starts up, we're going to have to fight back," Jose says. "But I don't want to hurt anyone. Sometimes I count on my friends. But I also count on myself. There's nobody else to protect me."

Children's Express editors get good quotes from children every day. Part of the secret, of course, is their age—14 to 18—and their ability to strike up a relationship with younger children. Another part of it, however, is patience and a real desire to talk to kids and listen to them. Adult journalists might be handicapped by their age, but that's not insurmountable. Children's Express editors offer adult reporters the following advice:

  1. It helps to believe that kids have important things to say.
  2. Don't tower over kids when talking to them. Get as close to their eye level as you can.
  3. Make it more like a conversation than an interview.
  4. Encourage them to tell you about something that interests them or that they do well. Kids like to talk about good things about themselves, not just the negative.
  5. Tell them something personal about yourself as a way to get them to open up about themselves. They may be ashamed of the subject you want to discuss; an impersonal attitude doesn't help.
  6. Be prepared to spend some real time with children you interview. If you do, they may give you a totally different insight that is valuable and important.
"Children's Express means to me that we will get the story," says Becky Oberg, 15. "Not only that, but we'll report it through a child's eyes. This is our world. These are our stories." In fact, those stories can be the critical creative spark that gives a community a new slant on a seemingly intractable problem.

CRITICS SOMETIMES CHARGE Children's Express with publishing too many "downer" stories that do not jibe with their vision of children. But in fact, children gravitate to serious stories, rejecting most stories about products and cartoons as fluffy and patronizing, as they feel most newspaper youth sections are. The organization's mission—to give children a significant voice in the world—evolved from children themselves. The defining moment in the early life of Children's Express occurred at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Twenty-some young reporters, ranging in age from 9 to 13, entered Madison Square Garden armed with preconvention credentials. The Children's Express publisher, an adult who had launched a magazine with the motto "by children, for children," suggested that the young reporters talk to telephone installers, hot dog vendors and construction workers to find out how a national convention is put together. Not one of the reporters followed any of his suggestions.

Instead, the young, T-shirted reporters found members of the national press corps hanging out, testing equipment and exchanging war stories. So the kids interviewed them—Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Bill Moyers, Roger Mudd, Edwin Newman and others—and learned from the veterans all about delegates and the selection process and the issues before the convention. The only real question, the adult press corps said, was whom Jimmy Carter would choose as a running mate.

Once the convention got under way, the young reporters penetrated Democratic defenses and spent substantial time on the floor. When 12-year-old Lee Heh Margolies asked Chicago Mayor Richard Daley about the riots and demonstrations at the Chicago convention in 1968, he told her that the press had invented the story, giving convention reporters and delegates their biggest laugh of the week.

The major story of the convention was reported by Gilbert Giles, a 12-year-old from Brooklyn who scooped the national and international press corps with this headline in the Children's Express convention newspaper—"It's Official: Carter/Mondale!"—and became an international story himself. In the process, the young reporters had reinvented Children's Express; instead of "by children, for children," it became "by children, for everyone." We learned that when children are given important responsibilities, their confidence and interest in the world around them grow very rapidly. It was clear that children want a voice and that they have much to contribute. As Jessica Trendyn, then 11, one of the 1976 convention press corps, put it, "I think it's very important that we're finally having a chance to talk out and tell the world what we really think."

AS CHILDREN'S EXPRESS EVOLVED, three kinds of stories emerged, along with a process. The story types include interviews, event reports and dialogues with children about their lives and experiences. The process is called "oral journalism," in which everything is tape-recorded, transcribed and then edited by teens, with guidance from adults. In the case of an interview, for example, a debriefing follows in which the teen editors ask questions and the reporters talk out the story—including their own reactions and feelings about what they learned.

What emerges, and what is absent from most adult journalism, is the child's voice and experience without filters. The Children's Express dialogues, or roundtables, are powerful windows into the lives our children are living. ". . . what frightens Patrick is growing up and becoming a monster, a mirror image of his parents" recalls Fedley, 17, a Children's Express editor. "When I finished interviewing, I had to stop. I've never had to stop a tape recorder just to breathe. It was just amazing."

The children's event reporting often takes on a decidedly frank tone. Here, for example, is how a team of four 11- to 13-year-olds reported on Ronald Reagan's first inauguration:

This inauguration is what the country wanted. This is what they wanted Reagan to do. They wanted him to put on a grand show, and they want some comforting. They want the spirit of it.

It is like a nice spring day. There are mink coats and spiked heels (getting stuck in the mud). And a lot of talk . . .

America is asking for so much this year that maybe we needed an $8 million inauguration, but I think it was a real waste of money—it should have been used for education or health. It's like a big party. Why look at reality tonight? . . .

Nancy could feel very proud. Her husband is president and she is first lady. I think she had a lot to do with it. I think she is very strong. . . .

The American people are asking for too much—much too much. The pressure is on him to be perfect.

They're asking for inflation to stop, for it to be the turn of the century again—no more war, America big and strong, women in the kitchen, suburbs all over, everything so nice and peachy-keen. People wanted to go back to Saturday Evening Post covers. I don't think Reagan can do that. I don't think anybody can do that.

At least one adult journalist thinks her peers have much to learn from Children's Express. In her Indiana University master's thesis, "Children's Express: Young Journalists Show the Way," Jane Dwyre Garton concludes:
[T]heir fresh ideas constitute a new voice in journalism that must be heard both for the welfare of a democratic country and, on a very basic, practical level, for the future of the newspaper industry.

This thesis recognizes and endorses the established innovation by Children's Express of using child sources. It acknowledges the child-advocacy mission of the organization that at times leads to the practice of advocacy journalism. It concludes that the advocacy journalism is done openly and honestly—guilelessly, if you will—and represents a type of community leadership assumed by the children.

. . . Children's Express produces a legacy to hand up to adult journalists by showing a persistence to task, the conscience to take a point of view in writing, and the confidence to identify issues which are ripe for debate and action. These practices . . . are available to and appropriate for adoption by adult journalists.

Specifically, Garton suggests journalism take four lessons from the Children's Express newsroom:
  1. Staying True to Voice. "By using tape recorders in every interview situation," Garton writes, "Children's Express journalists have a tool that frees them from the distraction of note taking. They also ultimately have transcripts from which to work. That insures accuracy and encourages the use of the voice of their source."
  2. The Team Approach. "Because these journalists are children," she suggests, "it is acceptable for them to acknowledge they are still learning. They act as coaches for each other. They work with adults to brief themselves before doing interviews. They debrief after every interview and before they begin their collaborative writing of stories. The team effort offers additional insight and discussion time to young journalists and reassures them that their performance is not a solo act, that it is part of a far more complex proposition—the newspaper."
  3. Taking Outsiders' Input. "Children's Express routinely invites community leaders to visit and to discuss story topics with them. The tradition is carried our via a monthly meeting, run by the kids, in which they turn to the adults with their interests and ask about resources on the topic. In what is a seemingly simple one-handed exchange, the bridge between the adults and the child media community becomes stronger."
  4. Embracing a Mix. "An interest in the world—not their school, not their neighborhood, not their previous work experience—brings journalists to the news bureau," Garton says. "Their newsroom is diverse in age range, racial mix and socioeconomic/geographic mix. This diversity provides the team with rich and child-candid discussions."
While Children's Express does not claim to be training future journalists, many of its alumni have gone on to work in the news media. "I realize now that Children's Express techniques gave me a good ear for voice," says Paula Bock, a former Children's Express editor who now reports for the Seattle Times. " What is a good quote? What voice should I use to write [someone's] story? I pay more attention to detail, to emotion. I think I'm better able to bring readers into the story."

In the future, interactive technologies will enable more children to express themselves in writing and in broadcast forms. Already, children around the globe are chatting with each other on interactive electronic bulletin boards. They also enjoy the opportunity to chat electronically with adults; in cyberspace, no one can talk down to kids because of their size.

News media can literally "mediate" discussions among children and between children and adults, both on local community levels and on national and international levels, by providing context, teaching civil discourse, asking good questions and giving children a chance to ask their questions in public.

IN 2O YEARS OF WORK with children and media, we have learned some important lessons:

  • Children are ready to take on more responsibility than adults assume. When they're given responsibility to report on their lives and the lives of other children, they feel powerful and important, and they do marvelous work.
  • Children and teens learn and grow rapidly when they are entrusted with important responsibilities. At Children's Express, they develop a wide range of skills they can use throughout their lives, including reporting, editing, writing, research, group leadership, interpersonal skills and training.
  • About 25,000 children have shared their experiences, thoughts and feelings with Children's Express editors in interviews or roundtable discussions. The most frequent feedback: "Nobody has ever really listened to me before."
  • Children wielding the power of the press provide strong positive role models for other children and teens who see, hear or read them in the media.
  • Media are among very few links between children and public policy-makers. Though there is a journalistic tradition of championing children in cases of extreme abuse, there is little ongoing coverage of children in any way comparable to that of, say, city hall.
  • Children's issues are not that different from adult issues. The addition of children's perspectives, particularly in areas where they have experience, enhances coverage in general.
  • Children have no access to the media or to politicians through lobbying organizations like the American Association of Retired People because they lack both the vote and economic power—so news media coverage comes down to the matter of responsibility, together with the interests of the community and the nation.

AMY WEISENBACH WAS 16 when she talked in 1992 about what working with kids on their own media products had given her. "Children's Express isn't just about reporting for the paper. It's not only about getting kids' voices heard, although that is its main purpose," she said. "Children's Express is about exploring issues. I have learned that I don't have to wait until I'm an adult to think about issues. Children's Express has given me a voice and the courage to use it."

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