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How to Leverage Youth Media Creation as a Civic Pathway

We recently convened young people, media leaders, and scholars for a conversation about how youth making media can strengthen democracy.

Media creation is a powerful tool for bringing young people into political and social conversations, and there are numerous ways to support young people in their creative and civic endeavors.

Two organizations, KQED Education in the San Francisco Bay area, and the nationwide PBS Newshour Student Reporting Labs network, have thought especially deeply about the role youth media creation plays in developing civic thinking and enabling access to political participation for a greater diversity of youth. 

In many ways, news media organizations are uniquely situated to broaden media creation opportunities for youth. Not only do their specialized expertise and platforms afford them the ability to loudly amplify marginalized voices, but their role as civic institutions imbues them with a responsibility to bring more members of the community into the democratic process. Across the United States, many media organizations and youth journalism programs are already partnering with educators to create new avenues for young people to join and help lead public conversations. By training young people to tell the stories that are important to them using diverse forms of media, these programs can uplift youth voices as valid and valuable.

CIRCLE recently invited program staff from these two organizations, along with students and teachers who have engaged in the work of civic media creation, to share their thoughts about how it can serve as an accessible pathway to civic learning for more youth. They were joined by researchers who have studied how media creation and civic participation inform one another. 

Give Youth Choices and Let them Lead

Even though traditional forms of media have often excluded young and diverse voices from their narratives, we know that youth are actively using their creativity to wrestle with political and social issues online. Media creation can help young people feel informed, empowered, and represented, especially when they perceive that traditional media are not covering the problems that affect them

For Elis Estrada, Senior Director at the PBS Student Reporting Labs (SRL), this means it’s important that the media-creation process be youth-led. SRL, a youth journalism initiative that partners with middle and high schools around the country, emphasizes the issues and experiences that are closest to the program’s young creators.

 "We support students to create stories about what's happening in their communities,” Estrada said. “What perspectives are they interested in?"

Indeed, research tells us that youth leadership plays a critical role in encouraging the development of critical consciousness and empowering young people to act. For Leon Sykes, a media arts teacher at Fremont High School in Oakland, California, that empowerment is central to teaching media creation in the classroom.

"Media creation allows young people to figure out entrepreneurial endeavors,” Sykes said. “We want to give them choice. We want them to know their potential is limitless.”

Sykes is one of many teachers who collaborate with KQED Education on Youth Takeover, a student journalism program that trains high schoolers to produce stories about their communities. KQED Education offers a number of other civic media resources, including an explanatory news program targeting a teen audience and a series of “challenges,” that use media making as an avenue to incorporate civic thinking into the classroom curriculum. 

Take into Account Changing Technologies

Teresa Wierzbianska, Program Manager at KQED Education, noted that the ever-evolving digital media landscape provides young people with ever more pathways into political and social discussions.

"In the twenty-first century, writing is just one means of communication, and increasingly video, audio, graphics, data viz, are eminently more shareable and give young people access into larger conversations," she said.

In fact, nearly half (45%) of young people have engaged in at least one of three forms of media creation connected to issues they care about: creating content (such as writing, photos, or videos) and submitting it to a website, media outlet, or social media; sharing their own experience on social or other media; or creating visual media like an image, GIF, or video to share online. This is especially true of Black and Latino youth, who create all three kinds of content at much higher rates than either their white or Asian peers. We also know that engagement on social media doesn’t stay confined to the online space, but often translates to offline political action.

Of course, the same technological revolution that gave us these new forms of expression has also given us social media, the implications and impact of which we’re still working to understand. Platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram have arisen as significant avenues for youth expression. Our panelist Ioana Literat, of the Columbia University Teachers College, pointed out in a recent paper that online popular culture prompts political discussion both within and across political differences. But much of this discussion, she notes, is disparaging.

For Nicole Mirra, Assistant Professor of Urban Teacher Education at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, youth media creation is a balancing act between avoiding the “dark side” of new technologies and the potential for building youth agency. The risks of new media can cause educators to limit or ban youth expression on social media, she said, but these well-intentioned interventions can create a sense of inauthenticity and interfere with young people’s civic media leadership.

Look for Opportunities to Address Inequities in Access

Access to media making opportunities also remains marred by inequality, Mirra pointed out, especially for students in rural areas without access to broadband internet or other robust technological resources. More than one-third of young people, including 60% of young people in rural areas, live in so-called “civic deserts” without meaningful civic engagement options. Civic deserts often overlap with places where there are gaps in digital infrastructure; this lack of access to civic institutions, compounded with a lack of access to media and political information, may have a chilling effect on youth civic participation. However, research suggests that social media may serve as an alternative space for engaging civically in these areas. New calls for broadband infrastructure in rural America might also have positive implications for student access to media creation technology. 

When we support the creative power of storytelling among a wider diversity of youth, whether it’s in online spaces, in the classroom, or through youth journalism programs, we equip them to develop their own perspectives and we improve their ability to participate in and change our democracy.Certainly, there is still a long way to go before young people have an equal opportunity to be part of political and social conversations, but classroom-facilitated media making projects and educator-media organization partnerships are a few of many potential models for productive civic media engagement. 

As our panelists indicated, empowering young people to reflect on their own experiences and the issues facing their communities, amplifying their voices in the cacophony of political discourse, and giving them the guidance and resources they need to lead the way in the media creation process are not only useful learning tools, but democratic imperatives.


Author: Madeline McGee