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Buzzfeed Teen Ambassadors Brought 2020 News to Youth

This is part of our Rep Us Practitioner Series, in which partners in this field share their experiences running programs in which young people's voices inform public conversations.

By Mareena Emran, 2020 BuzzFeed News Teen Ambassador

My name is Mareena Emran, and I was a Teen Ambassador representing BuzzFeed News for the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. I am a 20-year-old Pakistani American content creator from Houston, Texas.

The Teen Ambassadorship program was developed in collaboration with the New York and Los Angeles BuzzFeed headquarters. Our work with the publication amplified diverse, Gen-Z voices within the political sphere of our nation, something that I believe made a significant impact among our generation through the use of short form content. Not only were we able to make the election process more easily understandable, but we were able to do it in a way that was fun for us and our editors. Since young voter turnout has historically been lower compared to older generations, BuzzFeed’s goal was to use the power of teen voices to encourage young voters to go to the polls. Although the publication was met with criticism for introducing the Teen Ambassadorship program, it took a huge leap with us, proving that the only way to appeal to young voters is to collaborate with them.

Young, diverse and politically active voices are absolutely important in the media for the reason that we lack representation of that exact demographic. Media publications need to evolve to stay relevant to their audience, and the way this can be achieved is through programs such as the teen ambassadorship. Gen Z is widely accepted, and it shows even through the past race that when young voters educate themselves and become more politically active, the outcome is a reflection of their contributions. TikTok is a space to have fun, educate and engage without the obligation of having millions of followers to do so. BuzzFeed could’ve easily given their platform to bigger influencers than me and the two other teens I worked closely with, but instead, opted to give their platform to teens who were passionate about learning politics through a new lens.

The Teen Ambassadorship lasted six months. I worked closely with professional journalists all throughout that time period, learning how to properly report on politics in a way that was unique to my audience. I adapted the traditional format of journalism and made it more consumable for a younger audience through short-form video. TikTok is usually seen as a silly, more recreational platform, but as Teen Ambassadors we were challenged to take short-form to the next level by combining our newfound knowledge of political reporting with trends. We brainstormed new, relevant topics to tackle every week. Whether it was something coronavirus related or a candidate dropping from the presidential race we took headlining news and put a twist on it to appeal to voters around the ages of 18-25.

We used our best judgement of trending audios and topics of concern from the Gen Z audience and turned it into content that was easily digestible to all audiences. It was also important that we touched on topics that we felt were underrepresented in the media, as we had more power as teen creators to utilize a platform to educate our peers. The content was posted and promoted over the @buzzfeednews accounts on TikTok, IGTV, and Instagram Reels. This helped BuzzFeed News amass roughly 3,000 new followers on their TikTok account, and in turn, helped me grow about 2,000 followers on my own account. 

I used TikTok to do a majority of the editing, but also used Adobe Premiere Rush to make polished edits to my pieces and make them look more professional. My videos revolved around topics like the  coronavirus, former President Trump, updates on college campus COVID-19 guidelines, the Biden-Harris ticket, and many other newsworthy topics. 

My creative process for these videos was very simple. First, we had to track down trends on the TikTok platform to make sure we were staying relevant to our Gen Z-oriented audience. Many trends are short-lived, so it was important that we kept on top of audios in addition to the news that we were reporting about. We were given about three days to make our videos. We then submitted them to our editors, edits would be made if we needed them, and then they’d get posted. Sara Yasin conducted the program. I look up to her a lot because she has such a unique perspective on the topics that we covered, and always had backup ideas whenever we needed her help. She also arranged for guest speakers in the journalism field to talk to us about how to properly report on the topics we were covering, as well as how to correctly report on minority groups. We also had direction from Brandon Wall, who is very active on Twitter and is very knowledgeable about macro trends on social media. 

The weekly brainstorm meetings we had would help out with the whole process, as we’d discuss what kinds of things we were seeing and choose the topics we wanted to produce videos about. It was very insightful for me to sit down with teens younger than me to get their perspectives on the election as teens who couldn’t yet vote, as they were just as passionate as me about the election and getting our peers to vote. I knew that they were perfect for the ambassadorship because my peer Ethan had been making commentary content on his page for quite some time and knew exactly what to say to catch his audience’s attention. Since we had our editors helping us refine our topics, we didn’t feel pressured to make our content perfect. We would always meet and review our content to make sure we represented the publication well while being professional and making it relatable.

My overall takeaway from this whole program experience was that the Gen-Z audience is actually very proactive when it comes to political activism, and the easiest way to spark conversations about the election is through the use of social media, especially with short form content creation. With politics seemingly centered around the perspectives of Boomers and Millennials, it’s time that we introduce the point of view of younger generations. TikTok trends are born out of pure randomness, and it’s really up to the internet to decide what ends up becoming huge and when it dies off. The average human attention span is quite short, hence why short form video is the perfect way to get important points across. In my time of studying trends and algorithms, I’ve found that political topics can be made relevant through the use of macro and micro trends, so being able to hone my curation and creation skills has given me a huge advantage, especially with my experience through the ambassadorship. Teens are able to use satire and comedy in a way that relates best to them, so applying their understanding to these big topics inspires replication and a desire to further research and learn more about the election process and other topics that revolve around the U.S. government.

Again, it’s not about popularity. It’s about being able to relate, understand and speak to all communities within the Gen Z audience.