Parkland Spring and Public Media

Apr 03, 2018

A rising generation of Americans declared itself with the March for Our Lives, injecting youthful energy into an old battle, and reviving hopes for weary civic elders.

Paul Taylor, author of “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown,” welcomed the coming out with a bold prediction:

“If gun control becomes the gateway issue that entices distrustful millennials into the voting booth, America is in for a makeover.”

A major reason, Taylor posited, is the way the march’s young adult millennials and Generation Z teenagers envision the nation’s future.

“For them, diversity is not just a demographic trait; it’s a core value,” the former executive vice president of the Pew Research Center wrote.

“They want a society in which each person is free to celebrate her or his own unique identity—a mosaic,” Taylor added.

This generation’s concerns are multiracial, and one of their primary governmental nemeses is President Trump, according to an AP-NORC/MTV poll of 15- to 34-year-olds completed last month.

“He doesn’t seem to be really for women. He doesn’t seem to be for Black Lives Matter...He doesn’t seem to be for kids worried about guns. It’s extremely disappointing to have president who doesn’t seem to care,” New York City’s Meghan Carnes, 23, told interviewers.

The survey also reported that the respondents “overwhelmingly” support legal status for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, as well as rights protections for Muslims and for LGBT citizens.

Some have criticized these young Americans as immature, socially isolated by an addiction to smartphones, and delinquent in assuming their civic responsibilities.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshman at Stanford University, doesn’t necessarily buy that.

“There are ways to see the deficiencies that social media has offered, but there are obviously tremendous and obvious positives as well,” she told health columnist Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times.

One upside, Parker-Pope reported, is a special relationship to the media world.

“They didn’t grow up being the passive recipients of somebody else’s broadcast,” Don Tapscott, the author of “Grown Up Digital,” explained to her. “They grew up being interactors and communicators.

“In the 1960s we had a generation gap. What we have today is a generation lap—they are lapping their parents on the digital track.”

If this diverse generation’s coming of age can be good for public policy, it also might bode well for journalism in the public interest.

Some of the more high-profile march organizers were participants in scholastic press programs at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and survivors of the Feb. 14 attack there that killed 17 of their classmates and teachers.

Students on the staff of the campus yearbook assigned themselves to prepare memorial pages for each of the victims. One staffer had been wounded herself.

Another produced a page for a 16-year-old shot and killed a few feet away from her in psychology class. The tasks became very personal, and the work, therapeutic.

“Being in journalism, it’s something that you have to talk about,” Aly Sheehy, an 18-year-old senior and captions editor,” told The New York Times. “It’s very therapeutic. It gives us something to do.”

Rebecca Schneid, co-editor in chief of Eagle Eye, the school’s newspaper, cast herself as a citizen journalist of sorts when queried about links between activism and reporting the news.

“For me, the purpose of journalism is to raise ... the voices of people that maybe don’t have a voice, and so I think that in its own right, journalism is a form of activism,” Schneid told CNN’s Brian Stelter.

“For me, as a journalist and also for someone that wants to demand change ... the partnership of the two is the only reason that we are able to make change,” she said.

The marchers embraced diversity by highlighting not only gun violence in upscale, predominantly white Parkland, a Miami suburb, but also its toll of young black and brown lives in hardscrabble urban communities.

Yet, bringing their peers of color into the nation’s newsrooms in meaningful numbers will require overcoming many obstacles that have made news journalism here disproportionately white.

Latina journalist Tanzina Vega, just named the new host of WNYC and Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” broadcast, is, by her own testimony, emblematic of the challenge.

“I grew up in a working-class community, I spent 20 years in public housing,” she told Columbia Journalism Review, shortly after her new gig was announced.

“People like me generally do not make it that far in journalism, because it’s not very well-paid, generally speaking, and it’s not something we always have access to.”

Parkland’s Eagle Eye is certifiably one of the best high school newspapers in the nation.

It is part of a scholastic journalism program the likes of which are increasingly less available in black, brown and less affluent areas like the Lower East Side communities in Manhattan where Vega grew up.

The U.S. high schools least likely to have programs like Parkland’s are those with higher percentages of poverty, smaller student bodies and higher proportions of students of color, according to a 2011 study.

Those schools have fewer resources, and that feeds an imbalance of minority representation in the professional media, Mark Goodman, who coordinated the study, told The New York Times.

High school isn’t just a place that initially lures students—especially those of color—to careers in the business. The teenage years are also when young Americans can be indoctrinated into the role that free-press journalism plays in a democracy.

For years, newspaper appreciation and young journalist development programs have tried to connect students nearing voting-age adulthood with that paradigm.

But the financial hardships currently buffeting local newspapers and school system budgets are taking their toll on such efforts.

“If we don’t even have a newspaper at this level, how are they going to develop a love for it?” Joshua Sipkin, an online newspaper adviser at Information Technology High School in Queens, told Winnie Hu of The Times.

The digital divide is a factor, too, said Sam Dudek, the journalism and English teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago.

“The future has to be to get a little bit away from the idea that print is king,” he told South Side Weekly. “In order to do that, we’d need that technology, and we just don’t have it.”

High school years also introduce future reporters and editors to the importance of connecting with the communities they cover.

“The philosophy that I follow with my students is that news should be insightful to the people that it affects,” Ray Salazar, the journalism teacher at Hancock College Prep in West Eldon, a Chicago community, told South Side Weekly.

Reporters from outside just don’t do as well in urban settings, Salazar opined.

“Their relationship with the city is completely different and detached,” he said, “and the reporting just cannot get into the nuances that it would if the reporters were homegrown Chicagoans.”

The differences in authenticity, accuracy and understanding can translate into trust and relevance, and determine who’s listening, reading or viewing.

Al Letson, a poet, playwright and award-winning public radio host, offered this anecdote in his 2016 “Manifesto on Diversity in Public Media” essay for Atlanta Public Media’s “Transom” program, which NPR’s “Code Switch” shared:

“When I first got into public media I would tell my friends I had a show on NPR, most of my white friends understood immediately.

“But my friends of color—of all economic backgrounds and education levels, from all over the country—had no idea what NPR was. In fact, many still don’t.”

“Takeaway” host-to-be Vega suggested that communities of color are not the only ones that could benefit from the march movement’s media lessons.

“There’s a lot of distrust in media, particularly when we get to people who don’t really see themselves reflected,” she told CJR.

 “With the election of President Trump, there was this narrative about the white working class, but people weren’t going out and talking to the white working class until they understood that this was part of the election,” Vega said.

“So I think we really need to make sure that we’re talking to not just the smartest people in the room, or the ‘experts,’ but that we’re also bringing in voices from people who are marginalized, who don’t feel they get represented in mainstream media or public media.”


Note: This report has been updated.