Youth news team gets the scoop at political convention

journalism / Article

August 11, 2016 by JoAnn Greco

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One of the student videos produced by the Youth News Team during the Democratic National Convention. Find more videos here.

As the Democratic National Convention begins its third day in Philadelphia, five local middle-schoolers cluster on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center, waiting. They buzz and zip, spinning to catch a glimpse of MSNBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, then turning toward the stage as rocker Lenny Kravitz runs through a spot-on sound check of his hit, “Let Love Rule.”

Selfies abound. But 13-year-old Isaak Popkin, a determined redhead from the city’s Bella Vista neighborhood, is here to work. 

“What’s the process of becoming a delegate?” he asks a patient woman from New Jersey. “How old are you? What do you think of the Trans-Pacific Partnership?” 

When the delegate demurs that she’s really not up to speed on that last question, Popkin pauses. “How old are you?” he asks again. “Oh, I asked that already,” he giggles. “I’m a little nervous.  I think I’ve run out of questions.”

A short subway ride has transported Popkin and the other kids, from the television studios of the city’s school district to the convention. Together, with 20 high-schoolers from around the city, they form the Youth News Team, part of an intense two-week program (July 18-28) funded by Knight Foundation and The Philadelphia Foundation, through a grant to WHYY (an NPR affiliate). 

The idea: to help budding journalists experience one of the biggest stories of the year. In addition to WHYY, media partners such as KYW Newsradio (CBS), Philadelphia Magazine, Scribe Video Center and Metro Philadelphia committed to airing or printing the results of the students’ efforts.

Prior to arriving at the convention, the 25 young reporters (selected from 400 applicants) spent a week learning the fundamentals of journalism during a rapid-fire boot camp.

They gained familiarity with video and audio recording equipment, and learned how to use editing software. They tried their hand at researching and pitching stories, and soaked up tips from a host of media presenters on locating sources, conducting interviews, and searching the internet for background research.

Along with their teachers and instructors from WHYY’s Media Lab, they spread through the city’s sweltering neighborhoods to practice man-on-the-street interviews, then returned to the studios to write and record their reports. 

The Philadelphia High School for Girls team, for example, walked down to City Hall to survey potential voters on their attitudes toward gun control. “I feel socially awkward talking to people, in general,” says Jaylynn Green, 16. “Going out there helped me get over that. The more we did it, the easier it became.” 

The groups came up with the ideas themselves, developed in advance with their teachers during the application process. But, just as is often the case with professional reporters, the team found that midway through their efforts another topic pushed its way to the foreground. “Gun control has been done and done again,” says Louis Austin, their social studies teacher. “Instead, the kids got interested in doing a story on low voter turnout after hearing how people were reacting to the campaign and the slate and saying that neither candidate really appealed to them.”

When the girls met with reporter Jared Brey of Philadelphia Magazine later in the week, he suggested strategies for pulling together statistics on voter turnout. “Figure out three questions you would like to answer,” he said. “Start with ‘why does Philadelphia have a lower turnout than other cities?’ Ask your family, ask your neighbors why they do or don’t vote.” 

Brey also volunteered to put them in touch with City Councilperson Blondell Reynolds Brown, a delegate and Girls High alum. “Ask her how she encourages citizens to get to the polls.”

While this project has a longer timeline, others, like those assigned by KYW, were more immediate. Each day during convention week, the radio station put the middle school students behind the mic to report on happenings about town. 

Paige Cheatham trolled Political Fest, an event to get ordinary citizens involved in convention events, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. For one report, she talked with teenagers outside a mock-up of a voting booth. Cheatham says the training taught her to think like a reporter. “They told us to be observant: If there’s a crowd, go see what’s happening. 

“But the main thing we learned is never to show a bias, to always try to tell both sides,” continues the 13-year-old, who aspires to be either a broadcast journalist or an actor. The insights she gained on maintaining poise and vocal pitch, she adds, will help her in either field.

Popkin — whose father is an author and local journalist — on the other hand isn’t especially interested in being a reporter. “For me, the political part was the appeal,” he says. Being on the convention floor was the highlight, he continues, then adds, “I also loved being at a Clinton rally, visiting the press box, and going all over the city. I had an incredible two weeks seeing the political process firsthand.”

JoAnn Greco is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist. For more, visit joanngreco.com.

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