Digital Literacy's New Moves: The View from a Youth Newsroom

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Inspired by Boing Boing's strategy of "disemvoweling" hateful comments, we at Youth Radio (where I work) once considered a tactic called "in-consonance." The idea was to remove every consonant from abusive comments, as a way to call out their authors' apparent lack of control over their own waste. In the end, we decided against it. But we still don't always know what to do when the young people we've worked with for days, weeks, months on stories--some of them deeply personal, some exhaustively reported--get slammed in extreme ways, on some of our nation's biggest media outlets (e.g., NPR).

For young people whose personal identities, professional trajectories, and brains are still forming, the "digital afterlife" of their media productions can be especially intense and high-stakes. It used to be that public media's ultimate success was the so-called driveway moment--when a listener can't get out of the car before the story ends, even though he or she is already home. But now that engagement is the holy grail, for youth media producers, a whole new phase of activity starts when our work used to end--at the moment of broadcast or publication.

Based on what happens inside Youth Radio's newsroom (which just won an RFK journalism award for an investigative series on abuse in the U.S. Navy) and other youth media sites around the country, here are three things I see young people needing to establish, again and again, when they throw themselves and their stories into the digital mix.

1. Tellability: This is an idea drawn from anthropologist Amy Shuman's work, highlighting the need to establish your entitlement to your story, and your way of telling it. Like when Youth Radio's Denise Tejada produced a video about buying a house at age 20, and soon viewers were interrogating her about her legal status and weight. She had to find ways to bring the focus back to the story she wanted to tell, long after she thought that piece was done.

2. Credibility: A process of proving believability and truthfulness, not just to specialized niche communities, but in the service of a public good. Like when Rachel Krantz and Youth Radio's Investigative Unit backed up their reporting on a culture of abuse inside a U.S. Navy unit in the Persian Gulf by posting Freedom Of Information Act documents, which a reader then said looked fake. While literacy researchers worry about how young people will ever learn to judge other people's credibility (e.g., on sources like Wikipedia), I'm frankly more interested in what it takes for young people to establish their own credibility as reporters, researchers, witnesses, and storytellers themselves.

3. Embeddability: A process of linking one story to larger debates, issues, and movements for change. Like when passenger Karina Vargas had the wherewithal and guts to record a shooting at an Oakland, California subway station last year, and Youth Radio could then embed her on-the-fly video into a series of stories on racial profiling, police brutality, and public safety. It's about turning the technical act of cutting-and-pasting embed code into a social practice, a habit of always creating meaningful connections that amplify your point.

You might say media producers of any age have always had to prove themselves in these three ways. What's different, for me, is: it's never been easier for young people to make media with impact, it's never been harder for them to get their most challenging accounts to rise above floods of user-generated content, and it's never been more important for them to have access to the tools, networks, and experiences they need to formulate and spread something worthwhile to say.

For more on literacy's new media frontier, check out Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories.