By Marcia Apperson| Assistant Director, PBS Standards & Practices

With the pandemic disrupting nearly all aspects of American life, especially in the classroom, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs is striving to give young people an important voice in covering COVID-19—both in front of and behind the camera.

The video journalism program, also known as SRL, quickly pivoted to add a special reporting unit to its curriculum that asks students to film brief videos about their lives, or those of other students, while stuck at home. Several hundred stories have been submitted, and a handful aired as a report on the PBS NewsHour.

“These projects that they’re doing with SRL are actually giving them purpose,” SRL Senior Director Elis Estrada said. “They’re still creating media for an authentic audience. Right now, for them, that’s really valuable.”

SRL’s youth-driven approach to video journalism—from the reporters, to the sources, to the topics covered—brings a valuable (and often overlooked) perspective to public media and exemplifies the PBS Editorial Standards’ core principle of inclusiveness.

“Producers should incorporate diverse perspectives as a way of making content more inclusive, accurate, and complete,” the standards state. PBS believes that “a diverse staff helps guard against the perpetuation of cultural stereotypes and leads to content that better serves the public as a whole.”

SRL was created after founder Leah Clapman visited classrooms to talk about the news and kept hearing from students that they weren’t paying attention to it. She wanted to bring students into news production—to be both creators and consumers of the news, Estrada said.

It’s been a little more than 10 years since Clapman started SRL, and the program is now in 150 high schools, middle schools, and after-school programs across the country. SRL is currently at capacity and has a waiting list. The program’s COVID-19 curriculum, however, was made accessible to everyone and has received international interest, Estrada said.

Student journalist Mary Williams said she initially learned about SRL from her English teacher. The program changed her opinion that news was just for older people.

“The news is relevant to people in high school and college because they are future voters, taxpayers, educators, and parents,” she said. “… Now when I see the news, it’s personal. The economy, education system, and the Earth’s current state [aren’t] just my parents’ problems to worry about. It’s mine, too.”

Participating schools receive a welcome packet from SRL at the beginning of the school year that includes a project-based curriculum. Students’ assignments start with “Rapid Responses,” where they go out into the community to get interviews about a certain topic. Then, as students build their journalism skills, the assignments get more challenging, Estrada said. SRL Youth Media Producers provide the students with feedback.

Some schools work with their local PBS member stations to have students’ reports broadcast or posted on social media. The content is also shared on SRL’s platforms.

Several of Williams’ reports aired nationally on the PBS NewsHour.

“Having my work aired on national television was big,” said Williams, who in January was named one of four SRL Student Journalists of the Year. “I felt like for the first time, people wanted to hear what I had to say and they actually cared about what I cared about. It drove me to want to create more content and branch out of my interests.”

Some SRL students get once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. A senior in Virginia got to interview environmental activist Greta Thunberg. A middle school lab in Iowa went to a local caucus for the Democratic presidential race and created a video. And a high school student in North Carolina got press access to a President Trump rally.

“We have students everywhere who are really interested in going out and understanding the civic process,” Estrada said.

This spring, SRL’s young reporters were scheduled to cover topics such as climate change, education, and mental health. The students were able to get most of their work done before having to stay at home, Estrada said. And they’ve still managed to find angles for those stories around Earth Day, Teacher Appreciation Week, and Mental Health Awareness Month.

SRL created an Election Toolkit and was initially planning for students to be focused on political coverage right now. Students have been able to do some political reporting during the pandemic, such as first-person accounts of the Wisconsin primaries. But with many events postponed, and due to concerns about safety, most political reporting likely will have to wait until closer to the November elections.

In the meantime, Estrada said SRL has generated more content than ever with COVID-19 coverage. She said they’re looking for ways to share the students’ voices with larger news organizations because their voices seem to be missing from the mainstream media.

SRL has started a #SeniorPortrait project in which high school seniors are asked to post short videos on social media about how the novel coronavirus has impacted their last year of high school. Estrada said she hopes the students “look at it many months down the road and see it as a first draft of history,” and their voices are the primary sources.

Posted on May 5, 2020

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