"Kids’ issues are not just a special interest. They affect all of us…..The youth gangs and violence, the drug culture, teen mothers on welfare — adults are paying in terms of fear and taxes to salvage the lives of these kids we’ve neglected."
– Suki Cheong, 16, Children’s Express editor
The voices of American children have for years been signaling DANGER AHEAD! The nation is just beginning to listen. In a country where 3.9 million children live in severely distressed neighborhoods, where the juvenile violent crime arrest rate increased by 58 percent between 1985 and 1992, where births to single teens increased by 44 percent and the teen violent death rate rose by 6.5 percent in the same seven years, we know it is critical that children’s voices (not just their bullets) be included in the national dialogue. These statistics, along with growing awareness of the rot in juvenile institutions, social services, foster care, and education, all signal an emergency that raises deep concerns about our future as a nation.
For almost 20 years, Children’s Express has enabled children and teens to participate actively in dialogues about youth issues – homelessness, poverty, violence, sibling rivalries, teen pregnancy, foster care and institutional abuse, drugs, and alcoholic parents – bringing the voices, experiences and concerns of young people to adult and youth audiences through newspapers, books, radio and television, hearings, and symposia.
By Children, for Everybody
Children’s Express’ mission – to give children a significant voice in the world – evolved from children themselves. The defining moment in the early life of Children’s Express occurred at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Twenty-some young reporters, ranging in age from nine to 13, entered Madison Square Garden armed with pre-convention credentials. The Children’s Express publisher, who had launched a magazine with the motto "by children, for children," suggested that the young reporters talk to telephone installers, hot dog vendors, and construction workers to find out how a national convention is put together. Not one of the reporters followed any of his suggestions.
Once inside the Garden, the young reporters found members of the national press corps hanging out, testing equipment and exchanging war stories. So the t-shirted children spent their time talking to Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Bill Moyers, and others. They learned about delegates and the selection process, and that the convention’s only real question was who Jimmy Carter would choose as a running mate.
At the convention, Children’s Express reporters penetrated Democratic defenses and spent substantial time on the floor. When 12 year-old Lee Heh Margolies asked Chicago Mayor Richard Daley about the riots and demonstrations at the Chicago convention in 1968, he told her that the press had invented the story, giving convention reporters and delegates their biggest laugh of the week.
The major scoop of the convention, however, came from Gilbert Giles, a 12-year-old reporter from Brooklyn. His story became a headline in Children’s Express’ convention newspaper – "It’s Official: Carter/Mondale!" Children’s Express had scooped the world press and become an international story.
In the process, the young reporters had reinvented Children’s Express. It became "by children, for everyone." We learned that when children are given important responsibilities, their confidence and their interest in the world around them grows rapidly. It was clear that children want a voice and that they have much to contribute.
A Window into Children’s Lives
As Children’s Express evolved, three kinds of stories emerged: interviews, reports on events, and dialogues with other children about their lives and experience. The process is called "oral journalism," in which everything is tape recorded, transcribed, and then edited by teen editors, with guidance from adults.
In the case of an interview, for example, a "debriefing" follows in which the teen editors ask questions and the reporters talk out the story – including their own reactions to what they learned.
What emerges, and what is absent from most adult journalism, is the child’s voice and experience without filters. The Children’s Express dialogues, or roundtables, are powerful windows into the lives our children are living.
Reports on events often take a decidedly frank tack. Here, for example, is how a team of four 11- to 13-year-olds reported on Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration:
"This inauguration is what the country wanted. This is what they wanted Reagan to do. They wanted him to put on a grand show, and they want some comforting. They want the spirit of it. "
It is like a nice spring day. There are mink coats and spiked heels (getting stuck in the mud). And a lot of talk. … "
America is asking for so much this year that – maybe we needed an $8 million inauguration, but I think it was a real waste of money – it should have been used for education or health. It’s like a big party. Why look at reality tonight? … "
Nancy could feel very proud. Her husband is president, and she is first lady. I think she had a lot to do with it. I think she is very strong. "
The American people are asking for too much – much too much. The pressure is on him to be perfect. … People wanted to go back to Saturday Evening Post covers. I don’t think Reagan can do that. I don’t think anybody can do that."
Critics sometimes charge Children’s Express with publishing too many "downer" stories, which do not jibe with their vision of children. But in fact, children gravitate to serious stories, rejecting most stories about products and cartoons as "fluffy" and patronizing, as they feel most newspaper youth sections are.
In her Indiana University master’s thesis, which focuses on Children’s Express, Jane Dwyre Garton concludes that the advocacy journalism practiced by Children’s Express is "done openly and honestly – guilelessly if you will – and represents a type of community leadership assumed by the children." She particularly points to Children’s Express practices of:
- staying true to voice through the use of tape recorders in every interview situation.
- taking a team approach, acknowledging that the reporters and editors are still learning. They work with adults to brief themselves before doing interviews, and they debrief after every interview. This team effort offers additional insight and discussion time.
- inviting community leaders to discuss story topics with them. The tradition is carried out via a monthly meeting, run by the kids.
- embracing a diversity of ages, races, and socioeconomic groups provides the team with rich and candid discussions.
Children’s Express is currently piloting an electronic bureau concept at eight sites in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Young people at public libraries, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, and children’s hospitals have an opportunity to exchange views and share insights and experiences about current issues by communicating with their peers at Children’s Express. A similar project links the Indianapolis CE bureau with the Indiana Girls’ School, a juvenile detention center.
In 1996, CE reporters and editors will begin a year-long project on "The Child’s Voice in American Democracy," which will include coverage of both political conventions and of hearings on issues important to children: education, health and welfare.
Kids and the Media
What have we learned in 20 years about children and the media? It might be summarized in the following points:
- Children are ready to take on more responsibility than adults assume. When given responsibility to report on their lives and the lives of other children, they feel powerful and important, and they do marvelous work.
- About 25,000 children have shared their experiences, thoughts, and feelings with Children’s Express editors in interviews or roundtable discussions. The most frequent feedback: "Nobody has ever listened to me before."
- Children and teens learn and grow rapidly when they are entrusted with important responsibilities. At Children’s Express they develop a wide range of skills including reporting, editing, writing, research, group leadership, and training.
- Children wielding the power of the press provide strong role models for other children and teens who see, hear, or read them in the media.
- Media are among very few links between children and public policymakers. Though there is a journalistic tradition of championing children in cases of extreme abuse, there is little ongoing coverage of children in any way comparable to that of, say, city hall.
Robert Clampitt is founder and president of Children’s Express. Stephen Silha is a freelance writer and communications consultant who has worked with Children’s Express for nine years.
Along with its two columns, Children’s Express and Teen Express, which appear in national newspapers, CE now publishes "Kids’ Voices Count," a quarterly newsletter covering issues important to youth, such as education, teen pregnancy, families, and diversity, currently available free of charge by contacting CE Publications, 1440 New York Avenue NW, Suite 510, Washington, DC 20005. tel. 202/737-7377, fax 202/737-7377, e-mail email@example.com.
In Their Own Words
"We live in an apartment. I like listening to music, and I’m scared whenever I go outside.
"I would love to move out ’cause there’s too much violence on this block. Most of the time I’m terrified. I used to be very active when I was a little kid, but now I’m just scared because my mother cries every night. I never told anybody.
"I don’t know what to do because when the violence starts up we’re going to have to fight back. But I don’t want to hurt anyone.
"Sometimes I count on my friends. But I also count on myself. There’s nobody else to protect me."
– Jose, 10, Brooklyn, NY
"I cried in the ‘time out’ room a couple of times. Time out room got nothing in it. It’s a room and you can’t get out. Collision room. You pull the rug apart. Sometimes you climb up on the wall and break the sides. You put your hands in your pockets and go, ‘bang, bang, bang.’ Five days was the longest time I was in there. I’m 8."
– Peter, 8
"I find it hard to understand how they can go so far as to put kids in solitary confinement for … up to three weeks. The kids we saw were essentially abandoned by their parents and certainly should not be in a mental institution."
– Jared Hoffman, 14, Children’s Express editor
"I have learned that I don’t have to wait until I’m an adult to think about issues. Children’s Express has given me a voice and the courage to use it."
– Amy Weisenbach, 16