Twenty-five Philadelphia students will be among the thousands of journalists expected to cover the Democratic National Convention this July.
The 2016 DNC Host Committee announced a special local partnership last month that would enable five middle school students and four high school groups of five students each to cover the convention as members of a unique Youth News Team.
The program will be run in partnership with the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement, local radio stations WHYY and KYW Newsradio and PSTV, the education broadcasting channel of the Philadelphia school district. The endeavor will be funded by The Philadelphia Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, according to the host committee’s press release.
All participants are required to be residents of Philadelphia and attend Philadelphia schools.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to witness history first hand and expose our students and teachers to the workings of international journalism and presidential politics,” School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said in a statement.
Much of the day-to-day interaction with students will take place through the partner organizations, with the host committee serving as a convener and advisor for the program as a whole. As a Philadelphia-based civic organization, the host committee wanted to connect DNC’s opportunities with as many aspects of the local community as possible.
“We’re acting as matchmaker, pulling together a group of partners and supporters and working with them to come up with a youth journalism program,” host committee Communications Director Anna Adams-Sarthou said. “We want to make sure that the people who live here across all ages and sectors feel like they get a piece of the pie.”
The program will run for two weeks from July 18 to July 29, with the first week dedicated to a hands-on journalism “boot camp” and the second week to actually covering the DNC. During the boot camp, students will receive training from industry professionals in every type of basic reporting skills, including interviewing, journalistic ethics, developing the angle of a story and audio and visual editing.
“We are a hands-on work-based environment,” PSTV Station Manager Shelley Wolfe said. “Students come in on the first day and we have a little bit of conversation, but from that point forward, everything is being taught using equipment.”
Wolfe added that the Youth News Team will have access to PSTV’s regular studio space, computers and recording devices throughout the two-week program. Students will be expected to learn how to use and handle such equipment as if they were professional adult reporters.
Many of the partner organizations training the students already have their own established programs for Philadelphia youth. PSTV, Wolfe notes, is largely student-driven and routinely broadcasts student-produced content, while WHYY has held courses for high school students in its Philadelphia studio for many years, according to WHYY’s website.
Meanwhile, the Rendell Center, led by Penn alumni Marjorie Rendell, a federal circuit judge, and Ed Rendell, former Pa. governor and chair of the 2016 DNC Host Committee, has made promoting youth in civics its mission. The organization holds the Lenfest Citizenship Challenge, an annual civics essay contest for 4th and 5th graders in the Philadelphia area. For the Rendell Center’s leaders, involving youth in the DNC was a natural choice.
“We’ve found that their work is very sharp and their voice needs to be heard,” Rendell Center Executive Director Beth Specker said. “Sometimes we take for granted what a young student can do.”
Specker added that the Rendell Center will be providing mostly content-related support to the student participants, such as ensuring students have the necessary background knowledge about American government to conduct informed, accurate reporting. Staff from the Rendell Center will work closely with students throughout the reporting process, but the students are free to take their reporting in whatever direction they like.
Even though students will be closely supervised, few involved in the program doubt the selected students’ ability to produce quality, real-time political reporting. In addition to demonstrating interest in politics and journalism, students had to write a well-thought-out essay about a topic they were interested in potentially covering as part of their application. Chosen topics ranged from veterans’ education to water fountains in schools to transgender rights.
“Civics isn’t just a textbook word from Government 101. You bring it to life for them and they understand and they see it,” Specker said. “When you see the power of that student voice really asking a hard question, I think it will be very profound.”
Adams-Sarthou emphasized that students will have considerable autonomy and ultimate creative control over their work. The host committee and partner organizations will help in any way they can, but final responsibility — and credit — will belong to the students.
In the long term, the host committee and its partners hope that participating in the Youth News Teams will encourage students, armed with basic skills, memories and contacts, to pursue futures in media and civic leadership.
The 2016 DNC will take place July 25-28 at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia.
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