Katie Donnelly   

Having recently completed a successful pilot year, the CPB-funded PBS NewsHour Extra Student Reporting Lab program is looking to expand into additional schools in some of the most underserved districts in the country. The Student Reporting Labs pair high schools with public media professionals in order to create investigative video reports. The program combines digital and media literacy, media production, news and current events and journalism education.

According to the project website:

Recognizing that informed and engaged young people are critical for a healthy democracy, the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Lab connects high school students to local PBS stations and news professionals in their community to produce original, student-generated news video reports. The young people who participate in the project learn how to report, problem-solve, synthesize information and investigate important topics: journalism as a form of learning.

The individual Student Reporting Labs were selected for scalability, geographical diversity, and the prevalence of at-risk youth. Participating stations include CPTV in Hartford, Connecticut; KLRU and KUT in Austin, Texas; LPB in Baton Rouge; Utah Education Network in Salt Lake City; WAMU and WETA in Washington, D.C. and WHYY in Philadelphia.

Check out the video overview of the program, below:

The program includes a curriculum, developed by Temple University’s Media Education Lab. Designed with input from teachers, the curriculum is purposely flexible: it can be used in English, social studies, and video production classes.

The mentorship element of the program also takes different forms in different places. In Austin, for example, two public media experts attend weekly sessions with students. In Connecticut, where there is one public media mentor and several high schools, the relationship is facilitated largely through Skype. (You can see how the relationships work in some of the videos on this page.)

For the pilot year, student-produced stories had to fit within larger topics chosen by NewsHour (such as immigration, the economy, climate change and the Supreme Court). Leah Clapman, NewsHour’s managing editor for education, who oversees the program, notes that using the framework of these topics “pushed [the students] out of their comfort zone. They had to think on a much higher level. It forced them to call up law experts and judges and see how Supreme Court decisions relate to their own lives. The students talked to local scientists studying climate change, and they had to reach out to different immigrant communities and refugee programs so that they could tell those stories.”

Student Reporting Lab participants are encouraged to collaborate with one another across the country though the Open Atrium collaborative platform, which was incorporated into the project in October. Clapman notes that there is room for better integration of the platform into the program as a whole — it has been used primarily for sharing documents and communicating with mentors up until now. In the next incarnation of the program, NewsHour will ask students to pitch stories to them through that platform, and encourage program alumni to provide feedback and encouragement to the new Lab participants.

You can see completed student projects on the website, and a few have been referred to or played in part on NewsHour broadcasts. (At present, it is challenging for students to produce videos that are broadcast-quality, due largely to formatting needs.) Check out some of the student productions below.

Salt Lake City students report on immigration:

Connecticut students investigate the healing power of plants:

The Student Reporting Labs have implemented a comprehensive system of evaluation. Working with an outside evaluator, the teachers involved in the project spent a day in Washington, DC to vigorously discuss the curriculum and analyze existing student productions. The team is awaiting a final report from the first evaluation session, although one key finding that has come out of the process is the need to measure students’ engagement in journalism and current events before and after participating in the program.

Since the start of the program, program leaders have moved away from evaluating the content of student projects (production skills, etc.) and moved towards measuring what students have learned in the process. Are they more interested in news and current events? Can they understand and identify elements of quality journalism? The tension between measuring the quality of students’ projects and their understanding of how media messages are made has long been a point of discussion within the field of digital and media literacy. Some people argue that future media makers should be trained to uphold professional production values, while others point out that youth-produced pieces that have the power ignite social change shouldn’t be discounted based on production values alone.

As a case in point, take this piece about cell phone recycling made by teens at Crosby High School in Connecticut:

(Note the interview with the principal around the 2:26 mark.)

While this piece may not be broadcast-quality, it is a well-researched project that held leaders accountable and, says Clapman, ended up spurring change within the school. The piece “reinvigorated the school’s recycling program, and at the same time, taught students a good lesson about how to jump start civic action. The students were able to achieve what all investigative journalists strive for: shining a light on inefficiency to catalyze positive change.” These types of outcomes are important to consider in any system of evaluation for digital and media literacy projects.

Pending funding, the Student Reporting Labs hope to expand next year, opening up labs in 10 of the worst performing school districts in the country. In addition, NewsHour will continue to work with the existing schools in the program to produce student-generated reports on topical issues.

This article is part of our eight week series on digital and media literacy initiatives.