Leveraging the Press to Help Youth Media Make a Difference
Tips on getting the media to pay attention to youth-led work.
In 2003, Barry Bradford and his students at Adlai Stevenson High School in suburban Chicago began making a film that explored the infamous 1964 Mississippi Burning murder case, in which three young civil rights workers' bodies were found on a Mississippi farm. Nearly two dozen members of the Ku Klux Klan were arrested in connection with the slayings, but no one was ever prosecuted.
Bradford and his students interviewed the victims' families, pored over court trial transcripts, and met with historians and FBI officials involved in the case. They interviewed one of the main murder suspects, minister and reputed Klansman Edgar Ray Killen.
Hoping to see Killen tried for the crime, Bradford's students joined forces with advocacy groups to help generate a congressional resolution asking federal prosecutors to reopen the case.
In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was arrested on murder charges. He was found guilty of three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, the forty-first anniversary of the crime. His appeal was denied in 2007 by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
"For three teenagers and one teacher to feel that in a small way we affected the course of history is monumental," Bradford says. But he also claims that he never doubted his students' work could help lead to Killen's arrest. "I really believe it was the right time and we had a good strategy," he says.
A large part of that strategy involved getting media coverage for his students' work, something Bradford is particularly skilled at. Publicity for another of Bradford's students' projects prompted Congress to declare a "Week of Remembrance" for slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Youth Media Reporter interviewed Bradford about his strategies for publicizing student work. We also talked with two other experts on working with the press' Open Society Institute media officer Amy Weil and Youth Rights Media executive director Laura McCargar.
Here are their tips.
Find a News Hook
Know why your media matters now and what about it is newsworthy. "A controversy, an anniversary, a report, a human interest angle, a march, a demonstration, a film that no one else has" can help youth media organizations access mainstream media, explains Weil. If you are holding a screening or a press conference, deciding what makes the event newsworthy can make the difference between having only friends and colleagues attend or having news outlets show up, she says.
In 2004, when Youth Rights Media screened its documentary about a Connecticut juvenile prison, the facility was already in the news. Connecticut Governor John Rowland's administration was under investigation for contract corruption, and the Connecticut Juvenile Training School was part of the scandal. Youth Rights Media executive director McCargar seized the opportunity by pitching their documentary as an unprecedented look at life inside the facility, from the inmates' point of view. Media and government officials attended a screening, eventually prompting Connecticut's current governor to suggest [in 2005] that the prison be closed.
Bradford's students' documentary was less topical, but it did coincide with the 40-year anniversary of the Mississippi Burning case. As a result, reporters looking for a fresh way to talk about the event and efforts to reopen the case found it in the students' work.
"It was logical that the victims' family members, and the citizens of Mississippi, would care about the case, but we were not the usual suspects you would expect to work on this," remembers Bradford.
Have a Clear Goal and Partners to Help You Reach It
Bradford's student filmmakers wanted the murder case reopened. This clarity of purpose helped guide their project and attract allies to their cause.
Youth Media Rights had a similarly singular vision—they wanted the Connecticut Juvenile Training School closed. In the beginning of the Rowland investigation, recalls McCargar, a few advocates and officials privately agreed that the facility should be shut down, but only the young filmmakers stated it publicly.
"Being out there, doing film screenings across the state, and very publicly and adamantly demanding closure created a different kind of accountability," says McCargar. It also attracted partners who became equally committed to seeing the school shut down.
Use Interviews to Your Advantage
Never underestimate the willingness of public figures to talk to students. People who might normally be wary of the media will often grant interviews to young people, because they don?t perceive them as a threat.
This is how Bradford's team scored an interview with murder suspect Killen. That interview in turn helped Bradford's students gain legitimacy with the press and draw better coverage.
"When the media was trying to assess whether we were worthy of ink or broadcast time, I'd say, 'Did you know we are the only people in the last 20 years that the alleged murderer gave an interview to,'" remembers Bradford. "That caught their attention and made them think, 'These kids are serious.' Then we could throw out a few other names of people we interviewed, and they could say, 'Ok, if the head of the FBI talked to them, these kids must know what they're doing, they must be important.'"
Interviews are also an effective way to spread word of your organization. Youth Rights Media interviewed the Connecticut child advocate for their documentary. When that advocate discussed the Rowland scandal with the New York Times, she mentioned Youth Rights Media, eventually landing them a story in The Times.
Write a Compelling Press Release
Begin your press release with your news hook, explaining why a reporter should care about your project. Once you've gotten some media coverage, use that to your advantage. Save the clips and send them with your next press release.
"The media seems to have a mind-set that if somebody has written about you or talked about you already, what you're doing must be important,"says Bradford. "Media generates more media."
Be Strategic About Who Gets Your Release, and Follow Up by Phone
One radio station Bradford successfully pitched had a weekly "Kid of the Week" feature. Another time he got a spot on a news station with a primarily African-American audience and where one of the hosts, Bradford says, "is of the age to care about the civil rights movement, and radio shows are always looking for guests."
In both cases, Bradford considered which reporters and outlets would be most interested in his students' story. Doing this kind of homework is crucial, says Weil. She recommends carefully reading the paper and listening to the radio to decide which reporters are most likely to be interested in your students' project.
Once you've sent your press release to those reporters, follow up on the phone. Use your news hook to begin your phone relationship. Reference the reporter's work to show how your story idea relates to other stories they've written. While it's important to be persistent with reporters, says Weil, remember that reporters are busy, so also be brief and patient.
Nurture Relationships with the Press
Weil lets reporters know she's a resource for them by suggesting potential interviewees to help broaden their stories. Bradford sends thank you notes to each reporter who covers his students' work. McCargar makes her young people available to reporters, even if they have no plans to mention Youth Rights Media in their story. As a result, all three have developed trusting relationships with members of the press. McCargar says she now has "a whole other level of access" to the media, including the cell phone numbers of reporters who are invited to Youth Rights Media screenings.
McCargar coaches her young people to have three key points. Bradford's teens developed half-minute spiels that explained the basic facts of the Mississippi Burning case.
Train your own teens to articulate their expertise clearly and quickly, to know what message they want to convey during an interview, and to explain why their media is important.
Talk with students about how the media works, and help them decide ahead of time what they want and don't want to reveal. Warn them that a reporter might interview them several times and never quote them. Let them know that if they explain during an interview that they were wrongly put in a mental facility, for instance, the reporter might mention they were in the facility, omitting that they were falsely diagnosed. Tell teens that if they are uncomfortable with a question like, "Why were you incarcerated," they don't have to answer.
Make it acceptable for teens to turn down interviews. Don't give out their home numbers without permission, and always give teens the option of calling the reporters themselves.
McCargar found that reporters who visit Youth Media Rights in person tend to write more sensitively about the teens. McCargar feels this is because viewing her young activists at work helps reporters "get a sense of context."
Give reporters background information about your organization and working with teens. Let them know that the young people they will interview may be vulnerable or involved in delicate situations.
Identify a Media Expert Who Can Help in a Pinch
Bradford's cell phone began ringing incessantly the day Killen was arrested. A former journalist who worked at his school took the phone and fielded calls for Bradford that day.
The day after her teens pulled off a successful press conference, McCargar expected to enjoy a morning of long-overdue sleeping in. Instead two national, competing television programs wanted interviews. Weil helped McCargar navigate the situation.
Identify an expert whom you can turn to at a moment's notice if you need advice handling the media. In other words, if you've got an important project and a focused plan for publicizing it, be prepared for the very real possibility that things might become, for a while, pleasantly out-of-hand.
This article was originally published on Connect for Kids (now SparkAction) in 2005. It was reviewed and updated in 2011.