How to engage teenagers with the news
Going into schools to mix street art, journalism and media literacy
My year at Palo Alto is coming to an end. As a freelance photojournalist and media entrepreneur, my time as a John S. Knight (JSK) Journalism Fellow gave me the chance to step back, fill some holes in my education by taking classes at Stanford University and open my mind to various facets of journalism. I deeply commend the guest speakers the Fellowship hosted, as well as my cohort of co-fellows for giving me such incredible insights into each of their specific expertise in the field, including investigative journalism, data journalism, fact-checking, AI, VR and AR, and new revenue models. I have explored and learned so much that I will probably need another year to digest all of it.
I run Dysturb, a creative news media organization that design news-based experiences mostly in public spaces and in schools and universities. This year allowed me to develop its hybrid nonprofit/for-profit business model and strategy, make numerous contacts in the Silicon Valley and in the Bay Area, and focus on areas I had never delved into in such depth before, such as impact, metrics, community engagement, and media literacy.
Presenting news as street art to appeal to young people
After exploring how to foster engagement with large-scale photojournalism in public spaces earlier in my fellowship year, this time, I focused on developing a new survey tool to gauge the reaction of teenagers to big paste-ups and added a new design for our murals. I also wanted to see how much they would trust what they saw. I installed two paste-ups focused on climate change at Washington High School in Fremont, California, and gave a presentation to the students. This area is known as “Little Kabul,” as it hosts the largest population of Afghan-Americans in the USA. It was a great opportunity for me to get feedback from a diverse, young audience on Dysturb’s news delivery methods, and on the content.
I selected the work of photojournalists Arko Datto and Philip Montgomery, who documented the effect of climate change on communities in Bangladesh, and in Miami, Florida, respectively. These two photographs were part of the larger selection Dysturb featured during its last #ReframeClimate iteration in September 2018 in the San Francisco Bay Area.
About 30 students from two photography classes watched the presentation and helped install the murals. The next day, their teacher asked them to fill out my online survey about the whole experience.
I learned a lot from the reactions of the students. Again and again, they had strong emotional reactions to getting the news in this new way. They felt the need to know more, and in many cases they wanted to take action.
“I think it’s cool because it makes people look up from their phones or whatever they were doing,” said one student.
Most students praised the size of Dysturb paste-ups — 8 feet by 12 feet — as being both disruptive and effective. The content of the blowups made the students feel aware about what’s happening outside of their community, and they said they wanted to know more about the issue.
One interesting point some students raised is that they stopped and looked at the paste-ups due to the element of surprise: “The building looked different so I turned and looked,” said a 16-year-old student. “Just the fact that there’s a big poster where there wasn’t one yesterday made me stop,” said one 17-year-old student. It made me think that in the future my team and I should try to avoid pasting above previously installed posters, murals or other strong visual elements, but instead make an extra effort to negotiate with building owners, shops and schools, to access new, clearer locations.
A few students said they were especially drawn to the headline boxes at the top of the posters, which featured statistics provided by researchers from the Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. These served as additional catchy components aside from the photographs. The type was large enough so that the viewers could read them from far away, which encouraged them to engage with the pieces and to read the full caption.
The vast majority of the students said they trusted the content of the posters: “I don’t think you would be able to put up a poster in a school with false info,” one student said. Another student said she trusted the posters; “because the person that made it seemed honest.” A few students said they trusted their teacher to welcome trustworthy guests. I found most of these answers concerning, knowing how easy it has become to share misinformation and disinformation broadly.
This feedback was further evidence that in-depth media literacy workshops are necessary to teach students — and adults as well — why it is important, and how to check the source of information before sharing it. This is what Dysturb has been doing in French high schools in the past few years: our teams address how easily photographs can be manipulated and used out-of-context, how conspiracy theories are formed, and what methods and practices exist to detect and fight the proliferation of fake news.
While teenagers are often berated for having their eyes glued to their cell phones, these students seemed very positive about looking up to get information outdoors on the walls of their school. “It makes the situation feel closer to home than where the image was taken,” said one student in the survey. “It catches my eye and the information becomes interactive. I wish my high school had more posters like these,” said another student. “Most people are too busy in personal life and while walking, seeing this poster open your eyes to the bigger picture which is the planet’s health,” wrote one of the students. “I think it’s cool because it makes people look up from their phones or whatever they were doing,” said another.
All of these experiences encourage me to continue testing new designs, products and processes on small audiences before adopting those broadly. I’d also like to expand these surveys to other kinds of Dysturb’s audiences, including passersby, our institutional and local partners, as well as our online followers. In doing so, I aim to find even more effective ways to help audiences better know their world and be invested in following the news.
Many thanks to Barbara Boissevain, an environmental fine art photographer and a photo teacher, who invited me to come to Washington High School in Fremont, as well as to her students, who helped paste the Dysturb murals on the walls of their school, and who answered the survey about their experience.