News in your backyard: With community partnerships, powerful stories are possible

This semester, students from Annenberg Media’s South LA Community Desk worked on several projects to connect and engage with the South Los Angeles community. Undergraduate students were able to become teachers and learn more about journalism in the process of spreading their knowledge to other students in the South LA area.

USC journalism students Claire Neville (left) and Morgan Chen (right) give a workshop on photography.

We partnered with Public Service Community High School at the Diego Rivera Learning Complex and provided a series of workshops for high school journalism students on first-person storytelling, photography, audio recording and web publishing.

Finding a topic for their first-person stories was not a hard task. Students had a lot to say about the criminalization of immigrants and the pain associated with the fear of deportation. The assignment was clear and simple: write a personal letter to our new president.

I found that encouragement was the key to facilitating a motivational and focused environment for the students at Diego Rivera. There were open classroom discussions, free writes, one-on-one chats. For some, it was hard to get their personal stories on paper — not because they didn’t want to share but because many didn’t think anyone cared or related.

Once the letters were written, it was time for professional production. Five of the teens were chosen to come into the Annenberg Media Center at USC to record their letters in the audio booth and on camera. While they seemed intimidated by the studios, they slowly became more comfortable with their own voices. One of the students told me that he had gradually become more comfortable with self-expression by the end of his experience at Annenberg.

During the six-week series, an exchange of skills and stories occurred, accomplishing a valuable link between reporters and their audience. We wanted to capture the voice of South LA youth by giving them a platform to tell their stories. But even the students at USC came to understand the power of the high schoolers’ words and the value of passing on skills they were learning. USC students received hands-on experience by becoming mentors and producers, while the high school students took the first steps to becoming storytellers. We documented the process behind the scenes on Snapchat and Instagram, creating a multi-platform window to our engagement effort, and adding a new facet to our reporting.

But the process wasn’t always smooth. Many of the students did not have access to computers or internet at home, so one-on-one edits had to be done in person, via text or email, at a relatively slow pace. Photos were taken on their mobile phones, and many did not capture the audio we asked of them. But despite the limited resources and lack of time, students at USC’s Intersections South LA were able to help produce a series of web pieces, radio stories and a video for Facebook.

I think news outlets disregard the untapped potential of community partnerships, especially when it comes to youth. Young people understand the community on which the outlets are reporting thoroughly. The streets they are growing up in hold rich histories and many personal anecdotes that can shed light upon bigger issues. When news outlets draw upon the experiences and voices of their audiences, powerful stories are possible.