Youth are the overlooked experts on the young.
That's the charge of teenagers about news coverage on issues that affect them when the only "experts" quoted are adults.
So 12 teens, a jury of sorts, convened to offer their judgments on how they are reflected -- or not -- in the news, and how the media report on -- or don't -- issues that are important to them.
From across the D.C. area, the diverse group of students were members of City at Peace, a youth development performing arts program of about 70 young people that aims to prevent violence and promote cross-cultural understanding.
Lately, the organization, located on Florida Avenue in Northwest, has challenged local media to talk to teens during coverage of youth issues and has backed that up with a promise to connect reporters with interested young people.
In school coverage, for example, "the only people who really get a say in the articles are school administrators who don't really have any interaction with students on a daily basis," said Jody Pollock, 16, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
Academic segregation, they said, is a huge issue that is simply not reported. At Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, many resent the International Baccalaureate Program, which includes about 20 percent of the students but almost no black ones, said senior Crystal Boyd, 16. Some students feel the IB program receives all the media attention and much better resources, she said.
A similar situation occurs with the magnet program at Blair, said senior Jozi Zwerdling, 17. The same is true with Advanced Placement classes and tracking in schools such as Woodrow Wilson High School in Tenleytown in Northwest, or Friendship-Edison Public Charter School on Minnesota Avenue in Northeast, said Wilson senior Monique Graham, 17, and Edison alumnus Bakri Mohamed-Nur. And "because they separate the people in the classrooms, when it comes time for lunchtime, it's still separated," said Graham.
The media need to cover these issues, they said, and also need to present a more complex image of schools rather than writing stories that conform to stereotypes. A lot of violence still occurs at schools with good academic reputations, such as Blair, and positive stories abound at schools with a reputation for crime, such as Ballou High School in Southeast, said Pollock, Mohamed-Nur and Randolph Alvarenga, a junior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown. They said news organizations seldom seek out those stereotype-busting stories.
Young people are not interested only in schools and pop culture, as many adults falsely believe, they said. Teenagers may have a particular wealth of information on youth issues, but they have much more to offer than just their age, the group insisted. To set aside a category of "adult issues" in which teens are not involved in the dialogue is a frequent mistake, said Pollock. The media need to ask teens substantive, non-condescending questions about a wide range of issues and include the most intelligent -- not the cutest -- quotes in stories, they added.
"There are teens active in political organizations, teens in the workforce, teens who are parents," said Pollock. "And instead of approaching a teen with kids as a 'teen mother,' approach her as a mother."
They listed a number of issues that concern them:
Gentrification: "I know my family's going to be affected by it because I see it happening in my neighborhood," said Alvarenga, who lives in Northeast. "It's scary that I could be coming back and see my home torn down. . . . It affects me, and I want to hear more about it."
Media bias: While conservatives frequently criticize media outlets for a perceived liberal outlook, no one talks about the "white male slant," said Kate Kugler, 16, a senior at Richard Montgomery.
Racial fairness: Stories about Chandra Levy, a Washington intern who disappeared in the spring of 2001 and was later found murdered, and Natalee Holloway, the teenager who has been missing in Aruba all summer, get enormous play in the news, "but black women are missing all the time" without receiving similar attention, said Graham.
Crime coverage: "What's important to me is to see the root of the crime addressed in the same article as a crime," said Kugler, adding that this is yet another area in which social inequalities remain unaddressed, even though they are at the root of so many local issues.
Others agreed, saying that the news media tend to cover results rather than causes, particularly with issues such as gangs. Only after horrific incidents do reporters tend to delve deeply, they said. Girl gangs were not covered until years after they became prevalent, said Graham, who worked on a project at Cardozo High School in Columbia Heights in Northwest that involved girl gang members.
After stabbings at Silver Spring's Springbrook High School in August, reporters did not talk enough to students about the influence and emergence of gangs at their school, preferring instead to consult with adults, Zwerdling said.
But the views about news reporting are not all bad. Kugler praised the recent in-depth Washington Post story examining the pressures a Latino student faces as he enters high school.
They also liked the newspaper's series last year on the difficult lives of gay teenagers, but saw more of a need to cover the daily challenges gay youths confront locally.
"The gay experience is different in suburbia compared to the inner city," but media tend to cover both similarly -- and rarely, said Zack Scholl, 18, a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College.
Any more issues on their minds?
"Tons," said Zwerdling.
Juvenile justice. The drug rehabilitation and psychiatric programs to which so many kids are sent. Curriculum changes. Health issues. Sexism.
After 90 minutes of conversation, the media critics were only getting warmed up.