A Free Press By & For Teens — Now, More Than Ever

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By Rachel Alterman Wallack, VOX’s Founder

If anyone ever wondered why, in the age of Twitter and Tumblr and all forms of free digital expression, VOX’s mission remains relevant — if not crucial — President Donald Trump reminds us often with his harsh criticism of the press. This tweet most certainly:

Trump Tweet

Denigrating the press, again, President Trump Tweeted that the media are “the enemy of the American people” and specifically called out several national news organizations (“failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN).”

How polarizing and dangerous! This is not a political story; it’s a humanitarian one. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech (press, assembly, protest) and religion that protects our nation from tyranny or autocracy.

Independent media has been a cornerstone of American democracy since before the nation was created to provide information, to question, to serve as a watchdog. The First Amendment uniquely guarantees the right of Americans to “petition for a redress of grievances.” And those rights don’t only apply to adults.

Way back in 1969, long before VOX was founded (in ‘93), the Supreme Court ruled that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” 

While the Court has yet to take a case applying the concept of that physical gate to the online communities in which today’s students live and learn, the importance of free (uncensored), media, the right and resources to scrutinize government or any powerful institution or person cannot be taken for granted.

“Students learn journalism best under a light touch of guidance from a well-trained adviser,” asserts the nonprofit Student Press Law Center. We can’t agree more. And for almost 24 years, VOX has exemplified that best practice through our philosophy of youth-led programming, where adults serve as a “guide on the side.”

Through VOX, teens develop the skills they need to interview adults who have influence over their circumstances, explore complexities of growing up (like racism, bullying, politics and more) and find and share resources for support. We use journalism and media production as tools for teens’ civic engagement, personal development and community development. And the results are just what the First Amendment intends: an empowered citizenry, engaged people who care for their community, seek and share truth. We call their work courageous acts of journalism and self-expression.

But don’t just take my word for it. You know I’m a biased source — and we at VOX hold dear our lessons about bias and attribution to solid sources.

Instead, hear from some of the older teens who’ve experienced VOX’s editorial process — designed with the best practices of youth development — such as our commitment to safe space (see our teens’ definition here), the ethics of social work, and the standards maintained by the Society of Professional Journalists.

The editorial process gives you insight on your weaknesses in the best way. After having my work reviewed, I was able to pick up on different bad habits I had, and I worked to get rid of them. I discovered that having someone else edit my work was helping me highlight my strengths. Also, no one can see what you see when you are writing, but they can offer you an alternative perspective that you never saw. I have a lot in common with the adult mentors at VOX, but they still could provide me helpful, eclectic opinions. The adult mentors know me personally, so they could offer insight without me getting offended. I knew they were big fans of my work, so the constructive criticism they offered only advanced me. This translated to me being able to accept constructive criticism from teachers in college as well. At VOX, you have a good group of supporters, so it is different from a personal blog or social media, because you are not alone. You have many people to go to. This helps with writer’s block and also when it comes to bringing out your best work. 

  • Christian Stallworth, 19, Georgia State University – Christian, who has been involved with VOX for four years, now works to project the voices of teens from around Atlanta as the Atlanta Teen Voices teen editor.

Now that I am in my second semester of first year of college, I have found it easy to navigate conversations with the president of my school, professors and other staff members. The editorial process at VOX can easily be applied to how I go about writing papers (I still procrastinate, yikes!). As I go through college, writing an abundance of papers and occasional stories for the school’s newspaper, I can rely on the skills that I learned at VOX, such as credible sources. Being at VOX has also taught me to be much more intersectional with my writing as I consider an array of viewpoints. When it comes to working with other students at my school, VOX helped me to be more open-minded about others’ ideas. At VOX, each story has a method or way in which the author engaged with the community in order to collect information, statistics, quotes and other pertinent information. I adore the manners in which VOX articles are written and then put through an extensive yet wonderful editing process.

As a person who has had their work peer edited, I find it beneficial to have a no-nonsense talk with someone on your level. Writing on your own becomes a sort of echo chamber, where only your thoughts can be heard. I feel it is beneficial for improvement as a writer for someone else to find the mistakes you might have looked over.

You might also have a certain type of bias because it is, in fact, your work and you are allowed to have some measure of pride in it. Talking to someone else doesn’t necessarily diminish that pride, but it does take the edge off of essentially killing Your Darlings, which means sacrificing all the parts you think are the best for clarity, concise writing and entertainment.

For a while at VOX, I didn’t give the editorial process much thought, thinking it wasn’t much more different or exceptional from any other kind of journalism place. However, that all changed when I became a summer intern for VOX’s Summer Media Cafe in 2016. During this time, I turned in several articles and videos in a week, so the editing process became a lot more apparent to me in its effectiveness. Whether it’s peer or adult supported, I am always able to get the best advice that helps improve my skills as a writer/videographer while simultaneously having respect being shown to my style of creating content. VOX’s editorial process is simple, effective, and fast and the way they value communication and care for my work always stands out to me.   

Participating in the editorial process with VOX was a very helpful experience. Receiving editorial support from my peers as well as impactful adults has really allowed me to hone my skills as a writer and heightened my senses of grammatical and stylistic elements in writing. Creating media at VOX is different from creating it at school because I am allowed more creative freedom under an uncensored space, as well as more support than supervision. VOX’s mission of having a free press for teens is unprecedentedly vital in this present day because the uncensored and free flow of information, opinions, and voices is the catalyst behind every new movement whether it be social activism, self-care, or environmental awareness. The promotion of teen voices allows an unique perspective to be shown in our city.

  • Thalia Butts, 17, DeKalb School of the Arts & VOX Teen Board Member – Thalia is currently our VOX Investigates teen editor, covering mental health, and has recently created media about Emory’s Youth Theological Initiative, the impact of recent films like “Hidden Figures,”  “I Am Not Your Negro,” and self-acceptance.  

Rachel Alterman Wallack, VOX’s founder, has been creating opportunities for teens to commit courageous acts of journalism since 1993. She believes in the power of teen voice and self-expression to change communities.