It's about time we listened
With only 2% of all news stories in 13 major South African newspapers featuring youth voices, it’s time we not only listen, but create spaces for youth to be heard.
By Yumna Martin and Mike Rahfaldt
It’s a crisp, winter afternoon in Lebowakgomo, a township outside Polokwane. A group high school learners sit in a circle, shooting questioning glances at one another. It’s just about time to wrap up the final day of a training workshop aimed at giving young people the tools and skills to produce their own radio shows.
At the end of each day, the youth reporters-in-training are asked to reflect on their experiences. The first time 15-year-old Thoriso Tladi was asked to speak in front of the group she was close to tears. For her, it was a terrifying and unimaginable act—one that many young people dread. But not for long. After a week of radio training, Thoriso wasn't afraid to talk. In fact, she was eager. She used every opportunity to make her voice heard. She said that the radio training built her confidence, and encouraged her to express her opinion: “It was really nice that we got to share our ideas with each other and expose our talents.”
Thoriso is one of 15 youth radio reporters trained by the Children’s Radio Foundation at community radio station Greater Lebowakgomo FM. In partnership with UNICEF South Africa and Limpopo’s Department of Education Girls/Boys Education Movement clubs, the weekly radio show offers a platform for young people to share their views about what is happening in their community. The youth are taught how to research, debate, create and structure stories, interview, and learn how to turn these elements into radio broadcasts.
After a week of training, the young reporters in Lebowakgomo were ready to produce their first show for broadcast on the radio station. They chose to speak about gangsterism in their local schools. In their 30-minute broadcast, the group shared youth views about how gangs affect young people’s chances of getting a good education and they interviewed the local police captain and a former young gangster. They asked nuanced questions from their own perspectives as young people.
Analysis of the General Household Survey shows children account for 37% of South Africa’s population, yet they seldom make the news. Media Monitoring Africa’s research on how children are portrayed in 13 major South African newspapers revealed that children’s voices were heard in only 2% of all news stories monitored in 2010. Many journalists argue that children are difficult to access. The practical, ethical and legal framework in place is there to protect young people from exploitation, but is often seen by journalists as an impediment to getting a child’s point of view. When children’s views do feature in the news, they are rarely given the opportunity to express themselves at length.
Initiatives like Greater Lebowakgomo FM’s youth radio show allow young people to create content that brims with honest, authentic feeling – that is about young people, for young people, and created by young people. It allows listeners to hear directly from youth about the issues that matter to them. Sustainable long-term youth media projects break the traditional media stereotype of framing youth as victims, and balance out the all too dominant adult point of view. They create a space where young people can speak freely, and where their peers and the wider community can share, listen, and learn in meaningful ways.
Training young people in media requires more than just teaching technical skills. Before you can teach children to produce their own media content, a safe space needs to be created where they feel free to express their thoughts and opinions and where their contributions are seen as relevant and valuable. Confidence and communication skills are developed at the same time. 15-year-old Mashoto Mphahlele experienced that in the workshop: “For the first time in my life, I feel myself, I feel like I can express myself, and really get out of my shell.”
Actively engaging youth in media and giving them space to be both producers and consumers of media plays a key role in realising the rights of children and putting these rights into action. It encourages youth to not only question, reflect, listen, and learn in front of the mic, but to do the same in their classrooms, homes, and larger community. Diane Dikobo, a 16-year-old participant expressed this need: “The workshop … was a platform to show us what we can do, and to teach us how to improve on things we thought we couldn’t do. The shows will also be a way to show other young people that they can talk about these issues too.”
Children are not simply characters to be used to substantiate news. They experience many issues featured in the media and fill diverse roles in their communities – offering valuable perspectives and experiences. It’s about time we listened.
Yumna Martin is a Trainer and Producer for the Children’s Radio Foundation, and Mike Rahfaldt is the Executive Director. This children’s participation initiative is featured in the South African Child Gauge 2010/2011, which was released by the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town.