Kids Report on the Real World

The Indianapolis bureau of Children's Express tackles hard-hitting stories on drugs and crime

WHEN the Indianapolis Star decided to devote one page a week to stories by children and teens, some expected to see a bouncy page with puzzles and cartoons.But what went to press was a bit heavier: articles on gangs, teen pregnancy, children of alcoholics, drugs, and interviews with such notables as Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. The Indianapolis bureau of Children's Express (CE) has a nose for hard news. Housed here at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the bureau is unique in that its young staff publishes an entire page in a major newspaper. The page appears every Monday in the Indianapolis Star, the most widely circulated newspaper in Indiana. The bureau is an extension of Children's Express, a news organization of young people aged 9 to 18. Founded in 1975 by Bob Clampitt, Children's Express gives kids the opportunity to have a voice and gain critical skills through print journalism. (CE has bureaus in Melbourne, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand; San Francisco; Boston; Atlanta; and Harlem, with headquarters in New York City. Indianapolis is one of the newer bureaus, founded in 1990.) "This is really our national model now," Mr. Clampitt says about the Indianapolis bureau. It's captured the attention of other major-city newspapers interested in replicating the bureau, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Raleigh's News & Observer, and Louisville's Courier-Journal, he adds. Some 180 kids have gone through training, though the active staff numbers around 120. Usually, those aged 9 to 13 serve as reporters, and those aged 14 to 18 serve as editors. For the most part, the CE page is "pretty well-accepted," says Suzanne Preston, assistant director here. Once and a while a story will raise some eyebrows, such as one that focused on teenage homosexuality. "We got a lot of negative response, but some positive too," Preston recalls. Story ideas are kid-generated, she points out. " The hardest thing for people to accept is that kids are dealing with these things.... We've done a lot of really serious stories." Sometimes being a kid can bring a unique perspective or allow for greater access to a story, Ms. Preston says, as in the case of gangs or homeless children. One exciting assignment took four reporters to Kuwait. In addition to news stories, the page includes a poll question ("What do you think?"), various features, commentaries, and an occasional book review. DURING a briefing one Wednesday afternoon, Preston listens to young reporters and editors discuss a group called B.A.A.D. - Bruins Against Alcohol and Drugs - that advocates a drug-free high school through voluntary, anonymous drug testing. Questions are pitched: "Does it work?" "Is this violating their rights?What angle should we take?" At age 15, Jason Morris is an assistant editor here. Taking time out from the briefing, he responds to the question: Why the interest in journalism? ve always had a big mouth and I like informing people," he says matter-of-factly. Even with a part-time job at a movie theater, he still finds time to work with CE and get his homework done. He wants to major in journalism or music theory in college. For Michelle Evans, 18, CE has been a confidence booster. "You really get that sense of empowerment when you're a reporter," she says. Michelle has written stories about gangs, children of alcoholics, and affirmative action. "I like the fact that I can come up with my own story ideas," she says. Artwork and photos for stories are coordinated by the kids, though the Star sometimes lends help. "It really is a great project," says George McLaren, an investigative reporter with the Indianapolis Star who has acted as liaison between the paper and Children's Express. The Star generally takes a hands-off approach, he says. "These aren't jaded, cynical journalists, they're kids with their eyes wide open. They have a fresh perspective on the world and it shows through in their stories." Bureau director Lynn Sygiel points out that because the kids publish in a regular newspaper, their articles draw many adult readers as well as kids. For CE staffers "this is real responsibility," she says. "Kids learn from adults in real situations." "Some go into the news business," she adds "but they all end up richer for the experience."

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