Last year, I pitched an article about teen restorative justice programs to a juvenile justice-centered outlet. The editor replied with something I didn’t expect:
They don’t contract high schoolers.
“We do not hire high school journalists because they are not professionals and have not studied or been trained in the craft of journalism,” the editor said in their email. “This is true of every mainstream, professional news organization. In college, you can apply for paid internships, but those typically go to upper-class college students.”
This outlet is supposedly “youth-centered,” but doesn’t let youth contribute to issues that affect them.
While it is true that younger journalists are less experienced, giving them a chance to start somewhere and be paid fairly should be normal. Freelance writing done by young journalists is still labor.
I began writing competitively in the 7th grade. After winning a contest that centered on youth perspectives, I realized journalism is how I could make a difference in the world. But despite pitching constantly, I am often dismissed for being too young. I also don’t entirely consider myself a freelancer because I usually never get paid, but I do believe in paying journalists for their work.
The problem is not only that young people aren’t represented well in journalism, but also that they are “represented” by people who don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager today. While this is only one instance of many in my personal journalism experience, many emerging writers and journalists also say the same.
Rainier Harris, 19, has been pitching to news organizations since he was 15. Over the years, he said, editors dismissed him and his work, just like me.
“I remember one time I asked if they were open to pitching and they said, ‘Sorry, but we only work with very, very experienced writers’ — and funnily enough, in a different section of that same paper, I ended up getting published, just a few months later,” Harris said.
This assumption that 16 or 17-year-olds don’t work is faulty. Not only does it undermine our work, but it makes competitive rates for younger journalists rare.
“Young journalists are often encouraged to go to publications that are not paying them, since you’re not ‘assumingly’ working for a living even though you very well could be,” Harris said.
Kristina Haviland, 16, said much of the same: Outlets often turn away inquiries due to her age.
“Most of them have said things like we cannot accept your writing due to your age, you need to be older, etc,” Haviland said. “Some just never answered.”
Haviland also said that in some student sections, outlets often don’t allow for reporting on “serious issues.” The platform to express ourselves should be the same as any other journalist, regardless of background. Regardless of editors’ good intentions, student sections in many new outlets downplay the contributions and potential of younger writers. Contributors in these sections often aren’t compensated the same or at all. Some outlets will label emerging writers as “student journalists” to avoid paying them properly, even when their work could have easily been published in another section.
I myself have experienced this countless times, along with a few other journalists under 18 who all get placed in the student section of a local magazine, despite the stories concerning all viewers. Some writers aren’t even told about a “student section” or another place they can publish their writing at certain outlets. Some younger writers say they don’t receive a reply after clarifying their age.
“I sent an op-ed piece, and I got a response from the editor that they are interested in publishing. After giving my age I got no response back,” said Saisha Agarwal, 16. “I’ve experienced this probably around three times with three different publications.”
Students I spoke to not only shared their experiences but asserted the importance of editors working with younger writers and how other journalists could provide support to younger journalists looking to be paid fairly.
“I feel like in this day and age, professional journalists should strive to and be encouraged to work with an emerging journalist even if it takes a bit more time,” said Radiah Jamil, 18, another freelance journalist. “These kids may not have any other connections. I hope in the future more professional journalists are open-minded to mentor.”
Evening out the playing field through mentorships is highly important in fixing some of these discrepancies. To make journalism an equitable career field, we need all voices and age groups to be represented. Some editors and news outlets are trying to bridge this gap between young and experienced journalists. But when it comes to compensation, acknowledgment, and respect, there still is room to grow, and with the help of readers, editors, and networks themselves, it is possible.
“Journalism as an industry right now is kind of made so that you don’t have a lot of marginalized voices at the forefront,” Harris said. “A big way to change that is taking younger journalists seriously when they say that they have a story that they want to get out there and paying them adequately as we would, you know, anyone else.”
Aina Marzia is a 16-year-old independent journalist based in El Paso, Texas. A multi-lingual, cricket fan, and avid Twitter user, her work has been seen in Prism Reports, BElatina News, The Austin Chronicle, Muslim Girl, The City Magazine, and more.
This story was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Omar Rashad.
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