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Children's Express Asks Media Focus on Youth Issues

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New York City--Children's Express, the news service run by school-age journalists, celebrated its 15th anniversary last week with a two-day symposium here that focused on the need for more media coverage of children's issues.

The two-day session at the New York Hilton touched on virtually every major issue involving young people, from teenage pregnancy, to juvenile justice, to "kids in a global ecosystem."

While the sessions did not aim to produce a consensus on solutions to the problems facing children, conference participants seemed to agree that these issues and other youth concerns merited more attention, both in the news media and from government policymakers.

"Young people are now asking the media to change the way we cover them," said Nancy Guilmartin, the national director of public affairs for Group W Television and the co-creator of "For Kids Sake," a public-service TV program focusing on youth.

They are demanding that the media offer more positive role models, she said, instead of "glamorizing violence" by focusing on youth crime, gangs, and related problems.

The conference, designed for members of the press, drew reporters from The New York Times, The San Diego Tribune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and numerous other newspapers, as well as representatives from several magazines and broadcast-news organizations.

Also covering the panel discussions and other events were more than 50 Children's Express reporters and editors. They generally stood out in their bright, maize-colored T-shirts (for reporters) or their red polo-style shirts (for editors).

While some of the younger journalists occasionally fidgeted as speakers talked about the federal4budget deficit or the "peace dividend," they were the most eager to ask questions as participants finished their remarks.

"Why isn't there more money for Head Start?" a young girl demanded of R. Sargent Shriver, who helped create the program as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity during the Johnson Administration.

"Why don't we pay our teachers more?" asked another.

Other prominent speakers at the symposium included Jule Sugarman, executive director of the Special Olympics and the first director of Head Start; Peter G. Peterson, a U.S. Secretary of Commerce during the Nixon Administration who has written extensively on reforming the welfare system; Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels citizens' patrol group; and the author Jonathan Kozol.

At a dinner marking the anniversary, the young reporters and editors also heard from the veteran commentator Bill Moyers.

Legendary Scoop

Children's Express, a nonprofit service, was established in 1975 as a magazine produced by children for other children. It quickly made a name for itself with its scoop of the "adult" media in reporting the selection of Walter F. Mondale as Jimmy Carter's running mate at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

The organization also drew attention during the 1988 Presidential8campaign when one of its reporters surprised the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Dan Quayle, with blunt questions about his opposition to abortion.

In a dramatic exchange that appeared on a network newscast and a Chidren's Express television special, an 11-year-old reporter asked Mr. Quayle if he would approve of her getting an abortion if she were molested by her father and became pregnant.

"People don't realize that our kids, even at 10 or 12 years old, really prepare for their assignments," Robert Clampitt, president of the Children's Express Foundation, said last week.

"They may ask some child-likequestions," he said, "but they ask a lot based on solid research."

Along with its headquarters and another bureau here, the organization operates bureaus in Atlanta; Boston; Indianapolis; Newark, N.J.; and San Francisco, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Its leaders say they hope it expands soon to Washington, London, and Paris.

Children's Express reporters are 8 to 13 years old. Their reporting method is to tape interviews with their subjects, so they are not limited by their writing skills. The reporters are assisted by teenage editors, as well as a few adults, who write the stories that appear in subscribing newspapers and in the organization's own magazine, Children's Express Quarterly.

Recent articles produced by the Children's Express news team include an interview with a 12-year-old girl whose mother is an alcoholic; an interview with Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, about his views on the environment; and a feature on the poverty-stricken Roxbury section of Boston.

Last year, the organization published a book entitled When I Was Young I Loved School: Dropping Out and Hanging In, in which children interviewed their peers about the dropout problem.

'A Lot of Fun'

Chandler Brown, a 13-year-old reporter from the Atlanta bureau, said he recently helped cover a two-week exchange with students from Soviet Georgia. As a Children's Express neophyte, he interviewed former Senator Gary Hart and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

"This is a lot of fun, but I'm not necessarily planning a career of doing this," Chandler said here last week.

Rachel Burg, a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard University, joined Children's Express at age 12. She has covered two national political conventions and traveled to Hiroshima for the 40th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Omri Elisha, a 17-year-old student at the Bronx Science High School here, has traveled to Italy and Bermuda for Children's Express and is currently the service's senior editor.

The anniversary symposium addressed many important topics, he said, and just as with similar meetings, participants may have left resolving to "make a difference" and change things.

But many of the problems will remain, he said.

"This is my third Children's Express symposium," he noted. "Maybe it's time we move beyond holding a symposium."

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