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‘You can trust us’: Talent student reporters dig deep

Student journalists Franklin Ramirez, left, and Aaron Chavez interview Phoenix-Talent Schools Superintendent Brent Barry for their first news video story with the help of camerman and instructor Ben Garcia of Southern Oregon PBS. Photo by Denise Baratta
Thanks to outreach from the Southern Oregon PBS station, local students produce journalism

Hours after the bell had rung to let students out of classes at Talent Middle School Wednesday, eighth-graders Franklin Ramirez and Aaron Chavez were still working hard.

They headed to the Phoenix Elementary School media center, where they set up lights and cameras to interview district Superintendent Brent Barry about the impacts the 2020 Almeda fire has had on the Phoenix-Talent community. Ramirez and Chavez taped the interview as participants in PBS NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs.

“The fact that we could actually say (to viewers), ‘you (can) trust us, we have information and we can inform you about this without the problem of you worrying that we were lying,’” is one of the reasons Chavez said he is interested in studying journalism.

Ramirez added that as a student reporter in the year-long program, his job is to report facts while “not picking one side over the other.”

But for Ramirez and Chavez, who lost their homes in the Almeda fire, they are part of the story — not just as displaced Phoenix-Talent students, but as the ones being interviewed by their mentor, Ben Garcia, education manager for Southern Oregon PBS.

Garcia oversees three local Student Reporting Labs programs — at North Medford High School, Hedrick Middle School and Eagle Point Middle School. Talent Middle School, meanwhile, only has a “club,” which includes Chavez and Ramirez.

Those schools are part of more than 170 locations that host PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs. If the students are lucky, they might be one of more than 50 who see their spot air on “PBS NewsHour,” recorded from the nation’s capital and seen by four million people.

He noted that while "PBS NewsHour’s“ mantra with the student labs program is to produce “the next generation of public media journalists,” Southern Oregon PBS likes to think it's producing “citizen journalists.”

Part of the reason for that is Garcia’s belief that the majority of students will not go into journalism as a career. But regardless of what his students end up choosing to do with their lives, he said, there’s always room for an informed citizenry.

“We need people that know how to go out into the world and assess information accurately and know the difference between fake news and real news and know how to call out misinformation and disinformation in their native habitat, which is social media,” Garcia said. “To me, what this program does is it trains citizen journalists, and our democracy needs … critically minded people who know how to spot bad information and, most importantly, call it out.”

Garcia said such policing on social media “would do a world of good, because people aren’t doing that.”

Still, he said, there is room for students to become journalists. They learn everything from the basics of journalistic storytelling through the “inverted pyramid” to how to work cameras and lights.

Reporting Labs students meet three times a week to learn about reporting and how to craft stories. In an interview with the Mail Tribune Friday, Garcia presented a “deep” outline of all of the interview questions Chavez and Ramirez would ask Barry. Garcia coached them through the interview process when they sat down with Barry for an hour-long interview.

“(School districts) are thinking about this from, like, ‘how do we get those kids that are very bright and have interests in areas of media — that aren’t interested in sports and other things — how do we give those students a home?” Garcia said. “Through many conversations with local administrators, the light bulb went off. I wrote it into my ‘desired outcomes’ for my case builder document. They care about increased media literacy skills among rural students. I care about that, too.”

In an email, Barry said he was impressed with the students’ professionalism during the interview.

“I think this is an amazing opportunity to jump in and find their niche within the field of journalism,” Barry wrote. “I admire their dedication to this program and the hard work they have put into creating a project that will live forever in telling our story in Phoenix-Talent schools.”

Barry admits his knowledge of broadcast journalism is not as deep as the students. “I do not have any experience on the other side of the camera,” he said, adding that he learned a lot watching Ramirez and Chavez take him through the process from cameras up to lights out.

“This is the fun part of being a superintendent, seeing kids in action, witnessing students prepare, plan and execute something they are passionate about and overall getting to know them as individuals,” Barry wrote.

Those moments are hard to come by, he said, because his administrative position affords him less time with students.

“So when these opportunities come up to work on a project with these amazing students, it brings me so much joy,” Barry wrote.

Chavez and Ramirez are producing the story, which could be anywhere from 2 minutes to 27, depending on what producers allow, as they’re both coming to terms with what they lost because of the fire.

Both have moved around more than once and have experienced long commutes from temporary housing outside the district, in Central Point.

The sentiment that hits hardest for Chavez these days is having “more responsibility.”

“Since all of your baby stuff burned down, there’s the new you now,” he said, with his parents telling him, “’You need to grow up because we need to earn enough money for a new house.’ I see it as a boost — the fire boosted me up.”

Ramirez has moved several times since the Almeda fire ravaged the community.

“I have to take care of myself more,” he said.

Barry said he didn’t know Ramirez and Chavez before sitting down with them for an interview, but he is familiar with many families affected by the fire.

“Their story definitely resonates,” Barry said. “I am so impressed with the resiliency of these kids and their families and want them to know they will always have a place in PTS Rising.”

Chavez admitted part of the package he is producing is about letting viewers get to know him as he has conversations with decision-makers, such as Barry and Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood.

“It’s important for people to know my story, to know they’re not alone. There’s still hope,” Chavez said. “This video shows big, important people, like Brent Barry, they’re still helping people like me in need.”

Though the Talent middle-schooler wants to keep things in perspective, he knows he is emulating a working reporter who is trying to make his story mostly not about him.

“We won’t go overboard saying, ‘Oh, I suffered the most,’” Chavez said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.