The town of Rockwall, Texas, has a few claims to fame: Bonafide Betties Pie Company, where “thick pies save lives”; the mega-sized Lakepointe Church; and Lake Ray Hubbard, which is lovely until the wet, Texas heat makes a shoreline stroll feel like a plod through hot butter.
Now add to that list: Rockwall is home to the middle-school winners of NPR’s fourth-annual Student Podcast Challenge.
Their entry, The Worlds We Create, is a funny and sneakily thoughtful exploration of what it means that so many teens today are “talking digitally,” instead of face-to-face. It was one of two winning entries (the high school winner is here) chosen by our judges from among more than 2,000 student podcasts from around the country.
The team behind the pod
Rockwall hugs the eastern shore of the lake and got its name from a wall-like thread of sandstone that unspools beneath the town. “Every street name sounds the same: Lakeshore, Club Lake, Lakeview, Lakeside, and so on…” says the podcast’s narrator, 8th-grader Harrison McDonald. “If it sounds like our town is boring, that’s because it is. But let’s zoom into the center of one of those neighborhoods, on Williams Middle School.”
That’s where Harrison, fellow 8th-grader Blake Turley and 7th-graders Kit Atteberry and Wesley Helmer made the podcast, as part of librarian Misti Knight’s broadcasting class. Knight began teaching Harrison and Blake last year, when they would make videos for the school’s morning announcements. “But then I realized how good [the boys] were, and so I would say this year, I’m honestly more their manager,” she laughs.
Meaning, often Ms. Knight just gives the boys the roughest of ideas and encourages them to get creative. Which is why, when Harrison came to her with an idea for NPR’s Student Podcast Challenge, she said, “Why not?”
Harrison’s interest in the contest surprised no one. He wears chunky headphones around his neck every day, like a uniform, and says he was raised on public radio. “[My family] have a system. On long road trips, we listen to This American Life. On shorter road trips, we listen to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”
Kit also brought a love of podcasting to the effort: “My dad got me into listening to podcasts, and we would just listen to them in the car and listen to them in the house. You know, he never really got into music. He was mostly into podcasts,” Kit says, especially The Moth.
For their entry, Harrison, Kit and the team wanted to explore how students at Williams Middle School, and likely every other middle and high school in the country, interact on social media. Specifically, when they go on a platform like TikTok or Instagram and create anonymous accounts to share things about school and their classmates.
“People feel anonymous, so they feel like they can do whatever they want”
For example: An account dedicated to pics of students considered “hot.”
“My friend was on there,” Blake says, “and I texted him, ‘Hey, do you know that you’re on this Instagram account?’ And he’s like, ‘What?!’ ”
Most of these accounts “aren’t even gossip,” Blake adds, “they’re just pictures of people sleeping, eating, acting surprised, acting sad.”
One account was dedicated entirely to pictures of students sleeping in class. On some accounts, students are in on the joke, but often they’re not, Harrison says.
“Through the internet … people feel anonymous, so they feel like they can do whatever they want — and get likes for it without any punishment.”
The boys found at least 81 of these accounts at Williams alone. Then they got a bold idea.
Fake it till you make it
“After seeing all of these social media pages, we decided it would be fun if we just made our own profile and posted fake gossip to see the impact it has and how it spreads through a middle school,” they explain in the podcast.
Fake gossip is putting it mildly.
“We knocked on our school police officer’s door and asked if he would pretend to arrest one of our A-V club members for the camera. Surprisingly, he actually agreed,” Harrison says.
It was the first video to go up on their new gossip account. “We didn’t think it would actually get anywhere, but less than 15 minutes later, we heard people starting to talk about it.”
Next up: The boys staged a fight in the band room, hoping a shaky camera and sound effects added in post-production would convince their classmates it was bigger and very real.
“Some of us would have kids walking up to us daily to tell us how we got absolutely destroyed in that fight or how they didn’t know we were in band. We were having fun with it now,” Harrison says in the podcast. “It didn’t take long for our fake account to start getting more followers than any other gossip account we could find.”
“Our generation prefers talking digitally”
As a social experiment, these four middle-schoolers went from quiet observers of social media to the school’s master muckrakers – even though everything they posted was utterly fake. In that way, the podcast works as a warning about the importance of media literacy — at a time when Americans half-a-century their senior are being suckered by social media every day.
But the podcast isn’t just a scold about fake news. It’s also about how, for kids their age, this is communication.
“We don’t pass notes, we send texts with our phones hidden under our desks,” Harrison says. “We don’t tell people about incidents that happened in class, we post it on TikTok. Our generation prefers talking digitally with each other from a distance, [rather] than communicating with each other in the real world.”
The boys named their podcast, The Worlds We Create.
Ms. Knight, a veteran teacher, says she’s seen these changes in students over the years.
“I just think there’s a lot less talking and a lot more, you know, swiping through their phone instead of saying, ‘Hey, guess what I saw today?’ ”
Knight has even seen it in her own family. “I would talk to my husband about, ‘Oh, did you see our eldest daughter?’ She lives in California. ‘She did this or whatever.’ And he would say, ‘How do you know this?’ ”
Her answer: “‘Because I’m following her social media and her friends’ social media.’ Because if you don’t do that, she’s probably not going to pick up the phone and call us and tell us.”
Is that inherently bad? Knight says, no, not necessarily. She does get to see more of what her daughters and her friends, far and wide, are doing.
The boys’ views are similarly complicated. All this “talking digitally” can be a real “curse” for teens, they say, especially when it hurts or excludes others. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
After all, the boys say, the whole purpose of technologies from radio to the telephone, TV to the internet, has always been to help us feel less alone and more connected – by helping us create worlds – and build communities – bigger than the ones we’re born into.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Can’t comment on NewsClick’s China link, respect media freedom: US
The US government has seen reports of NewsClick’s alleged links to China and is aware of concerns around it though it can’t independently comment on the veracity of those claims. But, as a general principle, the US continues to urge Indian government as well other governments across the world to respect the human rights of journalists, including freedom of expression online and offline.
At a regular State Department briefing on Tuesday, when asked about the raids on the proprietors, staffers and contributors of NewsClick and a New York Times report that the news website was a part of a Chinese influence operation funded through an American businessman, State department‘s principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said, “So we are aware of those concerns and have seen that reporting about this outlet’s ties to the PRC (People’s Republic of China), but we can’t comment yet on the veracity of those claims.”
Patel added that, separately, the US strongly supported “the robust role of the media globally, including social media, in a vibrant and free democracy”.
“We raise concerns on these matters with the Indian Government, with countries around the world, through our diplomatic engagements that are, of course, at the core of our bilateral relationship. And we have urged the Indian Government, and have done so not just with India but other countries as well, about the importance of respecting the human rights of journalists, including freedom of expression both online and offline.”
Patel, however, said that he did not have any additional information about “this particular circumstance or any of the underlying issues that may or may not be related to this outlet”.
India’s Latest Media Arrests Put Washington in an Awkward Spot
(Bloomberg) — India’s latest media crackdown puts the US in an awkward position as it seeks to balance promotion of human rights with courting New Delhi to counter the influence of China.
Police in the South Asian country’s capital arrested the editor-in-chief and another employee of online newspaper NewsClick Tuesday under sweeping anti-terrorism laws. Authorities also raided the offices of the publication, without giving a reason.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been targeting critical independent media since he took office in 2014. NewsClick came to prominence in 2021 for its extensive coverage of farmer protests against government plans to liberalize agriculture. India has previously accused the media organization of having funding ties to China, which it denies.
For Arati Jerath, a New Delhi-based political analyst, the arrests create a challenge for Washington.
“The US does not want to get too involved in India’s domestic affairs,” she said. “They are looking at India through a geopolitical prism and with China in the picture, India is a strategic partner.”
US Department of State spokesman Vedant Patel said he couldn’t comment yet on claims NewsClick has ties to China.
Patel also stressed the importance of press freedom globally. “We raise concerns on these matters with the Indian government, with countries around the world,” he told reporters in Washington.
India has often argued its democracy and vibrant press are a counterpoint to China with its one-party state and heavily controlled media. The US frequently finds itself torn between its efforts to defend human rights around the world and the pragmatic need to partner with governments accused of rights abuses.
India’s government has often used its anti-terrorism law to intimidate and punish journalists. The law, which doesn’t allow for bail, empowers the police to detain suspects for years without leveling official charges.
India has also scrutinized many mobile app and technology companies for alleged links to China after a Himalayan border clash between New Delhi and Beijing in 2020.
In 2021, authorities raided NewsClick’s office and the homes of seven staff members for what they described as improper foreign investments. Several of them were questioned and NewsClick called the allegations “misleading, unfounded and without basis in fact or law.”
In August, the New York Times cited NewsClick as an organization allegedly being used for Chinese propaganda overseas. India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said at the time the media outlet was being funded by Beijing.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Thakur said he didn’t need to justify the raids. “If someone has done something wrong, the investigative agencies will work on it,” he said.
NewClick’s human resources head Amit Chakravarty was also arrested. Several employees’ laptops and mobile phones were seized. Local media reported at least 30 premises were raided, including the homes of six NewsClick reporters.
India fell to 161st of 180 countries and territories in a press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, a press advocacy group, this year. In February, authorities raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi, weeks after the British broadcaster aired a documentary about Modi’s role in 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat.
Last year, Mohammad Zubair, a journalist running a fact-checking website, Alt News, was arrested after highlighting anti-Islamic comments made by former BJP officials.
The Press Club of India expressed concern about the arrests and raid, saying it wants the government to explain its actions. The group plans to protest the detentions at a march Wednesday.
Jerath, the analyst, questioned India’s move to arrest the people under the terrorism law without providing details or evidence.
“You have already labeled them as terrorists,” she said.
(Updates with details on the crackdown. An earlier story corrected paragraph 11 to show authorities raided the homes of seven NewsClick staff members in 2021.)
What is NewsClick? A look at India’s media crackdown – Al Jazeera English
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