Most teens follow current events, but just 15% get their news from online or print news outlets. They’re far more likely to check out sources like TikTok and YouTube.
“This is the first generation that is having an unmitigated experience with media,” said Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of FRONTLINE. “The world view of teenagers is in part being formed on these platforms.”
This worries her — both as the parent of two teenagers and as the leader of one of the world’s most highly respected and trusted sources for investigative journalism.
“We spend a lot of time with our kids trying to make sure that they understand the source of what they're seeing. Who made that video clip? Was it a news organization, an individual? Is it coming from an advocacy group? You have to go a few layers in and that's a lot to ask a teenager to do.”
So, she decided FRONTLINE had a role to play.
The result is a new pilot season of FRONTLINE Short Docs, which debuted last week. The series of boldly told short documentaries explores critical issues that impact young adults and the world they live in. They were developed by FRONTLINE in collaboration with GBH Education.
“The films are in-depth, yet digestible, and designed to cut through the noise and misinformation often found on social media,” said Aronson-Rath. “It’s important to FRONTLINE to be part of this media ecosystem — a positive and factual part.”
The entire FRONTLINE team got involved, she said, with Carla Borras, Tessa Maguire and Miles Alvord playing key roles.
In addition to being available on YouTube, each film is available for free to teachers on PBS LearningMedia, with an accompanying curriculum unit.
Viewers of the short docs witness stories by and about young adults — a harrowing escape from a wildfire; a young artist facing imprisonment in Russia for protesting the war in Ukraine; an examination of how Black people’s right to vote has been suppressed in the U.S. over the years; and the enduring reflections of some of the last people to survive the Holocaust as teenagers.
GBH Education, with research analyst Kensy Jordan and others, played a key role in conducting comprehensive research about the youth media landscape, also tapping the expertise of a diverse 15-member Youth Advisory Council, which gave feedback at every stage.
“These young people were smart, thoughtful and candid,” said Seeta Pai, Executive Director of GBH Education. “They gave us professional-level commentary.” Three educators and their 52 students, as well as additional survey respondents also provided input.
Often the way to reach young people is through their teachers, said Pai. “Teens have much greater bandwidth for engaging with serious, important, educational content in education settings. That’s why it’s so important to make media with them as the first audience in mind.”
The involvement of teens and her own experience with her children and their friends, was the series’ secret sauce, said Aronson-Rath. “If you ask a teenager what they think or feel and you give them space to talk, they say the most extraordinary things — their observations are so keen.”
The FRONTLINE-GBH Education collaboration strengthened the final product, said Pai. “We’ve created a series that captivates young audiences while meeting the requirements of teachers,” said Pai. “Having such engaging media for the classroom provides excellent springboards for reflection, analysis and understanding.”
Emily Silas, who teaches at The English High School in Boston, says the series is well-suited for teens. “This content really respects students’ emotional and intellectual maturity and engages them in moral questions — which is exactly what adolescents should be doing.”
Genesis, a high school student from Pennsylvania who participated in the youth council, thinks the videos will be well received. “A lot of students don't watch the news because they might find it boring — but with videos like these, that are targeted toward a youth audience, we're more capable of understanding and comprehending the topics.”
Aronson-Rath hopes the films make a difference in young people’s lives. “We want to ignite teens’ curiosity so that they can educate themselves and be active and responsible citizens. That is what I really care about.”