Real Hard News Hot off the Children's Express: Program Lets Youths Cover Two Political Conventions

Article excerpt

The security guard at the Republican National Convention in San Diego couldn't believe her eyes. There were six children demanding entry to the convention floor on the basis of their press credentials.

"She couldn't believe it," remembers John Healy, 16. "She said we must have picked the credentials off the floor." After calling her supervisor, who checked a master list, the guard grudgingly agreed to let them in. "She was still mad, though," John says, shaking his head. "She just didn't think it was right."

The guard shouldn't have been that surprised. After all, young people have been covering every presidential convention for the past 20 years. They're part of Children's Express, a national organization dedicated to airing children's views about everything from daytime talk shows to crime and violence.

Along the way, young people get the opportunity to act as reporters, editors and compilers, taking responsibility for the research, logistics and ultimate success of their stories. Last Friday, seven youths, including an 11-year-old cartoonist, from the Washington Bureau of Children's Express traveled to Chicago to cover events in and around the Democratic National Convention.

So far this week, the young reporters from Children's Express have had plenty of respect. They have been followed by C-SPAN and ABC's "Nightline"; have interviewed Sen. Christopher Dodd, Connecticut Democrat; and have attended the big media party on Saturday night.

"It's been a blast," says Vicky Hallett, 16.

While enjoying all the attention, the journalists also have taken to heart the advice of Charles Lord, director of special projects: Make lemonade out of lemons.

When the interview with Mr. Dodd at the Hyatt Regency ran shorter than expected, Vicky took her team next door to the Women's Leadership Forum, where first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was answering questions.

The scene was pretty chaotic, with reporters pushing their way through crowds and standing on chairs to make their voices heard. Somehow, Vicky was able to get Mrs. Clinton's attention.

"We asked a question, and she gave us a good response," Vicky says. "It was a really good day."

It helps to have an "in," of course. Among the young reporters parleying with Mrs. Clinton was 10-year-old Charlotte Ickes, who drove to Chicago with her parents. Her father is White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes.

The reporters are part of a diverse mix of nearly 100 students from schools throughout the area who make up the Washington bureau. Children's Express is open to all youths age 8 to 18 who are "naturally curious about what's going on around them," says Rob Bisi, Washington bureau director. "No experience or special writing expertise is necessary."

Most students hear of the organization through parents and teachers, although some recruiting is done in area schools.

"It's an opportunity to hear the unfiltered voices of young people," Mr. Bisi says.

The D.C. bureau began about four years ago, joining bureaus in Indianapolis; New York City; Oakland, Calif.; Marquette, Minn.; and London.

Children's Express reports are carried by many major newspapers both nationwide and worldwide. For the Chicago convention, the team will produce a tabloid edition, which will be carried by the Chicago Tribune tomorrow.

Besides news stories and round-table discussions about issues important to youth, Children's Express also has published five books. It won an Emmy for its coverage of the 1988 presidential campaign.

Many of the 30 to 40 active members can be found at the organization's offices on New York Avenue NW nearly every day. Its central downtown location is important for several reasons, such as ensuring equal access and being convenient to Metro.

Surrounded by white-collar workers hurrying to and from the law firms, investment offices and other businesses around the old downtown area, young people "feel a sense of empowerment just coming to work," Mr. …