In a period of major political unrest, the power of the ballot is more important than ever.
But with biased news stations and opinionated social media feeds pervading our everyday lives, researching candidates is also becoming more complicated.
With a major presidential election approaching, a group of high schoolers are determined to solve this problem.
“The Objective Reporter,” a website built and managed by four juniors at John Burroughs School, attempts to serve as a nonpartisan resource for news seekers to learn more about local politicians. The site features fact sheets, video interviews and contact information for St. Louis and Missouri gubernatorial, congressional and other candidates to help readers make informed decisions when they go to the polls in November — and beyond.
“Over quarantine, I saw a lot of political activity happening and I didn’t know what side I fell on. I felt helpless,” said Thomas Champer, who manages marketing and social media for The Objective Reporter. “A lot of people said to go out and vote, but not who to vote for. We just want people to be able to find out who will be on their ballots in November, easily and with little stress, and know this information is unbiased.”
Champer joined fellow students Rahul Jasti, Josh Antony and Ziyaad Raza, who were already interested in finding a problem to solve after working together as freshmen for a school project. The group of friends wanted a project to keep them connected during quarantine. They went through several ideas — from UV lights to soundproof underwear — before settling on a political theme.
“We decided politics would be a good way to build a bridge between us and our future,” said Raza. “I’m going to turn 18 this election; I’ll be able to vote. The rest will be 18 soon and we had no idea what was going on. We realized we don’t even know who these people are but they’re speaking for us. And that was common amongst our friends.”
Raza said that other political websites his team visited offered only long-winded candidate introductions and were hard to navigate. The Objective Reporter caters to a younger audience with consolidated facts and a simplified layout.
The process of building the website involved first researching a candidate, from legislation they’ve passed to comments they’ve made in interviews to summarizing their campaign points. The team has also reached out personally to local politicians to request video interviews. Thus far, The Objective Reporter features video interviews from Deb Lavender, Doug Beck, Trish Gunby and Kelli Dunaway, with more promised soon.
According to Jasti, who does most of the team’s web design, the goal is for readers to be able to get a sense of whether or not they align with a particular candidate within five minutes of reading time.
“We realized that even though our generation is active with protests, we’re really poor with voter turnout and being informed. We wanted to change that,” said Jasti. “Change starts at the local level. That means knowing your local representatives. We wanted to put a face to them and not just a name on a ballot.”
Though the site’s current focus is on St. Louis and Missouri politicians, plans are already in the works for branches of The Objective Reporter in Dallas and Atlanta. The team of students has also developed a network of volunteers from districts outside John Burroughs including Parkway, Ladue and Clayton. Students interested in joining the team or starting a chapter in their city can click “Get Involved” at the top of the website for more information. Interested parties can also donate to the non-profit team — which is an officially-registered 501(c)(3) — by clicking “Donate.”
With graduation in sight for these four young men, the team is ultimately planning to hand off the majority of upkeep to a younger generation when the time comes. But, according to Raza, they’re all hoping to continue helping out as The Objective Reporter grows.
“We do not want to give this up. We started this and we are determined,” said Raza. “We’ll keep it up in college and wherever we go.”