How Media and Supportive Local Institutions Can Grow Voters
The following is adapted, with minor changes, from the CIRCLE Growing Voters report and framework published in 2022. We include recommendations for media and for local institutions that can make up a community’s media ecosystem; jump to the recommendations here.
Young people need information and support to participate in civic life. In the context of electoral engagement, that should include information about the registration and voting process itself, about the candidates and issues, about opportunities to get involved, and about how their voice and their vote can make a difference in democracy.
Youth can and do get some of that information from various sources including their friends, family, schools, and workplaces. But a major potential source of civic and political information is the media—traditional and new, online and offline. Recent CIRCLE research has identified and explored that different communities can have vastly different media ecosystems that shape whether and how young people are exposed to information. Crucially, those ecosystems are comprised of more than just news outlets; they include organizations like libraries and nonprofits that can not only directly provide information, but also serve as political homes where youth can make sense of and act on what they learn.
The 2022 CIRCLE Growing Voters report provided further evidence of how youth experience unequal access and support from traditional media and various other institutions that make up their information ecosystem and shared specific action items for how these institutions can address gaps and help prepare youth for democracy.
News Media Can Better Support Youth Engagement
How young people and teens access and engage with news media is highly inequitable across different groups and communities of youth. Systemic changes in media institutions are required to address those inequities and provide adequate support for youth.
Media at every level has a role to play and important advances to make. For example, local news outlets (i.e., those that focus on the state, regional, city level, or smaller) are a key community institution that can contribute to young people’s civic growth by connecting elections to issues that impact young people’s everyday experiences. Despite narratives suggesting that young people and teenagers don’t consume local news, the CIRCLE teen survey found that 6% of teens engaged with local news at least occasionally, and 50% reported that they read or watch local news often or fairly often. Among these teens, the majority (61%) engaged with media content through local network TV news, 14% through a local outlet’s social media account, and 11% from a friend or family member sharing local media content on their social feed.
However, not all teens have equitable access to local news. Almost three-quarters of teens who say they live in an urban area (72%) engage with local news often or fairly often, compared to 42% of suburban teens and 36% of rural teens. Even more important than where young people consume local news is what they do with the information they receive. Our 2020 survey of voting-age youth found that about half said local news helped them feel more prepared to vote, and newly eligible voters and youth of color were even more likely to say it was helpful to them. In particular, Asian and Latino youth cited the social media accounts of reporters as especially helpful in preparing them to vote. That highlights the potential of traditional news sources meeting young people where they already encounter so much information about the election and where reliable, fact-checked content may be needed most: social media.
Even though our data shows youth are engaging with these media outlets, local news hasn’t always been focused on serving young people as an audience. Despite that—or perhaps because of a desire to shape the stories the media does or doesn’t tell about youth—41% of teens expressed interest in learning about or working with a local media outlet if they were given an opportunity.
Teens’ consumption of local news highlights the opportunity that media outlets have in using their platforms to help develop young voters—and, at the same time, develop their audiences. Thus it’s a civic imperative to protect and fund local news that brings in a wider diversity of youth, especially in rural communities and other areas where data shows access to this type of support is lacking.
Youth Co-Create Culture with Digital Media—When they Have Access and Support
Social media and the internet is a critical space where youth engage with political and social issues, using it both as a source of information, to learn from others, and as a way to uplift their own voices. This is how young people both shape and are shaped by civic culture online. Our cluster analysis’ focus on the power of youth’s personal networks illustrates the importance of youth media creation to a culture of CIRCLE Growing Voters.
Teens who reported the most political engagement on social media, and who saw the most youth-created media online, were among the most politically engaged—falling into the Fully Supported and Engaged and School-Supported and Somewhat Social categories. In the case of the Supported by Networks and Moderately Engaged, which is the largest of all five groups with over a third of youth, average levels of both youth creating media and being exposed to others’ content appear to be filling a gap in learning about elections and voting caused by lackluster access from other sources and settings.
According to our teen survey, photo and video-centric digital platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok jointly account for 60% of the sources (encompassing both social media platforms and legacy media) where teens see the most youth-made content. That some of the media sources where young people see the most information about the election are the same spaces where they see youth-made content suggests how important youth-created media is in shaping teens’ political news landscape.
Youth media creation also has a wide array of benefits. In our survey, over half of teens who have engaged in at least one form of media creation said that they felt more informed about politics and felt their voice was more powerful as a result. That finding is supported by extensive research demonstrating the impact of media creation on young people, including how it facilitates higher self-esteem and the development of important skills that double as civic skills, such as collaboration and critical thinking. It also gives young people, especially youth from marginalized backgrounds, a way to develop, explore, and express their identities.
As with other civic learning and engagement opportunities, not all young people have equal ability to engage in media creation. Some youth don’t have consistent access to technology or broadband internet access. About two in five teens in our survey agreed or strongly agreed that they are scared to voice their opinion online, either because they don’t feel qualified enough or because of the possible reaction from peers. This speaks to the importance of cultivating an online culture that supports the participation of a wide range of youth in media creation.
Local Community and Youth Groups Critical to Filling Gaps
Our recent work on media ecosystems underscores the importance of supportive local institutions that can help youth connect and act on the information they see in the media, or even make up for a relative lack of information in places where news outlets or digital access are inadequate.
Every community has groups and organizations that can work to engage voters. These may include youth-led groups or student clubs, issue advocacy organizations, local museums, or health centers that hold voter registration drives. Their electoral outreach is especially relevant to young people who care about local issues and who may have more limited access to other pathways to participation, but the potential of these organizations to engage young voters has not been maximized.
For example, during the 2020 election, youth of voting age were 10 percentage points more likely to be contacted by a not explicitly youth-focused local community organization than by a youth-focused organization. While it’s positive that groups with a broader focus are taking on some of this work, the fact that organizations that specifically serve young people lag behind demonstrates there is a need for growth and investment. That’s especially the case because youth organizations can play a critical role in reaching otherwise underserved groups like Black youth and the newest eligible voters (ages 18–21). At the same time, both youth- and non youth-focused organizations are disproportionately reaching young people with college experience who may already have other pathways to civic learning and electoral engagement.
There is both a need and an opportunity for these organizations, which includes libraries, to explicitly broaden their reach to different communities of youth.
For Media Organizations and Journalists
- Develop or expand opportunities for young people to create content or contribute to reporting. Widen your outreach in order to diversify the young people you reach when offering opportunities for media creation.
- Strive to better understand your youth audience—or lack thereof. Outlets that already have a large teen audience should engage with them through social media, advisory groups, listening sessions, or focus groups about the content they find useful, interesting, and important. Organizations can institutionalize these structures and opportunities through which diverse youth can directly and indirectly inform their work.
- Nothing about us without us.’ Rely on young people as experts and sources, especially when you report about issues often centered on youth. Journalists can build relationships with youth organizations and coalitions that can provide greater access to spaces where young people are already having these conversations, or they can seek to engage young audiences directly through social media.
- Use explanatory journalism. Consider that young audience members may be learning about an issue for the first time and provide accessible and engaging context that does not assume prior knowledge.
- Local reporters should embrace their ability and responsibility to focus on local races and issues, especially if they are the only media outlet covering a particular region or race. Focusing less on the ‘horse race’ and more on policy impact and concrete issues that impact young people’s daily lives can help youth understand the importance and implications of elections.
For Nonprofits, Community Groups, and Organizations
- Nonprofit organizations must remain nonpartisan and comply with rules preventing some political activities. But that does not mean they cannot educate the public, disseminate accurate information about voting and elections to families, and expose teens to elections through meaningful opportunities, like assisting community members in registering to vote. Consult resources to do this work effectively while complying with restrictions on political activity.
- Existing relationships with youth matter. Regardless of whether your organization regularly focuses on voter engagement, develop a plan for how you can connect your work to elections. Start these conversations early in an election cycle and engage young people who are already in your networks.
- Explicitly center and focus on reaching youth who are not currently in school and may therefore need other pathways to engagement. It is never too early to start building civic responsibility. Talk in children’s and teen programs about voting and elections as one of the tools people use to improve our communities.
- Social connections and a sense of belonging are foundational to civic engagement. Create or support free spaces by and for teens where young people can connect with issues and with older community members through artistic expression, media creation, and discourse in ways that relatively equalize power relationships.Libraries have been pioneering this work!