Close Menu

The Impact of Local News on Youth Political Engagement

During election cycles, local media can play a crucial role informing young people and advancing their development as participants in democracy.

Many in the media are talking about young people’s engagement in the upcoming midterm elections, with most of the attention focused on whether or not youth will show up to vote. That’s not an unimportant story—one informed by CIRCLE research—but it’s not one that necessarily advances the more fundamental goals of broader and deeper youth political learning and engagement. In this post we present another way of thinking about youth and election-focused media coverage in order to highlight examples, and start a conversation, about ways to better pursue that goal..

Youth civic engagement suffers from myriad systemic inequities in opportunities and outcomes in a variety of settings and experiences. These disparities warrant an equally systematic approach to research and analysis on youth participation, but few have used this framework to think about the influence of local news on youth civic development and engagement. Local media outlets are an important part of the information ecosystem where, but research has shown that access to local news is dramatically unequal. Extraordinary youth media programs exist in several cities, but they alone cannot fully fill all gaps. With an eye toward the upcoming midterm elections, it’s critical to ask whether local media is supporting youth engagement, and how it can do better.

CIRCLE’s 2018 national pre-election poll of 18 to 24-year-olds begins to answer that question. Our data show that almost a third of respondents (31%) have found local news helpful in preparing to vote in the 2018 midterms. That may come as a surprise to some who think young people pay no attention to local news. At the same time, our poll finds that local media can do much better in reaching segments of young people who would, theoretically, get the most out of its coverage. Only 33% of  youth who are new to voting, and could therefore benefit from local information about how, when and where to vote, say they found local news helpful. Slightly more, but still just over half (55%) of young people who are paying a lot of attention to Congressional campaigns say they found local news helpful, despite the fact that local outlets are likely offering the most coverage of House, Senate, and statewide races. Since local issues are often an on-ramp to engagement in many settings, these data points highlight a series of challenges—and opportunities—to explore models for how local media can think about younger audiences, including by partnering with local youth organizations.

Local News + Elections = Concrete Opportunity to Support New Voters?

A midterm election year, when campaigns are at the state level and below, is the perfect time for local news to redouble their efforts to reach all potential voters, and to attempt to balance out our conversations about politics that are too often focused excessively on national candidates and controversies. Elections are also a unique opportunity for local media outlets to help new and potential voters prepare to cast a ballot—both to learn the process of registering and voting, and to understand candidates, ballot measures, and the potential implications of election results. In these and other ways, the media can concretely facilitate participation in our democracy.

In the 2016 election cycle, we kept an eye out for examples of local outlets doing any youth-focused work related to elections. Some local media engaged by providing information in support of a mock election, helping voters navigate the caucus process, and bringing younger voices to the state’s early primary contest. (More recently, we have learned about this project to make a voter guide more interactive, participatory, and social). While there are surely additional instances, it’s clear that more of this work is sorely needed. Part of 22×20 aims to address this problem, as well as the dearth of young voices usually in local media during election cycles.

To better inform and support this work, CIRCLE’s 2018 pre-election poll asked about local news and found that 31% of youth aged 18-24 report that local news media have helped them prepare to vote in the 2018 midterm elections.

Which Youth Benefit Most from Local News at Election Time?

A more in-depth analysis offers additional insights into who is—and isn’t—finding local media useful in preparing to vote. As we might expect, local news does appear to help those already engaged more than others, but not in dramatic numbers. Our CIRCLE survey finds that 34% of youth say they are “extremely likely” to vote. Among this group of likely voters,40% say that local news has helped them prepare, but 40% say that it has not.. Those who say they are paying a lot of attention to Congressional elections are the most likely to say local news has helped them, but even among this group just over half (55%) say so. Since we often see a relationship in both directions between news attention and political engagement, it’s not a surprise to see that more youth who have participated in “offline” political activism (like attending a march, strike, or sit-in) are more likely than youth overall (42%) to say local news has helped them prepare to vote in 2018.

Is local news helping new voters? Not so much. Only 33% of youth who were not eligible to vote in 2016, but are in 2018, find that local news has been helpful to prepare them to vote in these midterm elections.

Our initial analysis of CIRCLE’s pre-election poll explored how young people are hearing about the election from many sources, and we find a correlation between the ways some youth are learning about the election and whether they’ve found local media helpful. In particular, young people who have heard about the election from neighbors and from print news media are the most likely to agree that the local news has helped prepare them to vote this year. In the case of print media, this may not be that surprising, since it suggests that the local paper is an important source of information for these youth. In the case of hearing about the election from neighbors, its relation to finding local news helpful raises many questions, chief among them whether this is an example of how talking about and discussing information facilitates information turning into action, as research suggests. Access is also important: youth in non-metro areas are less likely to report finding local news helpful, likely because there is less local media where they live.

Local Issues Are an On-Ramp to Engagement, But How Do Local Media Fit In?

In a variety of settings, locally relevant issues have been a critical part of successful youth civic engagement practices. We see this in community-based youth organizing, action civics within k-12 schools, and high quality service-learning, each of which also focus on youth developing their political voice by choosing and working on issues they care about. There appear to be opportunities for local news to strengthen its connection to this on-ramp to political engagement, thereby not only contributing to a culture of youth participation, but also improving the diversity and representation of youth voices in local media.

We believe this can also benefit local media in a moment when the industry is looking for new energy and new models. It could help increase trust between outlets and communities they work with, which along with increased civic engagement, would contribute to audience development. Connections between local media, youth and youth organizations will require, and inspire, more creative (e.g. the examples above were not about content creation only) and more engaged journalism. This holds the possibility of ultimately resulting in more effective and impactful journalism that more fully represents a community and helps it to thrive.

Within the context of electoral engagement, this is the work that 22×20 strives to advance through local partnerships, discrete projects, and the work of our 22×20 fellows. We believe that, with concerted efforts and collaboration across fields, the percentage of youth who find local media helpful to voting can be significantly higher in 2020 and beyond. Stay tuned for more analysis of data about youth and local news, and examples of how local media are serving and supporting young people’s political voice.

About our 2018 Pre-Election Poll

The survey of young people, ages 18-24, was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University. The polling firm GfK, which collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents between September 5 and September 26, 2018. The study surveyed a total of 2,087 people aged 18 to 24 in the United States, with representative over-samples of Black and Latino youth, and of 18- to 21-year-olds. The margin of error is +/- 2.1 percentage points. Unless mentioned otherwise, data above are for all the 18 to 24-year-olds in our sample.