Journalists, Youth, and the 2024 Election
Author: Madeline McGee, Equitable Democracy Fellow
News media hold a unique role in the American civic ecosystem: when it’s living up to its avowed goals, it gives people the information they need to make decisions, provides them with an avenue for discussion about public issues, and connects them to the varied perspectives and experiences that make a diverse democracy thrive.
This role perfectly situates journalists to prepare young people with the information they need to become active and engaged voters, but there is a discrepancy in young people’s need for essential civic information and the quality and amount of information they’re receiving.
As the media engages in coverage of political issues and of the election cycle ahead of 2024, CIRCLE's research and engagement with journalists and other stakeholders within media ecosystems provides insights and lessons to inform journalistic efforts that can serve that vital civic purpose.
Filling an Information Gap
Rachel Janfaza, a journalist who has a youth-focused political newsletter and formerly covered youth and politics at CNN, said in a panel discussion organized by CIRCLE that she’s noticed a stark, intergenerational difference in the conversations she has with Americans about elections. While older adults will enthusiastically confirm they’re planning to vote, younger adults often answer with confusion.
Speaking about the 2022 midterms, Janfaza said: “They don’t know that there’s an election, or they say, ‘I want to register to vote, I want to vote, but I don’t know how.’”
If young people are uninformed, that's not a failure on their part, but of the institutions responsible for preparing them to participate in democracy, as we found in our CIRCLE Growing Voters report. Information about elections, issues, and candidates can be confusing, fragmented, and difficult to locate, and it often doesn’t consider the specific needs and experiences of young people. This lack of essential information can be a substantial barrier for young people in accessing the ballot box. In 2020, for example, more than one in five young people aged 18-21 said they hadn’t registered to vote because they didn’t know how.
News media have a key opportunity here to support young and future voters. Every two years, more than 8 million youth become newly eligible to vote; about half are youth of color. The diversity of this new cohort of potential voters could have a profound influence on the shape of the American electorate, but young people can't meaningfully engage with that democracy unless they're supported with the information they need to do so.
“Journalism is the one industry in America that is singled out in our constitution as vital to the future of the Republic,” said Roxanne Patel Shepelavy, executive editor of The Philadelphia Citizen.
Young people are ready and willing to engage. Contrary to some stereotypes, more than half of the teenagers we surveyed in 2020 said they read or watch local news often or fairly often, and 75% of teens said they had gotten information about the 2020 election from a legacy news source. Local news also proved especially critical for the youngest voters (age 18-19), 62% of whom said that local news helped them feel more prepared to vote in the 2020 election.
But media outlets can do more than inform: they can transform their relationship with young audiences, grow voters, and help forge a more equitable electorate that will strengthen democracy. However, doing that will require a shift in how journalists think about young people as an audience.
Rethinking Election Coverage
Janfaza, who publishes The Up and Up newsletter, said she tries to provide helpful information to young people in several different ways — she considers how legislation and actions in Congress may uniquely affect young people, as well as how young people are responding to political events in their own communities. She has also created “explainer” videos breaking down complex topics for audience members who may not have the context they need to fully understand ongoing stories.
But what’s especially key in supporting young voters, she said, is providing them not just with information about political developments and candidates, but practical, baseline information about how they can participate: information like how to register to vote, how to use a mail-in ballot, and how to find their polling location.
“You have to pair the media coverage with, also, the resources so that young people actually know how to vote,” Janfaza said. “It’s one thing to cover the ins and outs of the actual election, but another for that to actually reach the 18-year-old, first time voter who may really want to participate but doesn’t know how to start.”
The Philadelphia Citizen, a nonprofit news outlet that emphasizes solutions reporting and citizen engagement, does this very well. By providing readers with the information they need to become involved in their community, the organization hopes to “reignite” citizenship in Philadelphia. According to executive editor Roxanne Patel Shepelavy, that begins with explaining the impact civic activities like voting have on the community.
“Young people, like anybody who doesn’t really engage, often don’t do it because they don’t think that it matters,” Patel Shepelavy said. “Part of what we need to do is be explaining why it matters.”
When you vote, she said, your voice is heard in government, and that’s one way to create change — but young people may not understand what’s at stake or recognize the power they have in directly affecting the policy that shapes their daily lives.
Another way journalists can help young people understand political issues is by being aware of the kinds of narratives present in their political coverage. Election reporting often focuses on the personal narratives of winning and losing that surround the individual candidates, rather than the big-picture policy implications for the issues young people deeply care about. Patel Shepelavy said she instead prefers to use elections as an inroad to explore about broader issues.
“We try to fill in some of the gaps, and so it doesn’t become about the 'horse race,' which is what you get a lot of, but it becomes about trying to use the election as a way of talking about issues in the city,” Patel Shepelavy said.
Ultimately, to engage with young people and produce information that supports them in reaching the ballot box, journalists need to talk with them. After all, young people are experts in their own lived experiences, and their voices should be present in stories that affect them.
Irene Franco Rubio, an activist and student at the University of Southern California, encouraged journalists to build long-term relationships with young people in the spaces where they’re already engaging with issues that they care about. In civic groups and community organizations, she said, many young people have already begun discovering the power of their own voices and a sense of confidence in their ability to contribute to public discussions.
“Journalists can start to go into these spaces, whether it’s a protest or an organization that’s organizing year-round — not only right now when the midterms are happening — and get young people’s insights and quotes and perspectives as sources, but also just building that relationship,” Franco Rubio said.
As CIRCLE has learned, local civic organizations can play a powerful role in connecting young people’s news attention to action by offering the space and opportunity for them to engage in discussions about the news they are seeing. Journalists can tap into this connection by striving to better understand where young people are plugged in, and by, as Franco Rubio put it, “building that trust early on and investing in young people at a time when it doesn’t seem like we have a lot of insight.”
An extension of that relationship, as many speakers noted, is allowing young people to speak for themselves by inviting them to write op-eds or contribute to reporting. Directly partnering with young people as co-creators of news is one powerful way to create journalism that is authentic, representative, and meaningful to a diversity of youth.
The process of building that relationship, though, takes an enormous amount of intention, said Amanda Vigil, youth media manager for KQED in Northern California. Vigil noted that teenagers experience a unique kind of oppression in American society because of their age — adults don’t often ask them for their opinions or treat them as though their perspectives are valid. Journalists can play a part in helping young people discover the value of their own opinions, but it’s important for them to structure their relationships with youth in a reciprocal way that prioritizes listening first.
“A young person is not just a source,” Vigil said. “We can’t behave in an extractive way. Forgetting what we think we want from them, there is so much we can learn from them, and we don’t want to miss that opportunity by not allowing the space and time it takes to build trust.”
Vigil, who oversees a number of programs at KQED that invite youth to create media about social and political issues, noted that this is especially true for youth from marginalized backgrounds, who may not have the same confidence or comfort in sharing their opinions as their more privileged peers.
“It’s being able to have a culturally responsive way of engaging that begins with listening, that begins with really hearing about people’s experiences,” Vigil said. “And that means hearing their doubt, that means hearing their anger, that means understanding their confusion. We do have to make space for the whole person when we’re talking about voting because we’re talking about much more than just, ‘do you have this information.’”
Building trust can also mean creating opportunities for young people to directly discuss political and social issues with those they know best: their peers. The Philadelphia Citizen, for example, works with an organization in Pennsylvania that recruits young people to discuss voting with other young people, Patel Shepelavy noted. This could also mean uplifting and amplifying the work of young creators who are already producing helpful information online.
“Our role as journalists can be to elevate that work, to make sure they’re hearing from sources that they trust about these issues,” Patel Shepelavy said.
There are many ways journalists can support youth in receiving, understanding, and even creating essential election information, but what newsrooms shouldn’t do is assume that the information young people need to cast a ballot will somehow find its way into their hands. Voting, like any form of civic engagement, is a learned habit — it is cultivated through support from communities and institutions.
If news is to live up to its full civic promise, it must expand access to essential information for those young people who are most alienated from it, support youth as they make sense of public issues, and create a news culture that prioritizes democratic participation.
“Try things, try it out, learn from a process that you start yourself, learn from a process that you’ve modeled off somebody else,” Vigil said. “I think that’s how we can all affect change and inspire one another to hope, to live, and to thrive, and to help heal what can sometimes feel like a broken system.”