Local News Helped Young People Get Ready to Vote in 2020
Local news media holds immense potential as a stakeholder in youth civic and political engagement. Not only do they cover local and statewide candidates, elections, and ballot measures that national media organizations rarely cover, but local news outlets are also uniquely positioned to provide voters of all ages with important information about voting laws, processes, deadlines, and locations specific to their communities. This sort of information can be especially critical for young people who are newly eligible voters and move more often than older adults. Given the changes to state and local election administration in the 2020 election due to COVID-19, local news had an especially important role in spreading information about how voters could cast their ballots. And, as the 2022 midterms approach and focus turns to state and district-level races, local media may once again be a critical source for young people preparing to vote.
To better understand the role local media played in electoral engagement in 2020, and what that might mean for the next election cycle, we examine data from the CIRCLE post-election survey of young people (ages 18-29). We find:
- An overwhelming majority of youth (90%) reported reading or watching local news to some extent in the week before taking the survey, with more than a third (35%) saying they engaged with local news often or fairly often.
- Half of youth said they felt more prepared to vote in the 2020 elections because of local news media.
- Despite consuming as much or less local news than their slightly older peers, the youngest eligible voters (ages 18-19) found local news especially helpful, with 62% reporting that it helped them prepare for the 2020 elections.
About the Poll: The CIRCLE/Tisch College Post-Election Poll was a web survey fielded from November 3 to December 2, 2020 By Gallup, Inc. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who were eligible to vote in the United Stated in the 2020 General Election. Sample was drawn from the Gallup Panel, a probability-based panel that is representative of the U.S. adult population, and from the Dynata Panel, a non-probability panel. A total of 2,645 eligible adults completed the survey. Of the total completes, 1,138 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,507 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, for the sake of this analysis, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years old. The margin of sampling error, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is ± 3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-7.6 to 9.4 percentage points.
Background: Youth and Local Media
Scholars and pundits alike have often pointed to young people’s comparatively lower rates of engagement with traditional news, including local news, as evidence of their apathy (Buckingham, 2000; Drok et al., 2017). Some have suggested that news consumption is something that young people “grow into” as they get older (Lewis, 2008). However, research tells us the barriers to news attention are much more nuanced and varied than mere disinterest and involve both the format and content of news products. As technology has evolved, traditional media hasn’t been presented in a way that is relatable to young people who have grown up in a different media atmosphere (Drok et al., 2017; Costera Meijer, 2007).
Moreover, stories about young people are disproportionately missing from traditional news (Gilliam & Nall Bales, 2001) and often exclude young people as sources, instead framing stories about young people around an adult figure (Kaziaj, 2016). The stories that are published about youth are often stereotyped in negative ways, presenting young people as dangerous, morally corrupt, and violent (Bernier, 2011; Banaji & Cammaerts, 2014). This is exacerbated by a tendency in news reporting to exclude social context from stories involving youth, which results in culpatory coverage that fails to consider greater socioeconomic systems like poverty, racism, and lack of investment in education (Dorfman & Woodruff, 1998). Instead, young people, along with some adult consumers, have identified a need for more reciprocal, participatory, and citizen-focused journalism that recenters the audience (Gutsche et al., 2015; Hermans et al., 2014). This means not only shifting to publication practices that meet young people where they are, but also focusing on issues important to young people and incorporating youth perspectives into reporting. (You can read more about the scholarship on youth and media here.)
Findings: Local Media Especially Critical for Youngest Eligible Voters and Youth of Color
Our survey, conducted in the weeks after the 2020 election, highlights some of the ways that local news fulfilled its critical civic role in 2020, as well as some opportunities for improvement.
Contrary to some popular narratives about youth disinterest or disengagement, most young people are exposed to local news media: 90% of young people reported reading or watching local news in the week before responding to the question. More than a third (35%) said they read or watched local news often or fairly often during that period. Almost half of young people said they felt more prepared to vote in the 2020 elections because of local news media. In particular, young people most often cited local TV as a helpful source of information (34%), followed by the social media account of a local reporter (20%) and local newspapers (15%). This counters narratives that youth aren’t an audience for local news, while also highlighting the positive role that local news could play in supporting youth voting and civic engagement if they actively seek to engage more young people.
There were differences in the way that the youngest eligible voters (18-19) engaged with local media in contrast to their older peers. In an earlier analysis, we found that, compared to youth ages 18-19, young people ages 20-29 were more likely to get information about the 2020 election from traditional media sources such as news websites, cable TV, network and public TV, and print news. Even though that slightly older group was 7 percentage points more likely to have consumed local news often or fairly often in the week before being surveyed—a difference within the margin of error—62% of the younger (ages 18-19) group reported that local news helped make them feel more prepared to vote in 2020, compared to 47% of the older group.
Because these youngest, newly eligible voters naturally have less experience with voting laws and procedures, this 15-point difference highlights how much these younger voters relied on local media to feel more prepared to vote in 2020. At the same time, local news media still appears to be reaching fewer 18- and 19-year-olds than older young adults, which suggests there is still a need and an opportunity for local media to explicitly support Growing Voters by actively seeking to engage and inform not just the newest eligible voters, but also youth who aren’t yet old enough to vote.
In addition to differences between young people based on their age, we also found differences in how young people of different racial and ethnic groups engage with local media. Asian (43%) and Latino (45%) youth in our survey were more likely to report engagement with local news often or fairly often in the week before being surveyed, compared to white and Black youth (32% and 31%, respectively). In addition to their higher rate of engagement with local news, Asian and Latino youth were more likely than their peers of other races/ethnicities to find local reporters’ social media accounts helpful in preparing them to vote. This suggests that the intersection of “traditional” local news and social media could be an effective avenue for reaching youth, especially given young people’s frequent use of social media as a source of political information.
Although their consumption habits differed, many young people across different racial and ethnic groups agreed that local media was a useful source in supporting their participation in the 2020 election. In particular, youth of color were more likely to find local news helpful than white youth, and 60% of Black youth agreed or strongly agreed that local news helped prepare them to vote. Black youth found local news to be a helpful resource for learning about voting even though they consumed it less frequently than Asian and Latino youth, which highlights the opportunity for local news media outlets to optimize their impact by expanding their audiences. By intentionally bringing in teens and youth of color who report gaining the most from local news, these outlets can help strengthen youth voting and diversify the electorate.
One way local news outlets can work to expand and diversify both their audience and the electorate is by actively seeking out engagement from young people. As part of our Rep Us project, we have outlined steps that journalists and media outlets can take to bring more young people into their journalistic practices, both as audience members and as contributors. These include using social media to meet young people where they are, creating an ongoing series or column to publish youth voices, considering and covering the diversity within young communities and not treating youth as a monolith, and seeking diverse youth voices while researching and producing stories.
At the same time, young people can look to increase their engagement with local news or to push their local outlets toward amplifying young voices and the issues that are important to them. Youth should consider writing and submitting letters to the editor or op-eds, following local news outlets on social media, or tweeting responses to the work of local news outlets in order to share their perspective.
You can read more about how to get involved in uplifting youth voices in local media as a young person, educator, journalist, or as any adult ally of young people, by visiting our Rep Us page.
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Author: Ruby Belle Booth