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Research on News Media and Implications for Youth Engagement

Two evaluations conducted by CIRCLE experts shed light on the potential of various media to inform and engage people in productive discussion and action about political issues.

Recent research by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, the home of CIRCLE, has tried to understand whether and how the news media can impact broad democratic practices. This work includes experiments conducted by CIRCLE researchers in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and with Bloggingheads TV that have implications for ways that the news media and others can play a role in strengthening democracy.

Bloggingheads TV’s The Good Fight is a series of moderated debates in which “people who disagree about an important policy issue explore their differences and try to find common ground” (Bloggingheads TV, 2014).  Tisch College conducted a survey experiment using Bloggingheads’ content with a sample of adults residing in the U.S. who self-identified as liberal or conservative to understand whether viewing concessions reduced polarization in respondents and increased subjects’ awareness of alternative viewpoints. We found that those who viewed a concession decreased their polarization, increased openness and understanding of alternative viewpoints, and deepened interest in the issue being discussed.

In another study, our collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity, we found promise in high-quality investigative journalism to promote discussion, though there was little evidence that it promotes action.  Some respondents were directly exposed to reporting on the role of corporate money in politics, while others read an article on a different topic. Those in the experimental group (i.e., they read the CPI article) were more informed, more alarmed and angry, more likely to plan to talk about the issue with co-workers and friends, and more likely to say that they wanted to do “something” about the abuses of the campaign finance system.  However, these readers did not differ from control group readers in their intent to prioritize money in politics as an issue they would like to see addressed in political campaigns.

Implications for Increasing Youth Engagement

We believe these studies have implications for those working to educate youth about democracy, and for how news media can influence a new generation. Findings from The Good Fight suggest that communication skills can be integral to effectively working with those who have different perspectives. Common Core State Standards in ELA detail a number of communication-related benchmarks and competencies conducive to stronger civic learning and engagement, such as critical evaluation of evidence, taking multiple perspectives, and active listening. As we teach young people to communicate effectively, we should look to model productive forms of agreement that seek to build closer connections between discussants.  Finding points of agreement or conceding to an opponent’s point may be one step in this direction.

Our collaboration with CPI underscores the importance of one of the promising practices outlined in the Civic Mission of Schools (Carnegie Corporation & CIRCLE, 2002): discussing current events. The CPI research showed that it is possible to encourage people (and presumably youth) to understand and talk about a complex issue with others when exposed to high-quality news.

However, exposure is not enough. Understanding the complexity and pervasiveness of campaign financing in our political system can result in a sense of powerlessness if readers are left without a follow-up conversation. Civic education can play a key role in exposing young people to complex issues via news coverage, and supporting them by creating a space for open discussion and deep reflection, so that young people can identify possible solutions and take action.

Our research suggests that news media can help model positive political discourse and that hiqh-quality journalism could be integral to more effective civic education. We need to know more about how news coverage and the resulting discussions can lead to informed and active citizenship by connecting research to practice, and then further studying innovative approaches.