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Exploring the Connections between Media Ecosystems and Youth Voting

A new CIRCLE analysis highlights different profiles of whether media ecosystems in different counties offer adequate support for youth civic engagement and lead to higher voting rates.

A complex, interconnected web of conditions in a community shape young people's civic development, their access to information about politics and elections, and their ability to meaningfully participate in civic life. One major element of those conditions is the media, which includes not just formal news outlets but an ecosystem of institutions, information pathways, technological access, and online/offline behaviors.

Research has often focused on how individual institutions or interactions with media affect youth voting and other aspects of civic engagement. But these dimensions of access and engagement do not function separately: they form an ecosystem that may help or hinder young people's political participation. More recent research has begun to shed light on the ways in which the relationship between media and civic engagement is intricately tied to the availability of other assets in a community such as libraries, nonprofit organizations, and a culture of participation.

A new CIRCLE project examines that relationship by creating profiles of what media ecosystems look like in different communities across the U.S., the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of those profiles, and their connection to youth voter turnout in recent national elections. You can explore this research through a new interactive data visualization and a full report.

This work was generously supported by Knight Foundation and MacArthur Foundation.

Summary: Lessons and Implications

This study and the resulting profiles of media ecosystems highlight key lessons for stakeholders in the media and across different fields and industries that intersect with media—or should do so more fully and strategically to support young people’s civic engagement:

  • An Ecosystems Approach Is Necessary: A single type of institution or civic support (including a high number of media outlets) is not enough to lead to higher youth participation. On average, the communities with highest youth turnout in recent elections are those where multiple dimensions are strong—and may be intersecting.
  • Strong Media Ecosystems are the Exception: Only a small percentage of U.S. counties stand out for having superb media ecosystems, though no profile scores highly on all dimensions. A majority have weak or “average” media ecosystems, but even average media ecosystems are still associated with below-average youth voter turnout.
  • Local Conditions Require Local Action: The media ecosystem in a particular community might be vastly different than that of a neighboring county, and local institutions have a significant impact on the support for youth civic engagement.
  • Compounding Inequities Must be Addressed: The county-level profiles with the weakest media ecosystems are often those with a higher proportion of youth of color, lower household income, and other factors that stem from broader inequality that must be addressed.

We encourage readers to read the full report, explore the website, and study the data in the appendices to fully glean the implications and recommendations that arise from this research. Many of the key takeaways can be connected to and pursued through the recommendations in our CIRCLE Growing Voters framework for creating diverse pathways of access and support for more equitable youth participation in democracy.

CIRCLE Growing Voters

Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.