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US Youth Use High-Tech Media for Political Communication

  • Paige Kollock

Young Americans are avid users of cell phones, text messaging, the Internet and television. It's how they stay connected with each other, and how they get their information. Increasingly, they are becoming involved in politics through, and because of, these media.

The college class is called, "Television and Politics." For many of these students, that means one program: The Daily Show.

The Daily Show isn't really even a news program. It's a late-night, half-hour comedy show that discusses and makes fun of news and politics.

Even though the show says it has no credibility, or journalistic integrity, Political Science Professor John Sides of George Washington University in Washington uses The Daily Show as a teaching tool.

"I think something is usually better than nothing," he said. "I'd rather have people learn about current events from the Daily Show, or a blog [personal journal on the Internet], than I would have them be ignorant completely of them."

Michelle Price, 23, is a fan of the show's host, Jon Stewart.

"He presents it in a really interesting way, and in a way that makes sense to everyone," she said. "I guess it's just a way that everyone feels like they can be involved. He's really entertaining and engaging, and draws viewers like me in [in a way] that, sometimes, the news doesn't do as well."

A recent poll found that 21 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cited The Daily Show as a place where they regularly get their political news. But students, such as 19-year-old Samantha Warfield, say it is not their primary source of information.

"I don't know if I would say that's where people are getting their news from. But it definitely appeals to a younger demographic and a younger generation," she said. "I think that's sort of what we need to get kids and young people motivated about politics."

And when young people want to learn about politics, 21-year-old Ali Shariat says, they go to a variety of sources.

"Range from CNN, the Economist, New York Times, Daily Show, and now the Colbert Report is entertaining," he said. "Also some web sites like Slate and the Drudge Report"

The Drudge Report is a web site that posts stories, some of which have not been verified. It's not just students and news junkies who read the Drudge Report. Politicians, such as Congressman Patrick McHenry, read it, too.

"I think in my office, every staffer looks at the Drudge Report a couple times a day," he said.

With a working population that spends most of the day in front of computers, technology is taking over as a vehicle of information. Non-partisan organizations like Rock the Vote target youth voters via the Internet.

"Technology is key to what we do. We would not have the success we have had without technology," said Hans Riemer is the Washington director of Rock the Vote. "The biggest and most successful for us is our Internet strategy. We had 1.2 million people come to our Web site to fill out their voter registration forms. We created a software application, where they could fill out their form and then print it up, sign it and mail it in."

Rock the Vote also uses celebrities to get its message across. But Political Science Professor Sides wonders if movie and music stars really influence voters.

"I think it's effective because it puts politics in front of young people's faces," added Professor Sides. "Now, whether a 30-second ad featuring Puff Daddy truly has an impact on people's registration, participation on election day, that's a completely open question."

A question students Michelle Price and Ali Shariat are ready to answer.

"If they're endorsing a candidate, people will talk about it," she said. "I don't know if that will change people's votes, and I sort of hope it doesn't. I mean, it depends on who the celebrity is."

"I get turned off by that a lot," said Ali Shariat. "We actually talked about that in class. It's soft news."

Mr. Riemer of Rock the Vote says celebrities do have an influence. "The celebrity's role is to generate interest in a candidate or issue. Using celebrities is a an important tool. It's a good marketing tool. It's the sizzle, but it's not the steak," he said. "The steak is the issues and the message."

Those messages are being spread by young people in novel ways. Student Karl Bach is the chairman of the George Mason University chapter of a non-partisan group called the New Voters Project. It works to register young people and get them to the polls, by approaching them on campuses around the country, and at home.

"Also instant messaging, we've been IM-ing our friends like, 'Hey, the election's tomorrow. Hey, did you get your absentee ballot sent out?' The peer-to-peer contact, it's non-traditional," he said.

And non-traditional is a positive concept for a generation that has its own definition of what it means to be politically aware.

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