AJR  Features :     FIRST PERSON    
From AJR,   April 2002

Generation Ignored   

Medill’s Washington program learned that the media can reach young readers, if only they’d try.

By Ellen Shearer
Shearer is assistant dean of Medill's Washington program and codirector of the Medill News Service, operated by Northwestern University's journalism school. Graduate students at the news service cover Washington for more than 40 newspapers, Web sites, TV and radio stations nationwide.     

The Concord Monitor reported shortly after September 11 that some young adults felt guilty that they had not voted in a presidential election. The terrorist attacks, they said, had made them more politically aware. They told the Monitor reporter that the tragedy could be, as the story noted, "the catalyst for their generation's increased political activity and interest in public affairs."

In November, the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press released a survey showing that 18- to 25-year-olds were more interested in news and had more positive views of government than they did before September 11.

But the Monitor article quoted experts as being skeptical of how lasting the interest in public policy would be. And the Pew Research Center found young people were not as interested in the full range of terrorism-related news, although they still expressed strong interest in the main story.

Attracting--and keeping--Generation Y's interest is a serious problem facing the media as they watch circulation and viewership slide. If young people don't follow the news now, why should we think they'll follow it when they're older? To create a long-term appetite for news, particularly political news, we in the media must work hard to woo this age group, so vital to our future.

How can we do that? Concord Monitor reporter Jennifer Skalka, who wrote the story quoted above, could offer some advice. She was one of dozens of Medill reporters, all graduate journalism students at Northwestern University, who spent the 2000 political season covering the campaigns by following the issues of interest to young adults. "Young people are more issues-savvy than they're given credit for," Skalka says. "They want to hear from candidates on their issues."

We at Medill learned that we have to listen to young people to accurately incorporate their lives and interests into political coverage in a meaningful way. We also learned that it can be done.

The young readers of our stories, particularly those in the two groups of college students we brought together, told us they feel ignored in most political coverage. They want to be seen and heard in stories--meaning more interviews with people their age.

We found that there are plenty of young people active in politics and expert on a number of issues. Using those sources and talking to other young people will help articles on higher education, for example, to be more inclusive--and not be written only from parents' and educators' points of view.

Post-secondary education, violence in schools, the quality of high-school education, the environment, poverty and gun control are only a few of the issues that young people will read about--that is, if the stories are written to include what those topics mean to them specifically.

Because members of Generation Y, born between 1977 and 1995, believe the news media portray them in stereotypical ways--if they're covered at all--younger readers were especially attracted to Medill's stories about young political activists or volunteers in community organizations. "I liked it because it showed that people our age really do care about politics," said a focus group reader about an article on college students who worked at the vice presidential debate.

In the post-September 11 world, there are plenty of opportunities for the news media to include young people in coverage--about the military, volunteer efforts across the country, the economic downturn. But how often have our stories been told through the voices of people under 25? Or even 30?

The policy changes being debated have a clear impact on the young--calls for more community service from college students, debate about renewing the draft for homeland security staffing, immigration reform, to name a few – but that impact is rarely mentioned in the media, which tend to focus more on the effects of policy on baby boomers and their elders.

We can also seize on young people's desire for what they call "straight talk": "I like shorter articles that get straight to the point," said one reader group participant. That idea of very concise, straight news--less analysis--was echoed by many others, including those in a separate focus group Medill conducted in spring 2001 of young nonvoters.

In our coverage, we found that boxes and graphics attracted young readers. At the end of a number of the Medill stories we'd wrap up the candidates' views in a series of bullet points--a device that won praise.

We also should regularly provide definitions of political terms and, in the war on terrorism, military and other unfamiliar terms. Young people say they turn away from public policy and political news because they don't understand the language or the rules of the game--and they aren't the only ones.

Certainly not everything we write should be short and simple: Longer stories with intensity and emotion, first-person narratives, complex issue stories with authoritative young sources were also among the stories popular with our reader groups. One of the Medill stories that was universally applauded was a first-person look at life on the Al Gore plane by a first-time campaign reporter, Amy Hoak. "It provided an in-depth look at the life of a reporter, especially a young reporter," said one reader group member. "It kept me interested and almost made me want to become a campaign reporter."

While our goal is to get young people to read political news, not necessarily to write it, that college student shows us that we can connect with these readers. But only if we treat Generation Y as important and cover young people and their interests just as thoroughly as we cover other segments of our readership.