Newsrooms’ surprise at high youth voter turnout illustrates disconnect

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As the 2020 election comes to a close, newsrooms and media outlets have begun to analyze the accuracy of voter turnout and pre-election polling. One demographic that was overplayed in the media was the “middle-aged white women:” Many stations, such as NPR, overestimated the role this demographic would play in shaping the outcome of the election to favor now-President-elect Joe Biden. But CNN exit polls show that white women’s support for sitting President Donald Trump increased from 2016 to 2020. On the other hand, one demographic — out of the many — that was overlooked and overwhelmingly crucial was the young adult vote. 

Similar to the unexpected surges of Black, brown and women of color voters, news stations failed to realize how crucial this demographic was going to be in the election until the votes started getting tallied (just look at Georgia’s mobilization thanks to Black activists). This unexpected turnout should be a point of reflection for news stations; in the future, they should not underestimate marginalized voter turnouts. More specifically, when it comes to young adult voters, newsrooms continually reported on the record-breaking turnout in shock — however, this high turnout is something many young people have expected since 2016. 

Many of the young voters today were too young to vote in 2016 yet had to live with the repercussions of a Trump presidency. During these past four years, young people became more involved in politics and grassroots organizing, but this political involvement was not reflected in the 2020 primaries. Low young voter turnout in January caused many journalists to question the reliability of young voters. This doubt only heightened after Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race because many young Bernie supporters did not seem to support Joe Biden enough to vote in November. This may have been a factor in why, this time around, newsrooms did not expect high young adult turnout. 

While young organizers such as David Hogg, founder of March For Our Lives, were predicting that the 2020 election would be shaped by young voters, this type of optimism was ignored by news stations. Activist networks made efforts to register young people and held events to encourage civic engagement and voting efforts while, as mentioned earlier, newspapers were hyper-focused on “white middle-aged women.”

Now, exit polls show that not only did young adult voter turnout increase, but it also surged and greatly defined the election. The number of young eligible voters who turned out to vote in this election was at around 50% compared to the 43%  of eligible young voters who turned out in 2016. Young people of color also voted in increased numbers, in support of Biden. 

The fact that newsrooms overlooked these groups speaks to a bigger problem of lack of young perspective in journalistic spaces. Similar to the need for a diverse staff in regards to race, gender and sexuality to ensure accurate reporting on and for these communities, a lack of young perspectives has negatively impacted newsrooms’ reporting on young people. 

Newsrooms report on young activists, young people voting and young people organizing, yet the journalists writing these stories are missing the perspective that comes with being a young person. Although a youth perspective may not be as crucial as people of color in the newsroom, a focus on this angle may have altered the narrative surrounding youth voter turnout in the 2020 election to be more accurate and informative. In the future, newsrooms need to be more cognizant of how neglecting the perspective of young people can cause them to miss youth’s stories until it is too late.