More Engaged but Still Uninformed? 2004 Presidential Election Coverage in Consumer Magazines Popular with Young Adults

Article excerpt

Given the upturn in young-voter turnout in 2004, this study updates an analysis of the 2000 election to determine if coverage in youth-oriented magazines remained superficial, strategic, and cynical. Quantity of coverage increased 69% over 2000 (coverage in Rolling Stone increased 300%) despite a decrease in women's magazines' coverage. There was no difference in the largely strategic, cynical, and biased coverage between the two elections. Despite a "wartime" election, the magazines rarely published stories focusing on the Iraq war. The study suggests that resurgent interest in politics among young people was not mirrored in popular magazines they read regularly.

Since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972, young voters' participation in presidential elections has experienced an almost uninterrupted decline. Reasons cited range from voter discontent and cynicism to lifestyle conflicts. Despite these reasons, participation by young adults in the 2004 election increased dramatically - over 45%; - from the 2000 election.

To shed light on the recent increase in young voter turnout, the present study investigated political campaign coverage in an often neglected, yet influential, source of political information for young adults. Specifically, the present study examined 2004 campaign coverage in mainstream consumer magazines with sizable young-adult readership, comparing it to findings from a study of the same magazines during the 2000 presidential election.1 The previous analysis found a low level of political information in the selected magazines, and the political information that was published was largely strategy-oriented, superficial, and written in a cynical tone. A comparable analysis of magazine content during the 2004 election should reveal if the amount, nature, and tone of coverage preceded the increase in young-adult voter turnout.

Literature Review and Rationale

Young-Adult Voters. The minimum voting age was lowered amid an era of young-adult political activism over issues such as Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Almost 50% of young adults (those 18-24 years old) voted in the 1972 election, but the percentage declined steadily - except for an increase in 1992 - to 32.3% in the 2000 election, with an all-time low of 16.6% during the 1998 midterm election.2 During the same time period, the total voting percentage for the country had also decreased from 72.3% in 1972 to 54.7% in 2000 but still remained significantly higher than for young adults.3 However, in 2004 young adult voting increased dramatically to 46.7% (the total percentage for the country was 63.8% ).4

Studies examining young-adult voting behavior attribute low turnout to a variety of reasons, including lack of interest, lack of political information, cynicism, and lifestyle conflicts such as school and work. MacManus, for example, claimed that younger voters tend to vote later in the day, and thus are often unable to arrive at the polls before they close.5 Doppelt and Shearer concluded that American society had evolved to where voting was considered neither a habit, duty, nor ritual.6 Kohut asserted that young adults might simply consider the presidency less important than do older Americans.7 A survey conducted before the 2000 election showed that, compared to older voters, young adults distrust government, believe media are not doing a good job covering issues important to them, and feel little need to become involved with government.8 A recent British report concluded that young adults are "highly articulate" about issues that affect them but think no one in government is listening to them.9 Speckman concluded in a study of the 2004 election that both television and online news sources cover youth issues poorly.10

Patterson wrote in The Vanishing Voter in 2002 that young adults, who came of age in an era of "attack journalism," are less likely to vote because of their mistrust of politicians." In a follow-up study of the 2004 election, Patterson attributed the sharp increase in young-adult voting to the Iraq war. …