YOUTH: Training Creates Media Wise Voters


This article originally appeared in Issue# 44

After eight years in office, Ronald Reagan is the only president preteens can remember. And even older teenagers have shaped their idea of the presidency around his telegenic image and relaxed media style.

Thus the post-Reagan era that will begin after the fall elections presents a particular challenge to youth. For most, it will be the first opportunity they've had to define this national office in a new way. And as prospective voters, with the crucial 18-year-old eligibility date around the corner, their ability to distinguish between image and substance and make intelligent decisions based on media portrayals is particularly important.

Youthful perspectives on leadership go beyond the ballot box, however. Their views of community, church and school leadership - even the leadership qualities they see in themselves — all are affected.

That's why young people need help in untangling political fact from media fiction. More influenced by image than any other age group, youthful TV viewers have less experience with politics. Evaluating political ads, debates and speeches is a skill they have yet to acquire, but it can be learned.

It's helpful to begin a discussion of image vs. substance with the images themselves. Replay of a variety of video-recorded political images can start the discussion.

The tape used should be balanced, with statements and messages for and against competing candidates. Invite your group to view it as an impartial jury interested in a true picture of the political process.

After viewing, ask your group to describe positive and negative images about each candidate. Include often-repeated slogans and ads and explore their meanings. What audiences or interests are these messages attempting to reach?

On a second sheet ask participants to note documentation or other supporting data for facts and statements made in ads or speeches. Group members can complete their pictures by marking the images that include no documentation. Use a third sheet to list national issues that all candidates failed to address.

Comparing images, facts and unaddressed issues can lead to a more illuminating discussion than any featured in the campaign. Of course, this view of the political/media connections is only the beginning of learning about politics. But such a discussion and other programs like it can be a crucial step in helping young people match candidates with the ideals they want to affirm.

Author Bio: 

Bill Wolfe, longtime director of senior-high educational ministries for the United Methodist Church, is now a producer for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, TN.