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News Outlets Increasingly Look Toward Young Voters

This story was written by Alison Harman, Technician

You can feel it in the air.

Or rather, you can see it on the air.

Broadcast, print and radio journalists are doggedly following Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain. They're reporting the presumptive candidates' actions, their changes in platforms, their habits and how they met their wives.

It's election season.

But this year is different, according to Michael Cobb, a political science professor at North Carolina State.

News outlets, especially broadcast media stations like CNN, Fox News and NBC, have begun to zero in on young and first-time voters. CNN has a "League of First Time Voters," which, according to the Web site, is a "resource to learn about elections basics" and a "community where you can express yourself and meet other League members." Unregistered citizens can also register to vote, learn information about the candidates and compare their stances on issues like the economic stimulus, energy, housing and immigration.

Fox News aired a special program last month entitled "The Y Factor," in which Heather Nauert, a Fox News reporter, described in detail the Y Generation. In an interview with Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, they described this November's election as one in which a majority of young voters will take an interest in politics.

This comes at a time when only about a third of those in the younger-than-25 age demographic watch cable news, according to a study performed by the Pew Research Center. In the same demographic, another third get no news on a typical day.

So these media outlets are reaching out to Generation Y, which, the study said, gets most of its information from the Web.

Attempting to gain younger viewers helps not only with advertising profits for the broadcasting companies, but also follows suit with how the presumptive presidential candidates, especially Obama, are reaching out to younger voters.

Cobb said that although in "every election cycle there seems to be an attempt to find a certain kind of voter, whether it's soccer moms or baseball dads," this is one of the first instances in which the candidates have tried to mobilize voters.

What usually happens, he said, is that candidates will instead try to convert voters so that they will cast their ballots in their favor. In these types of campaigns, candidates will turn to smear tactics like mudslinging to convert voters from one party to the other -- at least for the election.

"To do that, you've got to run a lot of ads and find reasons that they would change sides," Cobb said.

Candidates typically spend less time trying to gain the support of young voters because they will get "less bang for the buck."

"What's different is that, in the past and still will be the case in the future, the lowest turnout is among young first-time voters," Cobb said. "They're less likely to register and less likely to vote if registered."

This leads to a vicious cycle, Cobb said, in which candidates ignore young voters because the time they spend campaigning for the youth vote will not produce as big of an effect.

On the other hand, he said, young voters who are less interested in the campaign will be less likely to want to vote.

So it's this election that has changed the way both the media and the candidates see young voters.

"Obama is directly and explicitly targeting first-time voters to vote for him rather than his opponent, and they're actually showing up this time."

Although both candidates are attempting to register young voters,Obama is "going in mass and trying to register them" at youth events and concerts, Cobb said.

"None of this would make a difference if voters were split 50/50 between both candidates," he said. " The difference is that young people overwhelmingly favor him, so you mobilize and target those that are on your side."

In North Carolina, Cobb said, Obama will have to register "a lot of first-time, young voters and hope they actually show up to vote. Otherwise, he cannot win the state."

Megan Culbreth, a junior in biochemistry, said she has noticed advertisements for both candidates that mobilize youth voters, and noted one of Obama's that shows young people having a voice.

"It seems like for the first time more people care, although we're kind of in a biased section of the population," she said. "We're in college so obviously people are prone to care about issues and things that affect them, and a lot of these issues affect college students."