New Study: College Students Show Little Interest in Politics This Election Year

Results from the Political Engagement study highlighted how little time college students -- even those at school inside the Washington, DC Beltway -- spend following political news.
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written with Elia Powers

College students today are apathetic about politics and seeking little news about the presidential election.

In a study conducted this spring of 200 undergraduates led by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland, students reported that while they do follow political news, they "really don't follow it that much," as one student summarized. "When I do," that student reported, "I just read it and move on and do not really share or discuss it so much with my friends."

The ICMPA study asked 200 students in an entry-level Media Literacy course to blog every three hours for three days before, during and after Super Tuesday about how they consumed political news. Students wrote time-stamped diary entries about when they tuned into election coverage as well as news about campaign issues (health care, the economy, etc.) -- and when (if at all) they discussed politics with others.

Elia Powers, lead investigator for the Political Engagement study, noted that the study suggested that "Any political news students get is in a rush, often while they are in the midst of doing something else, and taken in very small doses." As one student reported: "[I] quickly skimmed an article about on my Yahoo! home page about Romney's chances of being the Republican nominee." "In between classes, I checked Google news," wrote another.

Results from the Political Engagement study highlighted how little time college students -- even those at school inside the Washington, DC Beltway -- spend following political news. In fact, the majority of students spent 30 minutes or less over the three-day period before, during and after Super Tuesday following political news. "I briefly looked through the CNN website and BBC," wrote one student. "Today, I sporadically checked the New York Times on my phone and watched MSNBC on TV about the election," said another. "This morning when I woke up at 10 a.m. I had a text message from my dad asking if I was going to be watching the news later to see the results of Super Tuesday. This was the only time so far today that I talked politics for a couple of minutes," wrote a third.

The study and its accompanying survey tracked how students accessed the political news they did get. Said Powers: "We discovered that students most commonly get their political news through the computer, followed by cell phone and word of mouth. News aggregators were the most popular news platforms, largely because students said sites such as Yahoo! News can be read at a glance and send them news alerts - both traits catering to their passive news consumption. Students appear willing to scan political news that they stumble upon, but they don't go out of their way to search it out."

Nearly half of students in the Political Engagement study didn't use Twitter at all, but many of those who did said they "relied heavily" on it for political news. "I woke up at 11," wrote one student, "and checked Twitter to see that Super Tuesday was trending again." The study's results suggested that Twitter users view the platform as a first-alert system -- in much the same way as non-users tap into the alert system from Yahoo! and Google. Almost no one reported tweeting about politics themselves, but a number admitted passing on satirical tweets about the election or specific candidates.

Facebook, surprisingly, did not significantly factor into students' political news-gathering or engagement. While more students reported they visited Facebook than they did Twitter, fewer said they relied heavily on it for political news.

Cable networks for breaking headlines proved relatively popular on the night of Super Tuesday and students also mentioned watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Yet the most frequently mentioned sources of political news were content originators, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN -- in other words, much the same sources as the students' parents use.

The Political Engagement study also identified the issues college students said were of greatest interest to them: the economy, education and social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. Still, students over the three-day period spent very little time even discussing these hot-button issues. As one student confessed: "Other than some Tumblr posts, I have not engaged in any political discussions."

One explanation for students' overall lack of political engagement during this study was that only 28 students in the study identified themselves as Republicans -- and this year's Super Tuesday focused on the selection of the Republican candidate for president. However, even among those students who did self-identify as Republicans, few reported greater engagement with politics than the student Democrats supporting President Obama. Wrote one Republican on the day before Super Tuesday's primaries: "I received a text message from my friend informing me that Mitt Romney picked up yet another Republican endorsement and that polls suggested Romney has caught up with Rick Santorum in Ohio. As a Romney supporter, I was thrilled to hear the news." But in a later blog post, the same student wrote: "I have still not checked anything based on politics today, but have watched a good amount of sports-related news."

In fact the vast majority of students reported that while they were registered to vote and plan to vote in the November election, they said they'd be more likely to pay attention to politics if they saw the direct relevance of the election to their lives. And most didn't make a significant connection. Several students conceded that they were only paying the slight attention they were because of the assignment asking them to post their actions and thoughts every three hours.

As one student noted: "To me it is pretty amazing that my fellow students do not seem interested in Super Tuesday, [but] I must admit if it wasn't for this class I am not sure how interested I would be either."

A brief note on methodology: The ICMPA study focused on 200 students in an entry-level Media Literacy course in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Susan Moeller is the professor of that course and the director of ICMPA. Of the 200 students who took part in the IRB-approved study, more than 150 students agreed to have researchers access and publish their three days of diary entries. Following the three days of blogging the students completed a survey about media use, political interests and demographic data.

Elia Powers, the lead researcher of the study, is conducting a full analysis of the Super Tuesday study results, as well as a follow-up study analyzing students' engagement during this fall's general election.

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