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On distrust and media bias: Why these young voters are disillusioned with the political process

Students gather and talk during a listening session
Daylina Miller
/
WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media held a listening session at the University of South Florida campus in St. Petersburg to hear young voters' thought heading into the Nov. 8 general election.

Two St. Petersburg College students share their thoughts on the democratic process with Florida Matters ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

As part of our Democracy 2022 coverage, WUSF Public Media asked our audience to share their thoughts on the election and the democratic process.

Earlier this month, WUSF held a listening session with young voters on the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. Two of those young voters shared their thoughts with Matthew Peddie on a recent episode of Florida Matters.

ALSO READ: Young voters rely on social media for their news. How will this play out in the 2022 elections?

The two St. Petersburg College students — Adam and Stephanie, who only asked to be identified by their first names — talked about voting issues that matter to them.

The overarching theme: The lack of trust in both politicians and the media, what it will take to regain their trust, and the role social media plays in informing their decisions.

Adam, 29, says he's been voting since 2011. He says he hasn't missed an election. Stephanie has been voting for the last six years, after turning 18.

Here are excerpts of their conversation (some of the comments were edited for length and clarity):

* * *

Matthew Peddie: Can you talk a little bit about your experience of elections and voting? What's that been like so far?

Adam: So far, I've been voting now the past 11 years since 2011. So I've never missed an election. I'm very passionate about voting. I've been very deeply involved in politics. I love politics in general, all the way up until more recently, just kind of tuckered out with the entire thing, fed up with the way that things have been going in general. That doesn't mean I'm not voting. I'll never miss an election. But there's more to life than politics. And it's very hard to kind of feel that way over the last four plus-years, that there's anything else going on in this world, aside from it. So in general, I'll continue voting, but I'm very disinterested in being as involved as I used to be. Because it seems to have gotten somewhat unprofessional on all sides in terms of how things are handled, and people get informed.

Florida Matters
Listen to the full episode

When did that experience change? Sounds like when you say you're tuckered out by your experience, what was it that caused you to sort of become a little bit disillusioned if that's the right word?

I would say this last year, especially the way that things have gone. I used to run multiple social media accounts, both right- and left-leaning accounts just to get more informed myself. Get what the talking points were, the feelings of other people, why they felt the way that they did, so I could get a really good insight into how people felt about things. I was involved in many political group chats with friends, and others. Just again, same thing, discuss politics in general, things that I've done for many years as a voter, and it's it's just gotten to the point where everybody's just tired of the way that things have gone. It's become very difficult to find media sources that report truly unbiased viewpoints; just give the facts and nothing more. There's a lot left out, no matter how unbiased a media organization claims to be, there doesn't seem to be any left at this point, what the way that things have gone. The shift that we've seen during the last presidency and where we are now. And the continuing shift that we continue to see makes it very difficult to take media seriously at this point. And it's unfortunate. So I just kind of turned to sites and sources that do nothing from their standpoint, like the League of Women Voters, Ballotpedia, places that you just see what it is that's offered. Very bare-bones type stuff.

What about your level of trust with political leaders? Do you feel like you can trust what elected officials or people campaigning are telling you?

Absolutely not. Even well, before now, there's always many promises that are made by any politician no matter who it is, what side they're on. And you don't see those promises being fulfilled in a lot of cases. Politicians will say what's going to get them the votes that they need to the people, those demographics, that they know that they're going to get those votes from, and then they're just going to do what they want to do and please the people who are going to fund their campaigns as much as they can once they're elected. Not saying that that's all-in-all always what's going to happen. You will see politicians that are going to try to fulfill the promises they make. I think some people have their heads in the right space. But once you have that position, you are under so much pressure to keep it. If you're going to be running for reelection, you will do things that you typically would not do or say things that you typically would not say to try and make sure you get those votes. Because that's what you need to continue holding that position. And if it means throwing some things out there that you may not necessarily believe or you're not 100% behind, or you don't intend on fulfilling, if that means getting reelected, that's what politicians are going to do.

What do you think political leaders should do to gain more of your trust?

Fulfill the promises that they make, be transparent about the things that you're bringing forth, pursue legislation in an honest manner. When you see the bills that were passing at a national level, these legislative bills that we're putting forward are so misrepresented, in terms of what they contain. When you say, "Oh, this is the 'Feed All Children In Schools Act' " that we're pursuing, let's just for sake of making this easy to understand, and then you look in that bill, and you're seeing money going to all these other companies that have nothing to do with feeding kids in schools, that's dishonest. And then you've got one side saying, "Oh, they're voting against feeding kids in schools," when in reality, they're protesting what's in this bill. And you're telling people, "That's what's in this bill," when it's not. From my standpoint, doing what it is you say you're doing, putting in that legislation that you're trying to pass, what you're actually saying is in that legislation, and nothing more, that's what can be done. From my standpoint to gain trust, it's is being transparent and doing exactly what it is you say you're doing without trying to please the powers that be that are going to give you the funding that you need to continue your campaign. And please those that kind of have a hold on your interests within your political realm.

What about the media? What do you think the media could do differently to get you more engaged with what they're putting out? Make you trust them a little more?

At this point in time, I think the damage has been done. It's going to take a long, long time, and kind of a proven track record of unbiased reporting. There's not a single place that I feel like I could turn to at this point that says, "We're really working hard on showing you that we're unbiased" and just take their word for it. I would sooner just years from now, maybe look and see what those things look like. There are watch groups that will tell you kind of how unbiased media organizations would be. I'd sooner trust their word than I would any media company in terms of how unbiased they claim their reporting is at this point. My trust is gone in every single media organization. Where I used to love turning to every single one, not necessarily because they were unbiased, but knowing that I could trust that I'm going to get all sides of everything — especially more unbiased bodies, such as NPR. I used to listen to you guys all the time. I've got you set on my No. 1 button in my car, on my radio. I don't even feel like I could turn to that at this point. That trust, I think on everybody, has been lost over the last four or five years.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about your approach to politics or the election in general?

I would just emphasize that, that regardless of how people feel in this moment, and where we are now with politics, and how messy things have been for people who are just getting to the age where they can vote, regardless of how you feel, or how broken you may think the system is or how biased you think the sources are, it is still amazingly important to take the time to go and vote, whether you can make it to the polls or you have to do it via mail, whatever it takes, don't let how messy things have gotten and how ugly politics have become keep you from voting, Your vote matters. And you 100% should always take the time to vote in every single election, by whatever means necessary.

***

Matthew Peddie: Tell me about your experience of elections and voting. What's that been so far?

Stephanie: I've been voting since I've been legal since 18. It's been a great experience. I think that the sensation of being able to go and vote, especially in-person, has been very liberating, and just nice to be able to be heard. I do think that, personally, it's been a journey for me, because in the past, I voted without fully having 100% knowledge on what I'm voting against or what I'm voting in favor of. So that's something that I've actually tried to push myself into becoming more aware of what exactly I'm voting for, and taking a stance on things that I truly believe in.

So what are you going to be thinking about, as you head into the ballot box this November? What issues are important to you?

For me, something really important this election is the importance of being heard. Especially as a female and Hispanic background, I think that being heard is one of the most important things. And also abortion. I really think that that's a sensitive topic when it comes to politics. and I would really like to hear someone say, "We hear our female voters, we understand what you go through, and this is how we're going to be able to help you."

Where do you go to learn about candidates? What's your source of information?

I usually will start with a simple Google search and look at all the news articles that come through. And from there, dive into, "OK, this is a reliable source, and this is not a reliable source." I try to minimize my social media feedback, because it is very easy to indulge into what social media has to say. But it's not a reliable source. But it's something that we constantly see, especially in this generation.

What kind of conversations are you having with your friends about politics? Or what are you hearing from your peers about the political process issues that are important to them?

Something I've noticed, especially talking with my friends, is that they really take into account what is posted on social media. They will turn their point of view after one simple post, and then they will think that that is the correct answer to everything. And when someone tries to bring up a news article, for example, or an interview that was done on TV, they're kind of taken aback because they're like, "Oh, well, I didn't see that, because it wasn't posted on social media," because only one side is usually shown on social media. So that's something that I've been navigating, to also kind of see how to start that conversation without offending someone or being or telling them, "Hey, listen, just so you know, that's only one point of view. Can we actually talk about the whole situation?"

And for yourself. What's your level of trust? Would you say in the political system and democracy in general?

Sadly, it's very low. And the only reason why I say that, it's because I hear a lot of things, but I do not see a lot of action. There's a lot of talk, no action. Do I think that it can change? Definitely. And that's my hope, which is why I participate in these conversations. And I was so excited today, because I do think that there is change possible. I do believe that our government in this country can change, and I would like to see that, especially for young adults.

What do you think elected officials or people campaigning for office and the media in general — media organizations — should do differently to improve your level of trust?

I would say that they should just be honest, and if they're going to be able to make a certain change, and they speak on that change, I think that they should do it. I think that they should interact with the community, demonstrate that they are who they say they are, and that they're going to make that change.

It does seem like from some of the folks we've talked to, there's a bit of a level of distrust, but you haven't been sort of turned off the political process. Would you think there's a point, you might say, "I've had enough, I'm not going to vote anymore?"

Hopefully not. I will really not like to see that happen. The reason why I keep going is because I want my voice heard, even if it's just myself that wants to push harder for things to become better. I think that it's better for one person in this world to try to make a change that to try not to.

This community engagement journalism is part of WUSF's collaboration with the national America Amplified community engagement initiative, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

WUSF's journalists are independent, curious, respectful, and accountable to you. We’re committed to keeping you at the center of this conversation on democracy, staying in touch through surveys, social media, and in-person events. We won’t be chasing politicians, but instead we’ll tell stories based on the questions you want answered.

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.
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