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Reaching Generation Z beyond the coasts

“How can we reach an audience if that audience doesn’t see themselves, their hometowns, their families, even the brand of jeans they wear, portrayed in the media?”

People often ask me why I left New York City (and The New York Times) to live and work in Mid-Missouri.

The short answer is — I accepted a fellowship.

The long answer — I wanted to embed myself in communities that reflect America’s deep distrust of the media and get to the root of this conviction, which I don’t believe is solely a result of President Trump’s “anti-media” rhetoric.

One key finding is that Americans’ distrust is in response to a lack of coverage. Thousands of rural communities in America (particularly in the Midwest and the South) resemble the five communities and high schools I visit weekly in Mid-Missouri. They have no media coverage to call their own, due to decimating staff cuts at local newspapers and being overlooked by legacy media outlets.

There are specific high school juniors and seniors in these towns, despite not having a student newspaper, who are interested in producing an original story about their community that they haven’t seen covered by the media.

According to an October 2018 Pews study,”younger Americans are better than older Americans at telling factual news statements from opinions.” That’s why I chose to focus my project on high schoolers, known as Generation Z. They also represent the audience of journalism’s future.

Gen Zs were not only born with the Internet on full blast but also have had unprecedented access to cell phones. In fact, they have never known a world without these devices. A survey by Business Insider shows that “nearly 80% of teens got their first smartphone between the ages of 11 and 13.”

Whether it’s Instagram, Snapchat, or push alerts they may or may not have meant to turn on, Gen Zs are consuming news at an unprecedented pace and volume, whether it’s intentional or not.

And if they are intent on consuming the news, they turn to their phones, where they spend at least 5 hours per day perusing social media. 6 out of 10 Gen Zs say social media is their “preferred” platform to get the news.

But how can we reach an audience, particularly a young, digital-savvy one, if they don’t see themselves, their hometowns, their families, even the brand of jeans they wear, portrayed in the media?

We’ve reached a fork in the road when it comes to audience engagement. If we want a more diverse and more “media literate” country, everyone, especially Gen Z teenagers and young adults, needs to see themselves in the media.

Using an exercise devised by Jesse Hardman, one of the founders of Listening Post Collective, I verbally surveyed my juniors and seniors to get a feel for how they interact with the phones glued to their palms. We had conversations about what they read, watch and consume online, and where they go when they want to dig deeper into a something they heard at home or on the radio.

Many of the students had similar answers. They turn not only to social media, like Instagram and Snapchat, for news stories by the media outlets they follow, but also YouTube, Reddit and some have actively chosen to turn on Apple News push alerts.

Regardless of what they consume, students from all five high schools unanimously agreed that they do not seem themselves “fairly” represented in the media. Notably, in outlets where they “should” see themselves like teen lifestyle publications or Special Projects like The New York Times’ “This Is 18.”

When they do see themselves represented, it’s usually in stereotypes (poor, uneducated, pregnant, conservative, uncultured). Whereas their peers in coastal cities are portrayed as multi-dimensional.

And it’s especially hurtful, because unlike their parents or grandparents, they have a front row seat to how poorly they are being portrayed.

So legacy media — do your job. Invest in making your coverage and content more inclusive of and relevant to media-desert audiences. Because there is no reason why in the internet age, teenagers especially, should feel as one of my students put it bluntly, “left behind.”

Nico Gendron is a 2018-2019 Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow at the University of Missouri.

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