During what is shaping up to be a dark and polarizing election cycle — during a pandemic — thousands of people tuned in online Tuesday night to watch a rare moment of hope unfold on the small screen.
In a one-hour virtual town hall highlighting first-time voters from all sides of the political spectrum, Zoomers discussed what they can do to build a better future for American democracy and how they are preparing to vote for the first time in this election.
The event, titled “Face the Facts,” was hosted by PBS Student Reporting Labs in partnership with MediaWise, a digital media literacy initiative of The Poynter Institute. The program featured several members of Generation Z who talked about what it’s like to be a first-time voter in this historic election.
This November, one in 10 voters will be members of Generation Z.
The event included popular digital news show stars like Peter Hamby, host of Snapchat’s “Good Luck America” and Savannah Sellers from NBC News’ “Stay Tuned.” “Good Luck America” is a daily political news show with over 2.3 million subscribers. “Stay Tuned,” which airs daily on Snapchat and Instagram, has about 30 million unique visitors every month with about 75% of viewers under age 25. Sellers was just announced as the anchor for NBC News’ new digital morning show “Morning News Now.” Hamby and Sellers are also MediaWise Ambassadors, meaning they support the MediaWise mission of teaching people of all ages how to sort fact from fiction online by participating in events like this town hall.
The town hall was hosted by PBS NewsHour correspondent Amna Nawaz, and Hari Sreenivasan, NewsHour senior correspondent and anchor for “NewsHour Weekend,” was a featured guest. Nawaz and Sreenivasan are also MediaWise Ambassadors.
“The best part about this event was that it was a civil and respectful political conversation that older generations could learn from in the current political environment,” said Katy Byron, editor and program manager of MediaWise. “Plus, thousands of people came away with tangible digital media literacy skills they can use right now to help them choose who to vote for based on accurate and reliable information,” she added.
The event was nonpartisan and presented viewpoints from across the political spectrum.
Sellers moderated a panel of first-time voters who discussed the role of social media in spreading political information, what they would like to see from the next president, how they talk to people with different political views and the issues that matter the most to them in the 2020 election. Sellers set a transparent tone to the conversation by asking the four panelists which way they lean politically — two leaned conservative, one liberal and one preferred not to disclose.
One panelist, Jackson Carter, an 18-year-old from Tennessee, encouraged young people to get out of their echo chambers and consume information from news sources they might not agree with.
“I think that a lot of the media that we consume is kind of tailored by us with social media to what we want to hear and I think that’s created a little bit of a problem in the modern era,” said Carter. “I think it’s really important that we get our news from both sides of the aisle.”
Another panelist, Rebecca McKinney, an 18-year-old from Virginia, spoke to the current polarization in the U.S. and what candidates should be doing to fix it.
McKinney said whichever candidate is able to say, “it’s not about my ego. It’s not about me. It’s about making our country better for everybody and being able to have the conversations across the aisle,” will be able to heal some of the division.
Similar to McKinney, Malick Mercier, a junior at Ithaca College and host of “Internet Expert” at GBH News, emphasized the need to have conversations that reach across the political aisle.
“When we can get to a place where we’re actually having a conversation about the humanity of all of these different issues and how it’s impacting people, that’ll be a really good thing,” said Mercier.
Sreenivasan moderated a panel of college students who are a part of the MediaWise Voter project’s Campus Correspondents program. Each of the correspondents walked through types of misinformation and how to fact-check it for the viewers at home.
Another panel of content creators discussed the importance of voting and how they learned about the voting process for the first time.
Thanasi Dilos, the founder of Civics Unplugged, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering Generation Z to build the future of American democracy, encouraged first-time voters to ask candidates questions about the issues they care about.
“Don’t be scared of politicians, they’re there to work for you, so make them work for you,” said Dilos.
At the end of the town hall, Nawaz moderated a discussion between Sellers, Sreenivasan and Hamby about how they’re covering voters from Generation Z and advice they have for anyone voting for the first time. They also took live questions from first-time voters online.
“Consumers are smart, especially this generation. This is a no BS generation,” said Hamby. “They understand that objectivity is not a real thing, but that fairness is a real thing.
Sellers encouraged first-time voters to research candidates themselves and figure out where they stand on the issues.
For more tips on voting for the first time and combating the spread of misinformation, watch the recording of “Face the Facts.”
The “Face the Facts” event was sponsored by Facebook, which also supports the MediaWise Voter Project nonprofit program.
Abby Vervaeke is an intern at MediaWise and the managing editor of The Simmons Voice, the only student-run newspaper at Simmons University. Find her on Twitter at @abbyjvervaeke.