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The Outlet is the Option, A Thesis Time Capsule: Chapter 1. Introduction

In revisiting the introduction to my thesis, I was reminded of Marshall McLuhan's genius as both a philosopher and a marketer. This Canadian English professor not only predicted the creation and societal effects of the world wide web, but he also achieved widespread popularity by coining a pithy, controversial catchphrase. He inspired the title of my thesis while simultaneously making me question whether investing months of research and writing into this study would be at all worthwhile.

I've come around to agree with McLuhan the theorist more in the last 12 years. Of course we now have smartphones and social media as modern proof that a new medium can dramatically alter, well, almost everything. At a macro, if not micro level, the technology trumps the content (I'm not sure if that pun was intended. Best not to dwell on it). Until now, at least, the fact that I had published this "book" that gathers dust in a Georgetown Library has had more of an impact on my life than the content itself. In a way, I suppose publishing it digitally is an attempt to seek a greater balance on the scale of significance between this specific message and its medium. 

Chapter 1. Introduction

In the seminal 1964 work Understanding Media, communications theorist Marshall McLuhan declared “The medium is the message,” (McLuhan 1964, 32). Of course, like most theorists who make grand claims, McLuhan did not mean exactly what he said. The medium is not interchangeable with the message, nor is it necessarily more vital or important. According to the New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, McLuhan meant that “the form of a message determines the way in which that message will be perceived” (The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy 2002). In this study of the relationship between youth vote choice and political media habits in the 2004 presidential election, “The Outlet is the Option” is not meant to be taken literally. I am not suggesting that youth voters’ candidate preferences were determined, or even influenced to a great degree, by the outlets they turned to for campaign news. However, I believe that youth voters know where they stand ideologically, regardless of whether they admit to it, and harbor opinions on the ideological slants of news outlets. These young news consumers are attracted to outlets that they believe align with them politically, and therefore, reinforce their positions. The outlet was the option in 2004 because the news sources youths turned to for candidate information predicted their vote choices. Ultimately, youth voters who cast ballots for George W. Bush in 2004 received their campaign news from a set of outlets different from those used by youth who supported John Kerry. 

All indicators pointed to an increase in youth voter participation and interest in the 2004 presidential election. Compelling issues such as the Iraq War, the threat of global terrorism, and myriad social and economic concerns were sure to bring even the historically most unreliable age bracket – 18 to 29 year-olds – to the polls. Research groups gathered data that supported these claims.  The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press anticipated a more engaged youth bloc in a report based on four September 2004 polls. According to the report, young Americans showed more interest in voting than in 2000, but also were more likely to shift their candidate preference before Election Day than older generations (Pew 2004, 2). This group, by the nature of its interest and indecisiveness, was ideal for a study involving vote choice and media habits in the 2004 race.

Pew also found, in a study from June 2004, that news consumers were increasingly segregating themselves into ideological media clusters. For example, Pew reported, “Since 2000, Fox News Channel’s gains have been greatest among political conservatives and Republicans … At the same time, CNN, Fox’s principal rival, has a more Democrat-leaning audience than in the past” (Pew 2004, 1). The same study revealed that people were more likely to get political news from a variety of sources than they were in the past. These two findings are significant to the youth voting population, which comprises, in fact, the voters who were introduced to politics during the new media boom of the early 1990s. These new media broke the rules of the traditional press by adhering to a philosophy of entertainment value over journalistic integrity. They blurred the line between news and entertainment, and perhaps more dangerously, opinion and fact. In light of the options available for news consumption, the Pew reports suggested that youth voters would consult many news media outlets for information on the candidates. Young news consumers might give different levels of credence to what they hear on a clearly slanted talk radio program and what they read in a national newspaper of record. However, they also might choose to primarily rely on whichever media and sources they find most entertaining or best align with their constructed ideologies.

I set out to answer the question: Were American 18 to 29 year-olds’ vote choices in the 2004 presidential election related to the media outlets they relied on for information on the candidates? I predicted that these youth swing voters would eventually vote in groups that corresponded to their media habits; that youth vote choice in the 2004 presidential election and media habits would have a significant correlation. The ability to reject my null hypothesis was not dependent on an increase in participation among youth voters. However, the more significant the youth vote was in the outcome of the election, the more crucial it would be to examine the relationship between where these youths turned for information on the candidates and how they voted. Therefore, I predicted that comprehensive election analyses would report a substantial increase in youth voter participation from 2000 to 2004 and subsequently add value to my study.

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