#TooYoungToVote but not too young to critique campaign coverage

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Story highlights

  • Not one member of a New York school newspaper thought the media did a good job
  • Teens may be #tooyoungtovote, but they still have strong feelings about election coverage

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)The silence spoke volumes.

When I asked 14 members of a New York middle school newspaper whether they thought the media did a good job covering this most unusual presidential campaign, not one student raised his or her hand.
Griffin Must, co-editor-in-chief of his school's paper, InsidetheHalls.com, summed up what a lot of his peers seem to be feeling about the nonstop election coverage over the past 18 months.
"I believe (the media) could have done a better job on policies and finding what citizens need to know to vote," said Griffin, 13 and an eighth-grader at Mott Hall II, one of the most diverse middle schools in Manhattan. "Yes, you can focus on the scandals, but maybe dig in deep, like why did this person do it?"
The scandals -- from questions about Hillary Clinton's private email server to offensive comments made by Donald Trump on the "Access Hollywood" tape, plus accusations of sexual assault -- got too much attention, some students said, leaving little time for the issues that matter most when it comes to running the country.
"That's what everyone's really attracted to. They're all attracted to this drama," said Saira Medunjanin, an eighth-grader. "I'm attracted to the drama. I want to see what's going on, but it really draws away from what's the main purpose: Why are these people running for president?"

'Draw them in with the drama'

So what would they do if they were running a news network, newspaper or digital news outlet? They may be #tooyoungtovote, but they're not too young to have interesting ideas about what they would do differently.
Jonas Yukins, a seventh-grader, said that if he were covering the campaign today, he would intertwine the scandalous topics that people seem to want to hear a lot about with coverage of the important issues confronting the next president.
"If I was on TV, I could be talking about the emails or something and then slightly change the subject without it being noticeable and start talking about gun control or climate change," he said.
"I would draw them in with the drama, but then I would go into (the candidates') beliefs and statements, and I would forget about the drama," said Jada Isabel Hugo, an eighth-grader.
Griffin, who hopes to run for the presidency someday (he already promised me the first interview!), said he'd try to see how the scandal affects one of the candidates' policies or something they have said before and work that into a story. If that weren't possible, he said, he'd do two stories: one on the scandal and another on the issues.
"I bet you most of the time, if you have a catchy title, they'll click on both," he said. "A good headline always sells it."

Pressing for answers

A few of the students said they would press the candidates more to answer the questions they're asked.
"I would ask you to answer the question," Nia Mills, a seventh-grader, said when I asked her to role play and pretend I was either Trump or Clinton. "I would ask you the question again so that you can give me a direct answer instead of just saying another complete off-topic answer."
But what if the candidate still wouldn't answer the question?
"I would assume that they're not prepared, they don't know the answer, and then move on," said Jada Isabel, who would like to go into a career in journalism. "And I'd state that aloud. I'd say that 'you don't know the answer; you're not comfortable answering the question,' and then I'd move on to the next candidate."
Hannah Kitson, a seventh-grader, would ask the candidates more questions about their personal lives, such as what qualities they value in a friend, and light-hearted topics such as where they like to get pizza.
"I think (the media) could have done a better job at actually looking at their personal life a little bit," said Hannah, who will probably choose law over journalism when she gets older. "If you look inside of how they are on the inside, you could see something completely different, and I think that's what people should be voting based on."
Kids weigh in on presidential race
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Loucas Tzanis, an eighth-grader, said the media spent too much time focusing on just a few candidates, namely Trump and Clinton, as well as Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz when they were still battling it out for their respective parties' nominations.
"I'd probably want to interview a bunch of the other candidates, see their points of view on stuff," he said. "Go and maybe interview the third party, because not a lot of people notice that there's a third party, so go into the things that nobody really notices."

Lingering damage?

In my conversations with these budding journalists, I also heard concerns about what they believe is damage left behind by the media and reporting that was not always objective.
"I think the media has a bad bias," said Max Freund, an eighth-grader. "The bias is bad, because it's forcing the viewers and readers to be biased, because it gives them this mindset that that's how they should vote."
Isaac Wolff, also in the eighth grade, is concerned about all the arguments, the anger and the back-and-forth we've seen in the media over the past year and a half.
"There are people that might say something about a candidate, and then people will get mad at that," Isaac said. "There are people who say things that they don't mean. There are people who say really weird things that they actually do mean. There are people who just announce that they're voting for people for the wrong reasons."
What would have helped would have been more fact-checking of the candidates' statements and arguments, said Leon Leveau, a seventh-grader who had the idea of bringing a school newspaper to Mott Hall II last year. He is also the paper's co-editor-in-chief.
"The news organizations need to have live or a bit after-the-fact fact-checking" to make it clear what statements by the candidates are truths and which are lies, said Leon.
Asked whether he's optimistic the media will do a better job in the 2020 election, he said he was.
"I think they will, because they'll have candidates that are more predictable, probably," he said with a chuckle.
Marlon Lowe, Mott Hall II's dynamic principal, said his students are learning a valuable lesson from working on a school newspaper at a time when information is available 24/7 to teenagers.
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"This is such a refreshing change from where things are going right now because I know we have a problem in society where what's spread on social media is now becoming fact, and there is no fact-checking. There is no validation of information. It's just a stream of information, and we process everything that we're receiving," Lowe said.
"I think, going through this process, these young men and women will appreciate information and the nuances of providing it, sharing it and knowing what's factual and what's not."