Thousands tune into “Face the Facts” youth town hall with Student Reporting Labs & MediaWise

By Hannah Lee

With less than a month away until Election Day, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, in partnership with the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise, hosted an election youth town hall featuring first-time voters, leading journalists and Gen Z activists. Thousands of students, teachers, and community members across the country tuned into “Face the Facts: Election 2020 Youth Town Hall,” where they learned about the issues most pressing to young voters, election misinformation and chimed in with questions and comments via live chats across NewsHour digital platforms.

The event on October 6 focused on youth voice, tips for spotting misinformation online, and concluded with a live Q&A with leading journalists Amna Nawaz and Hari Sreenivasan from the PBS NewsHour, as well as NBC News’ Savannah Sellers and Peter Hamby, host of Snapchat’s Good Luck, America.

Four first-time voters, Malick Mercier, Rebecca McKinney, Jackson Carter, and Cassia Ramelb discussed how they plan to vote this year with moderator Savannah Sellers, and collectively emphasized the importance of rising above political polarization to create a stronger sense of community. Panelists also discussed pivotal issues they are paying attention to in the upcoming election, like mental health and the federal court system following Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.

Ramelb emphasized the need for the candidates to prioritize unity despite differences for the sake of making our country a better place.

“I think the presidential candidates should foster a community between the American people,” Ramelb said. “We should all be feeling accepted and acknowledged for having our different viewpoints and also come to a middle ground about improving our society.”

The town hall featured intergenerational interviews with teachers sharing their experiences voting for the first time. Student reporter Annette Rooney from Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City spoke with English teacher Nick Steffens about his first voting experience in 1998. 

In a different interview, first-time voter Josh McCuff from W.B. Saul High School in Philadelphia got advice from his environmental science teacher Greg Smith on voting for the first time. Smith shared a story about his grandmother’s experience not being allowed to vote.

“My grandma was an adamant voter because at one point in her life, she was not allowed to vote as an African-American woman,” Smith said. “When that opportunity came, she made sure that not only did she exercise her right to vote, but she made it very vocal that every single grandchild, niece, nephew, knew that she voted and why we should vote.”

Town Hall host Amna Nawaz brought on two experts, Noorya Hayat from the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and Kellen Edmondson from HeadCount, to talk about the growing role Generation Z plays in the future of the voting electorate. Hayat shared recent youth voter trends and students asked questions of Edmondson about voter registration and receiving mail-in ballots on college campuses.

The event also presented the voices of social media creators in a segment called Pass the Ballot, which featured Myles Bess of KQED’s Above the Noise, Thanasi Dilos, co-founder of Civics Unplugged, actor Ciara Riley Wilson, and Heaven Taylor-Wynn, a digital media journalist at MediaWise. The creators shared their journeys on becoming educated on the concept of voting and why voting is such a personal duty to fulfill.

Dilos explained how one’s civic duty can extend much further than voting to make a positive impact on a community.

“I think we have an idea of civics or what a citizen is, is just going to vote,” Dilos said. “While voting is great, it’s really not the only thing. Everybody’s duty is to care for those around them, care for their community, and look out for the best interest of their neighbors and their communities.”

In an era when misinformation online spreads like wildfire, MediaWise Campus Correspondents shared tips on identifying and categorizing misinformation threats with PBS NewsHour Weekend Anchor Hari Sreenivasan. Viewers were guided through how to assess information online and tips on deciding whether to trust a news source.

The town hall ended with a candid conversation with Nawaz, Sellers, Sreenivasan, and Hamby on their responsibilities of covering the election as leading journalists while answering live questions from the audience on fact checking and spotting misinformation. 

Sreenivasan provided ways in which viewers can diversify their consumption of media to avoid echo chambers.

“One of the easiest, most passive ways is if you’re on different social media platforms, whether it’s Twitter, Snapchat or TikTok,” he said. “Follow people who you actually don’t actually with just to see how they’re thinking.”

Hamby personalized the struggle of separating personal beliefs when looking at issues objectively as a journalist.

“It’s important for journalists to get out of their own bubbles as well,” Hamby explained. “As hard as it is to separate your personal opinions, once you get out of your geographic bubble, your cultural bubble, your geographic bubble, and your technological bubble, then you start to understand where other people are coming from… and how they process news and information.”

Viewers were active with their engagement, including comments and questions, during the event. Those concerned with misinformation shared their appreciation on YouTube for the coverage on civics and the media in relation to voting. 

“This is fantastic. I have been explaining similar things with my friends and family to encourage them to verify what they are passing along. This is perfectly put together,” Debi Powell commented. “ I am sharing with everyone I know.”

Community members, such as teachers, expressed their desire to share the livestream to their students. 

“It would be great if you could post a recording of this,” Zoe Meints wrote. “I’m a teacher and I want to make it available to my students who were unable to watch it during the livestream.”

Though the event served as a resource to learn more about voting and misinformation, materials such as this worksheet allowed students to reflect and think about the election for themselves. Some even showed enthusiasm for the continuation of conversations with youth on different outlets.

“Love this,” Victoria Bordelon commented. “Please hold a three-minute civics class with Gen Z at each PBS Newshour!!”

WATCH the Town Hall in its entirety here.