Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 5: Youth, schools and learning about politics

Updated: 17 July 2012

8. Teachers and sources of political knowledge

How important are teachers and the school in the process of political socialization, and the preparation for entry into adult political life? To begin this section we first examine who or what are their main sources of political information. In our first report, we gave the responses for our 2004 survey. (See Figure 5, in Print, Saha, and Edwards 2004). However, the same questions were asked in previous surveys of Australian youth. In order to acquire a broader contextual view of the importance of teachers, we present in Figure 6 (below) a comparative ranking of sources, as based on the average responses which students gave to each source. In similar surveys conducted in 1987 and 1991, a question was asked which was replicated in 2004. Although the three Australian samples differed somewhat, we think a comparison of student responses in the three surveys is informative.

Source of political information for students, over time

* The three surveys included the same question, but the samples were somewhat different. The 1987 survey (Saha 1987) was limited to the ACT and was based on a sample of 1014 senior secondary students. The 1991 survey (Saha 1992) included students from South Australia, and was based on 1311 senior secondary students. The 2004 YES survey was based on a nation-wide sample of schools, and included 4923 senior secondary students.

Overall, teachers do not rank highly as a source of political information. In 1987 teachers ranked last, with an average response of 2.41 out of a possible 4. On the other hand, in the same survey, the three media sources, radio, television, and newspapers ranked higher than other sources of information. However in our 2004 survey, the media sources had dropped considerably. By comparison, parents and teachers remained fairly constant over the three surveys, with parents being a more stable and important source of political information.

The decline in the media as a source of political information for young people in recent years is dramatic, but also is consistent with observations made elsewhere. For example, Wattenberg (2008) not only found that newspaper readership had declined among youth in the United States, but in most European countries, as well.

Young people throughout the world's advanced industrialized democracies have simply not gotten into the routine of picking up a daily newspaper and reading about current events." (p 26)

He found that the newspaper websites had not replaced the decline in hard copy newspapers as a source of news. Furthermore, he found the same pattern regarding television. With the coming of the 24–hour paid news channels such as CNN, and the nature of their news casting schedule, their followers generally come from older voters. Wattenberg notes that this pattern is also found in many European countries. Therefore the pattern which is displayed in Figure 6, namely the sharp decline in importance in the three media sources, is consistent with patterns found in other countries. To a minor extent, this decline amongst young people may be supplemented by use of the internet as a source of information.

However a more relevant question concerns the effectiveness of these sources. In Figure 7 we present the correlation coefficients between each knowledge source and two important variables, namely whether the students feel prepared to vote, and whether they would vote, even if not compulsory.

Correlation coefficients between sources of political information and being prepared to vote, and commitment to vote

The sources of political knowledge are ranked according to the size of the correlation for voting. In this respect, newspapers are the most effective source of political knowledge, both regarding feeling prepared to vote and voting. In effect this means that while many students might not regard newspapers as a source of knowledge, those that do are more likely to act on that knowledge. They not only feel prepared to vote, but would vote even if not compulsory.