There are 69,580,000 Gen Zers, Americans born between 1997-2012. Emphatically, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, they all want the dignity of being heard.
Ask anyone involved in Loyola Marymount University’s E2024, the fifth iteration of Project Citizen, and they will tell you that the best way to be heard is to engage in dialogue. The results from that extensive, involved project stand in stark contrast to superficial, quick-hit social media.
“Few initiatives are as important as Project Citizen because of the state of democracy today,” said David Herbst, an LMU Regent and enthusiastic donor to Project Citizen. “This kind of storytelling is very important for understanding our world and if we’re going to make progress,” added Herbst, founder and chairman of Vectis DC, ranked by Bloomberg Government in the top 15% of federal lobbying firms.
“The mission of the project: educate young people – Gen Z – about what’s at stake in the election,” said Jennifer Woo, a junior economics major, with journalism and dance minors, and executive producer for E2024. “We want to highlight young people at work in politics, highlight diverse viewpoints. We tie our reports to the LMU campus but explore other viewpoints.”
Woo said that she had become aware of an interesting dichotomy within her generation: many people her age say they don’t care about politics, yet they know that politics matter. The chasm, as she sees it, is because political coverage has been inaccessible; the general political coverage is not geared toward young people.
Carol Costello, an award-winning journalist known for her reporting at CNN, had similar insights that led her to co-found Project Citizen with Amy Reynolds, the dean of Communications at Kent State University in Ohio. Costello, a lecturer in LMU’s Journalism Department and a special advisor and External Relations ambassador, leads the initiative with Tom Nelson, advisor to LMU student media, to give student-reporters the resources and guidance to produce impactful journalism. Their work on the Project Citizen website includes written, video, and podcast work.
“E2024 – short for the 2024 election – will follow candidates and issues through January 2025,” said Costello. “We want them to gain an understanding of politics as ‘not so usual,’ to speak to their generation by covering the election from their perspective.” Nelson added that E2024 is focused on the election “‘through a Gen Z lens.’ We can’t compete with professional organizations, so our focus is on what they won’t focus on – ‘how will it affect Gen Z?’”
Woo underscores that broad objective. “We aim to analyze Gen Z’s politics and be an outlet that challenges ideas,” she said. “We’re highlighting the importance of hearing differing opinions. There’s a message that Gen Z is liberal, but that’s not necessarily so. External forces, such as the pandemic, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the Black Lives Matter movement, have all affected Gen Z viewpoints.”
With the 2024 general election building momentum, E2024 has already compiled a body of work. During the summer of 2023, a group of E2024 journalists toured Washington, D.C., conducting interviews and gathering background footage. “The group met with former congressman and now lobbyist Henry Waxman, and Rep. Ted Lieu, who represents the LMU district,” said Nelson, the LMU student media advisor, “but Maxwell Frost (D-Florida), the first Gen Z elected representative, made the biggest impression. His interactions with the students were fascinating.” Woo said that Herbst was very helpful in arranging meetings with lobbyists and officials. More recently, Woo covered the Republican National Committee Presidential Debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. She got to cover the action in the spin room where, standing side by side with established newsgathering operations, she interviewed Vivek Ramaswamy, asking him about his proposal to raise the voting age to 25, and Gov. Gavin Newsom. E2024 also plans to be on the scene of the major party conventions this summer in Milwaukee and Chicago.
The E2024 staff of five student-reporters, who come from the ranks of the student newspaper, meets once a week for story conferences and updates. Students make executive decisions with guidance from Costello and Nelson. “Students are learning to be executives and make those kinds of decisions,” Nelson said. Funding for the project comes from support to Project Citizen and from the Loyolan, and pays the student-reporters for their journalistic work, much like an internship. The staffing changes each semester, with the new crew picking up for the outgoing reporters. The newspaper now has a page dedicated to its E2024 coverage.
E2024 is the fifth iteration of Project Citizen. It began in 2019 with its focus on dialogue, though it sometimes felt like confrontation. Costello started the project with “Study America,” bringing students from disparate backgrounds together in the same classroom. She turned to her alma mater Kent State and teamed with Reynolds to offer an inter-regional exchange, where a group of LMU students spent time in Ohio learning what life was like in the Midwest and what issues most concerned them. Then, a group of Kent State students spent time on the Westchester campus. The exchange exposed some telling stereotypes, but also yielded insights into the breadth of Gen Z. The next year, Costello hosted a series of podcasts titled “I Hate Your Generation,” which engaged people from different generations to talk about issues and what each generation thought of the others.
For Climate 360, the third version of Project Citizen, LMU students partnered with students from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and Morgan State University, an HBCU in Maryland, to produce a deeply researched, multifaceted documentary, “Planet-Based,” that explored ways to unite students in and beyond the LMU community to tackle important global issues. Christopher Finlay, associate professor of communication studies and a key advisor and teacher on the project, helped build the website, connected with other universities, and worked directly on the final cut of the documentary. “We were teaching the fundamentals of journalism,” said Finlay, “and how to think about packages, how to think about reaching their audience. Our primary concern was reaching and finding audiences.”
For the next iteration, Project Citizen/Digital Storytelling, sent three LMU students, who were majoring in journalism, film and television, communications, and marketing, to Shasta County, California, to learn more about reported stories of political violence and voter intimidation. They found there was a lot to uncover, from intimidating “door knockers” and protesters, to threats of bodily harm. Finlay said he and Costello recognized that some aspects of this part of the project would require a course that offered a more formalized learning setting. “We had to go deep into how to think about engaging subjects and possibly hostile ones,” he said. They spent two months working through scenarios that deliberately explored difficult subjects, including some role playing. “I never spent as much time outside class talking about these issues,” Finlay said. “We listened to the students’ concerns and fears, and it definitely became a passion project.” He and Costello even sat in some of the more difficult phone conversations during the project.
Veronica Backer-Peral ’22, one of the content producers for Project Citizen’s E2020 section of Digital Storytelling, described the project as a tremendous experience. “It improved my journalism and writing skills and interviewing skills,” she said. “Impact of the project was important – it started conversations on campus. Young voters are usually disengaged but they get engaged when a nerve is being touched.” Backer-Peral had the opportunity to interview Kamala Harris, who was a candidate for president, Newsom, and local politicians. Backer-Peral said she is grateful for the opportunities LMU gave her and to the guidance of Nelson and Costello, including those times they corrected her techniques.
Today, E2024’s executive producer Woo is busy overseeing the video series “Who Cares” on YouTube. A range of students are covering various topics, such as taxes, the military and Social Security – topics young people normally don’t think deeply about in their 20’s.
“What is so important about Project Citizen is the recognition that the most important stories are the most difficult,” said Finlay. “We hoped to create space for students to experience and fully appreciate what it is to be a professional journalist and the potential risks involved.
“We’ve become aware of the decline of the American public sphere and our goal is for Project Citizen and fact-based journalism to try to start healing that divide by bringing people together around the shared truths that journalism can provide.”
“Seeking the story is the primary motivation,” said Costello about E2024, “and being interested in politics where other points of view are heard.” E2024 is a project of LMU’s Media Arts & A Just Society.