Casting roles, casting votes: Lessons from Sesame Street on media representation and voting

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Sesame Street’s representation of minority characters, egalitarian minority-White interactions and portrayal of working women was distinctive in the mass media landscape of 1969, when it started airing. By exploiting both age variation and technological variation in broadcast reception, this paper contributes to the media and contact theory literatures by showing that positive representations of minorities via mass media can reduce long-run prejudice and impact voting, an important societal outcome. We find that for preschool-age children, a 20 percentage point (1 standard deviation) increase in Sesame Street coverage reduced adult measures of implicit racial biases for White respondents and increased reported voting for minority and women candidates by 14 percent and 9.5  percent respectively. Voter turnout also increased by 4.8 percent. Voting for democratic candidates increased because of the increase in voting for diverse candidates. When the sample is restricted to ballots featuring White men, turnout gains are split between parties.

Claire Duquennois is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh. She is an applied microeconomist working at the intersection between labor, development, and behavioral economics. Recent work explores the cognitive impacts of poverty on kids and sleep, seasonality in rural labor markets and the impacts of child media. Her research has appeared in academic journals including the American Economic Review, the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, and Food Policy.

The Early Childhood Initiative seeks to bring together scholars to address early childhood challenges and produce world-class scholarship that will help maximize the potential of all children during their early years.

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