The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage

Aug.
15
The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

I’m in Australia this week, where the country is in the midst of an election campaign that seems thoroughly uninspiring to almost everyone I’ve talked to. Several times I’ve been asked how campaign coverage might be improved. (See this television appearance on the ABC program Lateline.) I responded with the following sketch.

The Citizen’s Agenda in Campaign Coverage: Ten Steps to a Better Narrative

1.) Four to six months before the vote start asking the electorate a simple question: not, “who are you going to vote for?” or, “which party do you favor?” but: what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election? The idea is to find out from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates in order to cast an intelligent vote.

2.) To answer this question, you will need every method known to the modern newsroom. Don’t rely on one or two; instead, use them all. Redirect the polling budget away from horse race questions and put it in the service of the citizen’s agenda. Send reporters out to talk to voters— a lot of voters. Survey the views of community leaders, meaning: people in a position to know what their “crowd” wants the candidates to be talking about. Hold events designed to solicit those answers. Announce that you are putting together a citizen’s agenda to guide your campaign coverage this year, and that you want to hear from everyone, through any portal they care to use. Allow people to fill out a web form, or send an email, or record a phone message, or put it in a blog comment thread, or communicate over Twitter and Facebook. Use direct mail, advertise in the newspaper and on air, set up listening stations in coffee shops and shopping malls.

3.) As you fan out into the community in search of the citizen’s agenda, you will find a few people who are especially enthusiastic about what you are doing or clued into why it’s important. Ask these people if they want to join your advisory network, the sole purpose of which is to aid in the drafting of the citizen’s agenda and make sure that it reflects what’s coming in. Aim for 10 percent of your total sampling, knowing that the yield will be smaller than that.

4.) Based on all the information collected in step 2, compose an initial draft of the citizen’s agenda, in the form of 6 to 10 items ideally framed as questions that consume 50 words or less. An example from the New York State Governor’s race:

Our schools are not performing: New York’s public schools spend more per student than any other state. But New York ranks 40th among the states in the percentage of high-school students that graduate. Why is this and what do we need to do to change it? (46 words)

Once you’re confident that the 6 to 10 items reflect what you heard, use your advisory network (similar to a public insight network pioneered by American Public Media) to give you feedback on whether you have it approximately right. Ask participants to weight the items on the draft list by distributing 100 points among them. Allow them to write in any item that should be on the list but it isn’t. Adjust the draft accordingly.

5.) Three months before the election, publish the ranked list as your Citizens Agenda 1.0, emphasizing that it’s still in motion, that you want to get it right, and that feedback is still being sought through all available portals. Version 2.0 comes out two months before the election, and version 3.0 one month before. In between you can revise it as often as necessary, refining the language, adding items that feedback shows were missing, and adjusting the ranking of items.

6.) Once you have a version of it up and running, the citizens agenda is your working template and master narrative for election coverage. When the candidates speak, map what they said against the citizens agenda. When you have an opportunity to question the candidates, ask them questions that flow from the citizens agenda. Reporters assigned to cover the campaign should dig deep on the items that make up the citizen’s agenda. Background pieces and in-depth reporting should build upon the citizen’s agenda. Decisions to make about where to put your resources? Consult the citizen’s agenda, a set of instructions for the design of campaign coverage in all its forms.

7.) It’s called a citizens agenda because that’s what it is, a list of action items and declared priorities. What campaign coverage should achieve is serious discussion (among candidates, journalists, campaign observers… and the public) of the stuff on the citizen’s agenda. Election year journalism succeeds, in this model, when it raises awareness, clarity, knowledge and the overall quality of discourse around the various items on the citizen’s agenda. It fails when it permits confusion, ignorance, neglect, demagoguery and silence to prevail on those same items. Truth, fairness, accuracy and non-interference in an outcome that should be determined by voters, not the media: these remain bedrock principles. But there is an agenda here. Journalists should not hesitate to take action on it. They should be clear with themselves and up front with voters about what they’re doing. This isn’t the View from Nowhere.

8.) One of the big advantages of deploying a citizens agenda in campaign coverage is that it substitutes for that default agenda we’re all familiar with: horse race journalism, and the inside baseball style of coverage. Instead of that, this. Use the citizens agenda to shrink the horse race narrative down to a saner size. Meaning: it’s fine to keep track of who’s ahead and point out what the candidates are doing to win. That’s part of politics. But it should not be the big lens through which journalists view the campaign because it’s simply not useful enough for voters. (Should we vote for the candidate with the best strategy? How does that work…?) Once it is reduced to a more appropriate size, the horse race can be added color beside the main event. I would specifically call it “the game” and limit it to no more than 15 percent of the whole. Reporters who cannot abide by that ratio do not belong on this beat.

9.) Be prepared for conflict with the candidates and their staffs. Their job is to win the election, to improve their chances and cripple the other guy. If that means supporting confusion, ignorance, neglect, demagoguery or silence on certain issues, they will not hesitate to do that. We know this. Therefore, being serious about the citizens agenda means doing battle with the forces that would undermine it. But that’s why we have a free press….right?

10.) In order for the citizens agenda to work, you have to get it right. You have to be authoritative. The 6 to 10 items on the citizens agenda have to resonate with most voters, and actually reflect what’s on their minds. They have to be able to recognize themselves and their concerns in what you say is “their” agenda. If you are wrong, or overlooking something important, you need feedback loops good enough to correct yourself. The citizens agenda needs constant testing and adjustment until you are confident that you’ve nailed it. Even then, ways for minority concerns to be heard and for items not on voters minds but still important to their future have to be worked in. This is a pragmatic exercise, a sophisticated form of listening, adjusting and feeding back what is heard.

What does the electorate want the candidates to be discussing as they campaign for votes in this year’s election? If you don’t think you can distill a good answer to that, and defend it as the honest outcome of your best reporting, then the citizens agenda is not an approach for you. Go back to the horse race!

Post-script: The citizens agenda is not a new idea. It was tried in 1992 by the Charlotte Observer during the early years of the civic journalism movement, of which I was a part. Others picked it up after that. I wrote about the Observer’s experiment in my 1999 book, What Are Journalists For? You can find the gist of that description in this essay, “Part of Our World: Journalism as Civic Leadership,’ sections 3 and 4. The key anecdote comes from the former editor of the Observer, Richard Oppel:

Voters were intensely interested in the environment…. So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, “here are the voters’ questions.” Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, “Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I’m not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until after the general election.” This was the primary. I said, “Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry.” He said, “Well, that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” I said, “Fine, I will run the questions and leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say ‘would not respond’ or we will leave it blank.” We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down.

Which raises the question of why the citizens agenda didn’t become standard and replace the horse race, that miserable thing. I’ve thought a lot about that. The only answer I have is: political journalists wanted it this way, and their bosses permitted it.