Originally published as a Twitter thread on election day, 2018.
There was a path the American press could have walked, but did not. This alternative way was illuminated as far back as 1992. Our political journalists declined it. And here we are. This post is that story.
One of the problems with election coverage as it stands is that no one has any idea what it means to succeed at it. Predicting the winner? Is that success? Even if journalists could do that (and they can’t) it would not be much of a public service, would it? A very weird thing about horse race or “game” coverage is that it doesn’t answer to any identifiable need of the voter. Should I vote for the candidate with the best strategy for capturing my vote? Do I walk into the voting booth clutching a list of who’s ahead in the polls?
In 1992, the The Observer in Charlotte, NC teamed up with the Poynter Institute to pioneer a different way to cover elections. The idea was very simple: campaign coverage should be grounded in what voters want the candidates to talk about. Which voters? The ones you are trying to inform.
This came to be called the “citizens agenda” approach to campaign coverage. It revolves around the power of a single question: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” From good answers to that everything else in the model flows.
A few things about that question, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” Notice what it is not. It is not “who’s going to win?” It’s not “who are you going to vote for?” And it’s not “which party would do a better job at addressing…” For the whole purpose of the citizens agenda approach is to find an alternative to the horse race style in campaign coverage, which starts with “who’s gonna win?” What are the keys to winning? How close is the race? Which tactics seem to be working? What do the latest polls say?
The horse race style is the default pattern. It’s easy to criticize, and I have done that. A lot. But the default has some impressive strengths. It’s repeatable in every election, everywhere. It creates suspense and thus interest. It tells you where to put your resources (on the closest races.)
Here’s how the alternative style — the citizens agenda in election coverage— works. First you need to know who your community is. If informing the public is the mission statement of every good journalist, then identifying the public you’re trying to inform is basic to the job. If you can identify the particular public you’re trying to inform — and you know how to reach those people — then you can ask them the question at the core of the citizens agenda approach. “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?”
The key is to pose this question in every possible form and forum. Interviews with reporters. Focus groups with researchers. Call and leave us a message. Email us. Tweet us. Text us. Fill out this form. Speak up at our event. Comment on our Facebook page. Talk to us!
In addition to those inputs, the polling budget has to be redirected. Away from the horse race, toward the organizing principle in our revised approach, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” You can poll for that. But it’s not normal.
Put it all together, and the journalists covering the campaign have what they need to name, frame and synthesize the citizens agenda. The product is a ranked list, a priority sketch. The top 8-10 issues or problems that voters most want the candidates to be talking about. The citizens agenda, an exercise in high quality public listening, is both a published product (tested, designed, packaged properly for multiple platforms) and a template for covering the rest of the campaign. It tells you how to “win” at campaign coverage. Or stop losing.
But you have to get the list right. If you can spread out and properly canvas the community, ask good questions, listen well to the answers, transcend your limited starting points (your bias) and piece together an accurate and nuanced understanding, then you have something truly valuable.
The template has multiple purposes. It helps focus your “issue” coverage and voters guide. It informs your explainers. And it keeps you on track. Instead of just reacting to events (or his tweets…) you have instructions for how to stay centered around voters’ concerns. When a candidate comes to town and gives a speech, you map what is said against the citizens agenda. When your reporters interview the candidate, questions are drawn from the citizens agenda. If the candidate speaks to your editorial board, you know what to do.
But it goes beyond that. Synthesizing a citizens agenda at the beginning creates a mission statement for your campaign coverage later on. Now you know what you’re supposed to accomplish. Press the candidates to talk about what your readers and listeners want most to hear about.
The citizens agenda approach in campaign coverage (sorry for the dorky name) tells reporters, editors and producers how they’re doing. Here’s how. If you’ve done the work and your list is accurate, the candidates will have to start talking about the items on that agenda. That’s how you know it’s working. That’s how you know you’re winning. Now you can press them for better answers, and dig deep on things you know people care about. That’s pubic service!
This I can tell you. If reporters ask the people they’re trying to inform, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” no one is going to answer with, “You’re down five points in the latest polls. Realistically, can you recover?”
The citizens agenda approach in campaign coverage was first tried at the Charlotte Observer in 1992. I wrote about that adventure in my book, What Are Journalists For? in 1999. I explained it again in 2010 at my blog. So it’s been out there. My own read is that it never took off because this is not what political reporters want to do. They want to hang with the pros. They want to pick apart the strategy. The best ones (and there are some very good ones) want to explain what the candidates are appealing to. In us.
Yesterday, Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post gave a grade of C-minus to the campaign press. “Too many journalists allow Trump to lead them around by the nose,” she said. “With the president as their de facto assignment editor.” And I agree with that. But here’s the kicker: You can’t keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from you, as a campaign journalist. Who cares what you think? It has to come from the voters you are trying to inform.
A demonstrable public service, the citizens agenda approach puts the campaign press on the side of the voters and their right to have their major concerns addressed by the people bidding for power. That is the road not taken. Now I have to add that good reporters on the campaign trail spend a lot of time listening to voters. This happens. They ask about the issues on voters minds. But it’s pitched to who’s ahead and why. To which appeals are resonating.
For the sophisticated professionals who cover elections, the “citizens agenda in campaign coverage” sounds — let’s be honest — a little too earnest, a bit minor league. Civics class, as against drinks with the county chairman at the Des Moines Marriott. I know this. I get it.
Thing is, the only way up from the hole they’re in is to pitch their journalism at an electorate they understand better than the politicians who are leading it off a cliff. You don’t get there with a savvy analysis of who’s going to win this round. You have to represent.