Last month I visited WBUR in Boston to talk with station leadership and the politics team about how they could bring something different to their 2020 election coverage. I was invited by WBUR’s senior political reporter, Anthony Brooks, who had read some of my descriptions of the citizens agenda style in campaign coverage. He wanted to explore how it might work at an NPR station that reaches across greater Boston and into New Hampshire, where the first primary in the nation draws the major candidates.
Politics is a busy and important beat for them. WBUR collaborates on election coverage with New Hampshire Public Radio, which attended the meeting as well. For an academic, the opportunity to float an alternative model to people who could soon put it into practice is not something you turn down.
Here’s the whiteboard I used. On it, the citizens agenda style in campaign coverage is broken down into steps. These are the key steps:
- Identify — especially to yourselves — the people you are trying to inform. Your community. Your public. Your crowd.
- Ask the people you are supposed to inform a simple question: what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?
- Keep asking it — what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? — as you find new ways to explain the project, and new people to reach with it.
- Interpreting what you heard, and applying your knowledge as journalists, synthesize the initial results into a draft agenda, a priority list that originates in an act of listening. (Need an example? Go here.)
- Test, question, and revise the agenda with the people you made it for, plus any help you can get from polling. “This is what we think we heard. How did we do?”
- When confidence permits, or circumstances require, you then publish the citizens agenda as a “live” product on your site. Launch and promote. Gather reactions. Synthesize and improve.
- Now, turn the citizens agenda into instructions for campaign reporting that connects with the issues people care most about. Around the top priorities you can do in-depth journalism. Given a chance to ask questions of the people competing for office, you can turn to the citizens agenda. And if you need a way of declining the controversy of the day, there it is. The agenda you got by listening to voters helps you hold to mission when temptation is to ride the latest media storm. At every turn, you can ask yourself, “How does this align with our citizens’ agenda?”
- Press the candidates to address it. When they do, tell the voters. In a way, you have “won” at campaign journalism when this happens.
- Build your voters guide around it. Down the left side of the grid, the candidates for office. Across the top, the items on the citizens agenda. Fill in the grid with what the candidates have done, said, or proposed; that’s a public service.
- Keep listening for revisions to the agenda until the campaign ends. I called it a published product. I also said it was live. That means you change it when the ground shifts, or choices narrow. Maybe there’s a a few per election cycle, or a new one every Monday.
WBUR has not made any decisions yet. This isn’t their plan, it’s mine.
You can have it, by the way. The plan, I mean. Just let us know how it turns out.
WBUR has a pollster who joined the meeting. He said with internet polling it’s plausible to poll for, What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? (This was the most interesting thing I learned that day.)
The citizens agenda style is my dorky name for it. You can call it whatever you want. The active ingredient is not “citizen’s agenda,” but that question, “what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?”
The agenda is an editorial product, a synthesis. It involves art and judgment, not just data. You should be prepared to explain your thinking and take responsibility for what you included and left out.
Look, it’s agenda-setting. You will draw critics if you do this. Ask them to join and make the listening project better.
When people suspicious of your campaign coverage say in a threatening tone, “what’s your agenda?” just send them the URL.
Good design is critical to making this work. Obvious, but I’m saying it anyway. Graphic design, interaction design, task and workflow design are among the forms required. I’m sure you can think of others.
Finally, a note about 2020 for those who will be reporting on it: You cannot 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 campaign journalists. Who cares what they think? It has to originate with the voters you are trying to inform.
Read the series:
Part One: A call for a different kind of campaign coverage after 2016
Part Two: Key steps in the citizens agenda style of campaign coverage
Part Three: Case Study: How the Dublin Inquirer set a citizens agenda