So whaddaya think: should we put truthtelling back up there at number one?

Somewhere along the way, telling truth from falsehood was surpassed by other priorities to which the press felt a stronger duty. Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, was unaware of this history when he asked users of the Times whether reporters should call out false statements.

12 Jan 2012 2:05 pm 126 Comments

Brisbane’s post, Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante? exploded onto the web today, startling user after user, and journalist after journalist, all of whom reacted with some version of: Why is this even a question? Alright, I’ll tell you why.

Brisbane wrote: “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” For example:

On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage.

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:

“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

Brisbane said he gets a lot of mail from “readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.” Then he got to the meat of his question, which was to us, the users.

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

The comments at Brisbane’s blog post are blistering. They reveal the deep divide between “traditionalists” in the press, of which is Brisbane is one, and current users. I will just quote one to give you the tone. Matt Talbot in California: “That this should even be an open question is a sign that our supposedly independent press is a cowed and timid shadow of its former self.”

There will be plenty more said about this column because a lot led up to it. For now I want make one observation, and let that stand as my reaction.

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

No one knows exactly how it happened, for it’s not like a policy decision came down at some point. Rather, the drift of professional practice over time was to bracket or suspend sharp questions of truth and falsehood in order to avoid charges of bias, or excessive editorializing. Journalists felt better, safer, on firmer professional ground–more like pros–when they stopped short of reporting substantially untrue statements as false. One way to describe it (and I believe this is the correct way) is that truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities. Other things now ranked ahead of it.

But wait a minute: how can telling the truth ever take a back seat in the serious business of reporting the news? That’s like saying medical doctors no longer put “saving lives” or “the health of the patient” ahead of securing payment from insurance companies. It puts the lie to the entire contraption. It devastates journalism as a public service and honorable profession.

And so officially, this event (“truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities”) never occurred, even though in reality it did. Because no one was ready for that devastation. Therefore no reckoning (wait: how could this happen?) ever took place. Denial was successfully maintained, even as criticism built and journalists inside the fraternity announced what was happening. Professional practice even shifted to take account of the drift.

Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, skipped onto this scene seemingly unaware of these events. And he basically blurted out what I just explained to you when he asked the users of the New York Times: so whaaddaya think… should we put truthtelling back up there at number one?

Yes, that is what he said. Look at his post again. He tells us that readers are “fed up with the distortions and evasions” and they “look to The Times to set the record straight.” This seems to be their number one priority, he muses. “They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.” (Which is what always stopped us before.) And so Brisbane wants to know: should we run with that? It would mean changing our practices, but we could do it. Hey, what do you guys think?

And then came the reply, which was… devastating.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

UPDATE: September 16, 2012: Margaret Sullivan, the new public editor at the New York Times writes a landmark column: He Said, She Said, and the Truth. “The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be,” she writes. But some of the Times editors have a very different view.

Arthur Brisbane reacts to the reactions to his post. “I often get very well-reasoned complaints and questions from readers, but in this case a lot of people responded to a question I was not asking…”

I have to say I did not expect that so many people would interpret me to have asked only: should The Times print the truth and fact-check? Of course, The Times should print the truth, when it can be found, and fact-check.

What I was trying to ask was whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing. I was hoping for diverse and even nuanced responses to what I think is a difficult question.

And Jason Linkins reacts to him:

Brisbane seems to think that this should force everyone to rethink their original response, somehow. In addition, he apparently had the expectation that readers would provide “diverse” and “nuanced” responses to a question that basically boils down to, “Should the stuff we put in the body of our stories be, like, true and junk?”

My colleague Clay Shirky, writing in The Guardian:

[Brisbane] is evidently so steeped in newsroom culture that he does not understand – literally, does not understand, as we know from his subsequent clarifications – that this is not a hard question at all, considered from the readers’ perspective. Readers do not care about the epistemological differences between lies and weasel words; we want newspapers to limit the ability of politicians to make dubious assertions without penalty. Judging from the reactions to his post, most of us never understood that this wasn’t the newspapers’ self-conceived mission in the first place.

Glenn Greenwald’s point is that the failure to challenge dubious assertions isn’t random. There’s a pattern to it.

The Atlantic rounds up stunned reactions and includes a brief interview with me: Yes, The New York Times Should Definitely Be a Truth Vigilante.

A blogger at National Review conforms to type. Machine could have written it.

Amusing: Should Vanity Fair Be a Spelling Vigilante?

At Poynter: Incredulity meets the public editor’s column.

Climate change blogger Joe Romm: “If the NYT actually thinks that a newsmaker has made a false or misleading statement, then it has two easy options: debunk it or not print it in the first place! This second point is apparently something that never dawns on Brisbane at all.” (Link.)

James Fallows says we should look on the bright side. “Apparently naive questions can often be the start of quite penetrating and profound explorations.”

Bill Keller, until recently the executive editor of the New York Times, reacts to Brisbane’s column. “I wonder if Art hasn’t confused matters a bit by his choice of examples…” He draws a good distinction.

Jill Ambramson, current executive editor of the Times, responds to Brisbane:

In your blog, you ask “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Of course we should and we do. The kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists.

We do it every day, in a variety of ways. On the most ambitious level, we sometimes do entire stories that delve into campaigns to distort the truth. On a day to day basis, we explore the candidates’ actions to see if what they’ve done squares with what they are saying now…

Crikey wishes this debate would come to Australia. “It’s merely to state the bleeding obvious that he-said-she-said is deeply embedded in our journalistic culture.”

Metafilter’s post: Duh. The comments, as always, are great.

David Westphal, former head of the McClatchy Washington bureau, says in the comments that “the pendulum is now swinging the other way.”

I’m guessing most journalists now believe (or soon will) that it’s their sworn duty to baldly call out false and misleading statements. You see reporters writing a lot more sentences like this in their stories: “This is not true.”

But is this sort of thing sufficient? Or should there be a quantum shift in news organizations’ resources to the identification of bogus assertions and errant beliefs? You can imagine an edition of the Times replete with stories, fact-checking features, etc., where that was the main point.

Maybe this is what Art Brisbane was getting at: Where does calling out lies and distortions rank among news organizations’ many roles? It’s obviously very low now. Is that where it should be?

My guess, now that we’re coming to our senses about the stupidity of claiming neutral ground while the BS flies, is that we’ll find it needs to rank much higher.

“Our mission is to find the truth, report it and defend it,” writes Robert Niles. “Don’t like the results? Challenge us with your own data. We’ll shoot it out and see who’s left standing.”

Related: PressThink, The production of innocence.

Greg Sargent at the Washingtonpost.com responds: What are newspapers for?

The Times itself has amplified the assertion — made by Romney and Rick Perry — that Obama has apologized for America, without any rebuttal, at least three times: Here, here, and here. I urge Brisbane to check them out. If he does, he’ll see that any Times customer reading them comes away misled. He or she is left with the mistaken impression that Obama may have, in fact, apologized for America, when he never did any such thing.

In other words, in all those three cases, the Times helped the GOP candidate mislead its own readers — with an assertion that has become absolutely central to the Republican case against Obama. Whatever the practical difficulties of changing this, surely we can all agree that this is not a role newspapers should be playing, particularly at a time when voters are choosing their next president.

Anthony Moor, director of editorial operations at Yahoo and formerly deputy managing editor at the Dallas Morning News, in the comments:

As a journalist myself, I lament our profession’s decades-long somnolence as members of the political and business class employ ever more crafty polemical and propaganda techniques to sway public opinion… In the face of reckless attacks on our credibility and mission, journalists have retreated into a defensive, hide-bound embrace of “objectivity” at the expense of authority and truth. We’ve gazed at our collective navels, wondering, “who are we to question?” and “don’t they have a right to respond?” rather than striking back with what should be our unassailable weapon: Seek truth and report it.

Jack Shafer for Reuters:

Because editors and reporters generally don’t have the guts to take abuse directly from readers, they employ ombudsmen and public editors like Brisbane as their shields: The ombudsman exists primarily to take in the face whatever rotten fruit, bean balls and shards of broken glass that angry readers want to heave at the editors and reporters who produce the newspaper. The ombudsman is a safety valve that prevents reader fury from exploding, a way for the newspaper to say “we listen.” And today, as the gashes on his face prove, Brisbane is earning his pay.

It’s time to completely change the way the ombudsmen do their job, says Dan Gillmor.

Voice of San Diego makes clear where it stands: Why We Consider Ourselves Truth Vigilantes.

We really don’t like “he said, she said” journalism. We don’t consider ourselves stenographers for public officials or the powerful. We have an active responsibility to you to not pass along junk information. So we make it a priority to write with authority and determine, as best we can, what is true.

The NPR ombudsman supports Brisbane, referencing an earlier exchange I had with him about the same issue in NPR reporting. See: We Have No Idea Who’s Right.

Finally, Art Brisbane, the Times public editor, in a follow-up column tells us where he comes down on reporters fact checking the claims they are reporting: an abundance of caution is required. Also, the furor over his earlier item was not worth addressing, except in the most superficial way.

 

Too Much Innovation at the Washington Post? My Q & A with the Post’s Ombudsman

"I am not a person who thinks the fundamentals of journalism have changed that much, despite social media. Of course it's more conversational, engaging. And the online world has changed reporting somewhat, but not fundamentally."

10 Jan 2012 2:02 pm 13 Comments

This week the ombudsman of the Washington Post wrote: Is The Post innovating too fast? The column wonders if the Post newsroom is trying too many new things at too great a rate. The kind of people who read PressThink, Poynter.org and Nieman Lab didn’t know what to make of it.

Rob Curley did. He said on Twitter. “I adore the WaPo, but this is foolish and possibly even irresponsible.” Curley is the new media editor at the Las Vegas Sun, and he used to be the Post’s Vice President of Product Development in the interactive division.

“As someone who has led Post’s digital content initiatives over the past three years, I actually wish it were true that we have too much innovation at the Post,” said the Post’s managing editor for digital, Raju Narisetti. But it is not true, he added.

Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram said the Post should be going faster, not easing up.

I felt that Patrick Pexton’s column didn’t really explain what he was getting at, so I asked for an interview. Today I caught up with him by gchat; this is our exchange.

PressThink: You wondered aloud in your recent column whether the Post might be trying too much innovation and exhausting the staff, along with the patience of its readers. You quoted a couple of readers saying things to that effect, but I’m guessing that a series of observations over time led up to that column. So what were those observations?

Pexton: Yes, good guess. I think No. 1 is the lack of progress at The Post in getting the Web site to download faster for readers. This has been, and is, such a technological challenge, that readers probably mistakenly blame the new innovations for that, when in fact it’s the technological infrastructure, and the tremendous addition of ad plug-ins, etc. that make the site slow to load.

But I think that the innovations, many of which I support, should be done more selectively, and maybe slow down a little until they get the Web site problems fixed. The @mention machine was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back, for me, and for readers.

PressThink: So your point is that the innovation is coming on top of a “base” that isn’t functioning well, symbolized by the agonizingly slow load times on the site (which I have groaned about myself.) Is that correct?

Pexton: Yes.

PressThink: As you know, Managing editor Raju Narisetti replied to your column. He said: “The Post’s future is going to play out at the intersection of technology and content because we have to continue to build loyalty and engagement on the Web, on mobile devices and in social media, the only places where readership will grow. Because of that, our newsroom — both in its thinking and structure — needs to be in a relatively permanent ‘beta’ mode as we learn, adapt and lead. This isn’t change for change sake.” He is essentially saying: get used to it, this is the way it’s going to be and has to be, if the Post is to survive and thrive. It may well be exhausting but there is no alternative.

I know from reading you that you’re not a reflexive defender of the old ways. And I think we can stipulate that no one knows how much innovation is enough. So can we pinpoint where your views and Raju’s diverge?

Pexton: Good question. I am much more a modernist than traditionalist, yes, and I agree with Raju that a lot of innovation needs to happen, and I don’t mind experimentation to see what works and what does not. That’s admirable. I just think there’s a bit too little thought to the kind of innovation that is being done and for what purpose.

I had a conversation with an editor this week, who attended a story planning meeting, and the editor said that three fourths of the discussion was on what kind of videos, photo galleries, and online polls to do and almost no discussion of the story’s written focus and direction. It’s all distracting. Some of it is absolutely necessary, but I think a bit more focus on the reporting first, then come in with the add ons later.

PressThink: So maybe what you’re really saying is not that there’s too much innovation being tried but too weak a narrative for how The Post can innovate at the center of its mission and strengths. After all, if innovation means adds ons–bells and whistles–that threaten to detract from the core strengths, that won’t get it done, either… right?

Pexton: Correct. I think, and I’ve commented on this in other columns, that the journalistic direction is not well laid out here, or at least not sufficiently to put the innovations in a framework.

PressThink: “Do everything” is a weak narrative about what needs to change.

Pexton: Yes. What’s the Post’s narrative? I know what the official strategy is, but that’s more of a business strategy than a journalistic one.

PressThink: This is why I like working for John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, a combine of Journal Register Company and Media News newspapers. He has a simple narrative for this transition period newspapers have to undergo: Digital First. It sounds like a buzzword to some, but it isn’t. It means shifting away from print as the production god, the giver of laws, so that the printed edition becomes an outcome of what you are doing digitally, including interactions with users. Is there any over-arching concept like that at the Post?

Pexton: Well, that’s interesting. But 80 percent of the Post’s revenue still comes from print circulation (home subscriptions, newsstand sales, and print advertising) and the rest from online ads and such. Traffic to the Post’s Web site is steadily climbing–great, we all want to see that–but online revenue isn’t. Some of these innovations are alienating print readers.

In terms of an overarching concept– the Post should be the indispensable guide to Washington is the official strategy. I don’t quibble with that. But how does the journalism fit into that? Too many things in Washington that would be of concern to national, even worldwide readers, of the Post are not covered well. Other things are covered too much.

PressThink: One sees the problem. As a print product, the Post is a local newspaper. As a digital product, it should be national and international. Only a powerful and creative story can bring those things together. “The indispensable guide to Washington…” may not be it. But I want to challenge you about something you just said.

Pexton: Sure.

PressThink: I get that the revenue is still coming from print and the print readers are feeling less well-served, and that’s a problem. But no one that I know of has any data saying that the born-on-the-web generation will be print subscribers. And print advertising continues to decline, so… Isn’t the heart of the challenge here to leverage those remaining revenues into a digital future?

Pexton: Yes, I agree. But the pace of that conversion needs to be monitored very closely. Some of the Post’s financial base, for the next decade, maybe two, will be the print subscribers–we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue there, whereas web ads are tens of millions. To keep this a solid regional newspaper, where a lot of revenue still is and will remain, the Post I think has to cover local news better. If a Web innovation adds another million unique visitors per month, but that’s done at the expense of five fewer local reporters, then the net effect on the Post’s revenue, for now, is negative.

PressThink: Melanie Sill, former editor of the Sacramento Bee, also replied to your column at her blog:

“Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels… As someone who spent too much time reassuring readers that newspapers weren’t really changing, I wish now that I’d invested that energy instead in discussing the goals of change and enlisting readers as advisers with a stake in the paper’s future…. I’ve spoken with eight or 10 former top editors in the course of the last few months, some retired and others working in new jobs in media. From each I heard a version of the same regrets: looking back, they wished they’d pushed harder, focused more on the world outside newsrooms and responded more boldly to the opportunities and challenges of digital shift.”

Her argument interests me. She’s saying that newspaper journalists who came up during the age of print have the wrong metric; what seems dramatic to them isn’t nearly enough. And she’s warning that reader complaints are inherently conservative because no one who has developed the newspaper habit wants her newspaper to change. That’s why she says: instead of heeding their complaints about change, enlist them in the planning for a different product. Is she wrong?

Pexton: I read her post. The Post internally is actually talking about this problem of sections and such right now. They’re finding that the landing pages for sections (Style, Local, Entertainment, business etc) aren’t working very well, except for the home page, and politics. So some thought is going into how to do this online better. Perhaps that might lead to different printed sections later too. That’s good thinking, and smart thinking.

Yes, readers are conservative, I listen to them all day long, but not as conservative as people think. They’re ready for change, most of them, but smart change. But all this thinking about a digital future has to be kept in the context of what is a good news story, what do people want to know. Involving readers in that more is absolutely appropriate.

PressThink: Ombudsman often annoy or grate on the newsrooms they monitor, but my guess–and it’s just that, a guess–is that your column on innovation got a lot of warm responses from the Post staff. Am I wrong?

Pexton: You are absolutely correct. I was a bit surprised how many Post staffers complimented me on it. And some of them are not traditionalists, but modernists.

PressThink: I have been wanting to ask you this for a while: What is a print journalist?

Pexton: I think we should not talk about print or digital journalists. I think we’re all journalists. We should all use the modern technologies to convey our reporting, our analysis, our quick hit news, our deeper thoughts. Writers and editors, in an ideal world, should shift back and forth and be both.

I am not a person who thinks the fundamentals of journalism have changed that much, despite social media. Of course it’s more conversational, engaging, and such. And the online world has changed reporting, somewhat, but not fundamentally. A journalists jobs is to report and write on the things that affect people’s lives. I really think we need to integrate better the training of young reporters and editors so there is not a print/digital divide. Web reporters should go off and cover county council meetings just as print reporters should.

PressThink: Ever considered the counter-argument? The users position, in an online world, is fundamentally different, and because of that, the journalist’s job has to change and may even change in some ways that are radically disruptive.

Pexton: How is the user’s position fundamentally different? I don’t see it.

PressThink: Because on the web every page is within reach of every user, and that condition has absolutely no parallel in the age of print.

Pexton: But they’ll come to the sources they trust. Competition is tougher, yes, all the more reason to be solid in your reporting and elegant in your writing.

PressThink: Okay, final question: Have you ever thought that maybe the ombudsman job itself needs innovation? I don’t mean adding a blog or starting a podcast but something more akin to reconstructive surgery?

Pexton: I’m open to suggestions. I do a lot of troubleshooting that I never write about, maybe I should write about some of these internal struggles more. But I think you’re thinking bigger.

PressThink: Well, one of the revolutions we’ve seen is in the reader’s ability to reach the Post. By pushing on that, the reader’s representative, or ombudsman, could wield a lot more data, and out of that data might come new ways of “representing” readers and fighting on their behalf. That’s one direction to go in. But it is not a fully formed thought.

Pexton: Yes, I concur. Then The Post must agree to share with me all of its internal data on traffic, hits, what kinds of stories do well, and what don’t. And so far, with the exception of limited access, I don’t have that.

PressThink: That’s a shame. Patrick, thanks very much.

Pexton: You’re welcome, Jay. Happy to do it.

A Viewer’s Guide to Iowa Caucus Coverage

"The Iowa Caucuses are presented as a news event, a mini-election with an informational outcome, a winner. But what they really are is a ritual, the gathering of a tribe, which affirms itself and its place in our political system by staging this thing every four years."

3 Jan 2012 6:53 pm 10 Comments

I have been observing and commenting on campaign coverage for 24 years, ever since I read Joan Didion’s world-beating essay, Insider Baseball, which I recommend to you as preparation for tonight’s coverage of the Iowa Caucuses.

Here I want to offer you two different ways of thinking about what campaign coverage is. The distinction I unfold in this post will, I hope, prove useful as you take in the Caucus chatter tonight. And do keep in mind that no delegates for the Republican nomination are at stake. That’s right! The correct number is zero: “The Iowa caucuses will award no delegates to any candidate.”

So here is my distinction: The Iowa Caucuses are presented as a news event, a mini-election with an informational outcome, a winner. But what they really are is a ritual, the gathering of a professional tribe, which affirms itself and its place in our political system by staging this thing every four years. The tribe I have in mind is this one:

At the zoo that is the Iowa Caucus, the lobby bar in the downtown Des Moines Marriott is like a communal watering hole where roving packs of reporters, political hacks, and even candidates assemble nightly to drain drinks and exchange political gossip. New arrivals can cause heads to turn, like when Jill Abramson and Maureen Dowd entered the bar around 7:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve before hosting a dinner for New York Times staffers. A few moments later, Mitt Romney sparked chatter when he hustled by the front desk pulling his own roller bag, looking like the Bain consultant road warrior he once was.

Last night, it was Buzzfeed’s new editor-in-chief Ben Smith who occupied the room’s attention as he mingled through the lobby, talking with Esquire writer Charlie Pierce and Drudge’s deputy Charlie Hurt, among others…

The Caucuses are primarily about that. But they’re presented as opening day in a season that belongs to the voters.

Let’s get right to my distinction. It is between a “transmission” and a “ritual” model of news and communication. My guide in these matters is the media scholar James W. Carey, who died in 2006. He was our greatest journalism professor ever, though few of his countrymen know anything about him.

In his most famous essay, “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” Carey identifies “two alternative conceptions of communication” that have influenced American thought since the term entered our discourse in the nineteenth century. One he calls a “transmission view,” so common as to almost be common sense. Here, communication means the delivery of “messages” or “news” across distance. Typically, the messages are of an informational sort, and they are assumed to be important for making decisions (like whom to vote for) or controlling action. At the “deepest roots of our thinking,” Carey observes, “we picture the act of communication as the transmittal of information across space.” Like, say… from Iowa to your living room.

In contrast to the transmission metaphor stands the “ritual” view.

Here, communication is linked to terms such as “sharing,””participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” and the “possession of a common faith.” This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms “commonness,” “communion,””community,” and “communication.”

A ritual view directs our attention not to the movement of messages in space but to the “maintenance of society in time;” not to “the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.” Perhaps the simplest example of a ritual act of communication is a church sermon, which typically serves not to “send a message” or convey fresh facts, but to draw the congregation together in the celebration and contemplation of a shared faith, which is meant to endure.

My suggestion is that it would be more profitable to treat the Iowa Caucuses as a “ritual,” rather than an informational or news event. There may be a modicum of information emerging from the caucuses themselves; they may tell us something–a little bit–about the relative standing of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann. But caucus coverage is more profitably viewed as a campaign ritual, in which the tribe of political reporters (like Chuck Todd or Mark Halperin) and pundits (an E.J. Dionne or a David Brooks) and pollsters (like, say, Frank Luntz) and operatives (or former operatives like James Carville or Donna Brazille) claim interpretive rights over the election of 2012.

Every four years they gather in Iowa to affirm that their way of seeing is the way to see a presidential campaign. They say they are bringing you news of what happened in Iowa. But what they’re really doing is maintaining their little society of insiders across yet another election cycle. That is what rituals do. They preserve community over time. About these insiders Joan Didion observed…

They tend to speak a language common in Washington but not specifically shared by the rest of us. They talk about “programs,” and “policy,” and how to “implement” them or it, about “trade-offs” and constituencies and positioning the candidate and distancing the candidate, about the “story,” and how it will “play.” They speak of a candidate’s performance, by which they usually mean his skill at circumventing questions, not as citizens but as professional insiders, attuned to signals pitched beyond the range of normal hearing: “I hear he did all right this afternoon,” they were saying to one another in the press section of the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on the evening Dan Quayle was or was not to be nominated for the vice-presidency. “I hear he did OK with Brinkley.” By the time the balloons fell that night the narrative had changed: “Quayle, zip,” the professionals were saying as they brushed the confetti off their laptops. These are people who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns.

Didion continues:

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. “I didn’t realize you were a political junkie,” Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.

Then she goes in for the kill. “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” Yes! That is something else I want you to watch for tonight. That remoteness.

Important for my purposes is James Carey’s description of the news media in a transmission view, as compared to what it looks like under a ritual understanding. A transmission perspective sees the media as a vehicle for disseminating news and knowledge. It also leads us to ask about the “effects” of this act on audiences. We see news “as enlightening or obscuring reality, as changing or hardening attitudes, as breeding credibility or doubt.”

A ritual view treats news reading as a different sort of act, concerned not with the conveyance of facts but with our placement in an imaginative space– one that is interesting, dramatic, satisfying to the imagination. And so Carey writes:

What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of contending forces in the world. Moreover, as readers make their way through the paper, they engage in a continual shift of roles or of dramatic focus. A story on the monetary crisis salutes them as American patriots fighting those ancient enemies Germany and Japan; a story on the meeting of the women’s political caucus casts them into the liberation movement as supporter or opponent; a tale of violence on the campus evokes their class antagonisms and resentments. The model here is not that of information acquisition, though such acquisition occurs, but of dramatic action in which the reader joins a world of contending forces as an observer at a play.

Carey‘s point in “A Cultural Approach to Communication” is not that the transmission view is “wrong,” but that it cannot illuminate much of what is happening when we encounter the news. A feature on the candidate’s media adviser invites us behind the scenes, where appearances are contrived for an unwitting audience from whom we are now separated by our superior knowledge of the mechanics of manipulation. A television report puts us inside the cockpit of a fighter jet, zeroing in on an enemy target with high-tech precision. We might call this the “positioning effect.” It occurs regardless of whether the journalist-as-author takes a position or produces a neutral, “objective” account. Something else I want you to watch for tonight. How are we–the users, the viewers–being positioned by the reporting and commentary we are given?

If positioning is part of what journalists do, then it is reasonable to ask how they should do it. But this is only one in a class of novel questions illuminated by Carey’s ritual view. As soon as journalists are no longer seen as information providers, they emerge in a variety of more interesting and ambiguous guises: as dramatists, model makers, timekeepers, scene-setters, script-writers. They build public stages, people them with actors, and frame the action in a certain way. But none of these acts appear in their job description.

Finally, there is the weird fact that journalists are reporting on an event they have largely created, but the rules they operate under prevent them from fully acknowledging this fact. As Brendan Nyhan observes in CJR:

The “meaning” of the caucus results is not always clear. These rough edges are typically sanded away in post-Iowa reporting and commentary, however, which tends to emphasize the order of the finish (even when the margins between candidates are small) as well as unexpectedly weak or strong results. Media outlets then shift energy and resources toward candidates who performed well under the prevailing interpretation, while ignoring or providing negative coverage of those who were believed to have done poorly. These shifts in coverage, which themselves become part of the information party leaders are responding to, can help create massive post-Iowa swings in a candidate’s chances.

The result is a refraction effect in which journalists help make Iowa influential and then report on its “effects” without acknowledging their role in the process or the often arbitrary nature of the distinctions that are made among the candidates.

But that’s part of the ritual: Yeah, we created this thing but we bring it to you as if it would happen without us.

Politifact Chose the Vice of the Year but They Called it a Lie. That was Dumb.

You can get mad at your friends, right? I mean... that's allowed. I am mad at my friends at Politifact because I believe in what they are doing, I think it's important work, I've even helped them do it in a couple of small ways, and now they've gone and made it impossible for me to defend them when they're getting slammed.

22 Dec 2011 2:34 pm 6 Comments

By choosing as its lie of the year “Republicans voted to end Medicare,” Politfact took an arguable point and tried to turn into a lie. Big mistake. They hurt the Politifact project by doing that. I wish they hadn’t.

The reason I think they were wrong is not that I see the statement, “Republicans voted to end Medicare” as indisputably true. It’s more the opposite: this is a very disputable claim. Jonathan Chait’s analysis matches my own:

The Republican budget would very dramatically change Medicare. The plan would turn a single-payer system into vouchers for private insurance, and the value of those vouchers would fall steadily behind the cost of that insurance, so that within a relatively short time it would cover only a small fraction of the cost of insurance.

Is that “ending Medicare?” Well, it’s a matter of opinion. At some point, a change is dramatic enough that it is clearly ending the program. If you proposed to replace Medicare with a plan to give everybody two free aspirin on their 65th birthday, I would hope Politfact would concede that this would be “ending Medicare,” even if you call the free aspirin “Medicare.” On the other hand, small tweaks could not accurately be called “ending Medicare.” Between those two extremes, you have gray areas where you can’t really say with certainty whether a change is radical enough to constitute ending Medicare.

Does the Republican plan indeed end Medicare? I would argue yes. But it’s obviously a question of interpretation, not fact. And the whole problem with Politifact’s “Lie of the Year” is that it doesn’t grasp this distinction

Right. The Economist pointed out another problem, which is that Lie of the Year says something about an intention to deceive. “The finalists are presented as lies rather than inaccurate statements or misinterpretations.”

This is an important distinction because, with regard to the Medicare claim, both sides could well be sincere: Democrats believe Republicans are trying to kill Medicare, and Republicans believe they aren’t. And while both sides have a political interest—senior citizens are diligent voters—let’s posit that there are Republicans who sincerely believe the best way to steward the country, and to guarantee some health care to the future elderly, is to reform the system to bring down entitlement costs. In other words, if insincerity or deliberate deception is a defining feature of a lie, then it may be that neither side is lying, regardless of who is correct.

It’s fair for Politifact to point out that “Republicans voted to end Medicare” isn’t as accurate as it could be. It’s fair to observe that adding a qualifier like, “Republicans voted to end Medicare as we’ve known it…” makes it more kosher. It’s fair to criticize those Democrats who have spoken less precisely than they could have about the change that Congressman Paul Ryan proposed. It’s fair to point to the inglorious history of scaring senior citizens rather than solving real problems. And it’s fair to hold up as virtuous more cautious statements, as Politifact did here:

President Barack Obama was also more precise with his words, saying the Medicare proposal “would voucherize the program and you potentially have senior citizens paying $6,000 more.”

My verdict: I don’t think Politifact chose a lie of the year in 2011. Their sights were set on something different, and they erred by calling it what they called it. They wanted to point out how far from virtuous the behavior of some Democrats was in reaction to the Ryan plan. They were standing up for the idea of scrupulous debate. They were saying: Be more careful! Because if you are not careful, you can scare people unnecessarily. Don’t go for the easy line! Be strict with yourself! Stay virtuous…

But the object of their criticism wasn’t a lie, it was a vice. They chose the vice of the year, and they called it a lie, which violates one of the ideas Politifact stands for: if things cannot be called by their right names, public discussion itself becomes impossible.

The Ten Best Things I Wrote in 2011

My version of a year end review. These are the highlights from my writing and posting life this year. They are in chronological order: earliest to latest. I have included Facebook likes as a rough proxy for reader interest

18 Dec 2011 3:52 pm 8 Comments

1. The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article (PressThink, Feb. 13, 2011) “Almost everyone who cares about such a discussion is excited about the Internet. Almost everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away. When we nod along with Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators we’re assuring ourselves that our excitement is contained, that we’re being realistic, mature, grown-up about it.”

One of my favorite forms of criticism: the genre analysis. In this case, a genre that drives me up the wall. The context is the Arab Spring and social media’s role in it.

Facebook Likes: 219.

2. They Brought a Tote Bag to a Knife Fight: The Resignation of NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller. (PressThink, March 10, 2011) “The people committed to NPR’s destruction are greatly emboldened, its staff is demoralized, the board has shown that it can be rolled, and as far as I can tell no one with any platform within the public media system is willing to take on the people committed to its destruction.”

Made more significant for me by the fact that later in the year, I faced the same kind of culture war attack, engineered by the same person. (Link.)

Facebook Likes: 476.

3. The Twisted Psychology of Bloggers vs. Journalists: My Talk at South By Southwest. (PressThink, March 12, 2011) “Disruptions caused by the Internet threaten to expose certain buried conflicts at the heart of modern journalism and a commercialized press. Raging at bloggers is a way to keep these demons at bay. It exports inner conflicts to figures outside the press. Also–and this is important–bloggers and journalists are each other’s ideal ‘other.’”

In this piece I try to explain why the tension between bloggers vs. journalists hasn’t gone away.

Facebook Likes: 209.

4. What I Think I Know About Journalism. (PressThink, April 26, 2011) “It comes down to these four ideas. 1. The more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be. 2. The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere. 3. The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people. 4. Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us…”

To mark 25 years of teaching journalism at NYU I decided to write down the four things I think I really know about it.

Facebook Likes: 587.

5. The Internet is Making Journalism Better: Opening Statement. (The Economist, July 12, 2011) “The internet is replacing a system in which a small number of gatekeepers employed by a heavily capitalised industry that tended towards monopoly held almost all the powers of the press. In that system the ‘job’ of the audience was to remain in their seats, atomized and inert, as the professional journalist delivered news, entertainment, politics, sport, understanding, debate: public life in a package.”

Part of a debate I had at The Economist site with skeptic Nicholas Carr. I took the side that the Internet is making journalism better. Carr said: no, worse.

Facebook Likes: not available.

6. Why Political Coverage is Broken. (PressThink, Aug. 26, 2011) “This is what’s so odd about savviness as a political style performed for the public. It tries to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique. In this sense savviness is an attack on our solidarity with strangers who share the same political space.”

This talk I gave at the Melbourne Writer’s festival is part of the background for the announcement this month of my collaboration with The Guardian to improve campaign coverage. (Link.)

Facebook Likes: 876.

7. We Have No Idea Who’s Right: Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR. (PressThink, Sep. 15, 2011) “According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims. It knows of no way to adjudicate these clashing views. It is simply confused and helpless and the best it can do is pass on that helplessness to listeners of Morning Edition.”

This critique of NPR brought a response from the ombudsman that allowed me to add to my criticisms.

Facebook Likes: 624.

8. “Low information voters” and the political press. (PressThink, Nov. 17, 2011) “What if journalists sense that their work never reaches the voters whose inattentiveness is being exploited? What if they somehow know that voters are getting screwed but they’ve lost faith in their ability to do anything about it?”

Pro journalists don’t have a lot of patience for theory. Which means they if they have a broken theory, they wouldn’t necessarily know it. That’s what this post is about.

Facebook Likes: 87.

9. Occupy PressThink: Tim Pool (Nov. 20, 2011) “Being a livestream he acts as ‘eyes and ears’ for the viewers. Literally. People will tell him to move the camera somewhere and he’ll do it. They’ll ask for interviews with someone, and Tim will go over and do so… The viewers will ask him questions and he won’t rest until he gets them their answers.”

Citizen journalism takes a lot of abuse. But here’s a case where it shines, fulfilling the Max Headroom prophecy. (Link.)

Facebook Likes: 138.

10. News Corp is Bad News (The Drum, Nov. 21, 2011) “News Corp is not a news company at all but a global media empire that employs its newspapers – and in the United States, Fox News – as a lobbying arm and intimidation machine. The logic of holding these ‘press’ properties is to wield influence on behalf of the (much bigger and more profitable) media business and also to satisfy Murdoch’s own power urges or, in the case of Australia, his patrimonial legends.”

Wherein I unfold my theory of why Murdoch’s news properties are so thinly committed to telling the truth.

Facebook Likes: not available.

Bonus links:

* Columbia Journalism Review ran a huge feature on what it called The Future of News gurus: primarily Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky and myself. The article is mostly, though not entirely, critical. See Confidence Game: The limited vision of the news gurus.

* In this 18 minute video, I explain how I follow the news on my “beat” (trends in journalism, press criticism, new media, digital culture) and curate my Twitter feed.

* This video (5:14) is my Ignite talk at Newsfoo 2011 in Phoenix. Ignite is a format where a speaker gets 20 slides that auto advance every 15 seconds. The title is The Abyss of Observation alone. It’s a kind of parable about the limits of objectivity in journalism, based on an old blog post of the same title.

The Citizens Agenda: A Plan to Make Election Coverage More Useful to People

I'm teaming up with The Guardian to try something different in campaign journalism. Here's the announcement post, with my commentary after it.

8 Dec 2011 8:05 am 16 Comments

The Citizens Agenda: Making Election Coverage More Useful
Co-published with The Guardian.

by Amanda Michel and Jay Rosen

In a few weeks, the Iowa caucuses will officially kick off the 2012 campaign for president and we’ll begin to get answers to the questions that obsess our political press: who’s gonna win? What is the winning strategy?

We’re equally obsessed with a different question: how can Americans get a “win” in the election of 2012? Meaning: the kind of dialogue they deserve, a campaign that connects to their deepest concerns and helps them make sense of the cascading problems now before the United States. And if you share our obsession, you can help us get started or follow along.

Presidential elections are a race – a marathon, as the exhausted candidate often says. They are national spectacles, not around the edges but at their core. Elections are comedies, too, a rolling entertainment. And so there has to be a place for horse race polls, game day coverage, personality journalism, political carnival, and even for front-page stories on the guy who cuts the candidate’s hair.

But we think it will be a loss for the public, and the press, if no revision is made in the master narrative for election coverage, which treats politics as a strategic game in order to ask – endlessly – what it’s going to take to win in 2012. That engine is by now exhausted. It cannot do the work we need the press to do if Americans are going to get the kind of debate they deserve. But what are the alternatives?

In 2008, the two of us teamed up with the Huffington Post to try to improve election coverage by broadening participation in it. We called that project OffTheBus. It relied on the public, people who were not political journalists, and thus not inside the campaign bubble. Who’s gonna win? was not their typical starting point. More like: where and how does this campaign touch my life? They covered those connecting points from small towns to big cities, offered a look inside their local campaign HQs, analyzed campaign expenditure data, sifted through campaign material for trends and anomalies, and profiled almost all of the so-called “super delegates,” who had a big role in the nomination battle that Barack Obama won. Just as Obama’s campaign empowered the grassroots, OffTheBus “let the roots guide its coverage.”

OffTheBus brought networking methods to campaign reporting and commentary. We eventually enlisted 12,000 people, partly on the strength of a simple idea: democracy is about participating, so let’s extend that principle to the campaign news system and see if we can make it work. We learned that there’s great potential in this kind journalism – imagine the expertise and observational powers of 12,000 pairs of eyes and ears – but also a long way to go. Fortunately, the Hufffington Post is going to continue with OffTheBus in 2012. We look forward to seeing what they do with it.

Meanwhile, we have another idea. We want to go right at the problem of an exhausted master narrative. It’s time to attempt a replacement – or replacements. So that is what Guardian US and NYU’s Studio 20 program in journalism are going to do in 2012, using some of what we learned from OffTheBus and also from The Guardian’s own experiments in pro-am and crowdsourced journalism. The alternative to who’s going to win in the game of getting elected? is, we think, a “citizens agenda” approach to campaign coverage. It starts with a question: what do voters want the candidates to be discussing as they compete with each other in 2012? If we can get enough people to answer to that question, we’ll have an alternative to election coverage as usual.

The Guardian’s over-arching commitment to an open and collaborative newsroom makes it a natural home for the citizens agenda. It recently unveiled guardiannews.com, announced its plans to report for a US audience, and has begun staffing up (We’re looking for a social media editor and a community coordinator). Here’s how Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian US, puts it:

Although The Guardian has had talented correspondents in the US for some time now and has covered many elections here, they have always been foreign correspondents, reporting back for a UK audience. Now we’ve launched in the US and are publishing to US readers, we wanted to make sure our coverage was distinctive and added something to the general noise and swirl of an election campaign. Our starting position was, ‘We’re new in town. How could we possibly pretend to know what the US electorate wants to hear from its prospective representatives?’ Best, in that circumstance, to ask the question, we thought.

The citizens agenda is a simple concept, and our approach is fairly straightforward: we aim to identify and articulate the citizens agenda, and to help set up The Guardian for its general election coverage by experimenting with citizens agenda features and approaches. Studio 20 students will work alongside The Guardian’s journalists in brainstorming, designing and managing features on guardiannews.com through early May 2012. Together we will arrive at the picture of how people want journalists to cover the election through a number of traditional and non-traditional methods, including sampling science, internet polling, web forms, social media, old fashioned reporting, discussions and debates, experimental features, plus staff and user-generated content. Starting in late January, when students are back in session and the primaries are presumably winding down, we will launch our first features. Between February and May we will iterate and edit our approach.

Working parallel to The Guardian’s project will be local newsrooms doing essentially the same thing, but for statewide and local elections. The Media News and Journal Register companies, under the joint management of Digital First Media, plan to develop the citizens agenda approach in their own election coverage, collaborating with The Guardian on the best ways to discern what voters want the campaign to be about.

We hope that other local news organizations will want to join in as the experiment takes shape. The more that do, the better our chances for learning how to do it right.

“For any local news organization to be successful down the road, it needs to engage its citizens in meaningful ways, and to me, this is a perfect example of how we can and should do that,” said Jim Brady, editor-in-chief of Digital First Media.

I think the partnership with The Guardian is a model for national-local media partnerships that I hope will continue to evolve. The Guardian will take on the huge national piece of the citizens agenda, and at Journal Register Company and MediaNews Group papers, we’ll localize it. So, in every city or town where we have a news organization, we’ll be able to find out what citizens are most interested in discussing and try and get them the answers they need to make an informed decision when they show up to vote.

The initial goal of this kind of journalism is to expose the demand for news and views around problems the voters see as real and urgent. In other words: What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?

Or: what should this campaign be about? Social media and the two-way nature of the Internet make it possible to ask that question of many more people than you could reach in a poll, although polling is important for reliability.

The answers that come in form the basis for the citizens agenda. It won’t be a single issue, of course, but a basket of top concerns broadly shared by respondents – six to ten, or perhaps as many as a dozen priorities that originate not with journalists or campaign managers, but with voters. Some may be different from the issues the operatives see as advantageous to their candidate, or maybe not. The point is that we won’t know until we ask.

Once synthesized, the citizens agenda can be used as an alternative starting point for The Guardian’s campaign journalism. When the candidates speak, their promises and agendas are mapped against the citizens agenda. Reporters assigned to cover the campaign can dig deep on the items that make up the citizen’s agenda. In questioning the candidates, The Guardian will ask about things that flow from that agenda. Explainers should try to clarify and demystify the problems named in the citizens agenda.

What the voters want the candidates to be discussing is not a static thing, nor is it easy to determine. So we will have to keep working at it until we get it right, which is part of the reason The Guardian is collaborating with a journalism school. This is an experiment. Last spring, Studio 20 worked with ProPublica.org on how to create better explainers. That project will feed into this one.

The ultimate goal of a citizens agenda is to bring the candidates to it, so that what people want the candidates to be discussing is actually addressed. Campaign coverage gains a clear purpose: information and access that is useful to people in getting their priorities addressed.

That’s a goal worth obsessing about. So, now it’s your turn: how do you recommend we get started? Where do we look for inspiration? And what do you see as the campaign’s core issues? Please join us in the comments below or add #citizensagenda to your tweets.

* * *

Additional notes and commentary by Jay Rosen

1. Amanda Michel is the Open Editor of The Guardian US. She started there in November. We worked together on Assignment Zero, OffTheBus, Building a Better Explainer and now The Citizens Agenda. All of them are attempts to include the users more effectively in the practice of journalism.

2. We’re hoping to interest other news organizations in taking this approach to the 2012 elections. Whenever you try something different like this, there are lots of problems. The more sites the experiment runs at, the more likely we are to solve those problems. If you’re an editor or news executive and want to try the citizens agenda approach, email me or leave a comment here.

3. This project comes directly out of an earlier post of mine: The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage. That post was in turn inspired by a 1992 project at The Charlotte Observer, by a 1990 project at the Wichita Eagle, and by the words of David Broder, the most revered political reporter of his generation, who said in a 1991 speech:

…If we are going to change the pattern, we in the press have to try deliberately to reposition ourselves in the process. We have to try to distance ourselves from the people we write about–the politicians and their political consultants–and move ourselves closer to the people that we write for– the voters and potential voters.

That’s what we’re doing. It’s not revolutionary. It’s what Broder thought necessary twenty years ago. The campaign should be treated as the property of the voters, he said, for they “have a right to have their concerns addressed and their questions answered by the people who are seeking to exercise power.” Yeah. Exactly.

4. What I like about this project is that the whole thing pivots around a single question: What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012? That’s easy to state, and only 16 words. But it’s going to be hard to do. I think we’re going to need all methods known to woman and man: random sampling to provide statistical validity, old-fashioned reporting, blogging and citizen journalism, web forms we ask people to fill out, the polling of networks, social media of course including the Twitter hashtag #citizensagenda, SMS, voice mail even, and several methods we have not devised yet. Got ideas? Hit the comment button.

The citizens agenda, as we’re picturing it, will be an editorial product, made by The Guardian newsroom from the answers received to our “master” question. It will require interpretation. It will involve an editor’s judgment. But mostly, it will be a creative act of listening.

5. I am on the advisory board of Digital First Media, which will be bringing the same approach to local elections. (A feature on its CEO, John Paton.) “While coverage of the overall election — from the horse race to the conventions to the political theater — will remain part of our coverage, we agree with the idea that citizens should have a larger role in determining the issues that are discussed and covered,” said Jim Brady, Editor-in-Chief of Digital First Media. “Taking this community-driven approach to elections fits right into our overall philosophy of combining traditional journalism values with new, bold experiments.”

6. Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian in London, in a speech last year.

Many of the Guardian’s most interesting experiments at the moment lie in this area of combining what we know, or believe, or think, or have found out, with the experience, range, opinions, expertise and passions of the people who read us, or visit us or want to participate rather than passively receive… It is not about replacing the skills and knowledge of journalists with (that ugly phrase) user generated content. It is about experimenting with the balance of what we know, what we can do, with what they know, what they can do… There is a mutualised interest here. We are reaching towards the idea of a mutualised news organisation.

This project participates in that.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

NiemanLab covers the announcement: Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012.

Once you know what people want from political journalism, how do you go about creating that journalism? What’s the right balance between competition-based, and issue-based, coverage? What’s the right balance, for that matter, between journalists determining coverage and the public determining it?

“We applaud your goal and will be interested in how you assess the citizens’ agenda. Our newspaper in Florida is attempting something similar…” That’s the spirit.

Me, on Twitter:

#citizensagenda: What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012? OK, I’ll go first. jr.ly/7ndb

You can play too. The format is..
1. the #citizensagenda hashtag
2. what you want the candidates to be discussing
3. a link that can inform us about 2.)

Isn’t this just focus group research, like the campaigns conduct in order to sell their candidates? Well, uh… no, not really.

The professionals call them “cycles.” Civilians call them elections. From the last cycle, 2008: Why Campaign Coverage Sucks.

I think a case can be made that improving campaign dialogue–the news, as well as the discourse–is not just a problem, but a wicked problem.

This is the way the horse race should be done. Then assign reporters and editors to a better master narrative.

Official press release from The Guardian on this project.