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, 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 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 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.

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.


As an active blogger and a consumer of political commentary, I still see one problem. It is most clearly illustrated by the fate of the Science Debate 2008 project. Politicians know that they can ignore science and suffer no consequences.

So, now we have a number of books that document the seriousness of this problem: Unscientific America by Mooney and Kirshenbaum is a good start, or perhaps Sean Lawrence Otto’s Fool Me Twice. They identify the problem and the consequences of ignoring science in the development of public policy.

I question how a Citizen’s Agenda will help us bring science into the political discussion if the public does not yet care.

I guess it’s up the elite.

Winning over politicians and winning over the public discourse (via mass media) aren’t the same thing. If this project aims for the latter, then it’s potentially more effective than something that aims for just the former.

What use is a citizens’ agenda when most Americans know almost nothing about the crucial issues of the day?….namely environment (climate change, biodiversity, ocean fisheries depletion, habitat destruction, etc.). I’ll wager that a tiny per cent of one percent respond saying environmental issues are the top priority. An educated informed public must precede
policy making and voting. To date this is not the case.

Maybe we should fire the current electorate and look for a new one. Think that would work?

Sounds like this is the fault of – and an opportunity for – the press.

This sounds great! We have begun talking about a similar approach to election reporting in 2012, beginning with a crowd-sourcing a list of issues for various elections, from local to national. We hope to launch with on-line forums and social media-generated discussions in January.

Keep in touch with me about that, Mary.

MikeJake says:

I actually wasn’t aware that the Guardian had launched a US page. That they’re launching a project with Jay to improve the quality of election coverage is actually kind of depressing, something that the domestic press should be ashamed of but likely won’t be.

Well, what we’ve heard from the domestic press so far is silence. Not a surprise, and not a problem, either.

I don’t know if it indicates the disparity between NYU/Studio 20 and journalism schools in the UK, but it’s a shame the Guardian don’t pursue projects like this domestically.

They have the Guardian Student Media Awards, with a 2 weeks internship for winners. Why not really invest in the future of journalism by investing in journalism schools?

This grumble is born out of jealousy and I’ll be keeping a keen eye on this project; quietly hoping that the experiment is repeated here in the UK as we shift, increasingly, to US style politics.

All the best on this endeavour.

Thank you very much, Daniel. I am going to use your comment to motivate my students.

It occurs to me that given this is a project involving the Guardian, the US might benefit by opening this discussion of its democratic process to the world. Effectively who the next US president is, has a definitive impact on every aspect of the world’s economy and politics. A forum run by an established media organisation and by a respected editor, might be a good chance to globalise the US debate, which often strikes many outsiders as polarised.

That is one of the ideas we have kicked around.

I’m in total agreement with you that the political-insider master narrative is corrosive. But I’m not sure that collecting what “the voters” want to see “discussed” is a very compelling alternative.
The campaign journalism I want to see:
• starts with real crises that America faces and reports the extent to which candidates address them;
• reports on, and therefore holds candidates accountable for, their real records;
• pushes candidates for specific policy proposals, and points out when they duck taking positions;
• decodes campaign messages; and
• exposes stagecraft and phoniness.

Reporters should strive to give an electorate the information they need to make an informed choice among real policy alternatives. Yes, many voters may still be uninformed, but at least it won’t be because journalists left them in the dark.


The Hawaii Independent is planning to implement a variation on this approach in our coverage of the 2012 elections. We’re in a process now of identifying and reaching out to community and civic leaders for their input. We’re excited to use this approach!

Ikaika Hussey
The Hawaii Independent