Election coverage: the road not taken

It's called the "citizens agenda" approach in campaign journalism. I know, dorky name. It was tried. And it worked.

7 Nov 2018 10:38 am 11 Comments

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 1990. 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?

In 1990, the Wichita Eagle tried to wrest control of the campaign dialogue away from the spin doctors by asking readers what they thought the major issues in the campaign were. The Eagle then used the answers to guide their campaign coverage. 1992, the The Observer in Charlotte, NC teamed up with the Poynter Institute for a similar experiment.

The idea was 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 and the candidates getting traction.) 

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. It’s not normal, but it is possible. Especially with online polling beginning to come into its own.

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. Public 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?”

In my book, What Are Journalists For? (1999) I wrote about the early adventures with the citizens agenda model. 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 most 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.

But the only way up from the hole they’re in is to pitch their journalism at an electorate that 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 ahead. Somehow, you have to represent.


This great idea needs to be spread far and wide, particularly by letters to editors of every reader’s favorite media outlets. Thank you!

Mark J. McPherson says:

Theodore White wrote “The Making of the President, 1960”, in 1961, not in 1960 on the fly. It was groundbreaking then and the starter’s gun for the mainstreaming of “Horserace” coverage of elections (which White himself came to regret). White’s book was very definitely a post-mortem, and White’s fascinating insights were enhanced, not hindered, by his passage through a relatively brief editorial time/ distance. There were other journalists to report directly on the campaigning and the electing as it was occurring. White did not intrude on or attempt to influence the process. He sought instead to understand it and accurately report on it.

Today, journalists are trying to write, “Making of. . . .2019 “, in 2018 (as they have been doing since at least 2017). And the quality. . . . suffers. . . .unto worthlessness. Worse than that, it becomes positively, aggressively, intrusive and hectoring. The nightly “takes” are many orders of magnitude dumbed-down from the type of sober, discerning journalism that was once practiced. The harm is not confined to the cratering of respect for journalists. Today’s vastly quicker, vastly more stupid form of journalism has dragged down, not just the tenor and quality of political discourse, but the actual functioning of democracy itself. It is increasingly difficult to tease or filter out the issues that matter to you, from the relentless, high-volume cacophony. Even those candidates with policies or platforms that might speak to voters’ concerns can not “waste” their interactions with journalists to convey such vital information because those journalists are operating on a wavelength/frequency calibrated to tune such things out. In the rush and crush to get on-air as fast as possible, detail, nuance, distinction and discernment is lost. All is sacrificed to the ultimate goals of eyeballs and click-hits.

It is like some strange combination of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle with the observer effect — instantaneous journalism can not reflect or accurately report on reality, as it happens, without changing and shaping the image of reality to the forms journalists have been programmed and attuned to. Because of this, what journalists do, produces what journalists see, hear and report. They keep filtering, framing, poking, inciting until they get something they can use to draw eyeballs or mouse-clicks. What results is a kind of exaggerated, stylized Kabuki-version of democracy. I have never encountered, in-person, in real life, the kind of behaviors and thinking, the kind of “types”, I routinely see, hear and read about on-line or on-air. It is becoming harder to even recognize the faint echoes of real traits that underlie the exaggerated, amped-up stereotypes paraded endlessly for public consumption. This is what sells, so we are left with a sense that we are collectively complicit in the degradation of journalism.

I want to know what is going on, not who is carrying on. I want to see how the sausage is made, not who is out there hawking the sausage the loudest. I want to know what is in the sausage. I have only passing, incidental interest in who else is buying the sausage, no less how each person feels about sausage on a day-trader basis. Today, even when there is an emergent “tentpole” issue that is of such inherent and material interest that people are tuning in volume, journalists can not sustain any real discipline in covering the story itself (like the issues underlying the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings) and inevitably begin to drift onto the topic of how the story is “playing” and who is “winning or losing” in the battle for hearts and minds.

The Observer/Poynter experiment sounds interesting. What became of it? The answer may be strictly academic, if there was not some immediate R.O.I. from the approach, and its obscurity suggests there was not. Who today, has the luxury of devoting time and resources on something that might not “pay off” in the bottom line soon enough?

Still, a “Citizens Agenda” certainly seems like a worthwhile pursuit and as there are a lot of citizens who might also become an audience, not entirely beyond reckoning. Brian Lehrer on WNYC does a “30 Issues in 30 Days” special in advance of elections. It is easy to dismiss Lehrer as a kind of hothouse, Public Radio rarity, protected and insulated within his enclave from the commercial pressures stalking the rest of the media. But it is worth a look and listen, and more current than the Observer/Poynter. It is interesting to consider the ways that Lehrer struggles also, with “bothsiderism” and anticipation of allegations of bias.

Just a citizen voter thanking you for your thoughtful comments. Don’t stop. Some people are listening.linda bolliday says:

Just a citizen voter thanking you for your thoughtful comments. Don’t stop. Some people are listening.

Richard Aubrey says:

Far as I know, the pols think they know the issues the citizens want to see discussed. At least, they are pretty sure about their supposed base. But they don’t want to discuss certain issues which might spook independents because….those issues have a downside which their base either doesn’t care about or won’t know about until too late.

Presume the reporters find the voters really really want to know how Ocasio-Cortez plans to pay for her plans (apparently they don’t, but I’m spitballing here). How many times will a reporter try to get her to answer before he thinks he’s just enraging her base? Or providing red meat for a republican?

You can know what the citizens want to know, or think you do, or you can know what the citizens who were, in one way or another, involved want to know. But you can’t make the pol answer a question he doesn’t want to answer. And in the process you might end up looking bad, like you’re a partisan hectoring him.

You’ll need some serious interview planning, at the least, for this to go well.

The systematic approach would help with that. Sure, if you picked one particular politician and one particular question they didn’t want to answer, you’d be seen as partisan.

But if you did your groundwork, you wouldn’t. The idea would be for it to play out like this:
1) Before the election, do polls and cover “Here are the top issues that people in this district care about”. (Depending on how much resources you put in to this particular election, this could be anywhere from 1 poll/1 article to detailed articles discussing the who and why of those issues.)

2) When the candidates are campaigning, you go back to that list and ask about those issues. Report on what the candidates say. Since the issues were decided on earlier, you don’t need to pick a side to go through them in order.

Depending on how much resources a particular race warrants, those could both be really simple/quick or multi-month series getting really in depth. But the idea is to switch the focus of the reporting from “Who’s winning and why?” to “What do the candidates say about issues the voters care about?”

Anyway, it’s wishful thinking I guess. Though I wonder if in the modern internet era, it wouldn’t be too hard for someone to just start a site that covers races in that manner and see if it catches. But I guess to get the process started, you need to have a bit of money and infrastructure to do polling or surveys and answer the basic question of “what do citizens want to know about?” since that has to be the starting point.

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Richard Aubrey says:

Oh, yeah. What is a “wrap-up smear”?

Jon F Garfunkel says:

I’m old enough to remember when issues *mattered* in a campaign (and to have read the original PressThink posts on this, and to have read your 1999 book, though some years afterwards). I suppose that’s because in ’92 I was playing one of the candidates in a mock election in HS and *had* to learn the issues. But

I’d still like to see your point more fleshed out with actual data. I’m also not sure how you assess the quality of campaign coverage, in the end (beyond whether one’s favored candidate won. See 2016). I think I remember that in ’92 you’d done that by… surveying knowledge of readers before & after?

Obviously by now the news the landscape has been blown up. One can find “explainer” journalism from likes of Vox and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, and Rachel Maddow, I suppose. There’s almost *less* necessary pressure on the “daily” media to be as expository as you’d like.

I’d still argue that most elections are not driven by issues, but by character. Think about the single issue of 2018, and 2016, and many cycles before: healthcare. I presume this was covered as much as it needed to be. And if the NYT analysis is to be believed, the candidates’ attention to it helped the Democrats to win in 2018. Tell me otherwise.

But the reason we still have the ACA in its original form is due to a fellow who campaigned *against it* in 2016. Here’s a story from the 2016 campaign (it seems at least issue-oriented, with a dash of horserace in it, you tell me)

And yet, as we now know, Senator McCain broke his own campaign promise and gave his famous thumbs-down to the midnight repeal vote. I’d defer to Dan Gillmor in Phoenix for better insight on Arizona politics, but I suspect a sizable portion of McCain’s constituency supported here. Maybe because they’d always voted for McCain’s character, not his issues. You’ve got the most famous Senator of the last decade reversing himself on one of the most key issues of the same time — and would one argue that the Arizona press failed their readers/viewers here? Or just the reverse?

Stenglein says:

— “Synthesizing a citizens agenda at the beginning creates a mission statement for your campaign coverage…”

… and just how does a journalist ‘synthesize’ a citizen agenda ??

Sounds pretty dodgy advice. Do all citizens have the same agenda or must a journalist create multiple agendas? How does a journalist avoid including his own bias & personal views in the synthesis?

— “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…”

well, that’s evidence-free circular logic: it works because it works ??

“… pitch their journalism at an electorate they understand better than the politicians”

… so journalists can understand the electorate better than politicians because somehow journalists can mysteriously discern the citizen agenda — whereas politicians + their staffs & high paid consultants can’t figure out what citizens want ??

Citizens really want to know how a given candidate would perform in office — not listen to a canddaate “discuss” some arbitrary list of issues. Plus, it’s very rare for any politician/candidate to speak openly & honestly about any issue. Campaign talk is cheap & worthless — serious journalists have MUCH bigger obstacles than divining citizen agendas.

Joy Jacques says:

If journalists did this people would love them, and they’d be providing one hell of a service to the public. I’m paraphrasing, but I love what you said about how they’re inadvertently being led by the nose with their coverage du jour. It’s so easy to manipulate and get them off track. Trump turned it into a game.

Thank you for this post! This perfectly explains what we at the Texas Tribune tried to accomplish this year with an issues guide for young Texans (trib.it/2018issues). Bookmarking your explanation to have when we’re pushing for this in 2020.