Key steps in the citizens agenda style of campaign coverage

What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?

12 Jun 2019 3:47 pm 15 Comments

Part of a call to action for an alternative direction in election coverage, originated by the newsroom improvement company, Hearken, and the research project that I direct, Membership Puzzle Project

Last month I visited WBUR in Boston to talk with station leadership and the politics team about how they could bring something different to their 2020 election coverage. I was invited by WBUR’s senior political reporter, Anthony Brooks, who had read some of my descriptions of the citizens agenda style in campaign coverage.  He wanted to explore how it might work at an NPR station that reaches across greater Boston and into New Hampshire, where the first primary in the nation draws the major candidates.

Politics is a busy and important beat for them. WBUR collaborates on election coverage with New Hampshire Public Radio, which attended the meeting as well. For an academic, the opportunity to float an alternative model to people who could soon put it into practice is not something you turn down.

Here’s the whiteboard I used. On it, the citizens agenda style in campaign coverage is broken down into steps. These are the key steps:

  1. Identify — especially to yourselves — the people you are trying to inform. Your community. Your public. Your crowd.
  1. Ask the people you are supposed to inform a simple question: what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?
  1. Keep asking it — what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? — as you find new ways to explain the project, and new people to reach with it.
  1. Interpreting what you heard, and applying your knowledge as journalists, synthesize the initial results into a draft agenda, a priority list that originates in an act of listening. (Need an example? Go here.)
  1. Test, question, and revise the agenda with the people you made it for, plus any help you can get from polling. “This is what we think we heard. How did we do?”
  1. When confidence permits, or circumstances require, you then publish the citizens agenda as a “live” product on your site. Launch and promote. Gather reactions. Synthesize and improve.
  1. Now, turn the citizens agenda into instructions for campaign reporting that connects with the issues people care most about. Around the top priorities you can do in-depth journalism. Given a chance to ask questions of the people competing for office, you can turn to the citizens agenda. And if you need a way of declining the controversy of the day, there it is. The agenda you got by listening to voters helps you hold to mission when temptation is to ride the latest media storm. At every turn, you can ask yourself, “How does this align with our citizens’ agenda?”
  1. Press the candidates to address it. When they do, tell the voters. In a way, you have “won” at campaign journalism when this happens.
  1. Build your voters guide around it. Down the left side of the grid, the candidates for office. Across the top, the items on the citizens agenda. Fill in the grid with what the candidates have done, said, or proposed; that’s a public service.
  1. Keep listening for revisions to the agenda until the campaign ends. I called it a published product. I also said it was live. That means you change it when the ground shifts, or choices narrow. Maybe there’s a a few per election cycle, or a new one every Monday. 


WBUR has not made any decisions yet. This isn’t their plan, it’s mine.

You can have it, by the way. The plan, I mean. Just let us know how it turns out.

WBUR has a pollster who joined the meeting. He said with internet polling it’s plausible to poll for, What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? (This was the most interesting thing I learned that day.)

The citizens agenda style is my dorky name for it. You can call it whatever you want. The active ingredient is not “citizen’s agenda,” but that question, “what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?”

The agenda is an editorial product, a synthesis. It involves art and judgment, not just data. You should be prepared to explain your thinking and take responsibility for what you included and left out.

Look, it’s agenda-setting. You will draw critics if you do this. Ask them to join and make the listening project better.

When people suspicious of your campaign coverage say in a threatening tone, “what’s your agenda?” just send them the URL.

Good design is critical to making this work. Obvious, but I’m saying it anyway. Graphic design, interaction design, task and workflow design are among the forms required. I’m sure you can think of others.

Finally, a note about 2020 for those who will be reporting on it: You cannot keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from campaign journalists. Who cares what they think? It has to originate with the voters you are trying to inform.

Read the series:
Part One: A call for a different kind of campaign coverage after 2016
Part Two: Key steps in the citizens agenda style of campaign coverage
Part Three: Case Study: How the Dublin Inquirer set a citizens agenda

UPDATE: The WBUR project is moving along.


Thanks for this, Jay. And thanks for making the trip up to WBUR. Our news team intends to put this idea into practice, and we’ll see how it turns out. From my vantage point — as a reporter in the field — I think it’s a great idea. What makes it difficult to implement is the usual stuff: insufficient staffing, old habits, and skepticism on the part of some. But the fundamental idea that you brought to WBUR — to design political coverage around the central question, “what do voters want from the candidates,” as opposed to, “what are the candidates saying and how are they spinning it” — represents a profound shift of focus. Thanks again.

It is a profound shift in direction because it starts in a different place, as you noted. Thanks, Anthony.

Rachel Gans-Boriskin says:

It seems to me that though this would be a shift in how journalists cover politics, it is not actually a new idea. I remember working for a certain NYU professor on Public Journalism/Civic Journalism initiatives in the 90’s trying to shift coverage in this way.
Though these ideas sometimes got twisted in the USA Today style “News You Can Use”, the idea that journalism should be responsive to the concerns of the public/communities news outlets serve was as needed then as it is today in the era of Trump. Perhaps if news organizations had pursued a model that prioritized connection to the communities they serve, they might have had an easier time making the case that their product was actually necessary and worthy of financial support. Had they done so, the collapse of the advertising supported news model would not have left these organizations trying to simultaneously argue for their relevance while cutting resources that proved it. Other financial models might have evolved sooner.

Rachel Gans-Boriskin says:

As a WBUR listener, I sincerely hope that you pursue this model. Local public radio is well suited to pursing this type of journalism. Supported by “listeners like me,” WBUR should deliver news that responds to the concerns of those listeners.

Mark J. McPherson says:

“Citizens Agenda Style”. And “a profound shift in direction”. How did we get this far off track, that the idea of citizens having an agenda would cause discomfort or represent a radical departure for news organizations. . . . operating from within what is supposed to be a representative form of government? Who are these uppity “citizens” who would crash the party, all but uninvited and unwelcome?

We have become so accustomed to depending on the breathless celebrity-reporting from the outskirts of that party, where only top political operatives and their wealthy financial enablers and national media insiders gather. Citizen-voters are like disaffected, dispossessed rabble, hiding out in the tall corn fields below, huddled and looking up at the mansion on the hill, where all the lights would shine and there’d be music playin’ people laughin’ all the time.

The idea of a citizens agenda has come to feel like a dangerous intrusion into a system so increasingly dysfunctional that we dare not risk it. We got here by degrees but I think the tipping point was when reporters started going on television en masse, on 24/7 cable talk, which brought reporters and columnists too inside and too dependent on access to continue to report objectively on politics and governing. I get that technology and internet market dynamics have worked a sea change for the news media, but it has been the great Red Herring obscuring the greater and more harmful change, news becoming permanently embedded in what it should have remained apart from.

There was an oddly muted media response to Trump’s reanimating of the authoritarian corpse of “enemy of the people”, when there should have been an instant, unqualified, unapologetic, “We are the protectors of the people!” I think there was palpable dissonance within the media because Trump’s charge was tapping on the soul-shaking prospect that the media would be ejected and barred from that party under those summer lights.

In these strange times, the need for news to reorient to journalistic principles becomes greater as we march further beyond the pale. But the news media needs also to reorient to the polestar that they are all reporting on and from within a representative democratic system of government. You know, that old saw, “of the people, by the people, for the people” and let’s not say goodbye to all that. That orientation is antithetical to the celebrity-tabloid-style reporting that passes these days. Where media insiders sometimes give us an obscured glimpse, a tease, (not more, you understand, you are not entitled, wouldn’t understand and would be out of your pitiable element if you were allowed in) of what is really going on. We are adding layers of obscurity with the sabermetrician, day-trader analysis of polling data months and years ahead of actual voting, and ever more variants on horse-race reporting. It’s no wonder that the opening of the opposition party’s nominating season has more starters than the riotous Kentucky Derby. And it’s no wonder that so much of their huckstering is directed at the national media and only glancingly and incidentally touches on prospective primary voters. News reporting on the primary process overwhelmingly advances the message that individual voters do not count. This message is daily reinforced by tone, subject matter and content. “Citizens Agenda Style” may be awkward branding but give me another name for it because we all really need it.

It is still possible to take a step back and take a breath and think about that “for the people” aspect and to fashion an approach that meets those interests. Elizabeth Warren has been doing something like that already and it’s no accident that the Celebrity-Tabloid Media either ignored her or dismissed her as a finger-wagging, wonkish scold. She keeps plugging away and it seems like it’s more a race for her to survive the media banishment, at least until the “of the people” and “by the people” can vote. Voting is still the surest way to sift through the large field to see which long-shots have a shot and which are only along for the ride. And lately there seems to be some evidence that Warren’s taking things seriously may be working, particularly in contrast to the absurdity of the personality coverage of the more marketable candidates.

As an on-again-off-again NPR news listener for over 20 years (I currently live abroad but listen faithfully to several NPR shows on podcast), taking up the Citizens’ Agenda would definitely motivate me to download, tune in, recommend to friends, and donate towards any NPR station that actually started doing this. I have been immensely thankful to Prof. Rosen for putting into words what has been annoying me for so long — that the vast majority of journalism on politics is about “what are the candidates saying and how are they spinning it”. It is crazy-making that we have more news around “here are some topics the candidates are talking about and here are various reasons WHY and HOW talking about these topics fits into strategy X or Y” than we do on “these are the nuts and bolts of the topic/issue, how it might affect citizens, reasons for doing it or opposing it, how the issue has evolved over time, and how realistic the plan is”. While both may be “news”, surely the greater public service to voters is analysis of substantive issues and stances, rather than “here is how Z is trying to win your vote”–but substantive analysis threatens not carrying the imprimatur of “savvy”.

Anyway — SO excited to see this, and I hope this is only the beginning of many news organizations taking on various versions of the Citizens’ Agenda Style.

Henry Porter says:

It really is amazing to me how close you get to realizing that the business model of objective neutrality is incompatible with democracy… without ever quite making it there.

Thanks for this approach, Jay, and especially for beating the drum to journalists not to let Trump be their assignment editor. I’ve recently taken up the practice of calling out journalists by name in social media comments on articles when their “coverage” is merely stenography with consequences.

I’d like to caution careful review of loaded terms which carry automatic framing of issues. In fact, that would be the place I’d encourage media to start. How to appropriately frame social issues? (see: Frameworks Institute’s “Power of How”, Opportunity Agenda, National Issues Forum, “The Narrative Initiative,” etc.)

In order for your “citizen’s agenda” to have teeth, questions will need to be focused on systems that are currently failing the people. They will require inclusion of plans to end corruption and rebalance power that is currently out of whack.

Sadly, this is an intellectual enterprise and will have limited appeal. Unfortunately, unless you have a group willing to turn ideas into sound-bites, catchy phrases, memes for social media trolling, and celebrity spokespersons/antics, etc., it may be hard to get the attention needed to spread the word. Perhaps, if enough young voters become engaged — or enraged…

“What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?”

When it comes to a Presidential election, speaking as a New Yorker, this is a nonsensical question.

I cannot remember any time in the last half dozen or so electoral cycles when a General Election candidate for the Presidency has spent a single dime competing for the votes of us New Yorkers. One party habitually takes our votes for granted, so does not bother to compete for them; the other party habitually calculates that competing for our votes would be a misallocation of resources at best, futile at worst — and so, similarly, does not bother.

If we in New York were to consume Presidential campaign coverage on the basis of that question — the competing for votes question — the coverage would consist of Crickets. Same for residents of California…and the Great Plains…and the Deep South…and most of New England…and so on.

The only question of interest for the populations of all of those regions (which make up most of the country) is the following: Given that Presidential campaigns spend all of their resources on targeting that narrow group of states that either candidate has a plausible chance of winning, what are the candidates doing to compete for their votes?

Of course the answer to that revised question is going to be very different from what the candidates would do to compete for our votes. This minority of citizens happens to live in states with a radically different political culture than the one that most of us live in. Hence such convoluted formulations as “electability” and the endless focus groups of members swing voting blocs sitting in exurban diners.

So how are the political journalists that report to me supposed to cover a general election whose results have enormous consequences for me, but in which there is no competition for my participation? As far as I am concerned, the Boys-&-Girls-In-The-Bus are more like foreign correspondents — interested observers — than facilitators of democracy.

The procedures on the Citizens Agenda Approach whiteboard make sense when an election is an active competition — the Presidential primaries, for example — but for most of the country during the General Election, for most Congressional Districts, for many Senate races the “compete for votes” question does not apply.

Obviously the harping on electable politicians and swing voters seems like an irrelevance to most of us in the audience for political journalism. Obviously some other way of rethinking 2020 coverage must be found. “Compete for Votes” though does not do the trick.

The New York Times, flexing its muscle as a national news organization, asked 21 Democratic candidates for President the same 18 questions.

Better than another ‘Biden still ahead’ story! But where do those 18 questions come from? From the political journalists at the New York Times.

They could have easily asked Times readers or a random sample of registered voters, “What do you want the candidates to discussing as they compete for votes?” But they think they know better. Are they right?

“The citizens agenda style is my dorky name for it. You can call it whatever you want”

well, OK — I call it agenda-driven commentary disguised as journalism.

And you agree with me.
You clearly stated: “The agenda is an editorial product”

An editorial product is opinion or subjective commentary — not Journalism.

The SPJ Code of Ethics specifies: ” Label advocacy and commentary. ”

The “Citizen Agenda Style” is a poorly contrived subterfuge to pursue “activist-journalism” IMO.


Regarding the 10-point methodology:

how is “Your community. Your public. Your crowd” any different from that of anybody else? Seems a clear targeting of “your” like minded partisans.

there is certainly no simple citizen-agenda of a general community/public to be discovered by a journalist thru some undefined method of personal ‘questioning’. There’s a wide, conflicting diversity of public opinion.

the extremely brief mention of ever asking political candidates these supposed, highly refined, very important citizen-agenda-questions reveals your disinterest in their answers. Real objective is to steer public awareness to highly partisan issues — to thereby influence actual voting.

(and no rational person trusts politicians to be honest in their campaign promises and statements, anyway)


“Look, it’s agenda-setting.”

Precisely Correct — it is partisan political activism — not campaign coverage journalism.
99% of your very narrow audience here think just like you do, but more objective observers do exist.

I worked as Program Director at WDET in Detroit from 2009 to 2013. During that time we embraced the notion of community engagement as an approach to enhancing our coverage of a city and region.

Detroit is a large, complex place — like most big cities tend to be. To make sense of it, we perceived the need to peal back the layers and engage with its residents, to hear what they had to say, to see how they lived, to understand what was important to them. So we designed an approach quite similar to the citizens agenda model now being considered for the 2020 election cycle. We called it “The Detroit Agenda.” We took to the streets and talked to hundreds of Detroiters about their neighborhoods – asking what they wanted for their communities – and what needs to change.

We didn’t ask them about specific issues. Instead we chose to just to listen – really listen – to what they had to say. Subsequently, we compiled a report on the key concerns of Detroiters, what neighborhood residents wanted to happen in their neighborhoods, and how city officials could make a difference. We presented our findings to the mayor and city council, and reported out stories based on our key findings that included jobs, blight, community, crime and faith. While our findings continued to inform our reporting well after the initial project launch, it clearly demonstrated the power of citizen engagement, its impact on the community and on our editorial content. We applied a similar approach to subsequent projects and continued to see its impact.

In 2013 I took the job of Director of Community Engagement at KCUR in Kansas City. Our first major engagement project was called “Beyond Our Borders,” a year long look into what unites and divides us as people and as a region. The project explored the history and impact of the most distinct lines in Kansas City. The goal of BOB (as we called it internally) was to bring new perspectives and a wider, more inclusive range of voices and views to a constellation of issues that faced metro Kansas City. Also, we looked at communities and people who were working to bridge the divides that involved, geography, race, socio-economic strata, etc. From the start, we decided we did not want to report the stories that had been previously been told, but rather identify new stories that reflected a more comprehensive view of life in those communities. Through a series of community listening sessions we invited residents to tell us about life along four distinct borders. The knowledge we gained informed the stories we told and our talk show conversations.

The 2020 elections are extremely crucial to the country’s future. Therefore, I am excited by the possibilities of seeking a different and innovative approach, involving civic engagement, to make what we do more relevant.

Richard Aubrey says:

NPR may have fund raising lists, or subscriber lists, or frequent commenter lists. I’d suggest NOT asking those folks for the Agenda items. That’s already known.
What if a substantial number of those questioned/polled/interviewed have an agenda item which is inappropriate in the view of the station? I can think of a couple of views on homelessness; Sympathy. Get these people to stop pooping on my lawn.

Other examples may occur to you.


Aren’t the campaigns already doing this, employing polls and focus groups to figure out what the electorate wants to hear?

I don’t think that the problem with our political campaigns or the media coverage of them is that the concerns of the electorate are ignored. The problem is that after those concerns are identified, they are treated superficially because that’s the way to weaponize them, make them useful in winning.

I want them to discuss this: Starts @ 5:22.