"Citizens agenda." Dorky name. It works.
January 8, 2019 9:22 AM   Subscribe

In November, Jay Rosen outlined an alternative approach to covering elections: "The idea was very simple: campaign coverage should be grounded in what voters want the candidates to talk about. Which voters? The ones you are trying to inform." As Rosen clarifies in a new thread, the solution for the "500 or so people who produce campaign coverage in the national press" isn't just "more issues" or "more policy" because the problem is at the level of purpose. WaPo's Margaret Sullivan backs up the call for an overhaul.

Threadreader for his recent tweets, but you'll miss some worthwhile back-and-forth in the replies.

Joshua Johnson of 1A tells Rosen: "We agree. And we’re already on it."
1A Across America is a two-year collaboration to incorporate more local and regional viewpoints into the national conversation. Leading up to the 2020 general election, 1A’s production team will work with six public media stations that are deeply rooted in their communities to bring each region’s underreported issues and concerns to 1A’s national audience.

Doug Oplinger of media collaborative Your Voice Ohio replies: "We’ve polled, held community meetings, citizen juries now strategizing for the 2020 election."
posted by cichlid ceilidh (12 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
To avoid this simply becoming a media-is-garbage thread, I'll include a prompt:

What campaign journalists and outfits have you seen talk out about this? Who is already doing this well?
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 9:24 AM on January 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

I haven't listened to her show regularly, but every time I hear Tanzina Vega on The Takeaway, she is discussing actual important issues with experts and calling a racist a racist.
posted by Emmy Rae at 10:03 AM on January 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

The first thing this reminded me of is the similar perspective of "user-centrism" in the world of web design and user experience, which I am more familiar with.

In 2019, many large organizations claim to focus on the user, it sounds good and when done well it is quite effective. The problem it seems, always comes from the top. In the hierarchy of organizations, and I assume the media as well, there ends up being one or two people who decide what the priorities are. Some of this is ego, if it's the people calling the shots and not you, it's harder to justify your multi-million dollar salary and bonuses.

In business, the priorities are typically revenue and profit and the media is no different. Giving control over to the "the public" doesn't always translate to "what sells". I would love to see a society that bubbles up local and community issues to a national level, but I fear that as the consolidation of business and media interests increases, we are getting further away from this model, not closer.
posted by jeremias at 10:20 AM on January 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

This would, of course, improve campaign and political journalism massively. But I agree that the problem is that it's not really the snobbery of journalists that prevents this from happening, it's the interests of the people who own the media; these are (1) making money and (2) controlling public discourse. This wouldn't help make money (because what people, choosing mindfully, want politicians to talk about, is very different from what, in the moment of being presented with a story, gets our amygdalae fired up and fingers tapping) and it would be the opposite of controlling public discourse.

Journalists are often exponents of the true democratising potential of a free and fair media. Media owners, on the other hand, are very rarely big fans of this idea.
posted by howfar at 10:41 AM on January 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

citizens may know what they want to learn about.... but headlines sell. I doubt any citizen has said "I want to see nothing but terror on the news" but if it bleeds, it leads.
posted by rebent at 11:12 AM on January 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Denver news scene has changed a lot in the past year (previously). Among the publications drawing from the Denver Post diaspora is the new Colorado Sun. I haven't noticed them using the term "citizens agenda," but it looks to me like they're taking that approach with their election coverage as well as ongoing coverage of state government.

From a pre-election article: "Health care is tied as the No. 1 priority for the state’s voters, according to a recent poll, but it is difficult to predict how Colorado’s health coverage landscape would change under either candidate. Or if it would change at all." "In lieu of answers, here’s what we know about Polis’ and Stapleton’s proposals and an explanation of what we need to know in order to actually understand them." They include the questions they asked the candidates, and fill in what information is available. It's pretty readable.

I like the framing of their coverage of the new legislative session: "Tell us what you want to know — and we’ll work to find answers, whether it’s explaining the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights or questioning lawmakers about a particular bill. More details on how to connect with us below."

They've got a lot of background information about how the state legislature works and how to get involved, and that might be the most important part. A citizens' agenda is tough to set when we don't know what questions we could or should be asking.
posted by asperity at 11:19 AM on January 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

To be honest, I'm not sure the answer is "better coverage" so much as "less coverage".

Stop reporting every time a politician coughs and doesn't cover her mouth.
Stop reporting the color of the tie he wore to a breakfast meeting
And for God's sake, stop reporting on every freaking tweet a Senator's 2nd cousin twice-removed posts about a country they can't even find on a map.

The 24/7 news cycle does more to harm the political process in this country than any amount of "alternate viewpoints" can fix.
posted by madajb at 4:51 PM on January 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

madajb, that's basically what Nate Silver said (and Rosen agrees in the replies):
"The argument should really be about whether there's too much *election* coverage, period."

The exchange is worth a gander. Maybe Silver will agree to have Rosen on his podcast, as suggested.

Rosen's approach is bottom up. It starts with a purpose ("citizens agenda") and the coverage follows from there. You don't change the amount of useless campaign "news" without a shift in intention. Currently that's like pushing on a string, with a host of collective action challenges to boot. Normative ethics, unfortunately, aren't enough.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 8:17 PM on January 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Surprised he didn't make a plug for The Correspondent in his tweet thread. He went on the Daily Show to talk about their model recently. I wonder how they'll approach campaign coverage.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 8:37 PM on January 8, 2019

1. This would improve coverage. I hope it gets done more. I hope it sells. Improved coverage that no one reads is not helpful.
2. If the Times and Post made this their front page stories it might set a tone. People who do horse race stuff get treated as tabloidy and gossipy. This would be a big change though.
3. The other big change is getting existing journalists to be good at covering substantive issues. Current journalistic standards, plus learned expertise, make that hard for 90% of journalists. "Experts disagree" stories about plans to improve wages will not educate voters about which plans are likely to improve wages.
4. I have more confidence in the ability of current journalists to do this well at the local level. Maybe despite point (2) it needs to be a grassroots change, but that means reading the good stuff.
posted by mark k at 11:03 PM on January 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have more confidence in the ability of current journalists to do this well at the local level.

I think it's gotta be easier to do the job right when you know that you're the only one (or at best, one of two or three) covering a story. Less pressure to try to draw eyeballs with the sensational horse-race coverage when you've got less competition, and you can't assume that your reader or viewer will be getting the substantive information somewhere else. National news has to be harder that way.
posted by asperity at 9:14 AM on January 9, 2019

Ireland's Dublin Inquirer accepts the challenge (at the local level):
The current Dublin City Council’s five-year term is winding down, with the next local elections already on the horizon in May. [...]

In our coverage of the election, we are planning to use what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls a “citizens’ agenda”.

The idea is simple: we’re going to ask Dubliners, “What do you want the candidates in the upcoming local elections to be discussing as they compete for votes?”

From your responses, we’ll build a six- to eight-point list/agenda of issues, and we’ll use this to shape our coverage of the election.

Rather than just waiting to see what parties and candidates talk about and writing about that, we’ll use this citizens’ agenda to help us decide what stories to write.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 11:59 AM on January 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

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