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Our View: Citizens Agenda model serves voters over politicians

Election season gives the editorial board a front-row seat in meeting and getting to know candidates, whether it’s in person or on Zoom. The way it usually goes is candidates give us an elevator speech, then we have a field day of questions for them. Like any job interview, sometimes more important than the actual answers are how candidates answer the questions. This is often more telling.

Meeting so many candidates in a short period of time, we can’t help but notice commonalities and strategies. Some are focused on their statistical chances of winning, leaning into the numbers. Others rely on their appeal or message to particularly bases. Some measure themselves in favorable environments against vulnerable opponents.

Even though we’re the ones asking the questions, candidates sometimes talk at us instead of to us or, ideally, with us. No matter the position they’re coming from, this tactic can spill over into the way election stories are written. And we’d like to change this.

One impressive election reporting model aims to reverse the power dynamic away from politicians – and their chances of winning – to the voters, centering coverage on the public’s information needs and wants. Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, has refined this reporting model called Citizens Agenda, public-powered journalism applied to elections coverage. If reporters ask the right questions to enough people in enough ways, they can derive this agenda. It’s practical, tactical and we like its responsive, useful style.

We’re a little late to the party for this election season, as far as fully implementing methods. But we are inspired by how we can better engage – and serve – readers, and we’ll cherry-pick from this model when appropriate.

Here’s a simplified version of how the Citizens Agenda works. First, the easy part. We identify the people we will inform. An essential beginning question is what do we want candidates to discuss as they compete for votes?

This question is asked repeatedly with answers confirmed and tested. Results are put into a draft agenda. The agenda is lobbed back at voters. This is what we think we heard – how did we do? Did we get this right?

The agenda is then published on media websites as a live, dynamic product. Reactions are gathered, answers synthesized. This way, the agenda naturally transforms into instructions for campaign reporting. As the twists and turns come, when it’s easy to get pulled into wacky controversies, the agenda becomes the mission and guiding light. Journalists return to it, always asking how situations align with the Citizens Agenda. We press candidates, then report back to readers.

Next, a voters guide is created with candidates on the left side of a grid and, across the top, items on the Citizens Agenda. Fill in with what the candidates have done, said or proposed. This is that transformative moment when journalism becomes public service.

Finally, we keep listening, tweaking, changing as the ground shifts. The Citizens Agenda is an editorial distillation. It involves judgment and nuance and the ability to explain the thinking – not just data.

Inside each step is an opportunity for journalists to build trust and transparency, and rethink newsroom organization and leadership.

We like this approach. The Citizens Agenda originates with voters – who own it – and make decisions from this place.