Peacetime conversion. Corporate influence on politics. The unfair burden of student loans. The media’s obsession with New Hampshire and Iowa. The complete absence of coverage of the candidates and ideas of the Green Party and Libertarians.
These are not issues you’re likely to see emphasized on CNN or at a Republican presidential debate this winter.
But this is what citizens wanted to talk about at the New Haven Public Library Wednesday night when two dozen people joined New Haven Register Community Engagement Editors Ed Stannard and Angi Carter for the first in a series of forums on how we should approach 2012 political coverage.
The New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen are partnering with The Guardian and NYU’s Studio 20 journalism graduate school program on the “Citizens Agenda,” an approach to political coverage that aims to depart from “horse race journalism” and put readers in charge of determining the issues they want candidates to address.
While the Guardian focuses on the 2012 presidential race, our journalists in Connecticut will be applying the Citizens Agenda concept to two open and highly competitive races – the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Joe Lieberman and the 5th District U.S. Congress seat being vacated by Chris Murphy (who is running for Lieberman’s Senate seat).
Over the next month, we’ll be holding a series of open forums, reaching out to readers via social media, surveys and other methods and meeting with specific groups and constituencies seeking to identify, separately, the issues that voters most want addressed by candidates in those two races.
Then, instead of assigning reporters to get the inside scoop on “process stories” from Linda McMahon‘s campaign manager, or a Democratic Party establishment operative, we’ll assign a reporter to each of the issues that’s identified.
So, instead of chasing the story about who is up and down in polling or fundraising, or the daily barrage of press release pot-shots exchanged between the campaigns, one of our reporters, for example, would be writing about how the U.S. Senate candidates would shape policy on the issue of taxation.
Another reporter might be writing in-depth about the issue of job creation, engaging with readers and trying to compel the candidates to respond with specifics on that topic.
Other reporters might be focusing on health care, or redevelopment of Brownfields properties … whatever issues are identified through the Citizens Agenda process.
The crowd at our first Citizens Agenda forum in New Haven Wednesday included Democrats, Republicans, a Green Party activist, a Ron Paul supporter, a leader of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters and a long-shot U.S. Senate candidate who showed up with his 2-year-old son.
The most-talked about issue of the night was “peacetime conversion” – whether the country will continue its policy of funding a military that can fight two wars at the same time, how we’ll invest the billions that have been spent on the war in Iraq, whether our foreign policy will improve or worsen instability in the Middle East, and energy independence.
Because the Citizens United decision does not require donors (some who are pouring millions into the support of or opposition to particular candidates) be identified until after the election, one participant Wednesday urged the media to focus its reporting on “unmasking” those donors and documenting the role of Super PACs.
There was plenty of criticism of and suggestions about the media’s role in political coverage.
We were urged to include Green Party candidates and Libertarian candidates, and the ideas put forth in their platforms, as part of our coverage. Most media fail to even include them in listings of who is running, one man said.
Another person criticized the media for allowing candidates to make points based on isolated statistics or trends that don’t see the “long view” or bigger context.
The “shallow” nature of Associated Press reporting, and the lack of international perspective in American newspaper and TV reporting, were decried.
Another participant asked why the national media and candidates were allowed to focus obsessively on “early state” primaries and caucuses such as Iowa and New Hampshire when they represent a tiny number of electoral votes.
One man said he is left at a loss sometimes in reading long New York Times pieces that chronicle a viewpoint from one perspective, and then a viewpoint from the opposite perspective, but that don’t help bring much final clarity or conclusion on the topic for readers. (“View from Nowhere,” anyone?)
And finally, participants in our first forum on Wednesday, wanted to know “what good it’s going to do” to identify Citizens Agenda issues considering politicians are politicians and probably won’t change.
“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.”