Last week I was driving home when I heard a report on ABC radio about the Climate Change Commission report. The report began by telling me that the government and the opposition claimed it endorsed their policies.

By the end of the report, I was none the clearer about what the report had actually said, and whether either, both or neither of the political parties were correct in their assertions.

This is what has been described by others as the “lame formula” of he-said-she-said journalism. To quote:

He-said-she-said journalism means…

  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarised extremes.

This week I want to write about what innovation might mean in political journalism. It is hard to separate this from writing about politics itself. How the game is played, and how it is reported are inextricably linked. At the moment politicians and reporters seem to be locked into a death roll.

They both know they need to change, but neither side is able to break free from the trivialisation, the spin, the media management and the cynicism. Neither side seems able to participate as though politics was something in which ordinary citizens have a stake.

I have written before about the way in which reporters allow themselves to be driven hither and thither on the bus during campaigns, managed well past the point where it is insulting. Treated like trained dogs, told when to wake up, when to move, when to sit up and beg, we can hardly be surprised that on those few occasions when they are let off the leash – when something unscripted occurs – they behave like over-excited puppies, running all over the place and near wetting themselves in excitement.

The trivialisation of politics by the media has been spoken about by others, at greater length than I intend here. Lindsay Tanner’s book Sideshow is but the latest spray.

Yet every day we get fresh examples. Just last week the Herald Sun had a front page about politicians allegedly working less hard because there was a move to alter federal parliamentary sitting hours. The Herald Sun had dug up a mother holding down three jobs to compare and contrast.

Does the paper take its readers for fools who don’t realise there is more to an MP’s job than sitting in parliament?

At the other end of the scale, so called quality journalism isn’t really cutting the mustard either. Before we go into mourning for the past we should acknowledge that much of broadsheet journalism has for some time amounted to little more than metres of badly written, repetitious copy about the minutia of public life, written as though politics is a spectator sport.

We read about the voters and the electorate and how things will play as though the people referred to are a very different bunch to those reading or listening to the media outlet.

Quality journalism, I would suggest, should mean journalism that is useful to citizens in leading engaged lives. How much of what we do now meets that test?

Political journalism is failing, and politics is in trouble too. How to break the cycle?

It is generally assumed, and frequently reported as though it were a given, that most people are not interested in politics any more, that they have disengaged. But in fact there is precious little evidence for this. They might be sick of political journalism, but they are not sick of politics.

Judith Brett and Anthony Moran co-authored a brilliant book a few years ago. Called  Ordinary People’s Politics. It was the result of many years of research and interviews. As the authors put it:

“Rather than scooping up opinions in huge vats to run through statistical strainers, our engagement is with the voices of individual men and women as they talk about their lives and the place politics has and does not have in them.”

The authors concluded that disengagement and disillusionment with politics was no more common in our own time than it was in previous generations.  What had declined was allegiance to political parties, and with it the understanding of class as a means of explaining the vicissitudes and constraints of individual lives.

Other researchers have come up with similar results. People ARE interested in politics. But they are also very frustrated with it.

And as Brett and Moran indicated, the “huge vats” of public opinion polls don’t really tell us much about what the audience is thinking, wants or needs. It follows that journalists don’t know much about “ordinary people’s politics”.

What kind of political reporting might help to break the death roll, and re-invent the craft?

One idea, not particularly new, is the citizen’s agenda. It arises from that great experiment in journalism that took place in the US in the 1990s — the civic journalism, or public journalism movement. The movement conceived the role of the media in a new way — to create a space, or an opportunity, not only to identify problems but to assist citizens to find answers.

Newspapers and journalists held town hall meetings to find out what their audiences thought. Journalists reported the problems, and the journeys towards the solutions. It was an inspiring time in journalistic innovation. Then the internet came along, undercutting business models, and the spirit of innovation waned as newspapers closed across America.

Yet the internet also offers wonderful new opportunities for engaging with the audience. Last year, one of the founders of the public journalism movement, Jay Rosen, was in Australia during our limp and awful election campaign. He gave the idea of a citizen’s agenda a fresh airing. Here is the blog post he wrote at the time.

Rosen suggested that four to six months before an election campaign begins, the media should ask citizens, not who they are going to vote for or which party they favour, but  what they want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes.

The idea is to find out from voters what they want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates in order to cast an intelligent vote.

This question “what do you want the election to be about?” can be asked in many different ways, using techniques old and new. The polling budget can be redirected away from horse race questions and towards the citizens agenda. There can be town hall meetings. There can be Tweetups. There can be Facebook pages and surveys, and the whole process can be blogged about.

Media marketing departments can be used to create a sense of engagement and even excitement about the idea of a media organisation allowing the citizens to set the agenda, rather than the political class.

Then, once the citizens’ agenda has been divined, it should be used as the master narrative to guide the coverage of the campaign itself — whether or not the politicians cooperate. To quote Rosen:

“When the candidates speak, map what they said against the citizens agenda. When you have an opportunity to question the candidates, ask them questions that flow from the citizens agenda. Reporters assigned to cover the campaign should dig deep on the items that make up the citizen’s agenda. Background pieces and in-depth reporting should build upon the citizen’s agenda. Decisions to make about where to put your resources? Consult the citizen’s agenda, a set of instructions for the design of campaign coverage in all its forms.”

Rosen pitched this idea to the ABC. It seemed to him (and I agree) that it best behoves the national broadcaster, which is already directly in the pay of the taxpayers, to accept a more direct commission from its public.

ABC managing director Mark Scott, speaking at the New News 2010 conference in August, indicated that Rosen’s ideas were under consideration. Yet since then we have heard nothing. The NSW election and Victorian elections would have been the natural time to give the idea of a citizens’ agenda a trial run. Yet the coverage of those campaigns followed the same, tired old formulae.

The idea remains on the table, waiting for a media organisation to pick it up.

But journalists shouldn’t think that everyone else is standing still.

Take  the extraordinary bunch of young people who have founded OurSay Australia. OurSay is a little organisation, based on the efforts of about 10 volunteers and a $10,000 budget. It has come a long way  since it was founded by Melbourners Gautam Raju, Eyal Halamish, Matthew Gordon and Linh Do in 2009.

Under the rubric “democracy is not a spectator sport”, OurSay hosts town hall meetings and community forums, and gets political candidates and other decision makers to agree to answer questions. These questions are then crowd sourced, through the OurSay website Twitter presence and any other way they can get them. Once you have registered with OurSay, you can “like” a question, meaning that those with the most backing rise to the top. Then, at the community forum, the top questions get asked.

If you watch the ABC program Q&A, you will have heard about OurSay. A few weeks ago the team was used to crowdsource a question that was put to the panellists. You may also have read in Crikey the resulting controversy when the ABC failed to use the most popular question.

A declaration or two. I have become a bit enmeshed with OurSay. It is helping me to organise an event at the New News 2011 conference, to be held in August this year. On that occasion, in what I hope will be an interesting reverse, the OurSay questions will be put to journalistic leaders. More details later.

I am also appearing at this OurSay organised event with Malcolm Fraser in just a few days. Have a look at how OurSay is organising the publicity, generating a buzz about the idea of being able to pitch your questions directly to the former prime minister. The OurSay crew attend community events  to whip up interest. They give away free lollies. They link and discuss and energise. Remember, all this is done by volunteers.

At the same time as the ABC was failing to experiment with Jay Rosen’s idea, Our Say was active before the Victorian election, in the seat of Brunswick getting candidates to respond to questions that arose from the community.

The OurSay crew now has an ambitious plan: to attempt to redefine the political landscape in the lead-up to the next federal election by holding an OurSay event in every marginal electorate, putting crowdsourced questions from the electorate to the political candidates.

Those candidates who failed to attend would be represented by an empty chair. The resulting event would be videoed and uploaded to the website. The public could comment and share the responses, creating a dialogue that would run right up to polling day and afterwards.

OurSay is seeking the funds to pull this off. It estimates the amount of money needed at about $500,000. It also needs credibility with and access to political candidates across marginal seats in Australia and at least six staff operating in a full-time capacity with a small operating budget for two years.

If it succeeds, it’s not hard to believe that OurSay could transform the way in which the next election is run. The OurSay events would become major news events in themselves. Which means we would see the journalists chasing after the citizens, not the other way around.

The OurSay model has its limits. What happens when the pollies won’t answer the questions? Who presses them? Who does the research? Who finds things out so that the questions can be better informed and better targeted? That is where journalists should come in.

A mainstream media organisation could use its  declining stocks of cultural capital to get the candidates to show up and participate in an OurSay-type exercise. Or a media organisation could shamelessly pinch the OurSay mojo, which would be a pity in many ways but perhaps to the larger good, if it could be trusted to stick to the democratic vibe, and not wimp it.

In the process, the media outlet would be re-energised, given fresh stocks of cultural capital directly from the citizenry, and served with a crowdsourced citizens’ agenda to guide the rest of its political reporting.

Journalists could help with the citizens’ agenda, but I fear our inertia might be too great. After all, traditional political reporting is an exciting job. The seduction of being in the know, near the centre of power, is hard to surrender. The citizens agenda, no matter how it is activated, means that existing political journalists will lose a fair bit of their insider status.

Yet journalists can’t assume that just because we’re not moving, nothing will happen. The citizens will do it for themselves. The only question is whether we want to be part of the process — to help, or to become less relevant.

Peter Fray

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