The ABC plans to revamp its campaign coverage at next year’s federal election following heavy criticism of the media’s performance during the 2010 campaign. On the menu is greater policy scrutiny, a beefed-up online offering and more opportunities for voters to set the agenda rather than politicians or journalists.

The last federal election campaign — best remembered for Mark Latham’s aggressive appearance on the campaign trail — was widely seen as a nadir for the major parties and the media. Independent MP Tony Windsor described it as the worst campaign he’d ever seen from the fourth estate.

The ABC’s head of policy Alan Sunderland tells Crikey: “There was a lot of discussion after the last election campaign — as there is after many campaigns — that we need more focus on substance, more coverage of issues. That there was too much horse race coverage and not enough policy.

“At the last election, much of what we did — such as [psephologist] Antony Green’s blog — was gold standard. In terms of policy coverage, we did a fair amount. But if there was a fantastic Background Briefing piece on a certain issue you couldn’t necessarily find it. Next time around we want better, richer policy coverage and to put it in a place people can actually find it.”

One need only take a brief look at the ABC’s 2010 election campaign portal to see what Sunderland is talking about. There’s a sophisticated seat-by-seat analysis, plenty of breaking news and lots of commentary from the campaign trail. But when it comes to policy, there’s little besides brief dot points on the major parties’ offerings in key areas and feeds of ABC stories. There’s no search function and little distinction between in-depth investigations and perfunctory “he said, she said” news reports.

Some of the national broadcaster’s best election reporting isn’t even there. This detailed Radio National piece on the NBN, for example, doesn’t appear in the ABC’s collection of 2010 election internet stories.

At the next election, Sunderland says Aunty devotees can expect better searchability and an increased pooling of resources between the broadcaster’s divisions so that cracker stories don’t get lost. He also anticipates a greater emphasis on “explainer journalism” — reporting that provides background and context to help the audience understand the daily news.

The other key development, Sunderland says, will be giving voters a voice in what does and doesn’t get covered. As he explains on ABC’s new Engine Room blog:

“The media shouldn’t just confine itself to covering what the major parties are telling us is the agenda of the campaign. There’s another stakeholder in the discussions, and that’s our audience. More than ever before, the Australian electorate is starting to put forward its own views about what should be the agenda for the coming election. You can hear this emerging ‘citizen’s agenda’, as some have called it, coming through loud and clear … So our aim for the coming federal election campaign, whenever it is, is to tune into that emerging agenda, work with our audiences to identify the policy issues that matter to the community, and ensure they are front and centre in our coverage.”

During a visit to Australia during the 2010 election campaign, influential US journalism academic Jay Rosen outlined a vision to transform election coverage so that it’s driven by a “citizen’s agenda”. Around six months before the campaign, Rosen proposed, journalists should start asking the electorate which issues they want the candidates to discuss during the campaign. The most popular six to 10 issues would then form the “master narrative” for the campaign and be used to determine which stories get prioritised and which questions politicians get asked.

Although it’s clear Sunderland and ABC boss Mark Scott have been influenced by his ideas, the ABC has no plans to adopt the “full Rosen” at this stage. The idea of a master narrative, Sunderland says, is “too didactic”.

So how would an ABC citizen’s agenda work? Sunderland admits it’s still being nutted out — and he’s keen to hear ideas from consumers. But town hall-style forums on specific policy issues are one possibility. Questions for a Q&A forum on health, for example, could be crowdsourced before hand. Discussion could then continue online at the ABC’s election site. The ABC is also likely to quiz voters on what issues they want covered via social media and online polls.

That said, don’t expect the shots of Gillard eating a pie or Abbott filleting a fish to disappear.

“The media does have a responsibility to cover the election campaign we are actually having, rather than the one we might wish we were having,” Sunderland wrote. “The public is entitled to know what is actually happening on the ground each day. And, of course, if ever it was relevant to focus on who is ahead in the race for popular support, the election campaign is the time to do it. In many ways, an election campaign is something of a horse race, and it will always be covered like one.”

Covering politics and policy, Sunderland tells Crikey, is not “an either/or equation”. “We should be able to cover all the colour of the campaign itself and still focus on policy,” he said.