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February 6, 2019

Whose agenda drives election coverage in North Carolina?

“Keeping “the citizens agenda” at the center of coverage doesn’t take big polls or fancy platforms: Sometimes, it’s as simple as listening to what people in your community are asking, and finding ways to respond in your coverage.”

By Melanie Sill

NC Local is a weekly email newsletter aimed at connecting people across North Carolina who inform people with local news, information and storytelling. This post originally appeared in the weekly NC Local newsletter edition on February 6, 2019 , and has been modified slightly for the Local News Lab. Subscribe to NC Local here.

Why has the journalistic wayback machine taken us back to the 1990s and a couple of North Carolina experiments with voter-focused election coverage? Consider:

  •  “The Road Not Taken,” by press critic and New York University associate professor Jay Rosen, who argues that a 1992 Charlotte Observer-Poynter project called “the citizens agenda” should be a model for 2020 election coverage. 
  • “Campaign Coverage Needs an Overhaul: Here’s One Radical Idea,” Margaret Sullivan, former newspaper editor and New York Times public editor and current Washington Post media critic, expands on Rosen’s case in light of early coverage of the 2020 presidential race.
  • “Covering the 2020 Election: Horse Race or Citizens Agenda?” Charlotte Observer reporter Jim Morrill, who was part of the ’90s experiments and is on the beat now, wrote for Nieman Reports about the pros and cons, including thoughts from Rich Oppel, who was Observer editor in ’92.

I’m another veteran of these campaigns: As a senior editor at The News & Observer, I helped organize “Your Voice, Your Vote,” a 1996 statewide collaborative effort with The Observer and other media outlets across North Carolina. “Your Voice” used public opinion polling to identify top concerns among voters, focused election coverage on those issues and asked candidates to respond to questions about them.

The impulse driving these efforts was the same frustration about political journalism that many voice today: Daily political coverage has a short attention span, focuses too often on gaffes and personalities (especially in the age of instant news via social media and the web) and often seems disconnected from the worries and needs of the nation.

I checked my recollections of “Your Voice, Your Vote” with retired Observer editor Jennie Buckner, who also led other significant “public journalism” efforts including a series on crime called “Taking Back Our Neighborhoods.”

Buckner recalled that some candidates complained that “Your Voice” didn’t leave room for covering their campaign messages and agendas. Earnest and thorough, the issues coverage at times also “felt very civics-textbook sometimes,” she noted. 

“So did it get read? I hope it did,” she said. “I felt like we were trying to do the right thing for sure, and i felt that it was very useful to put the reader, the citizen, back in the spotlight.”

The ’90s are history, but the problems remain fresh. Most coverage seems made for people who follow politics intensively. Basic information often is hard to find, especially for local and state elections.

I thought the best result of our “Your Voice” project was getting us in journalism to think about our place in democracy: Do we stand with political insiders and venture out to hear voters, or do we stand with voters and aim for coverage that looks out for their interests?

Last week’s NC Local highlighted some ways EdNC and The News & Observer are inviting North Carolinians into the discussion about legislative priorities. At The New York Times, politics editor Patrick Healy is using Twitter to explain the thinking behind the paper’s coverage and to ask for feedback.

Keeping “the citizens agenda” at the center of coverage doesn’t take big polls or fancy platforms: Sometimes, it’s as simple as listening to what people in your community are asking, and finding ways to respond in your coverage.

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Melanie Sill is a veteran news leader and change-maker now working as a senior consultant on projects including Democracy Fund’s Local News Lab in North Carolina and the Membership Puzzle Project’s Join the Beat program. She was the top editor and news executive at The News & Observer of Raleigh, the Sacramento Bee and KPCC/ Southern California Public Radio and directed The N&O’s Pulitzer-winning “Boss Hog” series in the mid-1990s.