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2024 is being touted as the election year, with more than 60 countries heading to the polls, including the UK, US, Ukraine, India and more. The European Union elections are also happening this year.

The media is often criticised for "horse race" coverage of elections, focusing too much on who is winning and losing, and not enough on what is really at stake: the best interests of constituents and constituencies alike.

In a webinar with the Knight Centre and the Solutions Journalism Network, an alternative model was discussed in the form of the citizens' agenda, a way to put people first in campaign coverage.

This model has been taught for decades by Jay Rosen, a veteran journalism professor at New York University. He provided a ten-step process:

  • Identify the people you want to reach and inform
  • Ask that community an open question like: "What do you want candidates to talk about as they compete for your vote?"
  • Repeat step two in as many avenues as possible, such as online forms, phone calls, 1:1 interviews, in-person events, or in-app surveys
  • Create a priority list of six to eight items people want to hear about, known as a voter’s agenda
  • Gut-check this draft agenda with the people you originally made it for and make final amendments
  • Publish the agenda as a live product that sits on a news website
  • Turn agenda into a template for campaign coverage, which will inform the questions posed to politicians
  • Pressure politicians to address these questions directly
  • Build voter guides for election day around the citizens' agenda and responses from politicians
  • Be fluid and keep iterating the agenda as new insights arise

The Advancing Democracy fellowship, run by Solutions Journalism Network, Hearken and Trusting News, introduces US news organisations to the citizens' agenda model in a set of training, funding and peer support.

Recipients of this fellowship showed how they have used this model in recent elections.

Candidate surveys

Natalie van Hoozer is the community engagement coordinator for KUNR public radio in Nevada, where there is a big Spanish-speaking community.

The 2022 mid-term saw Nevada hold mayoral, city council and county commissioner elections. So the radio station put out a candidate survey starting in the six months running up to election day.

An online form saw 30 responses come in, 40 per cent of which related to the environment. A key question on the lips of voters was: what are candidates going to do to protect the vulnerable population? Further responses came from a focus group of students at the local public university, The University of Nevada, Reno.

The candidates were then sent a total of 50 voter's questions, many of which centred on air quality, water sustainability and climate change. Eleven out of 20 candidates responded to the questions, which were published in English and Spanish both online and on radio broadcast, along with which candidates failed to respond and their reasons for doing so.

"All of that went to voters ahead of going to the polls, so they could see how these candidates felt about the issues their constituents had clearly posed as concerns," says van Hoozer.

Her top tips are to use open questions and not shy away from the classic approach of pen and paper at in-person booths.

People need to know who you are and what you cover. So KUNR published an FAQ of the organisation and a content guide. They also identified which platforms were most effective for community building, which in the case of KUNR, was a Spanish-speaking WhatsApp Channel.

The citizens' agenda can also directly fuel editorial reporting, by way of solutions-based reporting and news you can use.

Getting young voters on board

Over in Lafayette, Lousiana, The Current is a non-profit newsroom that was set on informing and mobilising young voters ahead of its local elections last year, which resulted in a new mayor coming to office.

It built a citizens' agenda, informed by 500 responses developed through mailing lists, social media and in-person events. Getting young people motivated to participate was a big challenge, but going straight to a university campus helped a lot. It emerged that young people cared most about housing, quality of life and flooding.

This community input went on to become solutions stories, a candidate questionnaire and an election guide marketed for young voters.

A "Listen up" event invited candidates to attend and listen to the concerns, struggles and wishes of their constituents. Politicians were reserved about participating, but partnering with a local community leadership company, The705, helped generate more buy-in.

Elliot Wade, community reporter, The Current, says that solutions journalism is significant because it means the newsroom can keep tabs on how these issues are progressing (or not) under the leadership of the new mayor.

The citizens' agenda has also increased brand engagement, credibility and voter knowledge, and shaped editorial coverage.

"It was a transformational process for me personally because I got to see an administrative shift," he says. "I got to see the pace and energy around the mayoral administration shift because of the reporting we're doing."

Provide clarity, not confusion

"We stopped covering politics, we stopped covering elections, and we started covering democracy," says Hugo Balta, publisher of Latino News Network. He says that the citizens' agenda model is a mission statement of doing local democracy differently.

A second-generation immigrant himself, Balta has long felt a disconnect from traditional elections coverage as often he was the only journalist of colour in the newsroom.

An alternative approach such as the citizens' agenda addresses some people's genuine confusion about how the election process works or their distrust of political choices.

It serves as a living, evolving document, which should be used when pitching stories, and a measure of success internally: 'did we / does this fulfil our mission to cover democracy?'

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