Fix Your Feedback Loop

How to put the citizens agenda to work in your newsroom

(Bridget Thoreson)

There’s been more than enough talk about the limitations of the current system of election coverage, one which overall prioritizes poll results over the issues that matter to people. That’s why in 2019 Hearken and the Membership Puzzle Project teamed up to call for a radically different form of campaign coverage.

The solution to the horse-race coverage trap that is all too easy for newsrooms to fall into is what Jay Rosen of NYU describes as the “citizens agenda” approach. This involves turning to the citizens themselves before starting down the campaign trail and making a commitment to cover the issues that matter the most to them.

At SRCCON 2019, Ariel Zirulnick of the Membership Puzzle Project and I facilitated a session designed to show how newsrooms can create a citizens agenda for their audiences ahead of an election, and what it takes to maintain the commitment to that coverage when inevitable wild cards come up.

Text slide on presentation screen

How to develop the citizens agenda

When we asked participants to describe how they felt, either as a journalist or as a citizen, about the approach of the next election, the responses were revealing. Their emotions included:

  • Exhaustion

  • Elation

  • Anxiety

  • Trepidation

  • Fear

  • Overwhelmed

  • Ignorance

  • Excitement

  • Frustration

There’s a lot to worry about when it comes to getting election coverage right, and among the highs of strong reporting results come the lows of too much to do with no clear way of prioritizing the work – particularly when unexpected storms blow up during an election cycle, from campaign gaffes and coordinated distractions to hard-to-kill rumors and targeted misinformation.

The citizens agenda gives journalists something to hold onto as their newsrooms are buffeted by the soundbites and scandals of the horse race. It’s a priority list that originates in active listening, and a process that can be built on over time.

Steps to creating citizens agenda campaign coverage

  1. Identify who you are trying to inform. This is not limited to your existing audience, but should include everyone who needs to make an informed choice in the upcoming election.

  2. Ask: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for your vote?” Workshop different versions of this question to find the one that resonates the best with the public.

  3. Create a draft agenda and ask for feedback. Once you’ve published the draft based on the initial feedback you received, ask how it can be refined and reshaped further. This should be treated as a living document that is continually updated throughout the election. Be open with the public that this will change over time, and clearly signal how it changes.

  4. Use the draft as a playbook for your coverage. Ask yourself, “How can I help members of the public get the information that they have told us they want?”

  5. Press the candidates to address these issues. Let voters know when they do, and when they don’t. View the goal of your coverage throughout as helping the public be able to vote on the values that matter to them most when they reach Election Day.

If you’re interested in learning more about the citizens agenda for your own newsroom, Hearken can help. Learn more here.

Citizens agenda in practice

This approach is an ongoing process that can be adjusted over time. In our session, we gave participants a set of Dot Connector Studio impact pack cards to design their approach to citizens agenda coverage.

People sitting at a table which is covered with papers

You can design an approach for your newsroom, too, by asking yourself these questions:

  • Who are we trying to reach with this coverage?

  • What response do we want to move them from and toward? (Example: Moving from fear toward empowerment, or anger to calm).

  • What platforms or channels can we use to reach them? (Tip: Think beyond social media. Where are your audience members and potential audience members getting their information? Who could you partner with or what strategies could you use to reach them?)

Remember: To perform a public service, you must try to reach the entire public. This means thinking beyond your traditional channels to identify new, unique opportunities to reach people.

Side-by-side, two sets of concentric circles
Who you’re asking Where to ask
Existing audience Owned channels: Website, email, broadcasting platforms or print publication, existing social media accounts
People who closely match the media habits of your existing audience Similar channels: Organizations with websites, email services, publishing and broadcasting platforms or social accounts that you can put out the call on
People from underserved/underrepresented communities who do not closely match the media habits of your existing audience New channels: In-person outreach, community centers and libraries, hubs of information within the communities
  • How could this connect to your business model? (Is there an event possibility to generate ticket sales? Are you talking to subscription folks about ways to convert readers?)

  • What outcome are you seeking? Be sure you establish metrics that can be used to evaluate your efforts, and will signal when you may need to change course.

Examples: See how WNYC framed their request to the audience for their Ask A Reporter series; check out the citizens agenda developed in response to audience feedback from The Tyee.

But wait!

You may have developed a plan for the citizens agenda approach, but when’s the last time any election ever went according to plan? You must also be prepared to revise your coverage plans in order to deal with unforeseen events.

In our session, we offered participants five election “wild cards” to choose from, ranging from a natural disaster striking to a surprise allegation made against a candidate. The groups then had to restrategize, figuring out which elements of their citizens agenda approach they should prioritize, and which needed to be revised in the light of new information.

Consider this example:

We wanted people to move from feeling baffled to feeling inspired, to go from not knowing to knowing the right questions to ask. We chose to reach out to them using social media, chat and audio to cover our bases as widely as possible, and to give people the chance to engage with each other. Our ultimate outcome was empowerment—so they could make their own decisions and vote.

But when a natural disaster hit our mid-sized newsroom, it made us question whether we had the capacity to cover both that and the citizens agenda. As a result, we chose to collaborate with other people. That way we hoped to work on both and meet people’s needs.

There are any number of ways to put the citizens agenda approach to work in your newsroom. Every group in our session came up with a unique idea for serving their public, and doubtless you have your own ideas as well. Keep in mind that the citizens agenda is a process, not a product. Be sure you keep a feedback loop continually running with members of the public to drive the agenda forward and make improvements over time. With flexibility, transparency and carefully crafted outreach, you can focus your elections coverage on the ultimate goal of a better informed electorate.




  • Bridget Thoreson

    Bridget Thoreson is the member collaborations editor at INN, working with newsrooms to frame, fund and execute project-based editorial collaborations, ongoing partnerships and collaborative networks. Thoreson worked with journalists from 109 news organizations as an engagement consultant at Hearken, where she served as project manager for Election SOS, which brought together 45 organizations to support more than 1,500 journalists during the 2020 election. She is based in the Chicago area.


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