by Olivia Henry
The Jefferson Center organized three, three-day events for residents of Summit County, Ohio to develop recommendations for local newsrooms covering the 2016 presidential election. Participants were randomly selected from a pool of applicants to reflect the county’s demographics. They heard presentations from journalists, evaluated news articles and created statements for fellow residents and media. The events were structured as citizens juries, a model of public participation created by the Center’s founder Ned Crosby.
Under the banner of Informed Citizen Akron/Your Vote Ohio, these deliberative events were part of the Jefferson’s Center broader effort to improve election narratives in Ohio. That effort included conducting four statewide polls to determine residents’ top policy concerns, as well as organizing a coalition of 13 state newsrooms to share information and stories informed by the polling and citizens jury recommendations.
Project Goals: The program director at the time of this project, Andrew Rockway, says the goal of the polling, events and reporting collaborative was to help Ohio media better reflect the information needs of residents. Too often, election reporting falls into a horse race frame rather than examining issues. The Jefferson Center and its partners hoped that by identifying the top resident concerns — and offering specific recommendations for improvement to newsrooms — it could drive more informative and trustworthy journalism.
Tools and Technology: To find participants for the three events, the Jefferson Center bought a list of Summit County addresses from a Minnesota-based marketing company. The Center sent 15,000 households postcards inviting them to fill out demographic information. To reach even more potential participants, the Center promoted through news partners, purchased ads on Facebook, and posted on Craigslist. Using that pool of respondents, the Center anonymized their information and selected groups of 18 people who reflected the demographics of Summit County. For the polling aspect of the project, the Jefferson Center worked with the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute to conduct four qualitative panel surveys of a cohort of 2,000 Ohioans.
Impact: The deliberative events produced these sets of recommendations, which along with the polling data, was distributed to the collaborative of 13 newsrooms across the state to help guide issue-based election coverage. Stories produced by the collaborative included more data-based graphics and perspectives from Ohioans across the state about the issue. The positions of the candidates and quotes outlining their stances on the issue were also included with each issue-based story. Rockway said the public feedback changed Ohio election journalism for the better. See the collaborative’s coverage here, and ongoing coverage here. For example, a Lima News editor wrote: “When [Vice President Mike] Pence was here last week, we covered it differently than in the past by using the regional polling data to drive what questions mattered to our readers. We got shut out of a one-on-one with him, but we still phrased the coverage in light of what [the public] say they care about.”
Organization Background: The Jefferson Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Saint Paul, Minn. Its mission is to “strengthen democracy by advancing informed, citizen-developed solutions to challenging public issues.” The citizens jury model is a critical part of their organizing. Other recent projects include climate dialogues to bring together rural residents to strategize about changing and extreme weather events and convening healthcare consumers to advance ways to reduce diagnostic errors.
Project Resources: Project resources included the below amounts.
- $125,000 for four in-depth public polls conducted by the University of Akron
- $30,000 for community engagement events. Participants were paid $400 for the 3-day events, plus expenses for travel and childcare.
- $75,000 for staff time and travel
This project was supported by the Knight Foundation and the Akron Community Foundation.
Here’s what worked
1. Partnering with small and large newsrooms
Your Vote Ohio invited large newsrooms like the Akron Beacon Journal and smaller organizations like the Lima News to be part of the deliberative events and the newsroom collaborative. They published each other’s election stories so “readers in Akron could read what people in Lima were saying about immigration.” In fact, a request to understand perspectives from around the state was part of the juries’ recommendations.
2. Newsrooms actually used the public input
Rockway said it was satisfying to see the public recommendations reflected in the media. For example, public radio station WKSU and other partners produced a series of issue-based stories reflecting aspects of the citizens jury recommendations — listen to one here.
3. Newsrooms are committing to the public’s recommendations moving forward
Since the presidential election, 35 newsrooms have signed up to participate in Your Voice Ohio, the next iteration of Your Vote Ohio. By reporting collaboratively and exploring new community engagement approaches, project partners are working to deliver more responsive coverage of Ohio’s opioid epidemic and Ohio’s economy.
Here’s what could work have worked better
1. Go deeper on fewer issues
Each citizens jury had lists of recommendations for journalists on different topics, and the polling data covered everything from immigration to health care to climate change. Rockway says that this broad focus made it hard for some newsrooms to effectively put into practice what they were hearing. Instead, for the next iteration of the project, the Jefferson Center and Ohio news partners are focusing their efforts on the top two concerns for Ohio residents: the opioid epidemic and Ohio’s economic future.
2. Measuring the public’s reaction
Rockway said that, next time, he will be more deliberate about understanding the impact among people who read, watch or listen to media outlets that were part of the collaborative. “On the public-facing side,we didn’t achieve what we wanted to or see that in measurable way.”
Here’s what else you should know
- Cross-Medium Collaboration: The collaborative spent more time than anticipated converting public radio scripts to print pieces and vice versa. While print pieces work well on the web, they don’t work as radio segments. Print and radio journalists did report stories together, however.
- “Just the Facts”: Many Ohioans consistently indicated they wanted local media to report “just the facts.” Your Vote Ohio asked jury participants to unpack this refrain. Many, especially less frequent news consumers, indicated a preference for infographics and brief statements, rather than consistent narratives. Participants also wanted to hear the perspectives of their peers across the state, which are not necessarily “just the facts.” That said, political stories with less exposition may perform well for some audiences. In an exercise where participants served as editors for local candidate profiles, nearly half of each article was suggested for cuts.
- Transparency: Many participants, including avid news consumers, were not aware of the business model crisis facing local journalism, especially for legacy print outlets. Rockaway wrote that, after speaking with reporters, participants came away with a stronger appreciation for the depth and difficulty of effective journalism. “It’s worth it to be honest about the challenges you’re facing in local news.”
To learn more about this project, visit The Jefferson Center’s webpage on Your Voice Ohio.