A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

From Coober Pedy to the city, a forum for ordinary citizens

Margaret Simons explains the thinking behind a unique research project that will see whether constructive use of social media can help hand power to the people, so that citizens have a bigger say in driving the political agenda.


THE FEDERAL electorate of Grey in South Australia is one of the biggest in the nation – indeed, the world. It lies between state borders, from the Nullabor to the Simpson Desert.

At its heart is the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, home to about 1700 people, many of whom live in underground houses to avoid the midday heat. The name of the town comes from the local Aboriginal word kupa-piti, which means “white man’s hole”.

Grey was certainly a challenge, geographically. That is why we chose it as one of our target electorates for a world-first social media-based “intervention” in the 2013 election campaign, looking at whether social media can be used to make visible a “citizens’ agenda” of issues, with the aim of improving political engagement and informing journalism.

And that’s how I came to be having a telephone conversation with the editor of The Coober Pedy News, Gary Atkins.

The News – a one-man website run from a desktop computer – is one of Coober Pedy’s main news sources, sharing the space with the Imparja television service based in Alice Springs, and the evocatively named Dusty Community Radio.

Atkins listened to the explanation for our project. It would be good, he said, if the local Liberal Party MP, Rowan Ramsey, could be persuaded to take more notice of Coober Pedy, but he wasn’t too sure about social media.

“Up here,” he said, “we’re waiting to see if Facebook is a fad.”

At the other end of the scale was the electorate of Melbourne, another of the 10 key electorates chosen. It has one of the highest levels of internet penetration and use in the country. There, we arranged to meet the incumbent candidate, Greens MP Adam Bandt, over lattes in a cafe with free wi-fi and an iPad or laptop on every table.

The Citizens’ Agenda is a big and very ambitious research project, led by a research team with expertise spanning media, politics and journalism.

There is a lot of optimism and a lot of fear about the impact of social media on our democracy and our media, but very little robust research. 

This project will allow us to study whether the use of social media can improve voters’ political engagement, and whether it can influence the way that journalists report politics. We have contracted the social media website OurSay to carry out our “intervention” in those electorates.

The core OurSay method is to host town hall meetings and community forums, and secure the agreement of decision-makers, in this case political candidates, to agree to answer questions. These questions are crowd-sourced through the OurSay website, and social media presence. People registered with OurSay can vote for a question, meaning that those questions with the most public support rise to the top.

Then, at the community forum, the top questions get asked – and the answers are reported through all the means at our disposal. We have set up an “OurSay” website for each electorate, and will hold the town hall meetings with the candidates in the last weeks of the 2013 federal election campaign. (See the dates here).

The idea of a “citizens’ agenda” to enliven political reporting first arose during the 1990s civic or public journalism movement in the United States, of which New York University Professor Jay Rosen was the founder.

Rosen, an enthusiast of new media and a progressive idealist on its potential, conceived the role of journalism in a new way — to create a space, or an opportunity, not only to identify problems but to assist citizens in finding answers. Newspapers and journalists held town hall meetings to find out what their audiences thought. Journalists reported both the problems and the journeys towards the solutions.

In 2010, Rosen was visiting Australia during the election campaign that led to the Gillard minority government.

Inspired — or depressed — by what he observed in Australia, Rosen gave the idea of a citizens’ agenda a fresh airing, with a social media twist. Rosen suggested that four-to-six months before an election campaign begins, the media should ask citizens not who they are going to vote for or which party they favour, but what they want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes.

“The idea is to find out from voters what they want the campaign to be about,” he wrote, “and what they need to hear from the candidates in order to cast an intelligent vote.”

Having established a “citizens’ agenda” of issues, Rosen suggested, the media organisations should pursue these issues, regardless of whether or not they were on the “agenda” of the political parties.

Rosen’s ideas have been noticed in Australia. The Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, has adopted his language in talking about the role of the public broadcaster as being “a town hall that excludes no-one”.

Most media business people who are thinking about these issues, perhaps particularly those who are erecting paywalls around internet news sources that used to be free, understand that the thing to be monetized is not only size of audience, but the depth of connection with that audience.

Yet no media organisation, so far as we could determine, had given the ideas behind Rosen’s proposal a fair trial.

Whether social media can have a positive impact is one of the most urgent questions in both politics and journalism. We know that the last big technological innovation in communications – the Gutenberg printing press – made possible modern democratic forms, as well the profession of journalism.

We have to expect the technological innovations of our own times to create changes in both these fields of human endeavour. But what changes?

There is a lot of optimism and a lot of fear about the impact of social media on our democracy and our media, but very little robust research.

When we started reviewing the literature around this project, we found that most researchers could be broadly categorised as either optimists or pessimists. The pessimists thought the institutions of representative democracy were under threat, with public scepticism, distrust and loss of legitimacy characterising the relationships between core political institutions and the public. 

The hope for a project like the Citizens’ Agenda is that it will be able to demonstrate that by listening to audiences, media can both improve their political coverage and gain more trust.

On this view, citizens’ sense of agency over political decision-making and their contentment with their political systems were diminishing while public policy problems were seen as more complex. People doubted that politicians and governments can address their concerns. The decline in political party membership, particularly among young people, was one symptom.

Contemporary journalism was identified as part of the problem through political coverage that was increasingly focused on ‘game frame’ agendas and a ‘horse race’ approach, and emphasising personalities at the expense of substantive issues.

The pessimists thought that transformations in the field of journalism meant that there would be a decline in media professionalism, and a lack of reliable, disinterested reporting.

Our national survey, which forms a foundation for the Citizens’ Agenda, certainly suggests the pessimists have a point. The results, released today, show that levels of trust in media and government, are depressingly low.

The optimists, on the other hand, focused on the potential of participatory democracy as a means of democratic transformation and renewal.  The optimists saw political engagement as changing, rather than declining, with new methods of participating opening up.

We thought that while both ‘pessimistic’ and ‘optimistic’ critics made valid points, there were problems with both, and that both sides were relying on mixed evidence to support their claims. We hope to make a contribution to filling the obvious gap with the Citizens’ Agenda research project.

We want be part of developing a nuanced and detailed understanding of shifting relations of expertise and authority in democratic politics, and their implications for citizenship and political engagement, journalism, and policy choices.

Initially, we thought of covering all the electorates in Australia that would change hands on a swing of two per cent or less — 25 seats in all. We changed tack for funding and research reasons. First, our funding narrowed that vision to 10 seats. But we recognised that choosing only marginal seats would skew the results.

What we needed was a selection of seats that, while they couldn’t be strictly representative, at least encompassed the diversity of the nation. To get high social media use in an electorate like Melbourne might not be much of a challenge. Grey, on the other hand, was likely a different kettle of fish.

We made our selection with an eye to diversity on five criteria: marginality of the electorate, location, party incumbent, the level of internet penetration and use, and demographic diversity. Our fifth criterion was a mix of three variables — ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. That left us with a list of electorates across the nation, with Grey being our most remote and largest, and the seat of Melbourne in many ways its opposite.

The survey results give us a baseline on issues of trust and engagement. We will examine whether our intervention shifts any of these indicators in our target seats.

The hope for a project like the Citizens’ Agenda is that it will be able to demonstrate that by listening to audiences, media can both improve their political coverage and gain more trust. As well, if the “Citizens’ Agenda” exercise results in changes in feelings of efficacy and engagement, either across the board or in particular segments of the population, then that will be a significant finding.

The exercise begins today. We will be doing all we can to keep people informed about its progress, in both the academic and broader community.

Obviously, we hope the exercise will have a positive impact on the depressing state of public trust and political engagement, but we are not advocates. We are researchers. If it doesn’t work, or only works in some places in some ways, we will say so.

One way or another, we will have a better idea of whether the optimists or pessimists are right — or whether both of them are right, in different ways.

And we might just have made a difference.

* Along with Margaret Simons, key researchers on the Citizens’ Agenda project include Aaron Martin, Denis Muller, David Nolan and Helen Sullivan

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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