The citizens' agenda: exploring ways of improving political news coverage and increasing political engagement

The Citizens’ Agenda is a practice-based research project conducted in the lead up to the 2013 federal election. It assessed the potential of new media technologies for promoting civic participation, and promoting forms of journalism practice that extend and enhance democratic engagement amongst diverse population groups. It involved asking citizens (through social media, meetings, publications and broadcasts) what issues they wish candidates in their electoral district to address – and then having those candidates address these issues at a public form reported on by the media. The impact of this process was then analysed.

The Citizens' Agenda enabled voters to post questions on the OurSay website, and vote for the questions others contributed. The questions that attract the most support were put to the candidates at a series of public meetings in August and September. University of Melbourne researchers used the project to test whether the use of social media to detect a 'Citizens' Agenda' can be used to improve civic engagement, and alter how journalists report politics.

Preliminary conclusions include:

  • The OurSay intervention did make public  issues that were not part of the dominant party political and media agendas. The most significant example of this was mental health policy and services - the subject of passionate debate in almost all electorates studied, both online and offline. There were other examples, including a suggestion that corruption at both state and local government level is a "sleeper" issue in the electorate
  • While the media paid attention to the town hall events themselves, frequently reporting the proceedings comprehensively, they did not pursue the issues raised there but merely reported - as conventional journalism requires - the responses of the candidates. The agenda was not changed by the experience of citizen activism
  • The OurSay intervention engaged mainly those citizens already engaged in political activity, both online and offline. There was some evidence of its drawing in citizens for the first time, and of some cross-over between online and offline interactions (web based voting and town hall meetings), but the cross-over was limited. Examining why this might be so will be an important element of the next stage of the project
  • Younger people were more likely to participate in the online activity than to attend the town hall meetings, though this did happen in some instances, for example, in the context of support for specific political parties (Greens and Sex Party)
  • Conversely, older people were less likely to propose or vote for questions or otherwise participate in the online processes, but were more likely than younger people to turn up to the town hall meetings, having heard about them through other than online sources

The next stage of our research will draw on these initial findings to continue the exercise in the 2016 federal election campaign.

The Citizens' Agenda  is believed to be the world’s first social media 'intervention' of its kind. The participating electorates were chosen because they broadly represent the diversity of Australia, including a mix of marginal seats and safe seats, urban, rural and regional, and a mix of incumbent political parties. They include Melbourne (Vic), Corangamite (Vic), Bradfield (NSW), Fowler (NSW), Longman (Queensland), Oxley (Queensland), Brand (WA), Grey (SA), Denison (Tasmania) and Fraser (ACT)

In May 2013, the research team released the results of a major national survey (640kb pdf) gauging the public's attitudes to political engagement, trust in government and media, and the current state of the political landscape.

Researchers

Margaret Simons [Centre for Advancing Journalism, Faculty of Arts, UoM]

Helen Sullivan [Melbourne School of Government, UoM]

Denis Muller [Centre for Advancing Journalism, Faculty of Arts, UoM]

David Nolan [School of Culture and Communication, Faculty of Arts, UoM]

Aaron Martin [School of Social and Political Sciences, Faculty of Arts, UoM]

Research outputs

Publications

Simons M., Sullivan H., Muller D., Nolan D. & Martin A. (2013) ‘The Citizens’ Agenda’ in Simons M. (ed) What’s Next in Journalism. Melbourne: Scribe

The citizens' agenda: national survey of voters: detailed results

Media

Ideas for Australia: Beyond the abuse, social media has improved public political debateThe Conversation, Tuesday 12 April 2016

Citizens' Agenda survey: voters tuning out, have little faith in politics, The Citizen, Monday 6 May 2013

From Coober Pedy to the city, a forum for ordinary citizens, The Citizen, Monday 6 May 2013

Research Program

Community-engaged research