The goal was simple enough: After years of politicians and journalists shaping political debate during the campaign season, why not give North Carolinians themselves a turn? In 1996, several of the state's newspapers and television and radio stations joined forces to do just that, and the Your Voice, Your Vote initiative was born. The newly formed media coalition surveyed citizens to find out which issues they believed were most important in the '96 gubernatorial and Senate campaigns, then it used its collective muscle to steer candidates toward those issues. The result, organizers hoped, would be a campaign more about issues and less about name-calling, sound bites or keeping score.
Certainly noble intentions, but did the project work? Depending on whom you ask, Your Voice, Your Vote was either an important step toward bringing politics back to the people or a case of media partners surrendering their journalistic responsibility in favor of poll-driven coverage. Rick Thames, former public editor of The Charlotte Observer, a partner in the project, called the it "good explanatory journalism that seeks to clarify issues of public concern." Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley took a decidedly harsher view, calling the effort a self-serving attempt "to control the political agenda rather than to report on the candidates' activities and positions."
Good or bad, Your Voice, Your Vote represented a definite departure from traditional campaign coverage, and it was not alone. For several years, newspapers and other media outlets across the country have been experimenting with new approaches to political reporting. Collectively, these ventures have come to be known as civic, or public, journalism. Like the North Carolina coalition, most of these projects sought to get back in touch with issues that were most important to their audience and to help renew public interest in the political process.
"This clearly is a little bit different kind of journalism than we've ever practiced," says Rob Christensen, a political writer for The News & Observer, which is a partner in the Your Voice, Your Vote project. "It definitely would fall under the umbrella of civic journalism."
Four years later, in the midst of another campaign season, Your Voice, Your Vote is back for its third go-round (it also covered the 1998 campaign). Once again, the media partners have surveyed the public and, based on the poll results, selected the major issues to discuss with candidates. Coverage began this weekend, with coalition partners running introductory stories about the survey and the issues selected. During the coming weeks, they will run collaborative articles focusing on each of this year's selected themes: education, the environment, the economy and taxes.
At least so far, this year's project hasn't generated the same heated debate as in previous years--media critics have found newer, more fashionable trends to criticize. For North Carolina's voters, though, the questions are as important now as they were four years ago. Does Your Voice, Your Vote enhance the political debate or stifle it? By focusing on four or five survey-determined campaign themes, does the project neglect other important issues? And is it healthy for so many of the state's major media outlets to be coordinating coverage, using shared information to publish similar articles?
Rob Waters, projects editor at The N&O, says much of the criticism that came after the 1996 effort was "based on a misunderstanding of the project."
"In the mid-'90s, campaigns tended to be extremely shallow, with little discussion of what was really important," Waters says. The Your Voice, Your Vote coalition simply wanted to encourage more substance in the campaign--"and that's essentially what's happened."
Waters dismisses most of the criticism of Your Voice, Your Vote by pointing out that the initiative is only one aspect of The N&O's election-year news.
"This does not replace our campaign coverage, it supplements it," he says. In fact, all of the coalition partners are quick to point out that they will run plenty of their own campaign stories in addition to the more homogenous issues package.
"As it was then, and as it is now, it's just a piece of our coverage," says Jennie Buckner, editor of The Charlotte Observer.
By running their own campaign stories along with the Your Voice, Your Vote stories, coalition members say they can maintain variety in their coverage and devote enough attention to important issues that don't fall within the chosen four of education, environment, economy and taxes.
Still, each newspaper, television station and radio station operates within limits. News broadcasts have only so much air time, newspapers have only so much space, and all of the partners have fixed budgets. Resources devoted to Your Voice, Your Vote are resources taken away from each media partner's own coverage. And in some cases, important issues may get lost along the way.
Phil Meyer, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, says that's exactly what happened during the 1998 campaign. At that time, Meyer says, with conflicts raging in Bosnia and elsewhere, "one of the most important issues was military preparedness." But because it scored less than 10 percent in the statewide Your Voice, Your Vote survey, the issue didn't receive much coverage. In this case, the media partners neglected their job of educating readers and viewers about an important issue, Meyer says; instead, the press seemed to decide, "if the people are asleep on an issue, let's be careful not to wake them up."
Even more notably, during the 1996 Senate race between Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt, race relations and families/values didn't make the final cut for coverage by Your Voice, Your Vote. Interesting omissions, especially considering Helms based much of his campaign on value issues, and Gantt's campaign manager, Jim Andrews, says his candidate "wanted to have an open argument about race."
"They simply don't cover the race," Andrews told The New Yorker. "Why should they? They've already decided what the important issues are and what the candidates say about those issues. This allows them to sit back and cover a race from the comfort of an armchair in the newsroom. Instead of covering the real combat of the campaign, they make up the combat in their heads."
Waters at The N&O dismisses Andrews' charges as "sour grapes." He says the Gantt campaign "was looking for someone to blame."
Christensen agrees, saying Your Voice, Your Vote was not intended "to make professional hired guns happy." And "instead of homogenization," he adds, resource sharing between the media partners "provided much better coverage than we've ever had."
Still, organizers of Your Voice, Your Vote say they've made some changes that they hope will improve this year's project.
"Some adjustments have been made since then in our approach to ensure that the poll informs the project but doesn't drive it," Waters says. Though the media partners still "certainly look to voters to tell us what's important," he says journalists still exercise a good deal of news judgment in shaping campaign coverage.
Other changes this year include focusing only on the governor's race and reducing the amount of sharing between the Your Voice, Your Vote partners.
"We've adjusted, and we've evolved," says Buckner at The Charlotte Observer. To "preserve the independent character" of each partner's coverage, she says, "we're not sharing as much of some of the stories."
Also, Waters says, the schedule for this year's Your Voice, Your Vote stories has been condensed, with articles run "fairly close together, to get a greater sense of continuity."
"In 1996, it was spread out more," he says. "There was some sentiment that some stories didn't resonate, that they were disembodied from the campaign; they were kind of term papers."
By condensing the schedule, packaging the stories more closely, Waters says the group also hopes to maintain clearer distinctions between Your Voice, Your Vote and each partner's traditional coverage.
The bigger question underlying all of this debate about Your Voice, Your Vote versus traditional campaign coverage is whether North Carolinians learn more from one type of coverage than another, or whether most people even notice the difference.
"Frankly, it's hard to know whether this has really stimulated voter interest," Christensen says. "Voter interest is so low anyway."
"It's difficult to measure," adds Waters. "We think we're providing a service, and we're getting enough positive anecdotal evidence."
Ironically, in trying to determine how North Carolinians felt about the survey-based political coverage in 1996, researchers turned to, what else, a statewide poll. The Pew Center, a philanthropic group, sponsored the poll, which found that only 25 percent of voters even recognized the new style of coverage. Of those who did, about one-third said they were better informed than in previous elections. Overall then, about one out of every 12 North Carolinian voters noticed the change and believed they benefited from it. Not exactly an overwhelming success, although supporters of Your Voice, Your Vote are quick to point out that, in only its third campaign, the project is still relatively new. It may take some time, they say, to see substantial impacts on voters.
Marco Steenbergen, a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, has studied the effects of Your Voice, Your Vote and other civic journalism projects around the country. Specifically, his research asks, "do people learn more from one type of coverage than another?" In general, he says, the impacts of civic journalism were virtually nonexistent.
"There's absolutely nothing going on there," he says--no overall difference in people's knowledge of issues based on either traditional campaign coverage or civic journalism projects like Your Voice, Your Vote. Perhaps more telling, however, were Steenbergen's findings when he narrowed his focus to avid newspaper readers, or what he calls "news junkies," and less frequent readers. He says the news junkies did learn more from civic-journalism-style coverage than from traditional reporting. On the other hand, the less frequent readers learned more from the traditional "horse race" coverage, which focused more on sound bites and who was winning.
Steenbergen believes advocates and opponents of civic journalism could learn a lesson from the results of his study.
"Both sides suggest that there is only one way to do political journalism correctly," he says. "Newspapers would be well-advised to mix approaches."
Meyer agrees. In 1996 he told The New York Times: "There's no reason you can't do both. Think how boring basketball or football would be if we hid the scoreboard, or didn't announce if the extra-point attempts were good until the end of the game."
Partners in the Your Voice, Your Vote project believe they will do both this year, and while they admit they've learned lessons from the 1996 and 1998 projects, they believe their underlying goals are still sound. Even with the best of intentions, though, the jury's still out on the value of Your Vote, Your Vote, especially with only one-twelfth of North Carolinians saying they're impacted by the project. After all, even a new, improved message only resonates if someone's listening.