After two and a half days of meaningful discussion held August 11th-13th, the 18 community participants of the 2nd stage of our Informed Citizen Akron project have provided our media partners with a clearer understanding of what information citizens need to understand and evaluate candidates and public issues, as well as how they’d like that information presented. This group’s work built on the first phase of Informed Citizen Akron, which identified the most important policy issues on the minds of Ohioans, how citizens want those issues covered, and how media might identify important issues in the future.
The second phase of Informed Citizen Akron focused primarily on coverage of presidential candidates: the qualities and traits of candidates most important to voters, how media might provide information about those characteristics, and the ways media and citizens might best evaluate the claims and stances of candidates.
To kick things off, Doug Livingston, a political reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, gave an assessment on the current state of newsrooms and political coverage. It quickly became clear to the jurors that newsrooms across the country face substantial challenges, like smaller budgets, fewer reporters, and greater competition.
Dr. John C. Green, Director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron, presented next, discussing the role of polling in today’s political environment and highlighting results from the joint Bliss Institute/Jefferson Center/Ohio Media Project poll conducted as part of Informed Citizen Akron. Jurors were surprised to hear that small variables (i.e. women are more likely to answer household phones) can drastically bias poll results. Jurors were also curious to see how the priorities of Ohioans differed from their own.
At the start of the second day, jurors studied an overview of the roles and responsibilities of the President. Many were unclear about specific aspects of the president’s day-to-day job and most noted that election coverage often fails to highlight these roles and how candidate claims relate to the actual responsibilities of the President.
Also from the Bliss Institute, Dr. Stephen Brooks joined us to provide background on past campaigns and the differences in strategies campaigns employ today. For example, Dr. Brooks highlighted Mr. Trump’s use of earned media, in contrast with Secretary Clinton’s embrace of more traditional efforts (like paid advertising and on-the-ground organizers). Jurors were interested in the role that private donations play in campaigns and whether it suggests an implicit ‘pay to play’ agreement, in the event that the candidate is elected; jurors were also curious and critical of the role that lobbyists play in the electoral process, as well as once the candidate takes office — their primary concern being that these lobbyists wield outsize influence.
Dr. C. Daniel Myers from the University of Minnesota joined the group virtually to present on the topic of voter decision-making. Myers’ presentation outlined the psychological processes voters employ when taking in new information about candidates and issues, and how personal biases influence the way that the information is processed. Participants were surprised to hear that the amount of ‘True Independents’ (those who truly are independent and do not lean toward a particular political affiliation) was substantially smaller than imagined. While a growing plurality of voters identify as Independent (as did 6 of the 18 participants), Myers noted that only about 10% of the population are ‘True Independents’ that behave differently than left-leaning or right-leaning partisans.
Following the robust presentations on Thursday and Friday, jurors reviewed the information and through small and large group, identified the qualities and characteristics they most desired in a qualified presidential candidate, and what each meant. Saturday was spent entirely in deliberation and dialogue on the most important points from each expert’s presentation, as well as identifying and prioritizing the most important strategies for the Ohio Media Project’s members (newspapers, radio, and TV across Ohio) to enact. You can find their suggestions here. The participants also had recommendations for their fellow Ohioans, including discouraging them from sharing hyper-sensational articles on social media and urging them to “listen to understand, don’t listen to respond.”
In final closing remarks, the panelists reminded one another of the work they had accomplished and the robust report which gave both citizens and members of the media concrete next steps to improve political discussion. While some participants acknowledged openly that they have never worked so closely with such a broad group in their daily life, the overwhelming response from participants was that the diversity made the resulting report stronger. In a political climate like the 2016 Presidential Election, it was heartening to hear that while partisanship and general disapproval of the two primary presidential candidates is high, the approval rating the jurors would give to one another was quite the opposite. Over the course of August 11th-13th, Informed Citizen Akron had made clear that civil discussion of politics is not only possible, but attainable and desirable.