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Conversing With The Public

By Anne Clausen

A 19th century German activist once said that journalism is “time conversing with itself.” In his opinion, it was the job of journalists to provide a forum where people could express their opinion on matters of public interest. By talking about current events, people could shape them or bring them into existence – bring change to society.

Sometimes it seems like this part of journalism is forgotten these days, especially within the mainstream media. So much information is top-down from political leaders, CEOs and large organizations to the people instead of the other way around. Often, the voices of “regular” people only appear in polls that do not really say much anyway.

One of the things that excited me most about Rethink08 was that I felt it would be a chance to turn the table: To ask you for your opinion. The Rethink08 event at the University of Montana on Nov. 4, 2009, was an attempt to do just that, and I think we were successful. Nearly fifty people signed up for an “interviews without words,” and about as many tweeted their thoughts on our Twitter account.

We also each portrayed one young voter. These portraits were among the most viewed pages on our Web site and, in my opinion, some of the most important stories there too.

I am still moved by Ashley Haley in “Minding the Mountain,” who said that Barack Obama for the first time made Native Americans feel recognized or even looked at. I am still impressed with the grace of Jessica Kotur, the minister in “One Issue, One Vote,” who disagrees with Obama on abortion but still supports him as president. To me these people represent the stifled voices in American society, showing a much more nuanced picture than stereotypes usually convey.

Facebook as the best-performing tool

Finally, we tried to reach out to people via social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Facebook, as it turned out, was by far the biggest success and led a lot of people to comment on our Web site.

I think the biggest challenge for us was to build a community around our project and draw people into the conversation. It is so easy for us journalists to go to press conferences or city hall meetings and report on that. They take place at a scheduled time, and you are almost sure that there will be something to report afterwards.

Anne Clausen sharing a laugh with a visitor during the Rethink08 Internet debate. Photo: Carmen Irish

But reaching “ordinary people” takes time and effort. People are busy living their everyday lives, and it is difficult for journalists to find them where they are and then hope they have a story to tell. One of the great lessons learned from Rethink08 is that building a community or drawing people into the conversation requires our participation as well. Sometimes we fell back to our default position as journalists: We put articles out there and then expected people to discuss them amongst themselves.

If I had to do things over again, I would have done more to solicit responses from the public. I would have asked them questions via Facebook and Twitter instead of just instructing them to go visit our Web site, and I would have responded to their comments from the outset.

It is difficult to get out of the habit of being a traditional journalist. On top of that, I think many journalists feel it would compromise their objectivity if they started a discussion with people who comment on their work. I will be the first to admit that it can be a difficult line to draw.

Letting comments be part of the story

The solution, I think, must be for the journalist to think of the article as an ongoing online project instead of a done deal. In a way, it becomes a combination of both the original story that can stand on its own if it’s all people choose to read, and of the comments all stories generate. Each person who comments is an additional source in the ongoing project: A source that should be asked for his or her reasons for professing a certain opinion, asked to back it up with information or elaborate on a personal story.

It has been an interesting experiment and a learning curve. For this project, we were event organizers, Web designers, photographers, writers, Tweeters, debate moderators, interviewers and interviewees. I don’t think of that as a bad thing, on the contrary. I don’t know if projects like Rethink08 are the future of journalism, but I kind of hope they are.

Read Anne Clausen’s profile of Daniel Viehland.

Discuss Anne Clausen’s analysis of the Youth Vote 2008.

Go back to Authors’ Page.

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