Politics without voting: Hong Kong’s democracy protests. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung

It’s not you: political journalism really is broken

If you often get the feeling that politics coverage has nothing to do with you, you’re not alone. For many years I’ve felt that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way journalists approach politics. Other people have pointed out that horse race coverage is unimaginative and shallow, that too many journalists have become obsessed with proving they’re insiders, and that it’s ludicrous to send 15,000 reporters to a nominating convention which is live-streamed anyway. All of these criticisms are important, but my complaint is more fundamental: most politics coverage is about politicians, not the things I care about and the actions I could take.

“Politics” does not mean politicians or government. If you don’t believe me, check the definition here, here, or here. Government is one of the places where politics happens, to be sure. But politics is so much bigger than that: it’s all the ways that people come together to exercise power collectively. Political journalism could imagine the audience as agents, people who act. Political journalism could be genuinely empowering, if it started from the concerns of the people it’s supposed to serve and not the spectacle of elections.

I’m not the first to notice that those who grew up with the internet feel disconnected from “classic” politics, centered on government and elections. In the U.S., voter turnout is at an all time low. There is a weary cynicism here, but I reject the idea that we’ve become apathetic: young people all over the world genuinely believe they can change their communities and the world. They just know that voting isn’t how most social change happens.

Consider how the fight over gay marriage rights went down. Organizers had an explicit strategy of fighting in state courts. In politics nothing is guaranteed, but the ultimate victory was not an accident. A large coalition worked on this, state by state. This push may have been covered by journalists, but it wouldn’t be “politics” coverage until it got to the courts or appeared on a ballot or a politician said something about it. Yet it is neither the courts nor the legislators who really matter here. That’s just the infrastructure, the institutions, the arenas where certain fights played out.

I want political journalism to help me better understand how to change the world to my liking, by acting with other people who want the same thing. I want it to be about me and my community, and our aspirations, and what we could do to make them real. This could be anything from getting together to clean up the park to organizing a national campaign for tax policy reform. There are many different publics — whether bound together by issue or geography or networks — and many collective dreams. The international development agency Oxfam has compiled a comprehensive list of the ways that social change happens, and electoral politics is only one of them.

I’m not suggesting that journalists ignore governments and elections. Journalists will tell you that they hope to inform voters, and that this is why they spend so much time covering candidates. Voting is surely a political act but it is one among many, and other civic acts deserve much more attention than they get. We fetishize voting; we obsess over voter turnout and glamorize the idea of an “informed voter.” I’m not even convinced that classic story-based journalism is all that helpful in deciding how to cast your vote. I have greater hope in the idea of voting advice apps, interactive experiences designed to educate voters and help them choose. But in a two party system your vote contributes only a single bit of information anyway! Surely the action must be elsewhere.

What is being voted on is at least as important as the vote itself, so political coverage could include all the ways that government, media, citizens and corporations interact to set the agenda. But even this is needlessly narrow. A great many political things are beyond the reach of voting. Sometimes it’s a company or an industry that must change; no one would deny that the private sector has enormous influence on society. If you’re battling widespread prejudices or behaviors, then it’s your fellow citizens who need to be convinced. Or sometimes the fight still happens in government, but in the courts or at the regulators, far from the democratic machinery of Congress. Politics runs in complex networks, and “the government” has many parts.

Yet the political press has no new ideas. At a recent industry conference on campaign coverage, there was “a complete vacuum of discussion around the ultimate aims of campaign coverage,” according to media critic Jay Rosen. When political journalists are asked about the purpose of their work we usually get weak, essentially circular answers like “finding the stories that matter.” Well here’s my answer: political journalism should be politically empowering. Everything else is entertainment.

As usual, the way forward is to center the users. I’d like to see political journalism start from the political aspirations of readers. Concerned about spiraling rents? What could be done and who would have to do it? It could be a city councilman who needs to be convinced, or it could be a major developer, or the situation could be much more complex. Think Americans should get more parental leave? Your first thought might be legislation, but it might be more effective to first prove the idea within a few large companies. Candidates and politicians only enter into the picture when those who are fighting for something see a need to engage them. Politics may not even be about democratic institutions at all — The Tea Party eventually got candidates elected, but Occupy Wall Street hardly even tried. Yet Occupy succeeded in influencing the 2016 agenda.

There has been a major shift in what being an engaged citizen means, and the political press needs to follow this to stay relevant. The distributed, open nature of the Internet gives us a sense that we should be heard. Paul Ford said that the fundamental question of the web is “why wasn’t I consulted?” The whole Internet, from Wikipedia to Linux to Facebook, has taught us that we can just jump in wherever and become a part of something. I was part of the first generation to grow up immersed in this possibility (Mosiac 1.0 user, hi there!) and as I began to ask political questions I remember continually discovering that older generations had a very different sense of how politics should work. Sometimes the disconnect was jarring: obviously members of Congress should pay some form of attention to my tweets, right? How could they possibly ignore a channel where millions of citizens regularly express their opinion?

Today’s citizens expect their politics to be participatory. Think for a minute what you could do about ____ that isn’t reading political news, then think if the political news you are reading helps you do that.

And think about the other media you do use politically. Politics is now inconceivable without social networks like Facebook. But there are more focused platforms such as Change.org and Brigade who understand that politics is about helping groups of people get things done, often at the local level. Make no mistake, what these startups aim to sell is political influence — both to their users and their advertisers. These organizations don’t agonize over being disinterested; instead they’re perfectly happy to host all comers, including groups who have competing visions of how things should be. These efforts are well-funded and have plausible business plans, and eventually one of them will succeed in becoming a major site of political action. These types of platforms will eventually become symbiotic with political journalism — much as Facebook has drawn closer to media in recent years. And if we’re lucky, all of this will make life easier for folks who want to know how to act on the things they care about. But for this to work, the coverage has to be granular, focused on concrete opportunities where participation can lead to change. No, your app will not “fix democracy.”

Political action is so much more than voting, and politics is so much more than politicians and government. A political information source that helps you understand the political landscape, refine your aims and your strategy, connect with like minded people, and ultimately succeed at your politics is essential; everything else is gossip. There’s a 21st century manifesto from Poland that captures this aspiration, this great expanse of DIY politics. It’s called We the Web Kids, and it ends like this:

We do not feel a religious respect for ‘institutions of democracy’ in their current form, we do not believe in their axiomatic role, as do those who see ‘institutions of democracy’ as a monument for and by themselves. We do not need monuments. We need a system that will live up to our expectations, a system that is transparent and proficient. And we have learned that change is possible: that every uncomfortable system can be replaced and is replaced by a new one, one that is more efficient, better suited to our needs, giving more opportunities.

Perhaps we have not yet given it a name, perhaps we are not yet fully aware of it, but I guess what we want is real, genuine democracy. Democracy that, perhaps, is more than is dreamt of in your journalism.

Thoughts on Media is a community publication, curated by ReadThisThing. Follow us on Medium or check out our newsletter.

Thoughts on Media

Hand-picked articles about journalism, media, and writing. Curated by @awwstn

Jonathan Stray

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Computer scientist and investigative journalist. Teaching at Columbia, built @overviewproject, circus geek. Ask me anything!

Thoughts on Media

Hand-picked articles about journalism, media, and writing. Curated by @awwstn