A call for radically different campaign coverage

Jennifer Brandel
We Are Hearken
Published in
4 min readJun 12, 2019


By Jennifer Brandel, co-founder and CEO of Hearken, and Jay Rosen of NYU.

This is the first installment of a three-part call to action from Hearken and the Membership Puzzle Project to dramatically reimagine what campaign coverage should look like.

There’s been enough talk about the broken system of political coverage. It’s time to do something and we all know it.

Just look at the 2016 U.S. election and notice:

  • The inability of almost any media organization to accurately predict the outcome
  • The lack of understanding around issues and worries that were motivating voters
  • The soul-searching that is still happening years later about what went wrong, but no comprehensive review that might answer the question
  • The plummeting levels of trust in the media
  • The low turnout in many local elections
  • The news deserts that are growing and stretching across our communities
  • And all the ways that frustration and anger are bubbling up from people whose information needs are not being met

We got it wrong. We got it wrong in a big way and we’re still paying the price. We’ll continue to pay the price until we recognize we need to make a fundamental shift in the way that news organizations operate.

The heartening thing is this: we know there’s a better way. We’ve actually seen it done and helped make it happen.

And yet, there remains institutional reluctance to turn to the people whose voices matter the most. Not the pollsters, not the pundits, not the entire industry watching the horse race. But the citizens who these politicians are supposed to represent.

For years at Hearken, we’ve been helping newsrooms listen better to their audiences. And we’ve seen the irrefutable benefits that result from simply listening, instead of talking first.

We don’t need a megaphone — we need a forum.

We don’t need a platform — we need a community.

Instead of holding ourselves above the people we’re supposed to serve, we need to bring our ourselves to them.

And so together we — Jennifer Brandel of Hearken and Jay Rosen of NYU and the Membership Puzzle Project — will be campaigning this week for a “citizens agenda” model in campaign coverage. It begins by turning to voters themselves and asking them what kind of debate they need to hear to cast an informed vote.

No longer as news organizations can we presume to understand what our public needs from us, nor can we assume that being first with the latest salacious turn in a campaign is what actually matters.

This is not putting out one questionnaire that goes to 500 people, and calling it audience involvement.

This means:

  • Planning ahead
  • Bringing the public into the process of your journalism and story production
  • Evaluating the success of your outreach efforts to reach new audiences
  • Establishing real metrics so you can determine where you’re succeeding and what to adjust

This is disciplined, this is rigorous, this is not easy. Yes, it will involve making tough choices — anything worth doing always does. Yes, it will require shifting practices that have been in place for years, if not decades.

But we all know what the consequences are if we get this wrong again.

So how will we do it?

Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past. We can break the vicious cycle of the election cycle.

The only way you can find out about that is to get yourself to the table, to listen, and then respond with the information people say they need to make informed decisions.

We’re teaming up to guide reporters and newsrooms who are ready to commit to this work.

This week we’re launching a series of posts, examining what the citizens agenda model means in practice and how newsrooms can connect more deeply with their audiences.

In October, we’ll be gathering with journalists doing elections coverage to examine how our work can better serve civic engagement (details to come).

We welcome you to join this conversation. We stand ready to assist those who respond to the call.

This agenda benefits all of us.

It is only by listening first that we can develop a clear voice to move forward.

Interested in joining a learning community around creating more responsive elections coverage? The Membership Puzzle Project is teaming up with Hearken to provide support for newsrooms ready to empower voters by listening to their information needs first. Learn more here.


Jennifer Brandel
Jay Rosen

Read the entire series

Part One: A call for radically different campaign coverage

Part Two: Key steps in the citizens agenda style of campaign coverage

Part Three: Case study: How the Dublin Inquirer set a citizens agenda



Jennifer Brandel
We Are Hearken

Accidental journalist turned CEO of a tech-enabled company called Hearken. Founder of @WBEZCuriousCity Find me: @JenniferBrandel @wearehearken wearehearken.com