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Newhouse professor creates Democracywise website to help local voters keep abreast of political news, encourage civic engagement
Newhouse professor creates Democracywise website to help local voters keep abreast of political news, encourage civic engagementSeptember 27, 2007Jaime Winne Alvarezjlwinne@syr.edu
Charlotte Grimes, Knight Chair in Political Reporting in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, has created an experiment in online coverage of politics and elections designed to help local voters keep abreast of political news and encourage civic engagement. The website is called Democracywise and can be found at http://knightpoliticalreporting.syr.edu/democracywise.
“The goal of Democracywise is to give the public the knowledge to be self-governing. A first, key step in that is to have clear, basic information about elections and candidates,” says Grimes. “The site is meant to give ordinary people — not just that handful of political junkies — the tools to participate in democracy. It’s one-stop shopping for civic engagement.”
Currently, Democracywise is focused on coverage of elections in the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County. The site features an easy-to-scan roundup of the races; brief bios of the candidates, links to their respective Web sites and contact information; a calendar of political events and deadlines; and stories on the races and how to participate in the election by students in Grimes’ political reporting class at the Newhouse School.
Eventually, the site will also include a “Democracy Dictionary” to explain political jargon, links to resources for voting and researching candidates, and “Things To Do” guides for taking part in elections and democracy.
Following local and county election results, the focus of Democracywise will shift to coverage of the 2008 U.S. presidential election and local congressional races. Regardless of its focus, the site will remain tailored to the needs of the local community. “We vote locally, even in presidential elections, so our coverage really needs to keep in mind the needs of our grassroots community,” says Grimes.
According to Grimes, political coverage is too often only about the “inside baseball” of the process or the strategy and tactics of campaigns. “All of that is worthwhile — it’s a way of keeping a watchful eye on how political figures go about trying to win elections — but it’s not enough. We need more coverage that answers the question: How does this story help voters?”
The Internet is an ideal tool to allow news organizations to become one-stop shopping for civic engagement. On the Internet, news organizations can post detailed information on political news and leave it up for the duration of an election season or even permanently. This means the information and news is always readily available, whenever anyone tries to find it.
“It’s very frustrating for someone who’s just getting interested in an election or issue to look for news and information but not find it,” says Grimes. “Conventional wisdom says people only get interested late in the election cycle, but many might get interested earlier if the basic information is easy to find.”
Grimes hopes that news organizations will adopt the Democracywise template and philosophy: put basic political news first and keep voters in mind. “Make it easy to at least find out the date of the election and who’s running for what. We don’t always do that,” she says.
News organizations and civic groups are welcome to link to Democracywise. According to Grimes, both the Onondaga Citizens League and the Syracuse chapter of the League of Women Voters will include Democracywise links on their own websites.
“The best political coverage helps us take charge of our democracy,” she says.