American journalists analyze modern direct democracy at Global Forum

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 02-Aug-2010

SAN FRANCISCO – A panel of journalists critiqued news media coverage of ballot propositions during a U.S. conference that was part of a global forum on initiatives and referenda over the last four days. The forum continues on Tuesday (August 3) and will conclude on Wednesday.


This writer joined John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee, film producer and blogger Jane Hamsher and media consultant Bettina Inclan for the discussion.


Differences between coverage of ballot issues and citizens campaigns were among the issues considered by the journalists. Panelists agreed that often the “horse race” approach to news coverage places so much emphasis on polls and campaign financing issues that coverage of substantive policy provisions within ballot proposals may suffer.


However, Fund observed that coverage of opinion surveys and spending issues has the advantage of being focused on quantifiable measurements, rather than clashing opinions from advocates. Fund, who grew up in California, embraced the state’s vibrant traditions of direct democracy.


Fund spoke on the panel of reporters, addressed a reception for attendees, and was a featured speaker at a third event hosted by the local Swiss Confederation and the consul general for Switzerland in San Francisco, Julius F. Anderegg. Switzerland is one of the world’s oldest democracies, and home to one of the most vibrant traditions of direct democracy in the world.


Much discussion on the panel for reporters focused on transformations in modern journalism that are impacting coverage of all politics, including direct democracy.


This writer reported on the decline in the numbers of state capitol reporters over the last two decades, as newspapers have lost circulation and advertising.

Moran shared reflections on the decline in the number of colleagues at the state Capitol in Sacramento, and the effect that has on the thoroughness of state government-related news reporting. However, he lauded the independence newspapers have, in his experience, extended to Capitol reporters.


Inclain, a Latina woman, said coverage of minority communities leaves much to be desired, leading press spokesman like herself to seek ways to assure information reaches targeted audiences even when newspaper and other reporters do not cover her concerns.


Formerly communications director for Citizens in Charge Foundation, a sponsor of the forum, Inclain was for much of this year press secretary for Steve Poizner, a candidate for California’s Republican party gubernatorial nomination.


Hamsher, who runs the FireDogLake blog, said the participatory aspects of her work in the blog world create for younger and more technologically-oriented readers new ways to become informed and connected to political developments.


The group of reporters said readers are interested in who is participating in, gathering signatures for, and financing ballot initiative campaigns. Some initiative activists at the forum said they would like to limit or eliminate disclosure requirements in order to protect initiative activists.


However, the participating reporters agreed that campaign finance information is helpful to readers and voters, especially in the expensive campaigns that characterize the politics of direct democracy in California