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Research agenda -- Midwest Democracy Project

The Midwest Democracy Project is not proposed as an episodic effort to augment traditional election coverage in two U.S. Plains states. Rather, it is intended as an experiment that will provide rich data for social-science research on what influences political and civic participation in our rapidly evolving media ecosystem, especially among youth and younger voters. A byproduct of this experiment will be coverage of broad use to the public, however.

We will design coverage so that it uses every medium (social networks, mobile, print, TV, radio, ethnic) and then track access to see if combinations are more effective at promoting political engagement and participation generally and among audiences studied by race, gender, income, age and other factors.

Key questions about participation

Before/after research studies of the 2008 elections by the "five-university partnership" (universities of Wisconsin, Kansas, Arkansas, Texas and Missouri) and University of Missouri researchers (links below) raise important questions based upon analysis of voter-panel surveys. The Midwest Democracy Project will continue and expand this research, with the intention of offering specific guidance for the 2012 national election cycle on what fosters political engagement and participation. Among the questions:

  • Is home-based family discussion of political or public-policy issues in the home a good predictor of likely political and community engagement or participation by youth and young voters? What about the effect of school-based political or issues discussion on engagement/participation by parents?
  • Which key media (newspapers, television, radio, Internet), individually or taken together, are most likely to public foster engagement generally and activate those people with natural leadership abilities?
  • What forms of engagement (campaigning, attending forums, listening, viewing or contributing to media-facilitated issue discussion) are most affected by which media or discussion?
  • Is new media (web, mobile/cell, social networks) particularly useful in reaching underserved communities?
  • How does the concept of trust affect the influence of media (one-way or participatory) and discussion (home, community or online) on political engagement and participation?
  • What aspects of traditional, multimedia and social media, as well as face-to-face engagement, appear to most positively affect a citizen's sense of "self-efficacy" -- the belief that one can effectively act on knowledge or beliefs and "make a difference"?

Studies (PDF downloads):

(1) Efficacy . . . / . . . (2) Knowledge . . . / . . . (3) Participation

Making sense of confusion

One goal of the research might be to find or develop, and then assess tools which convert the confusion of the web into a rich, interconnected information resource that fosters cognitive elaboration rather than blocking or frustrating it. Social scientists define "cognitive elaboration" as the act of connecting separate pieces of information, whether it is from memory or material being processed, into a larger whole that provides a framework for understanding.

Partners in design, execution

Because the 2008-election research revealed a multi-media mix of influences as significant predictors of political engagement and participation, our partners for 2010 will include newspaper, television, radio and Internet/citizen media outlets -- and particularly forms of engagement not traditionally thought of as "media" -- such as public forums and online social networks. They will include:

  • Metro, regional, local and community newspapers (including weeklies) in both Kansas and Missouri
  • Commercial and public television stations
  • NPR-affiliated and other non-commercial community radio stations.
  • Local online news communities
  • Groups and pages within national social networks
  • Ethnic and niche media
  • Kids Voting USA (proposed)
  • League of Women Voters (proposed)
  • Project for Excellence in Journalism (proposed) (example of RJI collaboration)
  • Kettering Foundation (proposed)

The work of journalism students from Missouri and Kansas will be focused on supporting the research agenda -- learning "what works" to increase political participation and engagement, not just in elections but in civic contexts. Accordingly, student fellows will be selected not only for their talent at multimedia reporting, but also based upon an intention to test a proposed role of journalists as convenors of conversation and civic collaboration.

Likely research platforms

We are exploring at least two specific research platforms:

  • The Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, has expressed interest underwriting an experiment testing the effectiveness of leadership training on the outcome of public forums. They would consider training our student-journalists (possibly in Dayton) to design issue books to help lead constructive public forums, and then ask that that the students host both structured and unstructured sessions. The students would be expected to report the outcomes and any differences in the quality of the resulting public debate.
  •, a web-based startup in Amherst, Mass., founded by University of Massachusetts students, is beta-testing a method for increasing public engagement with specific, local issues through social-networking technology. The technology matches pro-con comments and debate and discussion with real-name, identified voters. We would create parallel sites, one permitting anonymous commenting and one requiring authentication to voter-address roles, and study the quality and impact of the resulting dialog. This test could help determine the best forum for future public-debate sites and contribute important data to the debate of anonymous vs. identified blogging commentary. (Download a PDF slide deck about