Wednesday, January 31, 2007

How VFM contestants can help voters and win votes

[Originally posted January 21 in votermedia Google group.]

We can have lengthy theoretical debates on the pros and cons of VFM, but with the UBC AMS election upon us, it's now time for practical action. Political systems are complicated, and we can best resolve these debates by seeing the results of VFM implementations. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." We will soon learn whether VFM can help voters, and whether voters can appreciate it.

The practices currently prevalent in journalism have been shaped by the incentives of existing private and public sector media systems. VFM is a new system with very different incentives, so it may call for very different practices. No one yet knows what those new practices will be. I have been thinking about and discussing this for years, so I have some guesses to share with you.

As emphasized in my January 19 post "My role in the UBC VFM contest", I have no authority over the contest, so no one has to do as I say. I am offering these ideas to help our group learning process, and invite debate on them. The media contestants will do as they think best, and voters will make their own voting decisions for their own reasons.

What follows is a very simplified and opinionated outline of my views. I expect they will differ sharply from those of many of you, so look forward to learning from discussion and from what participants will actually do. I have no formal training in journalism nor in political science, so have a lot to learn. My background is in financial economics.

Consider these different types of voters:

1. Very busy; willing to spend only a small amount of time to fulfill the community service of becoming informed enough to vote.

2. Might spend more time becoming politically informed if it's interesting or entertaining.

3. Willing to do some checking of political information.

4. Really into politics and media (this group includes the media and political candidates).

We could append a category #0 of potential voters who are like category #1, but busier and/or less community-service oriented so that they don't vote. The VFM system is designed especially to help type-1 voters make the most of the time they are willing to spend getting informed. If VFM creates a better information system, this can also gradually attract some type-0 non-voters to convert to type-1 and vote.

Voter-funded media should try to help all types of voters (and potential voters). But the media should not all try to do this in the same way. Ultimately they are a team, and different media will fulfill different roles and specializations. The value of each media organization should be judged in the context of what the other media are already providing. What does each one add to the total?

That said however, next I will outline an example of content and layout that I think would be helpful, especially for the type-1 voter. (We should also ask voters what they want.) Later I will return to the question of how some media might fulfill different parts of this in different ways.

(This outline is for websites. For other types of media, it would need to be adapted.)

1. Link from directly to your
website's main executive-summary voter's guide page.

2. On your main page, show the voting sections in the order they will appear on the ballot. I don't know if this order is correct, but
maybe it's:

- President

- VP Academic

- VP Finance

- VP Administration

- VP External

- Board of Governors

- Senate

- The Ubyssey (3 positions? What are they?)

- Voter-Funded Media

3. For each section, list all candidates in sequence of your endorsement, starting with your top-recommended candidate. I believe there is a long-standing debate on whether media should endorse candidates. More on this later. But to help type-1 voters, I suggest providing explicit endorsements of electoral candidates and of media contestants. Links to the other media would also help voters.

4. For each candidate, give a one-line summary of your assessment (strengths/weaknesses), with a link to explanations that support your assessment. These links lead to the depth and breadth of your
website's content.

Example: The Ubyssey's editorial on January 27, 2006 gave helpfully concise endorsements for last year's AMS elections:!--5--%3EOpinion/1edit.html

The big challenge for a VFM system is: how can a busy uninformed voter have any clue which media to believe? I see three main ways:

1. Brand reputation of the media organization.

2. Quality assessments by other media organizations. [Now that's incestuous!]

3. Spot-checking media opinions against the voter's own knowledge on some particular issue or candidate; or against voter's own research, including reading various media's supporting material.

Even without VFM, voters need to decide which media to believe, and can use the above three methods. The difference with VFM is that voters have a new way to reward media for providing helpful political insight. This should improve media quality generally, and help the key feedback loop in #2 (media rating media) work more effectively. It seems to me very important for the media to give voters quality assessments, rankings and endorsements of the other media. The diverse range of competing media supported by the VFM system provides some check and balance against back-scratching conspiracies of media that might endorse each other regardless of actual quality.

Brand reputation of media organizations will greatly enhance VFM effectiveness as this new system is implemented in more voting communities over more years. Media will build their reputations in the eyes of voters, and voters will learn to reward them and follow their voting advice. But in the world's first implementation at UBC, VFM reputations are not well established, so are less help to voters. This makes it all the more crucial for UBC media to assess each other's quality and communicate that to voters.

There are several different ways that media should refer to each other:

1. Recommending to voters which media to vote for in the VFM contest.

2. Recommending to voters which media to read.

3. Referencing and crediting sources in other media for endorsements and assessments given in your own media. It would be wastefully inefficient for each media organization to do all its own research on every candidate and issue. They should learn from each other. Thus some media could provide valuable insights without candidate endorsements, while other media read and credit those insights, then add their own candidate endorsements.

The ability of voters to support multiple media contrasts sharply with voting for electoral candidates, where voters usually have to choose one instead of another. So we can expect more cooperation among media than we see among competing electoral candidates.

I think one reason why some journalists avoid endorsing electoral candidates is that they fear readers may suspect some corrupt influence. Voter funding of media should reduce (although not eliminate) that fear and suspicion.

Another VFM-induced shift is the incentive for journalists to want people to spend time reading or watching their publications. Especially in the private sector, journalists are rewarded when people spend more time because it generates more advertising revenue. But if the revenue source is voter funding, busy voters would prefer and reward media that give the essential info in less time, as long as it is backed by a reputation for credible research.

With VFM, electoral candidates should find less need for campaign spending. This should attract more high-quality candidates with less obligations to those who helped them campaign.

One final reminder to media contestants: reach out and educate as many students as possible about the election and VFM!

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