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Arizona Daily Star: How to turn election coverage into a hot, nutritious meal

Posted on January 07, 2022 • Category: Op-Ed
By Sybil Francis , President & CEO, Center for the Future of Arizona

This is an election year, the foundation upon which our democratic system of self-governance is built. The upcoming campaigns should fill us with excitement, not dread.

Yet dread is how many Americans approach election season. It’s easy to understand why: We know the attack ads are coming, demonizing opponents rather than civilly debating policy. We know serious discussions of issues and Arizona’s future are likely to be treated like cold broccoli.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. Our state’s residents care deeply about the future of this place. They’re more interested in solutions than finger-pointing.

How do we know this? The Center for the Future of Arizona’s mission is to listen to Arizonans and learn what matters most to them, then work with communities to solve problems. We know the areas where Arizonans are hurting and want solutions.

The Gallup Arizona Survey, which the center commissioned in fall 2020, told us:

Arizonans agree that a strong education system is vital to building a better future, but only 25% think K-12 public education in this state is of high quality. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents want more money spent on public education.

Arizonans know education and training are necessary to build their own careers, but they worry opportunities are limited. Barely half of the survey’s respondents are satisfied with their opportunities to advance through education or training.

Arizonans are struggling with child care. One-quarter of those with children 18 or under say the cost or limited availability of child care prevents them from going back to work or school.

Arizonans value the state’s natural resources but don’t see enough action to preserve them. More than 80% want regulations that protect rural water supplies, more spending to prevent forest fires, and steps that reduce the urban heat effect.

But if you peruse the websites of the leading candidates for governor, you’ll find few if any specifics on how they would address even one of these issues, much less all of them. How will we find out any candidate’s thoughts on making child care more affordable? How will we find out what they plan to do, if anything, about increasing mid-career education and training opportunities? Or their plans for protecting rural water supplies?

The answer lies with Tucson’s news organizations — this newspaper, TV and radio news stations. Imagine if they were to focus on a voter-centric agenda in covering the upcoming elections — serving us a hot, nutritious meal, as it were.

This wouldn’t be novel. Three decades ago, the Charlotte Observer pioneered the approach of letting voters set an election agenda. It focused on issues that 500 readers helped the paper pinpoint. Readers’ questions were asked of candidates and, if they declined to answer, white space ran next to their name.

It turned out readers weren’t interested in gotcha questions or what a candidate’s brother did 20 years ago. They wanted to know what candidates would do to solve the most vexing problems in their lives.

Trusting News, Hearken and the Membership Puzzle Project have collaborated to provide an outline for creating a citizens agenda. It emphasizes the need to talk to a wide swath of the community, beyond the usual sources.

It encourages going into various communities and asking, ”What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?”

If they do this, reporters and editors will find, as the Gallup survey did, that Arizonans agree on far more than they disagree, including the need to come together to find solutions to the challenges that hold Arizona back.

How will the candidates for governor solve the problems that matter most to the people of Tucson and Arizona? That’s the election coverage we need in 2022.

Sybil Francis is president and CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that brings Arizonans together to create a stronger and brighter future for our state.