Question: What will it take to get citizens involved in a process that is very important to them but over which they have almost no control?
Trying to find the answer can be a great opportunity for journalists, especially those who see the value of bringing arcane topics to life for citizens who want to understand more about the political decisions that make up our American lives.
A partnership in Western New York sees it as an opportunity to grow new audiences as well.
Last fall, WXXI Public Broadcasting, NYcitizens.org and the Center for Governmental Research in Rochester came together to create a Web project around Congressional redistricting.
The project, funded in part by the Pew Center, includes a Redistricting 2002 site within NYcitizens.org - a collaborative Web initiative of the state's nine public television stations. Redistricting 2002 includes simple, useful explanations of the politicized process of drawing new state Congressional districts. It also includes news coverage and links to discussion boards and outside resources.
The partners, however, knew it would take more than the usual Web coverage to engage voters in such a complex enterprise. Their goal was to find a way to twin information and interactivity - to illustrate the redistricting process and to engage citizens in it even if they don't have to vote on it.
The solution was twofold: make it fun then take it to young people.
In February, WXXI and the partnership unveiled the Redistricting Game - an interactive exercise that allows Web users to use a role-playing game to create their own Congressional Districts.
"The idea behind the game is not necessarily to get citizens input into the legislative process," says Gary Walker, WXXI vice president for television. "The idea is to illustrate the difficult task at hand for lawmakers and to educate on the laws and guidelines that bind lawmakers as they redraw the lines."
The Redistricting Game allows players to be one of six different kinds of stakeholders in the process. For instance, a game player might take on the role of a white Republican state legislator interested in advancing Republicans at the state and national level. This player seeks to draw four Congressional Districts that give Republicans the best chance of winning as many districts as possible but must resist the appearance of gerrymandering.
Or a player could assume the role of an African-American in charge of the state Democratic Party, who not only wants four districts in which Democrats will be elected but also wants to see more African-Americans elected to Congress.
WXXI partnered with the Center for Governmental Research to come up with some realistic roles. After choosing a role, the players are led to a redistricting grid, where they choose representatives according to their demographics, ethnicity and political party. The game keeps the user within certain rules. For example, it stops play if the user chooses to shape a district outside contiguous lines.
WXXI created maps showing state and county census information to help inform users' decisions.
After the user creates four districts, the game tells the players how they would fare in front of the governor or the legislature and suggests workable alternatives to the scenarios the players created. The game also links to discussion boards and offers information on the redistricting process.
The game is powerfully interactive, but WXXI and its partners believe it has potential beyond everyday interest. For that reason, they have created an online curriculum for 12th grade social studies classes. It includes the redistricting game, lesson plans, activities and printable tools for classrooms where computer use is not readily available.
As executive producer, I'm hoping this outreach gives the project new life. We also hope it engages a new group of citizens and voters. At the very least, we can expose students to complex government processes in a useful way.
As part of the project, WXXI has solicited 500-word essays from key federal and state lawmakers on what they hope to see from the redistricting process. We are now producing more than a dozen lawmaker essays and will ask the public to respond with their own essays about their changing districts, towns and neighborhoods.
NYcitizens.org is used as a citizenship Web component by the state's public television stations. The League of Women Voters has been so impressed with Redistricting 2002, it has offered to fund further outreach.
WXXI and the NYcitizens.org stations also plan to use the site during a statewide public affairs broadcast and expect that other NYcitizens.org applications - such as an Election Finder, which allows citizens to find local polling places - will increase the usage.
The site is the first statewide public television collaboration to use cross-platform technology to galvanize civic journalism efforts. With the launch of Redistricting 2002, the site producers are making partnerships with daily news organizations and with state public radio stations to produce a project that incorporates news coverage, citizen discussion, interactive tools and useful applications.
It will make for an even more powerful combination of new media and public broadcasting.