Public Attention and Public Desires – Are they the same?

With Sponsorship from The Whitman Institute Spot.Us will be conducting several community surveys about our media habits, attitudes and conversations.

The first of these surveys went up last week and looked at the release of Sarah Palin’s emails and Anthony Weiner’s photo scandal. We asked over 200 individuals how much time they dedicated to these media stories, if it was worth their attention and what (if anything) they’d rather see covered.

You can find the full results of that survey published at the trusty Spot.Us blog.

It should also be noted that the survey results are a secondary win to the primary of supporting independent journalists. Every person who takes a survey on Spot.Us earns credits that are directed to the reporting project of their choice and create real funds for that reporting endeavor. Huzzah!

Since the results of this first specific survey can be found on Spot.Us’ blog I thought I’d take this space to look at the larger issue, especially since the Whitman Institute afforded us the ability to do several of these types of surveys I want to try and articulate what I hope we can achieve and open up to suggestions on what future surveys/polls/questionnaires might accomplish this.

One of the founding principles behind Spot.Us is that the public can and should have a seat at the editorial table to determine what coverage the media will serve. The media talks about this concept all the time but rarely meets it head on. At best on cable networks you’ll see a few minutes dedicated to reading Tweets on television. This is a kind of faux power. A manipulation of Andy Warhol’s 15-minutes of fame and passing that off as power (in modern society we too often interpret fame as power).

So why doesn’t the media (and I’m talking more about broadcast news for the moment) tackle this more head on? One could argue that they don’t need to. They are responding to what media consumers want. In fact, they cater to it already and that’s why we have news that skews towards the sensational. This leads to a chicken/egg dilemma. Do media consumers pay attention to sensational news because that’s what they want or because that’s the only thing they are served up.

Part of the problem is, if we are serious about this question, the answer is a bit of both. Turn on PBS Evening News and you are likely to start snoring. Turn on Fox News or CNN and you might have a seizure from all the flashing bright lights. I refuse to believe that these are the only two options we have. There must be a way in which we can seek the feedback of the public in determining coverage, reflect that in a serious manner without forcing consumers to feel as though we are force feeding them broccoli.

One type of organization that gives us glimpses into this middle road is the Pew Research Center for The People and the Press. Pew also runs the “Project for Excellence in Journalism.” In some respects what Spot.Us is attempting with these surveys is a quicker/lighter version of Pew polls that give us insight into how the public think/feels about topics.

While our method is less scientific, it is faster while maintaining a basis in real quantitative answers from a diverse but digitally savvy audience. Perhaps some day the Project for Excellence in Journalism will even help sponsor some of these surveys and thus help independent journalists at the same time.

The goal in these surveys is to get our fingers on the pulse of a conversation.

For example: If it was relevant we could launch a survey tomorrow about Google+ and Facebook.

Everyone is going to have their blog posts on the best features of Google+ or why it will/won’t be better than Facebook, etc. But one post by one person is just that. Even if I go out and aggregate several posts, it doesn’t take into consideration background information from those individuals or even ask them to tackle the same questions and that is what we really need in order to understand what Google+ is and how it may fit into our lives – by asking people who are using it.

I am not 100% sure what the topic of future surveys sponsored by the Whitman Institute will be. They’ve given us pretty open ground. At the same time I want to stay true to the parts of their mission which overlap with Spot.Us’ – to give a platform for the general public to converse and understand what they want from media and hopefully have the media respond back in kind.

I want to keep my ear low to the ground and create surveys around topics that have varying opinions but one where nobody is really asking the right/tough questions of THE PUBLIC and not just media insiders asking themselves or ‘experts’ what is important to understand for a given topic.

We want to know what drives conversation, how those conversations spread and why. What is or isn’t important to media consumers. What threads they follow, what threads they spread and what influence that might have.

If you have ideas for future survey topics – send them my way. Note: The next two weeks I will be more or less offline (getting nuptial’d) but upon my return we will take a close look at where the media is taking the public and give the public a chance to respond.