Friday, April 19, 2019

Creating an Information-Rich Region

This article is the first in a series, written by program officer Andres Torres, introducing the Democracy Program’s work in journalism.”



Every election, about a night or two before voting, my family gathers to caucus. Over a meal and a drink, we share research on candidates, try to decode any ballot initiatives, and discuss the merits of our options. We were fortunate during Chicago’s recent election to have a range of sources to draw from and inform our debate.


New initiatives like Chi.Vote collected articles from local outlets so we could see, for example, education coverage from Chalkbeat Chicago alongside campaign finance data from Reform for Illinois and an article from The Daily Line offering context on the donors fueling the campaign. New outlets and new ventures augmented coverage available from long-standing sources, such as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, WBEZ, and local TV stations.


As we moved down the ballot, however, we had to dig harder to find information. What are the prospective rewards and risks of a public bank? Just searching City Treasurer candidates “Conyears-Ervin and Pawar” in Google News returned a fraction of the results that “Lightfoot and Preckwinkle” did, leaving us with more questions than answers. This challenge grew exponentially more difficult as we sought to sort between our incumbent Alderman and his several primary challengers.


There was some great neighborhood-level political reporting in the most recent election, such as Block Club Chicago’s reporting on aldermanic forums or the City Bureau and Austin Weekly News collaboration to bring resident concerns into election coverage. However, as my family wrestled with our decisions, we found less, and less credible, information on the races closest to home or on issues that might be pressing to us, but perhaps weren’t central to the campaign, such as support for cultural programming and public art.


I acknowledge my family’s privilege in confronting the challenge of finding relevant and reliable information to inform our participation in Chicago’s election. We can access information in English, we have reliable internet access, we have high educational attainment, which has helped us develop the analytical skills needed to sort fact from fiction, and we have robust networks with educated and civically engaged peers who can help us fill the gaps in our knowledge. But many Chicagoans lack these privileges.


Information is essential to educating and activating citizens to participate in their democracy. Without civic participation, our democracy withers. While we are acutely aware of our need for civic information when we have a pressing decision, such as a ballot to punch, a healthy democratic society needs information perpetually and universally.


It is around this lofty goal of creating an information-rich environment that supports all residents across our region, regardless of race or ethnicity, to be informed and engaged citizens, that the McCormick Foundation’s Democracy Program is focusing its investments in journalism. Our hope is not just to augment the quantity and quality of public affairs reporting, but ensure that across the region, all people have access to this information.


We have developed four strategies for achieving this goal, and we are now accepting Letters of Inquiry (LOI) for grants to support organizations and initiatives that advance one or more of these strategies. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be introducing these four strategies on our blog to offer insights into how we came to these priorities and how we envision advancing the work. In the meantime, I welcome your questions.

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