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Citizen-driven Metajournalism on Congress

March 25, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

As Congress is out on recess until next Monday, I am turning my attention to OpenCongress for the day. We don’t go on recess…

OpenCongress highlights the bills that people care about, not just the ones that Congress has chosen to push. This is an essential feature of the site, but one that I think gets less attention and use than it deserves.

By aggregating data from all over the internet and ranking every bill in Congress by “”http://www.opencongress.org/bill/most/viewed">most viewed," “”http://www.opencongress.org/bill/most/blog">most covered in the blogs" and “”http://www.opencongress.org/bill/most/news">most covered in the news," OpenCongress produces new data about the public’s interest in bills. If you compare these categories on the OpenCongress home page, chances are that you’ll find the most interesting and contentious bills sticking out like sore thumbs.

This is where a lot of interesting and unique information on OpenCongress come from — not from trends across all the categories, but from inconsistencies between them. The inconsistencies create their own, original stories about bills that are data-driven and dynamic (to references a possibly non-applicable coinage from Sunlight Foundation’ s Micah Sifry).

For example, right now, the MOTHERS Act, “a bill to ensure that new mothers and their families are educated about postpartum depression, screened for symptoms, and provided with essential services,” is the most bogged-about bill in Congress according to our data. We have found about 50 blog posts about the bill in the last two months, but, interestingly, we have not found a single mention of it in the traditional news media.

As citizens, this kind of information is invaluable. It raises a red flag and tells us that there may be a potential problem with the bill that we should look at. From glancing at a few of the blog posts for the MOTHERS Act, I found out that people are worried that the bill could encourage more mothers to take psychiatric drugs for postpartum depression, which may have negative health affects for breast-fed babies.

It’s a major concern that’s been entirely missed by the traditional media — unless I happened to stumble upon one of the 50 or so posts about the bill in the blogosphere, I never would have known about it. Now that I’ve found it, I have the ability to take my own actions on the bill: do more research, write an article, call my senator, or watch to see how my senator votes on it.

I consider the “news” category on OpenCongress to be roughly in line with the issues that Congress has decided to be concerned with. When it comes to legislation, traditional journalists mostly write about congressionally-directed actions, not citizen-driven movements. So, from looking at that category on the home page, I see that journalists are writing a lot about the annual budget resolution, the ongoing FISA battle, the upcoming global warming bill and a bill tied in with presidential politics. All big, highly-politicized items.

The other categories — “most-viewed” and “most-blogged-about” — better represent the concerns of citizens. If I look at the “most viewed” category, it’s obvious that the people coming to OpenCongress to do research and take action have something else on their minds: the economy. Of the four most-viewed bills on the home page, three of them are directly related to the current economic and housing crisis.

One more example: last October, the House quietly and nearly-unanimously passed the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act. It was a bill that went almost entirely unnoticed until the House took it up. After that, talk of it began bubbling up in the blogosphere and it quickly shot up on OpenCongress to become the most-blogged-about bill (and eventually the most-viewed). People were outraged — it’s language, they said, is so ambiguous that many say it defines thoughtcrime and, since it’s focus is on U.S. civilians, it raises important questions about the safety of our civil liberties.

As people began writing about the bill, OpenCongress accelerated the trend. Anyone who visited OpenCongress in the following months saw this provocative and scary-sounding bill that they had never heard of prominently highlighted on out home page. Having this information presented in its own right — not through the work of a specific blogger, but by bloggers in general - helped to spread knowledge of it to anybody who came to OpenCongress for any reason. As concerned citizens, many of them spread the word further. Coincidentally (or not), the bill appears to be ">dead in the Senate.

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