By Edward M.
Pew Center For Civic Journalism
March, 1996 - As journalists have again proven in this election year, their
appetite for poll data -- always hearty -- has become well nigh
insatiable. But many journalists are asking how well conventional
survey research serves their readers and viewers and some are
seeking a new model.
The question takes on greater import as the profession of journalism,
faced with shrinking circulation and a public turning away from
traditional news sources, but not yet turning up anywhere else,
changes some of its traditional practices. That change, in some
cases, has led to a new attitude, a willingness to consider the
public and the public agenda when editors gather at the table
to make their daily news judgments. The attitude change even has
a name--civic journalism.
Hardly revolutionary, you say? Didn't all of corporate America
recently rediscover that the customer is king? Yes, but journalists
don't like to think of themselves as having quite so simple a
relationship with their viewers and readers. They are in the business
of providing information, an essential oxygen that allows democracy
to thrive. It's a higher calling than buying and selling goods.
Their version of the relationship is best described by a variation
on the old anthropologist's line, "Me journalist, you reader."
In other words, I know what's good for you.
Journalistic imperatives have nearly always overwhelmed the reader/viewer
rela-tionship. Imperatives like the need to be competitive. And,
in recent years, to be -- in the vernacular of the age -- edgy,
to be hip, to be an insider, to hold elected officials in thinly
veiled contempt, to be quick to judge others. Competition has
always been a force that drives journalism, of course; competition
to be first on the street or on the air supplies the adrenaline
rush on which so many journalists thrive. All the other attributes,
hip, edgy, judgmental, journalists picked up more recently, mostly
in the heady post-Watergate days. Journalists felt then, with
considerable justification, that their profession was playing
at the top of its game.
The game didn't last long. The aforementioned circulation clouds
started to form on the horizon back in the early 'eighties. Economic
woes followed. The new competition is for people's time. Consuming
news has always been a leisure time activity, of course. But according
to some new studies, Americans now work longer hours, take fewer
vacations and holidays than they did as recently as 20 years ago.
Both parents work in many homes as they try to maintain a middle
class standard in the face of shrinking wages and fewer well-paying
The dinner hour, when the family gathered in the national electronic
town hall as Cronkite, Chancellor or Reynolds set the national
agenda with their network news broad-casts, has also been affected
by changing lifestyles. The most recent news ratings show viewers
in about 25.4 million homes still tune in for the national news,
still a huge number but down from 33 million only a few years
ago. (CNN's daily average is 580,000 homes.)
Meanwhile new information technologies are threatening the news
media's tradi-tional delivery methods. Ink on paper, pictures
and voices on the airwaves seem old fash-ioned next to the gushing
river of information on demand the Internet and other technolo-gies
now make possible. About a third of U.S. homes are currently equipped
with comput-ers; roughly half that number have modems.
On top of their other woes, there is a growing sense that journalists
are out of touch with the people they say they serve. The title
of the well received book by James Fallows, for example, is "Breaking
the News: How Journalism is Undermining American Democracy." No
institution in American life has fallen further faster in public
esteem than journalism, down from a 50% public confidence ranking
as recently as 1988 to 25% five years later, according to the
Yankelovich Group's annual survey.
Something is clearly awry in the relationship of journalists and
citizens and that's bad news, not just for the shareholders in the big news
and information companies, but for all of us. News is the WD-40 of
democracy, the lubricant that keeps the system running.
journalism, promising, if not a quick fix for circulation woes, a way to
rebuild public trust in journalism as an institution. At the heart of civic
journalism, its organizing principle, is the idea that there is an
ascertainable public agenda. There is a public consensus about the major
issues of the day -- not on the specifics of legislation but on such larger
issues as where our national leaders should be taking the country. Civic
journalism serves the public's need for news and information that allows
people to behave as responsible citizens of a self-governing society; as
men and women called upon to make informed judgments about the issues that
arise in public life, as well as about the candidates who vie for their
Survey research, of course, plays a major role in guiding civic
journalists to the issues on the public's agenda, but many are finding
traditional snapshot polls have limited use.
Civic journalists are
more interested in people's core values than in their often-transient views
based on casual viewing of last night's TV news. They want to know how
citizens view the campaign finance system, not simply what they think about
the spending habits of Steve Forbes. Research on public opinion carried out
in the heat of the moment doesn't serve the needs of citizens and may end
up confusing both journalists and their readers by portraying public
opinion as volatile when it is more likely to be simply unsettled.
Civic journalists try to establish what's on the public agenda by
listening and by doing old-fashioned shoe leather reporting. They are
fighting a trend; computers and data bases make it easy for many reporters
to stay in the newsroom, rarely venturing out where the real people are.
Tight news budgets and corporate downsizing that hit the newsroom years ago
also mean fewer reporters covering more stories.
For some news
organizations polling has become a substitute for reporters doing real
reporting. It's cheaper to commission a poll than to hire, train and
nurture cantankerous reporters.
Conventional polling done for news
organizations is designed to play off the day's headlines. Nothing wrong
with that. Done well that kind of poll can help illuminate issues and may
help journalists find where citizens are moving, where they may end up on a
given question. But it's also the kind of research that serves the needs of
journalists, not their readers or viewers.
The so called "disconnect"
between journalists and readers is rarely displayed in more vivid terms
than in this kind of polling. The tip-off is the number of people in the
'DK' column. People often haven't had the time to consider a public policy
question before a pollster working for a news organization is on the phone,
asking what they think before they have had a chance to think. The result
-- another respondent who simply doesn't know. This sort of survey research
is based on assumptions having far more to do with the needs and priorities
of news organizations than of the people being polled, the presumptive
consumers of these news organizations' journalism. Too often polling pushes
people into corners where an opinion is demanded rather than freely
As Andrew Kohut director of the Pew Research Center for People &
The Press puts it, "Too much polling simply tests out the conventional
By contrast, civic journalists start their reporting from the
bottom up rather than from the top down, with the information needs of the
public a first rather than a last thought. They search for a deeper, richer
understanding of the state of public opinion.
They look for connections
among the public's beliefs.
Focus groups can be particularly helpful.
They allow for the kind of thoughtful probing necessary to establish a
public agenda, by definition a far more complex set of the public's beliefs
than the superficial positions established by conventional snapshot polls.
Last fall the Pew Center for Civic Journalism commissioned the Harwood
Group, a Bethesda, Maryland-based public policy research firm, to find out
what was on the minds of voters in four key early primary states --
Florida, California, Iowa and New Hampshire. Harwood's answers -- jobs and
values -- was right on the money, as the subsequent campaign proved.
The Harwood Group's Richard Harwood thinks journalists' conventional
polling often asks the wrong question in an effort to chart definitive
movement. He says it's more important to find out how people think rather
than what they think on any given pubic question.
His theory calls for
sorting through the often conflicting views, the biases, the assumptions
people bring to any discussion of public affairs. If that sounds more
demanding, tougher, more time consuming than conventional survey research,
it is. Connecting the dots representing the values people bring to public
policy discussions isn't easy and therefore isn't cheap. Unfortunately, in
an era of shrinking newsroom budgets, tighter space for stories and less
airtime for serious programming, this sort of expensive public opinion
research is rare.
Harwood has been trying to penetrate what he calls
"the layers of public life" to find out where and how people get their
information and form their opinions. The point of this effort is that
journalists don't understand very well the process by which public opinion
is formed. As it is now, journalists aren't invited to the party as
people's views begin to crystallize. Cameras and notebooks aren't welcome
until later when views presumably have jelled. But if there is to be a
central, vital, continuing role for newspapers and TV news in the public
life of a state or nation, journalists have to find a way to report what's
going on at an earlier stage, because that is precisely when their role as
information providers is most important.
At the Charlotte
Observer, one of the first newspapers to adopt civic journalism
techniques, Public Editor Rick Thames and his colleagues see their polling
as a second step in a multi-part reporting process. They first talk to
scores of readers before even beginning to frame a questionnaire. Then
editors compare their journalists' agenda with what's on their readers'
minds. Only after these steps are taken are they ready to begin discussing
a questionnaire. It's at this stage that they exercise their journalistic
prerogative to add items they think are important but which the public
rarely mentions. Foreign policy, for example, may not be on the public's
mind but is clearly important in a presidential election.
Observer they regard even their relatively exhaustive polling as
establishing only a minimum public agenda. Even well-designed questions
raise the old problem of people reading back what they have seen on the
evening news. Getting from what people think to how they think about things
And the public can be cranky and contradictory no matter
how carefully the questionnaire is constructed. Focus groups and more
reporting are often essential. They help the staff sift through the views
pollsters have gathered, before stories are framed, certainly before they
Is there a way for pollsters and civic journalists to
improve the way they work together? Is there new polling hardware or
techniques to help sort through the noisy opinion environment that
characterizes today's information-rich society? Probably not. No one has
yet invented a computer program that will hasten the collection of views
people hold once the pollsters' probe is inserted under their protective
layer of superficiality.
While newspapers like the Observer
are breaking new ground in their search for a better understanding of
public opinion, they are coming smack up against the realities of newsroom
economics. There is simply less money to go around, more demands on fewer
resources. Some are solving that problem by forming local partnerships to
share polling costs with television and radio stations, much like the
long-standing ABC-Washington Post polling alliance. Indeed, local
polling partnerships have led to other resource sharing practices and often
to better journalism that benefits the whole community.
There is an
old saying that nothing so focuses the mind as the instinct to survive.
The old models are melting away; young people seem to have lost the
newspaper habit altogether. Television news, in its mad scramble to
compete, goes further and further down market, dumbing down coverage,
heading for the day when only the trailer park crowd will be watching.
All this at a time when the means for distributing information has
become available to all. The Internet makes us all publishers. But, the
purveyors of the conventional wisdom say, content is king and brand name
content is best of all. Those news organizations that hope to survive the
technology revolution will have to do far better in connecting with their
That means news organizations with an appetite more
insatiable than ever for polling data, but not the same old stuff. The
survivors will require data that is both richer and deeper than they have
ever needed before.
Ed Fouhy is the executive director of the Pew
Center for Civic Journalism. He was a reporter, producer, Washington bureau
chief, and news executive during a 26 year career that spanned all three
national television networks.