Attack Dog, Watch Dog or Guide Dog...
The Role of the Media in Building Community
By Jan Schaffer
Pew Center for Civic Journalism
Baton Rouge Area Foundation
Marcia Kaplan Kantrow Lecture Series
Oct. 21, 1999
Thank you, I am delighted to be here.
Several of us just came from an animated roundtable discussion. And I think it showed how much the performance of the media is on people's minds these days. People may be mad as hell -- but they do care. They do want their newspapers and television stations to be accurate, fair -- and here's an adjective that you might not be expecting -- useful to them.
I think we are finding ourselves in an era when both journalists and the public are struggling to reach a consensus on: What is good journalism? Is there any agreement?
It's no longer enough for journalists themselves to think they are doing a good job. Readers and viewers have to agree that journalism plays an essential role in our democratic society for journalism to continue to receive constitutional protection -- and continue to attract readers and viewers.
Recently, though, a lot of disturbing data is creating some storm clouds on that horizon. National surveys document a reservoir of real resentment towards the American press and its practices. Arrogant, insensitive, biased, inaccurate, sensational are the words the public uses.
There appears to be a growing consensus: "News" has broken. Now a big question is: Do journalists know how to fix it?
Newspaper circulation is flat or falling. People are reading more; they're just not reading newspapers. And TV news viewership is plummeting.
There are many movements afoot to try to repair the problems. Civic journalism is a big piece of those efforts. And interestingly, we are now seeing that many of the diagnoses of the problems are also pointing in the direction of civic journalism. More on this later. But it's been both amusing -- and gratifying.
Civic journalism has come a long way in six years since the Pew Center for Civic Journalism was created. And we know a lot. Two things we know are:
1. When the media does its job differently, citizens do their jobs differently, which is important to the discussion here tonight.
First, let's do our own unscientific research here. Let me ask for a quick show of hands:
2. And that when you seed innovation in newsrooms, you get new ideas. I'll talk about both of these things more in a bit.
- How many of you have been a source for a story at one time or another -- in either a national or local publication?
- How many of you thought that story was, in your view, 100 percent accurate?
- How many of you have read stories where you might not have been the source, but you had some knowledge of the subject?
- How many of you thought the reporter got the story "right"?
- Locally, how many of you think your TV, radio, and newspapers are really plugged into your community?
Well, you'll be happy -- or unhappy -- to know that most people across the U.S. agree with you. But interestingly, a lot of journalists would agree with you, too.
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Here are some highlights of recent surveys- undertaken by many smart people, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Freedom Forum, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.
- The lines between commentary and reporting have blurred.
- The lines between entertainment and news have blurred.
- Journalists are unable to "get it right" -- news reports are full of factual errors and sloppy reporting - and sloppy grammar.
- The news media is out of touch with the public.
- And journalists are motivated by commercial interests, which is driving sensational coverage.
Jim Lehrer, anchor of The Lehrer Newshour on PBS, commented last spring on last year's "road rage" in the Washington press corps. "Journalism, as practiced by some, has become something akin to professional wrestling -- something to watch rather than believe," he said.
Ouch. That hurts.
There were some even more alarming findings in a new Freedom Forum survey on the state of the First Amendment. Overall, the press held its First Amendment rights in higher esteem than the general public.
- More than half of the respondents - 53 percent - said they believe the press has too much freedom. This is an increase of 15 percentage points from 1997.
- Only 45 percent said they believe the media protects democracy -- down from 54 percent in 1985. And 38 percent actually said the media hurt democracy.
- 65 percent said newspapers should not be able to publish freely, a drop from 80 percent just two years ago.
- And there were disturbing numbers of people who said the press should:
- not be allowed to endorse or criticize political candidates.
- should not be able to use hidden cameras for newsgathering.
- should not be able to publish government secrets.
- Also disturbing were the areas where the press and the public didn't agree. To cite a couple:
- They disagree over whether what the public is interested in should be given a great deal of consideration in making news coverage decisions.
- They disagree on the value of reporting critically on the job performance of public officials. Members of the media (more than 87 percent of respondents) think such critical coverage keeps officials from doing things they shouldn't do. Only 58 percent of the public thinks that's true.
There are a lot of dead trees filled with more of this research. But I think you catch the drift.
What Can We Do?
Now, this is troubling news if you're a journalist. Indeed, the temptation is very strong to just go hook up with some Internet company that is willing to hire you for twice the pay to do half the work.
I would also like to think that it is troubling if you are a member of the public.
What can we do about all of this? We've got to do more than just hand wringing because things are moving too fast.
One thing many of us are doing is trying to go beyond simply diagnosing the problem -- and actually coming up with some prescriptions for solutions. In truth, many journalists are more comfortable with diagnoses than prescriptions -- but feedback from the research is so overwhelming that even hard-bitten editors are starting to say "uncle." But before we can fix things, we have to figure out what we seek to be. What's our vision of our role in building community?
What do you think the role of the media should be?
Older models of journalism -- especially in community and regional newspapers -- were often criticized as being lap dogs -- under the control of publishers out to play civic booster and woo advertising dollars.
Attack dog is the model that now frequently comes to mind -- fresh from coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and from visions of photojournalists hiding in the bushes of the Kennedy compound in the aftermath of the death of John F. Kennedy Jr.
It's a model that has some journalists whimpering back to the doghouse with their tails between their legs when the attacks have been misplaced. Consider how one day the New York Times pilloried a Chinese-American scientist for allegedly leaking nuclear technology secrets to China -- but, now, months later that scientist is widely regarded as a victim of premature finger pointing.
Then there's the watchdog model that journalists pay great lip service to. And it's a role that is still valued by the community. But the public increasingly has misgivings about that role and even journalists agree: That the press is often doing more than simply covering stories -- they are often driving controversies, especially in looking at the personal and ethical behavior of public figures.
For instance, some of the latest research shows that the press values its watchdog role more than the public does. Only 10 percent of news media believe that press criticism of political leaders keeps them from doing their jobs -- but 31 percent of the public believes that it interferes with political leaders doing their jobs.
But some new models are being tested. One is that of guide dog. Can there be a journalism that not only gives the people news and information but also helps them do their jobs as citizens? It doesn't just deliver the civic freak show of the day, but it actually challenges people to get involved, get engaged, take ownership of problems. It doesn't position them as spectators, but as participants. This is where civic journalism has fostered numerous experiments.
And civic journalism, by the way, does not advocate abandoning the watch-dog role, but rather adding to it some additional responsibilities.
And, I will add that there is an even a grittier notion of journalism's role in community from Harry Boyte, head of the respected Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, who advocates for a sled dog role. One that doesn't romanticize citizens but really challenges them to do serious work for their community. It doesn't let citizens off the hook any more than it does public officials.
And then, there's the dead dog model.
I get around to a lot of newsrooms, particularly in the nation's regional newspapers. I'd like to share with you a story that one editor likes to tell. Jack Brimeyer, editor of The Journal Star in Peoria, is a comic on the side.
Jack was grappling with how to make a series -- about a leadership void in Peoria -- be more than a compilation of numbers: no one running for office, empty board positions, a declining number of volunteers.
So he tells the tale of a little boy whose dog died. The boy's mother, knowing he was devastated, tried to soften the news by saying, "Johnny, your dog has gone to be with the baby Jesus."
And a puzzled Johnny replies: "Mom, what does the baby Jesus want with a dead dog?"
To Brimeyer, the dead dog is a metaphor for the mega-projects that we reporters pour our blood, sweat and tears into -- and that run and die on the page. They represent months of research and writing, they reveal shocking or outrageous facts, but by week's end ... they're fish wrap.
The papers say: Here's your dead dog. And nobody seems to want it.
Like Brimeyer, other editors were beginning to wonder: Are we writing about problems as if they are so insurmountable that only an Act of Congress can fix them. And who thinks that Congress can get its act together?
Have readers have become so desensitized from a barrage of bad news, crime, scandal and sex that it's easy to suspend concern. To hold back on involvement?
What is the intersection between journalism and democracy?
Jim Carey, one of the most thoughtful journalism scholars at Columbia University, likes to talk about journalism as a daybook, a collective diary, of the day in a community.
Is journalism a form of democratic society? How can it play a proper role in public life?
After all, journalism traces itself to public life, to the salons, news of the mouth (gossip) and news by hand (written.)
If freedom of speech means -- People can talk.
Freedom of the press, is when People can talk and they can write it down.
Journalism is an expression of public life.
What distinguishes journalism from media? Journalism is the practice. Media is the institutional setting. Journalists, says Carey, owe their first duty to the fortunes of the community, not to the fortunes of the profession.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who was a keen observer of American life, said some 160 years ago: "You can't have real newspapers without democracy, and you can't have democracy without newspapers."
A level of interdependence is a defining part of our journalistic mission. And it is one of the reasons we are provided with First Amendment protection in the U.S. Constitution.
The Pew Center for Civic Journalism
When The Pew Charitable Trusts decided to gamble on the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, it was not concerned about journalism -- it was focused on civic engagement. The Trusts feared that democracy was broken -- that citizens were not voting, volunteering, or participating actively in civic life. That people were not stepping up to the plate to help wrestle to the ground problems in their community.
And they wondered if journalism was a part, not all, but a part of the problem. Were we treating people in our news stories as spectators of some civic freak show rather than as active participants of self-governing society? Or worse: As furniture or wallpaper to dress up the copy?
And they put forth a simple hypothesis: If journalists did their jobs differently, would citizens do their jobs differently?
Could we nourish some experiments in newsrooms to see if there could be different models, models that still adhered to the core values of journalism -- accuracy, objectivity, independence, fairness -- but were also useful to citizens.
Civic journalism is now a broad label put on efforts by editors and news directors to try to do their jobs as journalists in ways that help to overcome people's sense of powerless and alienation.
The goal is to produce news that citizens need to be educated about issues and current events, to make civic decisions, to engage in civic dialogue and action -- and generally to exercise their responsibilities in a democracy.
Civic journalists believe that it is possible to create news coverage that motivates people to think, and even to act, and not simply entice them to rubberneck. And, in fact, they believe it's their responsibility to do so.
I caution, however, that civic journalists don't want to tell readers and viewers WHAT to think or HOW to act. The journalists are simply creating a neutral zone of empowerment, arming citizens -- with information and sometimes methods -- to shoulder some responsibility, or offer some imagination or solutions for fixing a problem.
Civic journalists believe you can be a guide dog, without relinquishing your watch-dog role. And they are all too happy to abandon the attack-dog role.
Now, depending on your point of view, this is either return to the fundamentals of good journalism -- or a revolutionary new approach to reporting the news. I personally believe it's more than just good journalism - at least the kind of journalism that I practiced of 22 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
It employs all the tools of good journalism, but it's not afraid to get more involved with the community -- in listening, in being a catalyst for activity, in helping the community build its own capacity. And it's not afraid to say: If the old journalism is not working, let's re-invent it.
That was pretty audacious six years ago. As you might imagine, the cardinals of the profession freaked out. As far as they were concerned there was only one way to do journalism. Nowadays, many have begun rethinking their views.
The Center has developed into a respected R&D center for new news content- as well as a national beat reporter. We help support a handful of new ideas in newsrooms every year with some seed funding -- we help spotlight other efforts that are bubbling up independently around the country. We run workshops for print and broadcast journalists, we produce training material that is now widely used in newsrooms and in journalism schools. And we track the trends. We have a new website that you all can access -- www.pewcenter.org There has been so much demand for our material on the international scene that USIA has recently offered to translate all our workbooks and videos into Spanish.
Now, change is always unpopular -- at least initially.
And civic journalism has lived through at least three cycles of criticism. Early on, it was advocacy bashing. Critics said we were pandering to the public, just giving them what they wanted. But then they looked at the stories that were produced and that charge didn't hold up.
Next, it was foundation bashing: What were the Pew Trusts' sinister motives in getting involved with the media? They were threatening newsroom independence.
But the Pew Center has been really pure in seeding experiments. News organizations make proposals to us. We report about what they do. We do not big-foot it into newsrooms.
Most recently, you hear: Why do you have to call it "civic journalism?" It's just good journalism. And that, mind you, is a criticism.
I'm happy to report that as the rhetoric as died down and the criticism abated - the practice of civic journalism has steadily increased. And, frankly, we've been a huge beneficiary of the media meltdown of the journalism of assertion we saw last year in Washington.
So let's discuss more specifically what we mean by a kind of journalism that can play a different role in the community.
What is News?
One way that civic journalists try to do different journalism is to seek new definitions of news.
The definition of "What is News?" has changed dramatically in the last 20 years -- but not necessarily in ways that are useful to citizens. Let me share some quick findings.
- One in three front-page stories in the U.S. in 1977 used to be about government. Now it is one in five -- a drop of 38 percent.
- The number of front-page stories about celebrities or entertainment has tripled: to one in every 14 stories. It used to be one out of every 50 in 1977.
- Scandal coverage has skyrocketed. Front-page scandal stories have increased to one in eight -- from one in 25 in 1977.
- Violent crime coverage has grown far out of proportion to actual levels of crime. For example, U.S. murders declined by 20 percent from 1993-96, yet network television coverage of murders increased in that time by 721 percent over the previous three years.
So, journalists have already shifted definition of "What is News."
Most journalists define news as conflict: Incumbent vs. challenger, winner vs. loser, pro vs. con.
* Civic Journalism seeks to expand that definition.
It seeks to go beyond covering an event, a meeting or a controversy. It tries to convey knowledge - not just news developments. It's about covering consensus as well as conflict. Success stories as well as failures. Solutions stories that may help other communities deal with difficult issues.
Civic journalism is trying to come up with some new models of reporting that might be more in tune with new models of governance. Many local governing scenarios are moving away from a win-lose paradigm to a more consensus-based, win-win approach to solving local problems. How can journalism be equipped to deal with that?
We do a great job of covering the conflict, stalking and keeping score of the winners and losers. But send a reporter out to cover a meeting in which everyone agrees on something and they are likely to come back and tell their editor that "nothing happened." There's no story.
Civic journalists seek to examine where community players agree on something as well as where they disagree. That's new.
Currently, one of our more ambitious experiments is underway in Spokane, Washington, where the Spokesman-Review is trying to map the key moments in the lives of young people that will determine whether they will succeed or end up in prison. (Spokane is a net importer of felons. It's the home of a state prison and for every 100 folks they send to jail, they get 160 back.) And they've come up with some interesting moments, like the first day of 4th grade (when you'll know whether a kid is going to like school or nor. Or the first day of 7th grade, when it's determined whether you're gonna be a nerd or in the "in" crowd.
The idea is not only to do journalism on this - but also uncover some intervention points for social service agencies on the community. Now, this is a very different definition of "news."
* Civic journalism is about reframing stories to make them more relevant to readers.
For instance, rather than treating elections merely as a contest with winners, civic journalist focus on the decisions voters have to make: Who do they want to hire to run their government?
In Portland, Maine, the paper convened a group of 40 citizens who met for a year around the '96 elections. Then they asked to stay together for another year to work on community issues.
It was called the "Maine Citizens Campaign." If we could have had a video player here today, I would have played you some feedback from citizens, grateful for having the opportunity to be involved.
In Orange County, Calif., The Register experimented with a new narrative technique to tell the story of Motel Children -- achingly poor kids living in residential motels literally across the street from Disneyland. And it was told all in dialogue, using the childrens' own voices.
The response was overwhelming: 1,100 people called the paper to offer support, $200,000 in donations, 50 tons of food, 8,000 toys, thousands of volunteer hours. The county directed $1 million for a housing program to get families out of motels. A nonprofit agency launched a $5 million campaign to treat drug abuse in motel families.
Reporter Laura Saari said afterwards that what amazed her was how everyone was working together towards a solution. "A similar story, told in a conventional way, would have put government agencies on the defensive. But because of the writing approach, no one felt like they were being blamed. So instead of wasting energy defending themselves, they've hit the street."
* Civic journalism is about redefining balance.
Journalists report two sides of a story and believe it's fair and balanced. Civic journalists suggest that is bipolar, not balanced, coverage. Balance is in the middle not at the extremes. Civic journalists try to ensure that all the people affected by the issue -- all the stakeholders -- have a voice in the story, not just the proponents of the most extreme viewpoints who send us their press releases. And they are not afraid to report on ambiguity, when people are still working out how they feel.
We've seen how the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has been covered with a conflict frame: Clinton vs. Starr, Republicans vs. Democrats.
It might have been more meaningfully covered as a conflict in values: Do we value an effective leader over marital fidelity or truthfulness? Readers kept telling journalists they didn't care about the conflict between the people -- they weren't keeping score. The journalists were. But the people struggled mightily -- internally and in the polls -- with prioritizing what character traits they valued in their president. And it was a struggle that tested the patience of a lot of Washington journalists.
* Civic journalism is about developing new listening posts in the community.
Right now, we've seeded experiments at a number of newspapers to literally map alternative sources of news. People the Harwood Institute calls "Catalysts" and "Connectors." Connectors are people who connect and spread ideas and norms among various organizations or groups in the community and catalysts are "unofficial experts" who spark change. Yet these people are seldom in journalists' Rolodexes.
How can we get them there. In Tampa, reporters learned that a city redevelopment proposal had never been aired with the community it was most going to affect. And they learned that their old stereotypes about the community were silly and untrue.
The result was much more authentic news coverage that rang true to the community.
* Finally, civic journalism is about providing entry points to involve people and encouraging some interactivity between journalists and citizens.
It seeks to create two-way conversations with readers vs. a one-way downloading of information -- dumping a lot of facts on you that we see so much of in traditional journalism.
This interaction can happen in the news pages, on the air, in cyberspace, and sometimes in real space -- at forums or town hall meetings.
The Charlotte Observer, now in the midst of covering a major end to school busing, is finding that it is getting some of its best story ideas in emails from readers.
Likewise, its traffic reporter has literally mapped the route of every commuter who has contacted her, creating an instant database of sources that they can tap into much more meaningful about transportation stories.
One of the big hits this year was a project we supported at New Hampshire Public Radio for a On-Line Tax Calculator. As you may have seen the courts had ordered the tax-free state to come up a tax to fund public schools.
The Tax Challenge web site had education information, discussion space -- and a nifty capacity that allowed people to plug in the value of their home, their incomes, the town they lived in and actually calculate what three different reforms bills would cost them.
This was a very different, customized, individualized journalism that was very useful and empowered people to play a role in a public policy choice. And we just funded them this year to come up with a Utility Bill Estimator as a way to make the issue of utility deregulation more accessible to people.
Civic Journalism's Impact
So far the Pew Center has helped to support 77 initiatives involving 148 news organizations. And this year we had a record number of proposals, 57. This week my board just approved another 15 exciting ideas, many of them cutting-edge.
So what have been some of the results of these experiments?
For one thing, they have had enormous impact in their community - primarily because people have gotten involved. Last month, three news organizations shared our annual $25,000 Batten Award for Excellence in Civic Journalism.
All were characterized by in-depth, quality journalism - and amazing "legs" -- huge levels of reader and viewer response in the community.
- The Portland Press Herald's series on alcohol abuse in Maine spawned more than 70 community study circles that came up with individual community action plans.
- The St. Paul Pioneer Press's "Poverty Among Us" series got more than 2,500 people participating in book clubs and discussion groups on poverty amid welfare reform.
- San Francisco's KRON-TV has thousands of people still engaged in an on-line conversation about race relations.
So what's the bottom line?
For the community:
- We see quality journalism that also improves a community's capacity for dealing with problems -- like the three Batten winners you just heard about.
- We see that when you provide readers with ways they can act, they will act. Frank Denton, editor of the Wisconsin State Journal says: "Americans' sense of community is not dead. It's just latent. People are not apathetic, just alienated."
- We have seen in research that civic journalism efforts have measurably increased readers' knowledge of a particular subject. And in at least one instance, in upstate New York, it actually affected voting on a constitutional convention referendum.
- And we have seen that civic journalism efforts have influenced, positively, people's perceptions of the media.
- And we have seen other community groups adopt for other community issues the model of civic engagement (such as study circles or action teams) that they learned from the news organization's involvement with civic journalism efforts.
- One final observation: We are starting to see people running for office in Peoria, Portland, Bradenton -people who never aspired to elected office until they got involved in a civic journalism initiative.
- We see in-depth reporting that has resonated more authentically with the community, rather than journalism that parrots a couple of sides on an issue.
- We see journalists rediscovering their communities -- and crackingsome old stereotypes.
- We see all kinds of innovations in newsrooms. New pages, news jobs, new criteria. A new vocabulary. New mission statements. At the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, the mission of state capitol reporters promises to cover state government and elections "an as exercise in civic problem solving."
- Finally, civic journalism has produced an environment that has allowed editors to take new risks.
I don't think civic journalism has all the answers to what ails the media. But it can take a big slice of credit for coming up with some remedies.
And it is interesting to see some of the latest research following in civic journalism's footsteps. For instance, research for the new Readership Initiative of the American editors and publishers organizations "gives us some important clues on where to focus," said Jennie Buckner, editor of the Charlotte Observer. Among them:
- Make local news more enterprising and relevant. Cover community news better.
- Be relentlessly useful. Newspapers should empower readers.
- Investigate important issues -- and report on solutions.
- And engage the reader.
We welcome the company and the new ideas. And we believe, as St. Paul advised in one of his letters, that we need to: "Try all things and hold fast to all that is good."
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