The Role of Newspapers
in Building Citizenship|
Pew Center for Civic Journalism
5th Brazilian Newspaper Congress
Good morning, and thank you for inviting
me to share some of the lessons learned on the forefront of the journalism reform
movement in the United States. It is a movement that has sought to ensure that
the press better fulfills its mission of helping government go well and helping
public life go well.
São Paulo, Brazil
September 13, 2004
This is my first visit to your country. And I know that you are confronting difficult challenges with a new proposal to put government controls over journalists and the practice of journalism. I hope for the best outcome for you.
This development in your country occurs even as the profession of journalism itself is wrestling with many other challenges, including profit pressures, the rise of new information technologies, and, frankly, some bad journalism habits that have left our readers distrustful, at times, of our efforts.
The rise of new information technologies are prompting new questions, such as:
- “Who is a journalist?”
access to online publishing platforms becomes more available, ordinary
citizens are starting to participate in gathering and delivering news.
In some cases they are watchdogging news organizations and reporting
stories we got wrong. In other cases, they are reporting the news before
journalists discover it. And they are also focusing on hyper-local
community news that most newspapers don’t have the resources to cover. So, we must also figure out ways to embrace new ideas, such as participatory journalism and citizens journalists, while holding onto old ideals. And I don’t
know how a government could begin to control that.
Meanwhile, bad journalism habits have given rise to such initiatives as civic journalism. Civic journalism aims to help return journalism to its core mission -- to give people the news and information they need to do their jobs as citizens.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman
who was a keen observer of American life, said some 170 years ago: "You
can't have real newspapers without democracy, and you can't have democracy
A level of interdependence is a defining part of our journalistic mission. And it is one of the reasons newspapers in the U.S. and elsewhere are often given special constitutional protection.
I’ve been asked to speak to
you today about civic journalism and give you some ideas of how to practice
it. Civic journalism has focused not only on some problems of journalism,
but also possible solutions.
It has sought to:
- Restore good journalistic habits.
- Build connections with readers.
- Get better stories.
- Build better citizens.
It's no longer enough for journalists themselves to think they are doing a good job. Readers have to agree that a free press plays an essential role in our democratic society for journalists to merit their special place.
Civic journalists are motivated
by deep concerns about contemporary journalism. Media surveys tell us that
the public believes that the lines between reporting and commentary have
become blurred; the lines between entertainment and news have become blurred.
Journalists seem to be unable to "get it right." The news media
are spending more time serving elites than ordinary citizens. People tell
pollsters that the media is out of touch with the public. They also say that
journalism is motivated by commercial interests, which are driving sensational
Jim Lehrer, anchor of the respected
NewsHour on U.S. public television, commented a few years ago: "Journalism, as practiced by some, has become something akin to professional wrestling -- something to watch rather than believe." He
may have a point.
It doesn’t help that reporters
have developed some bad habits. We:
- Act rushed
- Hover with our notebooks
- Ask loaded questions
- Expect very fast answers to our questions
down only the quick quote – and stop listening
- Show up only when there are problems
- Sometimes, engage in corrupt behavior.
In 1993, a non-profit foundation in the United States, The Pew Charitable Trusts, entered the picture. But the Pew Trusts was not concerned about journalism; its fortunes were made in the oil business. Rather Pew was concerned about civic engagement. The foundation was worried people were not voting, not volunteering and not participating in civic life.
The Trusts feared that democracy was broken. And they wondered, in part, if it was because journalism was broken, too.
Among the questions civic journalists asked: Were we creating a nation of spectators watching a daily civic freak show instead of a nation of citizen participants engaged in the issues and the choices that must be made in a self-governing society?
Civic journalists wanted to see if it was possible to:
- Retain the media’s watchdog
role, spotlighting corruption and injustices.
- Abandon the attack dog role that seemed to be just creating a lot of noise in a very noisy media environment.
the duties of a guide dog – we say “seeing-eye dog” --
helping people figure out what kind of roles they could play in a democracy
beyond simply casting a ballot.
In other words, could you hold citizens accountable for doing their jobs as citizens, much as you would hold public officials accountable for their actions in public office?
It is not surprising that civic
journalism started in the early 1990’s, experimenting with new kinds
of election coverage. Civic journalists sought to:
- Avoid reporting on
horse-race polls – who’s ahead, who’s behind? Unfortunately,
this coverage is out of control in the current U.S. presidential campaign,
and I would suggest that it often leaves voters thinking: If we know
who’s going to win, why bother to vote?
- Increase issues-based election coverage – focusing on voter issues, not the issues that candidates tout to move niche constituencies –such
as abortion control, or gun control, or gay marriage in the United
- Frame election stories as hiring decisions: Who do we want to hire to run our government? And what kinds of information do voters need to make that decision?
The Pew Center for Civic Journalism
The Pew Trusts in 1993 created the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which I ran. And we asked a simple question: If journalists did their jobs differently, would citizens do their jobs differently?
The short answer is “yes.”
We funded 120 pilot projects in newsrooms to see if there could be different models of journalism that still adhered to core values -- accuracy, objectivity, independence, fairness -- but also actively engaged citizens.
- Tracked a total of 650 projects
- Trained more than 4,000 journalists
- Produced 65 training videos and publications
- Awarded 30 prizes for excellence in civic journalism.
Now, we are moving civic journalism into the digital arena through such efforts as news exercises, tax calculators, clickable maps, or budget calculators, to help people better understand important public issues.
You can read about this activity and order or read publications at www.pewcenter.org and www.j-lab.org.
Civic journalism is now a broad label put on efforts by editors to try to do their jobs as journalists in ways that help to overcome people's sense of powerless and alienation.
Here’s a definition: 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 watch, ogle or stare. 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.
Think of a soccer analogy: You could
cover the game from the press box, high above the field, neutral and very
detached from the action. Or you could cover it as though you were part of
the game – and I would suggest that the media is very much part of the game – much like a referee. You are closer to the field – still neutral about who wins or loses – but you’re
job is to ensure that the rules are kept and the game is played fairly. Civic
journalists see their role as closer to the referee than to the detached
The civic journalism toolbox consists of:
- New definitions of “News”
- New sources of News
- New Interactions with Readers
- A Mental Check List of Questions
One way that civic journalists try to do different journalism is to seek new definitions of news. What does that mean?
Let’s look at the research. It turns out that journalists have dramatically changed the definition of “news” over the last 25 years, mostly in response to market forces Let me share some findings from a 1997 content analysis. I’m
afraid the trends have worsened since then:
- One in three front-page stories in the U.S. in 1977 used to be about government. By 1997, it was one in five -- a drop of 38 percent.
- The number of front-page stories about celebrities or entertainment has skyrocketed to one in every 14 stories. It used to be one out of every 50 in 1977.
- Scandal coverage has also tripled. 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.
Civic Journalism seeks to expand these definitions of news so that they better serve citizens. Among their techniques, they seek to:
- Cover consensus as well as conflict.
- Include solutions and success stories.
- Abandon scorecard journalism. Citizens are not keeping score.
- Make sure we not only get the story right, but that we also get the right story.
Most journalists define news as conflict: Incumbent vs. challenger, winner vs. loser, pro vs. con, good vs. bad.
In the U.S., if you send a reporter
out to cover a meeting in which everyone agrees on something, they are likely
to come back and tell their editor, "Nothing happened." There's no story. Journalists find it difficult to cover consensus even when we’re agreeing on major changes in our communities. In fact, I would suggest to you that newspapers don’t
value consensus; we value conflict. In fact, we want conflict.
Civic journalists try to probe where people agree, as well as where they disagree. They report success stories as well as failures. And they examine solutions that have worked elsewhere and may be copied in their own communities.
Focus on Solutions
Let’s look at solutions reporting. The Savannah Morning News, for instance, involved its community in trying to figure out how to aid its failing schools, which were among the worst in the country. The newspaper didn’t
think it would be very useful to, once again, write stories about poor student
test scores, and the number of students who dropped out of school, and then
have parents blame the schools and have schools blame the government for
lack of funding.
- The newspaper convened a task force of citizens. The task force talked to experts, school officials, parents, students.
- Citizens and reporters visited model programs around the United States.
- Citizens contributed articles to the newspaper about what they saw that might work in their town.
- The group came up with an action plan, which the newspaper covered.
- After the journalism project ended, the citizens stayed together and created a non-profit foundation to raise money to improve the schools.
What made this civic journalism? The newspaper:
- Asked for input and ideas from ordinary people
- Demonstrated that it valued the everyday knowledge of people who have children in the schools, of employers who hire graduates, and of the students themselves.
entry points – a task force -- for people to brainstorm how to make
- Examined solutions that could apply to the problem.
what we call “civic capacity.” Citizens took ownership
of the problem and continued to work on it.
Rethinking Journalism Habits
Civic journalists observed that sometimes our journalistic rules actually get in the way of our stories having impact.
For example, in California, The Orange County Register tried a new narrative technique to tell the story of Motel Children -- achingly poor kids living in residential motels literally across the street from Disneyland. The story was all told in dialogue, using only the childrens' voices.
No experts were quoted. The newspaper
did not solicit a response from public officials. There was none of the usual “he said/she said” coverage. The children were not a sympathetic lead on the story, they were the story – their words and photos. This didn’t
conform to the usual journalistic rules. Was this unethical?
The readers didn’t complain.
The response was overwhelming: 1,100 people called the paper to offer support
and donate $200,000, 50 tons of food, 8,000 toys, and thousands of volunteer
hours. The county directed $1 million to a housing program to get families
out of motels. A nonprofit agency launched a $5 million campaign to treat
drug abuse in motel families.
The reporter 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" to fix the problem, she said.
Let’s talk about redefining balance. Journalists report
two sides of a story and say it's fair and balanced. Civic journalists suggest
that is not balanced coverage -- it’s bipolar. Moreover, it leads to
what I call “scorecard journalism,” where the journalists spend
their time keeping score. Who’s up or down today? The president or
congress? The school superintendent or the teachers union? In the U.S., is
it the Democrats
or the Republicans? The workers party or the liberals or the conservatives?
The problem is, our readers don’t really care about the score. And
they often don’t see their concerns reflected in any of the extreme positions.
is in the middle not at the extremes. Civic journalists try to ensure that
all the people affected by the issue -- all the stakeholders
a voice in the story, not just the proponents of the most opposing
viewpoints who send us their press releases. Instead of reporting two
sides of a
story, they may report four or eight sides.
And in the process, journalists
make some discoveries. For instance, they may discover that the issue being
argued about isn’t the real issue at all.
A case in point involved coverage
of a vote on building a light rail system from Norfolk, Virginia, to the
newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot, reported on the usual arguments
against building the
system, which revolved around the high cost, tax subsidies,
and triggering too much growth. The reporter, however, was a civic
careful listening, he caught a subtext in the arguments that
sounded almost like
a coded appeal to those who fear blacks.
After more interviewing,
he wrote a very courageous story. It wasn’t a transportation story;
it was a race relations story. He reported that opponents of building the
system really didn’t want black people from Norfolk having an easy
way to get to Virginia Beach.
Do you remember the Bill Clinton-Monica
Lewinsky scandal several years ago? It was always covered as conflict
Ken Starr, Republicans vs. Democrats.
suggest it might have been more meaningfully covered as a conflict in values:
Do we value an effective
leader over marital
fidelity or truthfulness? Polls kept showing that Clinton
continued to have a fairly
high approval rating. Readers were telling journalists
they didn't care about
the conflict between the people -- they weren't keeping
score. The journalists were.
But the people struggled
internally and in the polls
-- with prioritizing what leadership traits they valued
in their president even
as they disapproved of his personal conduct. A lot
of Washington journalists never understood that – they
though the poll respondents were stupid -- and never
reported that story.
Developing New Sources of News
Civic journalists have developed
an important new technique for developing new sources of news in local communities.
It’s called civic mapping.
It involves examining
the newspaper’s pre-conceived
ideas about an issue or an area, then testing those
stereotypes with reporter legwork.
The steps to civic mapping
- Identifying the newsroom’s
pre-conceived ideas about an issue or an area.
- Listing community people who
can introduce journalists to the “go-to” people
in the community. (It’s funny, but politicians often know
who these people are; journalists seldom do.)
- Look for the community “catalysts.” These
are “unofficial experts.” They get things done, but don’t
necessary have a fancy title.
- Look for people who are “connectors.” These
are people who belong to several community institutions – they
may coach student soccer teams, be active in schools, attend church.
Think of them as “civic bumblebees.” They pollinate a lot
of different community groups and are very well informed about
what’s going on in their area.
- Have open-ended conversations with them,
- Test your newsroom stereotypes with them. Ask
them about their concerns. And listen to how they frame the issues.
- Ask them
to define the terms they use.What does “crime” mean to them?
What do “good schools” mean?
Crime to a journalist might be a felony. Good schools
to a newspaper might be high test scores. But that may not be how the
We need to capture the knowledge of these people and add
them to our reporter phone books. And we need to understand
to do good journalism.
Once we make connections and demonstrate
that we are listening to their concerns, they will call us with news
and we will get stories first. And when we are confronted
with a bill of law that might threaten the newspaper’s connection with
its readers, those readers will be our allies.
You can learn more about civic
mapping in our "A Journalist's Toolbox" set of videos and in our "Tapping
Civic Life" workbook,
Civic journalism seeks to create
two-way conversations with
readers not a one-way
pipeline of information.
conversations usually involve some kind of interaction,
in the news
on the air, in
cyberspace, and sometimes
-- at forums, focus groups
or town hall meetings.
of the most successful civic journalism projects
of all time
was The Charlotte
Back our Neighborhoods" series.
It looked at violent
crime in 10 urban areas.
started with computer-assisted
and a poll, but
quickly moved to neighborhood
listening sessions, citizen
and town hall meetings.
The idea was to
in those 10 neighborhoods
defined the problem of
crime - not
just how the
the mayor or some
criminal justice expert
described it. It included:
- TV and radio partners.
- Success stories about neighborhoods
that had tackled their crime problem balanced the stories
about the crime-ridden,
drug-plagued pockets of the city.
- Entry points such as neighborhood meetings
and town halls for people to get involved.
- A "needs" lists
of very specific things people in these neighborhoods said
they needed - everything from baseball
bats to a new recreation center. And they published a phone number to call.
More than 1,200 readers did call because the paper made it
easy for them to see what they could do.
The paper won a
lot of journalism
But, as important, 10 years later,
people in those neighborhoods still credit that
transformations. Those neighborhoods
the same, crime is down,
new neighborhood leaders have emerged,
the city came
in and closed
drug houses and put
in new street
lights and other
centers have been built. And the people
thanked the newspaper,
Charlotte Observer, for
The newspaper did not tell
people what to do. It
a menu of
citizens took it
In the civic journalism
this building civic capacity.
From independent, academic
research, this is what
we know about civic
- It triggers civic behavior - from voting to volunteering.
from attending a town meeting or joining an action team, civic
journalism got people involved because it gave them a road map for how they
-- if they wanted
to. And they usually did.
- It builds knowledge.
People who participated in civic journalism projects were
measurably smarter about the issues than
people who did not participate.
- It builds credibility and connections to the
community. People trusted the news organizations more after
a civic journalism
- Citizens "get" it
- and like it.
- It builds the capacity
of the community to address problems.
- It builds the
capacity of news organizations to cover new kinds of stories – what
I call “master
Covering the Silences
Journalists do a pretty
good job of covering the noise, but sometimes all we get is
noise. Civic journalism
also to cover
the silences in our communities – especially
those silences that make people squirm.
These are stories
that don’t “break,” they
seep and ooze and sometimes get overlooked in a newspaper’s
rush to daily deadlines. These are the stories that connect the
dots on individual happenings. They provide the best opportunities
for newspapers to add value – instead
of adding more noise.
The San Francisco
Examiner’s “New City” project reported
on the impact of entirely new immigrants in the city’s neighborhoods – and
it tracked their impact on new restaurants,
the arts scene, sports, schools, even the new music being played in the clubs.
The Savannah Morning
News’ "Aging Matters" series
told a master narrative of how an influx of senior
citizens was affecting not only housing and health care, but was also changing
of charitable giving
and and the pool of candidates enerated new
candidates to run for public office.
And in Portland,
Maine, The Press Herald’s
powerful series "Deadliest
Drug: Maine's Addiction to Alcohol,” broke
the silences about the devastating cost
of alcohol addiction by reporting the number of traffic fatalities, house
foster children and
emergency room visits.
All involved interactions
with citizens, developing new sources and a lot more explanatory – instead
of conflict – reporting. Maine’s
prompted more than 70 towns to convene more than
2,000 people to come up with
Civic Journalism Mental Checklist
If you want to practice
civic journalism, here’s a checklist of questions to
help guide your coverage.
- How do you position people in your stories?
- As pieces of furniture
that you can move around to make good copy?
- Or as citizens capable
- Do you stop at only raising awareness of an issue?
- Can you also
invite ideas, input?
- Can you offer ways that people can do something
with your information if they want to?
- Have you captured all the stakeholders?
- Do you report more than
just two sides of a story?
- Do the arguments for and against get
you to the real story?
- Do you report internal as well as external conflict?
- Do you help people
see possible choices – and the consequences
of those choices?
- Do you examine conflicting values?
- Do you advance a discussion
- Do you report what has worked elsewhere?
- Do you invite community
- Do you invite participation, interaction?
- How can people respond?
- Are there entry points for input?
In closing, I want
to suggest that civic journalism taught us that we need to
about connections and possibly less about craftsmanship. And I believe the
word "connections" has
a lot to do with the future of journalism.
In a 2001
Pew Center did a poll of newspaper editors, 90 percent said the future of
newspapers depended on more
interactivity with readers;
they want more
What civic journalism
us is that it's more
the interactions, the
and the relationships
news organizations are what make people
less noise - and
you very much.
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