I think there is no better fit for
civic journalism than the coverage of disasters tragedies and their
victims. First, because the philosophy of civic journalism is one that
encourages the media to reach out and be the connective tissue of the
community on such occasions.
Second, the tools of civic journalism
allow for the kinds of interactive exchanges that give ordinary people a
voice in news reports -- beyond that of the good quote or the anecdotal
lede -- that emblematic everyman.
For as we can see here in Oklahoma
City, while shock and pain can be universal, we cannot -- and should not
-- assume as journalists that the thoughts and emotions of all the people
in our community are identical.
Most of us are familiar with the kind
of news coverage that puts the journalist in the role of dispassionate
observer -- the unfeeling fly on the wall, relaying what he or she sees,
hears, is told.
But all too often these days, such coverage does not
ring true to our readers and viewers. It seems harsh, insensitive,
intrusive and artificial.
Some disasters seem to demand more of our
coverage than a dispassionate chronicling of the event, yet for many
journalists this is untrodden territory requiring new framing and writing
reflexes -- and perhaps a new thinking about a news organization's role in
Civic journalism as practiced by the best practitioners
would create roles for the news media beyond the stenographic chronicling
of the event and the aftermath.
In covering disasters and their
victims, news organizations can also create coverage that provides forums
for venting, grieving, learning, enabling and rebuilding the
First, let's pause for a definition. For civic journalism
has (much like the victims of disasters and their families) had journalism
done to it. The central idea has been mischaracterized because of some
lousy reporting -- but also perhaps because of some fear of change on the
part of journalists.
Civic journalism is both an attitude and a set of
It has evolved from the thinking of many fine journalists who
have become alarmed by the direction their craft has drifted in the last
20 years -- to the point where market forces rather than journalistic
principles are shaping the news that many Americans watch and
Civic journalism is a fresh label on an old idea -- that
journalists have an obligation to provide people with the news and
information they need to make decisions and to play the roles expected of
them in a self-governing society. It helps people behave as citizens --
and it recognizes that inextricable link between journalism and
Unfortunately, today's market-driven journalism often leaves
out the real information needs of people: In increasingly desperate
attempts to shore up rapidly eroding audiences, many editors and producers
have substituted entertainment values for journalistic values.
numbers are alarming. A new study by the Pew Research Center for the
People and the Press, a sister organization, documents a free fall in
Americans' respect and trust for the news media. In short, the people
polled said the press was inaccurate, unfair and pushy -- and gotten more
so in the last 12 years since the last poll of public attitudes toward the
media. They registered far less enthusiasm about the news, were critical
of the how journalists did their jobs, were even less appreciative of the
watchdog role of the press. For instance, they said press coverage of the
personal and ethical behavior of political leaders was "excessive" to the
point of not being "worth it."
More than half -- 54 percent -- said the
news media get in the way of solving problems.
Only 41 percent have
favorable opinions of such large national newspapers as The New York
Times and The Washington Post. That's a drop from 53 percent
only 5 years ago.
And only 4 in 10 Americans now watch nightly network
news vs. 6 in 10 only four years ago.
Civic journalism is an effort by
editors and reporters worried about this growing chasm to reconnect with
readers and viewers.
In instances of disasters or tragedies, it can
supply some of the connective tissue to hold the community together at a
time when many other community resources are sorely taxed -- undertaking an
investigation, providing relief and assistance, or simply cleaning up.
The media, in addition to covering the incremental advances in
the day's news can take on some of these roles, without crossing into the
- As a healer. Either in the
news pages or in another civic space, being a forum where people can vent
their emotions or share their grief and initiate the healing process.
- As a convener. Inviting people to gather, to
meet and talk -- to not be alone, to participate in what is, after all,
one of the most old-fashioned ways of getting news and information -- in
- As a facilitator for
deliberation or volunteering. The newspaper -- in an expansion of
its consumer news role -- can give readers road maps for things they can
do, some ways they might help out.
- As a synthesizer of
ideas and solutions. The newspaper can help harness the
community's collective energy.
- As a framer.
It can help report and imagine how the community can cope and move
None of these roles advocates abandoning the traditional
role of the press -- as a watchdog. And, for journalists, they open up all
kinds of reporting opportunities to take on another role -- a guide
Newspapers around the country are:
citizens to town halls or community forums where they may begin by venting
or taking the media to task, but under the direction of a good outside
facilitator can help people channel their energy to productive uses.
- Asking citizens to prioritize their concerns -- then giving
them an opportunity to learn more -- with issues pieces in the paper or
through individual participation in study circles, action teams, task
forces. Groups led by CITIZENS, not the media.
- Opening their
news pages to members of the community for feedback, ideas,
recommendations, success stories.
And they are using all of the
emerging communications technologies to make their news reports interactive
-- to have two-way conversations with citizens and to depart from the
one-way model of downloading information on them.
organizations are trying to build better connections by testing their
reflexes and assumptions to make sure that reporters and editors are not
inadvertently framing stories out of habit rather than out of
The goal throughout all of this is still to do good journalism
-- that is accurate, independent, objective -- but also to give citizens a
seat at the table. To treat them as active participants in their community
and not as passive spectators to some civic freak show that they have no
entree to influence, or as hapless victims of some disaster.
is also to try to move away from reporting the conflict of a story and look
instead for the essence of the story, to not get so caught up in the
disagreement that we forget to report the agreement. And the goal is to
treat citizens as accountable, too, just as accountable as the politicians
for the shape and progress of their communities.
That means writing
stories that assign blame, explore how and why something occurred -- and
examine the capacity of the community for preventing such tragedies in the