The Media and Civic Engagement
By Jan Schaffer
Pew Center for Civic Journalism
Northern California Grantmakers Conference
Golden Gate Club
Presidio, San Francisco
Public Faces of Philanthrophy: Keynote Address, June 22, 1999 - Thank you. I welcome this opportunity to talk about the Media and Civic Engagement - and in particular civic journalism's role in that relationship. Because I think it has had a role, a significant one.
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:
I must say that I find it ironic to be speaking to an organization of grantmakers. Because one of the major reporting efforts I shepherded as Business Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer was a strong investigative look into the abuses of the non-profit sector. We referred to you all then as the "Shadow Economy." The series was a Pulitzer finalist and was later turned into a book, called "Warehouses of Wealth."
And it's ironic that I now am indebted to the philanthropic community for having the opportunity to encourage innovation and risk-taking in journalism. Our goal is to create journalism that really makes a difference in our communities, while adhering to core journalistic values - accuracy, independence, integrity, fairness.
I thought it would be helpful to lay out the premises on which civic journalism is based and then proceed to some of the ways it is happening.
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.
When The Pew Charitable Trusts decided to stick its toe in these waters, it was not concerned about journalism - it was focused on civic engagement. They feared that democracy was broken - that citizens were not voting, volunteering, or participating actively in civic life.
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?
At the same time editors were having some of their own concerns - concerns that have deepened in the last year or two. Circulation at the nation's newspapers is flat or falling. Network news viewership is plummeting. Surveys show increasing distrust in the media, and some find that the public thinks that news organizations get in the way of society solving its problems.
Even journalists themselves are finding fault with how they do their job, according to a new poll by an affiliate, the Pew Research Center. They cited sloppy reporting, factual errors, an erosion of the boundary between reporting and commentary. And more than 50 percent of both the national and local reporters said the media were out of touch with their readers and viewers.
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?
Simply put, civic journalists are experimenting with new ways to fix this dilemma.
So: What is Civic Journalism?
It is 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 its not afraid to say: If the old journalism is not working, let's re-invent it.
The Rise of Civic Journalism
Why now? What happened in the '90's to give rise to civic journalism?
At the beginning of the decade, editors - in Wichita and Charlotte - started to rebel against the kind of political coverage that had turned election campaigns into a game of inside baseball. We were doing a great job of covering the campaign - what the candidates and their strategists do. But a lousy job of covering the elections: what the voters do.
Then a civic renewal movement began blossoming in the U.S., which got individuals and communities working together to solve some of their own problems.
In 1993 The Pew Trusts supported the creation of the Pew Center. And just last week, by the way, it renewed the Center for the third time, through the Year 2002.
They knew it was a risky idea. Instead of diagnosing the problem - as so many others are doing - we were charged with developing some prescriptions. And frankly, there are a lot of editors out there who believe there is only one way to do journalism, thank you very much.
The Center has developed into a respected incubator for experiments - 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 Pew's sinister motives in getting involved with the media? They were threatening newsroom independence. But we've 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's a criticism.
I'm happy to report that as the rhetoric as died down and the criticism abated Ð the practice of civic journalism has steadily increased. And, frankly, we've been a huge beneficiary of the media meltdown of 1998.
So let's discuss more specifically what we mean by civic journalism.
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. These are from a comparison of front-page stories in 1977 vs. 1997 - from research by a brother project, the Project on Excellence in Journalism.
- When the media does its job differently, citizens do their jobs differently.
- And that when you seed innovation in newsrooms, you get new ideas. I'll talk about both of these things more in a minute.
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.
For instance, The Kansas City Star spent a year focusing on the values the community wanted to impart in raising their children. They got a citizens committee to come up with a dozen values and they were wonderful: Values like a love of learning, a sense of awe and wonder, tolerance. The stories engaged the entire time and the school system.
The Virginian Pilot says news should not only be what happened over the previous 24 hours. Readers also need information. So the paper has developed three pages a week on public life (government), public safety (police) and education that contain status reports and score cards to give its readers more of the big picture on: "How well are our leaders doing? Am I safe? Are my kids getting a good education?"
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 the San Francisco area, you have all been exposed to the "Voice of the Voter" efforts of The Chronicle, KQED radio, and KRON television.
In Portland, Maine, the paper convened a group of 40 citizens who met for a year around the '96 elections. Then they wanted to stay together for another year to work on community issues. It was called the "Maine Citizens Campaign."
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 - and internally - with prioritizing what character traits they valued in their president. And it was a struggle that tested the patience 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.
Civic journalism is about providing entry points to involve readers.
As Binghamton, NY, struggled with devastating job losses from corporate downsizing, the newspaper invited citizens to form 10 action teams to come up with ideas. Scores of their ideas have already been carried out and the local Chamber of Commerce, initially hostile, has embraced the effort.
When Charlotte, North Carolina, sought to cover neighborhoods plagued by violent crime, reporters first invited neighborhood residents to describe the problems - and also to suggest some solutions. The ideas for each community were printed in the newspaper along with a phone number to call. More than 1,000 Charlotte residents responded and met those needs.
And the San Francisco Chronicle and its media partners held town meetings all over the Bay Area as part of its "Commuter Chronicles" initiative, listening to ideas for unlocking the gridlock.
Civic journalism is also about 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.
In KRON-TV'S "About Race" project, that interation happened on-line.
Again, the journalists are not directing what people should do -- the journalists want to steer clear of advocating any particular outcome.
Civic Journalism's Impact
So what have been some of the results of these experiments?
For one thing, they have had enormous impact in the 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.
- 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 what's the bottom line? Has civic journalism moved the needle? Had any impact? Here's what I see, to date:
For the Community:
- The Portland Press Herald's series on alcohol abuse in Maine spawned more than 70 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.
- 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 affected voting on a constitutional convention referendum.
- And we have seen that civic journalism efforts have influenced, positively, people's perceptions of the media.
- We have seen people running for office in Peoria, Portland, Bradenton - people who never aspired to elected office until they got involved in a civic journalism initiative.
- 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 the news organizations have used.
Civic newsrooms don't assume that all journalistic practices are sacred simply because we've always done something a certain way. They are more willing to try some new things -- even some "taboo" things and build on what works and discard what doesn't.
They measure the effectiveness of their journalism, not by the calls of outrage Ð the "if we made them mad, we must have done something right" philosophy. They measure their journalism by the calls of curiosity and eagerness to read more, get involved, ask questions.
In closing, I'd made one final observation. It turns out that civic journalists adhere Ð quite independently - to some core goals of the Pew Trusts' strategic grantmaking, taken from a letter of St. Paul:
- 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 Ð and cracking some old stereotypes - as in the San Francisco Examiner's "New City" project.
- 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 "as an exercise in civic problem solving." When deciding what to put on Page One, Pilot editors not only look for local angles on stories, but their guidelines consider two other factors: stories that reflect the paper's community stewardship - that report about the major choices facing the region and the consequences of those choices. And they look for stories that reflect the news organization's "emotional bond" with the community. They believe it's OK to show you care about the community.
- Editors, having ventured into the community with journalism that has had impact always want do to more.
- Finally, civic journalism has produced an environment that has allowed editors to take new risks.
"Try all things and hold fast to all that is good."
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