let's do a little language exercise brought to you courtesy of all the
practitioners of civic journalism who have been experimenting with the
concept and refining it over the last several years.
Think of this as a
juxtaposition exercise, contrasting what bothers civic journalists about
the way they see journalism being practiced today with how they are trying
to improve it.
What you will see, I think, is an entirely different
vocabulary being developed in discussing reporting, writing and purveying
information -- entirely different from the labels that have been applied to
Let's start with one of the most common complaints of
civic journalists: That our news coverage, in striving for that
journalistic grail of "balance," has instead become "bi-polar."
Journalists have gotten into
the habit of focusing on the extreme viewpoints on a subject, the warring
interest groups, the challengers vs. the incumbents, the areas of
disagreement rather than the areas of agreement, the areas of conflict
rather than of consensus. Indeed, conflict is the way we define many news
We go to our Rolodexes and we know exactly who to call to get
the quote or sound bite to "balance" our story -- to get the "other
But what if there are more than two sides? What if neither side
really represents the views of most citizens? What if many people find
some merit in the arguments of both sides? How do we report their voices
in our stories? What if some people are still working out how they feel
about an issue and we lock them in, midway through the process, with a
snapshot quote when they are not yet finished working out their
We seem to have forgotten that balance is achieved at the
midpoint, not at the poles. Civic journalists say it's OK to quote people
who haven't quite made up their minds. It's OK -- but not easy -- to report
ambivalence (which, actually, is sort of an internal, rather than external,
conflict). They say our stories will ring truer with readers if they also
capture the "great gray middle" -- not just the extreme viewpoints, because
that's where most people are. And if we journalists are there, too, we
will benefit by getting the story a lot earlier.
Observer recently tried some civic journalism techniques in reporting
on a controversy that flared up over a play that contained nudity,
obscenity and homosexuality. The theater group had received tax money.
Christian conservatives were pitted against freedom-of-the-arts allies. The
District Attorney was preparing indecent-exposure warrants. Then the paper,
in an experiment to find the views of the silent majority, decided to take
a quick poll.
Well, guess what? To the surprise of many in the
newsroom, most respondents thought the controversy was being blown out of
proportion. And while most didn't think nudity was particularly appropriate
in the play, they felt strongly that adults should be allowed to see the
play without restrictions on content. Quickly, what had been a front-page
controversy, fanned by the media coverage, just kind of
What are some other ways that civic journalists are trying
to achieve a better balance? One technique, instead of looking for
"opponents" on an issue, seeks out "stakeholders."
Usually there are
more than two sides to a story. More than two interests at stake. Some
civic journalists actually sit down and do an exercise in which they write
on a tablet all the stakeholders they can think of on a particular issue.
Then they try to represent these parties in their stories.
controversial proposal to build a shopping mall simply a growth-no growth
debate that pits the builders against nimbys? Or is it a question of
quality of life, of taxes, of traffic congestion, of low-paying jobs, of
race and ethnicity. Does it stand to affect the school system, senior
citizens, young people, taxpayers, the business community, minority groups,
civic entrepreneurs, motorists, pedestrians, public transit --and so
Civic journalists simply put a wide-angle lens on their stories and
broaden their coverage so as not to exclude others from the
Elites vs. Everyman
Now, in seeking to give more interested parties a
platform in their stories, civic journalists acknowledge that it often
comes at the expense of coverage of elected officials, community leaders,
and so-called experts -- the elites. They may get less space, while other
stakeholders and ordinary citizens may get more.
It's not that civic
journalists abandon these traditional news sources, rather the journalists
are trying to avoid being overly reliant on them. After all, citizens can
be very smart about their own lives and civic journalists are not afraid
to dignify the ideas of ordinary people. And that's not the same thing as
turning these citizens into experts.
Spectators vs. Participants
Another concern of civic journalists is the
tendency to write stories as though only the most obvious players have a
stake -- either professional, political, or economic -- in the outcome. The
rest of us are just spectators to the particular cat fight, legislative
battle, or election campaign being reported.
Now, what happens if
instead of treating our readers and viewers as spectators we treat them as
participants. Participants in an election, a budget debate, in welfare or
health reform. Participants in the most important issue of all: the
governance of our democracy. If we treat our readers as participants
instead of as spectators, it forces us into an entirely different master
That's what a lot of the issues-based coverage in the '96
elections was all about. Could the media give readers and viewers the type
of information they needed essentially to make a "hiring" decision, to
participate intelligently in the process and decide who they wanted to hire
to run their government. To these journalists, traditional horse-race
coverage was too myopic.
Interview vs. Conversation
Now once you start thinking of your readers and
viewers as participants instead of spectators, some interesting things
happen. For instance, where do you gather information. Through interviews
with the major players? Or through a conversation or dialogue that tries to
tap into a broader base of participants?
How do you find out what
kinds of issues are on the minds of your constituency? How do you find
better voices without slipping into shallow man-on-the-street kinds of
One civic journalism technique is to change the nature of the
interaction with sources from a standard interview model -- "Me ask, you
answer, or else" -- to a conversational model.
How to do that? Usually
it involves a different kind of listening. Instead of listening for good
quotes, or for the building blocks of a story, these journalists are
listening for patterns and common threads that link one stakeholder to
Sometimes it may involve bringing citizens together in
living-room conversations, in focus groups, in town halls -- civic spaces
where citizens can gather information on a subject from experts or from one
another -- and spaces that serve as listening posts for journalists looking
for story ideas or areas where they need to do additional reporting.
its most basic, instead of talking "at" readers and viewers -- sort of
downloading information on them -- it's talking "with" them. This is
challenging yet another standard journalistic practice, the one-way model
of news coverage.
One-way vs. Two-way conversation
Right now, reporters generally propose a story
idea, figure out whom to interview, dig up whatever documents might be
available, and toss a lot of information, generally wrapped in pretty words
(some readers would say slanted words) -- back at their readers. And if
readers have anything to say about it they can try to call the reporter --
and get lost in endless voice mail, or they can write a letter to the
editor. The letter may or may not be seen by the reporter and may or may
not get published.
Well, there have been important changes in the field
of communications in the last 10 or 15 years. We've seen the advent of
voice mail and e-mail, of fax machines and audio text, of the Internet and
its home pages. And our readers and viewers have gotten used to these
interactive devices, just like we have.
Civic journalists have become
active pioneers in using all these tools to make their news stories more
interactive -- and I don't mean just on-line interactive.
You can tap
into people's gripes, mine their experiences, solicit their ideas, and
generate feedback on where they think you missed the boat, what question
you didn't ask that they'd like answered, what issue they'd like a
political candidate to address, what qualities are most important to them
in electing a particular public official.
The traditional reaction of
many journalists is to treat callers as annoying interruptions in their
workdays, frankly as "idiots" who don't know what they're talking about.
Civic journalists have come to value the input of these people because a)
it helps them start where citizens are starting on an issue and b) it gives
them a road map to do what journalists do best, which is to gather more
information, add context and analysis. It helps them find out where their
news coverage has not "connected."
One of the most formal interactions
with citizens involves the use of polls or focus groups as listening posts.
A big difference, however, is that instead of using these survey research
tools to produce an end product -- a story -- civic journalists are using
them as starting points in the reporting process.
What fresh insights
can they reveal into issues or concerns? Where are there reporting
opportunities? Where did a citizen's take on a issue suggest a new
perspective or a new angle for a story? Where are people lost or confused
on a subject that seems eminently clear and even old hat to reporters? Take
Bosnia, for instance. Or Rwanda. My guess is it would be hard to find a
reader (and probably many reporters) who didn't need a better road map to
follow what's going on in these hot spots.
Knee-jerk vs. New
Civic journalism requires
some different kinds of journalistic skills, including the ability to be
creative -- yes, even experimental -- in adjusting news coverage to stay
connected to our communities. We have a very high comfort level with what I
call knee-jerk or fill-in-the-blank coverage. To some extent, we need to
have fast reflexes just to get our newspapers published and newscasts
produced every day of the week.
We see conflict and our gut says
"news." We fill in the blanks on our inverted pyramid of facts or we
cobble up an anecdotal lede; we get a quote from the "other side" and we
call it a "wrap." That's "30."
Well, civic journalists are trying to
make balance and interactivity and participation instinctive reflexes -- to
make it a habit to use a wide-angle instead of a telephoto lens and to
consider some new ways of handling the master narrative of their stories
that avoid the traditional conflict model. They are doing this
self-consciously at first because it's hard to break old habits.
Tallahassee, Fla., last year a new school tax increase was overwhelmingly
defeated by voters who had been exposed to a vitriolic pro vs. anti-tax
campaign. A few days after the vote, a city desk reporter asked the school
administrator: What now? Well, the official said, "Nothing." So the
newspaper took it upon itself to draw up a grid of questions and go back to
the four most visible adversaries with a different hook. Instead of
focusing on where they disagreed, the reporter sought to draw out where
these opponents agreed.
The newspaper ended up with a story that
demonstrated a lot more common ground than ever was revealed in the
reporting before the referendum. It was a departure from the knee-jerk
model of coverage -- one that ended up producing some renewed conversation
in the community.
Control vs. Connectedness
Of course, giving ordinary people a voice in your
story and departing from the conventional ways of doing business mean that
journalists are going to relinquish some control. It may even mean
journalists have to give up some of their voice to give citizens some
space. That story budget line you -- or your editor -- wrote before you
started interviewing might no longer fit the facts. Citizens may inject an
element of surprise in your coverage. They may want you to write about
issues that candidates, for instance, would rather not
Citizens also have more of an appetite for repetition than do
journalists, who expect readers to remember that the paper already did a
story on that subject -- six months ago. Or was that two years
Giving up control may also mean less of an emphasis on "gotcha"
stories that so empower journalists and give them a sense of one-upsmanship
over their competitors -- but often leave citizens scratching their heads,
wondering what's the big deal.
I recently met with a dear friend who
is a key assigning editor at one of the premier East Coast newspapers. We
were discussing civic journalism and she says to me, point blank: "Why
would I want to do that? Tap into ordinary voices? I like having control.
I like telling other people what to write. That's what makes this job fun.
I get paid a lot of money to know what's best."
Newsrooms have come to
breed a stunning level of arrogance. It's no wonder readers are turned
One way civic journalists are trying to overcome both the reality
and readers' impressions that newsrooms are arrogant and inaccessible is to
find ways to help readers access to the news.
How do they do that? One
way is by framing the story so that it is not an inside-baseball saga that
is impenetrable to outsiders.
Another way is to build in graphic
devices that invite and encourage readers and viewers to contact the news
organization and react to an issue, a controversy, a public problem. That
also means giving people space or air time to have a voice on the subject
and feel that their efforts to provide the feedback were
When Kathleen Brown refused to debate her two opponents in
the '94 California gubernatorial race, the San Francisco Chronicle,
KRON-TV and KQED radio invited people to call and e-mail their thoughts on
her stand. The resulting outcry brought her to the table and the debate was
Yet another way of building access gives readers and viewers more
than a voice, it shows them some roles they can play. For instance, can
they volunteer to do something, join a task force, belong to a roundtable
discussion, come up with a solution, respond to a questionnaire.
August, The Charlotte Observer did a story on how the state this
year was requiring school districts to recruit parent volunteers and ramp
up parent participaton. To help make the story accessible, the paper ran a
chart that showed just what parents could do if they only had 30 minutes to
give, or they could only volunteer on weekends. And the paper published a
telephone number to call. The schools got more than 300
Similarly, the paper's successful "Taking Back our
Neighborhoods" project regularly published lists of very specific things
that individual neighborhoods needed, plus a phone number to volunteer.
Over the project's 18-month life span, more than 1,000 Charlotte residents
volunteered to fill those various needs.
Feel Good vs. Feel
A lot of our news
coverage tends to fall into the feel-good or feel-bad models. We tend to
write warm and fuzzy, human-interest stories that make folks feel real
good. Or we write about the worst of human crimes, corruption, or tragedies
that make people feel real bad -- even sick to their stomach.
journalists are striving for another type. Coverage that makes citizens
Generally, journalists do a great job of holding
public officials accountable. What about citizens themselves? Do they feel
no accountability for some of the problems because we've allowed them to
believe that they have no role to play? That they are, indeed, spectators
and not participants?
Give them space: For ideas, solutions,
recommendations, feedback, media criticism, action teams. If they can buy
into the problem in some way, feel some ownership of it, they are much more
likely to get involved in finding a solution -- their solution, not the
Detached vs. Attached
All of this means that journalists move from a
sterile detachment that has no interest in the outcome of a public issue,
to an objective attachment that reflects a belief that the news media, if
we do our jobs well, have a role to play in helping citizens do their jobs
It still involves being independent, objective and
accurate in purveying information, but it also involves delivering
information in ways that readers and viewers can find their connection to
the story -- why they should care and what they could do about
Market Driven vs. Market Connected
Some of the critics say that civic journalism is
market driven. That it calls for just giving readers and viewers what they
want to hear. From the model I've just outlined to you, I would suggest
that the correct description is that it is market connected.
restores to journalism a centerof gravity, a sense of mission, and a
justification for why the U.S. Constitution gives the press First Amendment
And while some of these tools may seem self-conscious at
first, I'll echo what Karen Weintraub, a city government reporter and
civic journalism practitioner at the Virginian-Pilot, recently
"If you can tell it's civic journalism, you haven't done it