The Wisemen Club, Harvard Club, New York City, November 20,
1997 - I'm curious: How many of you
have been written about personally, or had the companies you represent
written about in the newspaper? How many of you thought the story was
absolutely accurate -- not only in facts, but in innuendo or spin? How
many of you felt the journalism was sloppy? How many of you felt you had
journalism done to you?
Well, increasingly the
public is not too happy with journalists. In recent surveys by a sister
outfit, the Pew Research Center, the public said the press was inaccurate
56 percent of the time -- that's up from only 34 percent in 1985. They
also said the news media were biased, emphasized bad news too much, blended
fact with opinion too much and were too sensational.
We all know that
circulation of the nation's leading newspapers, until very recently, has
been on a steady downward trend. The numbers are even worse for television:
When people were asked in 1996 if they regularly watch nightly network
news, only 42 percent said "yes" -- a freefall from the 60 percent who said
they watched regularly only three years earlier, in 1993.
Steve Brill of Court TV fame launching a new magazine that will take lousy
journalists to task, just as American Lawyer did to lawyers.
in city after city around the country, civic groups, city leaders, crime
victims and others are really angry at their local media.
this stew, about five years ago, the idea of civic journalism began
bubbling up. And it bubbled up independently in a lot of different places.
In election projects in Wichita and Charlotte, from editors repulsed at the
course of campaign coverage. In the mind of an NYU professor. At the Pew
Center for Civic Journalism. And, really, among lots of journalists who
weren't feeling very good about their profession.
The Pew Center was
born out of the venture fund at the Pew Charitable Trusts. It was the
first of what are now three journalism projects funded by the Trusts.
There's also the Pew Research Center, a polling outfit, and the Project for
Excellence in Journalism.
The idea behind the Center is this: Maybe
some of the ways journalism is being practiced these days are partly -- not
totally -- responsible for the U.S. turning into a nation of civic couch
potatoes. For the cynicism. For a declining can-do spirit. For a sort of
The theory behind this grand experiment -- and it
is an experiment -- is: If journalists did their jobs differently, would
citizens do their jobs differently?
So, civic journalism dared to
question the mission of journalists. It dared to suggest an expansion of
that mission. Was the purpose of journalism only to fan the flames of
controversy by focusing on conflict or opponents facing off? Was it to
polarize issues in a way that left no platform for the middle ground?Or was
it to focus only on experts, or elected officials or front runners?
do journalists share a larger responsibility -- indeed, the one that is
protected by the First Amendment -- which is to give citizens the news and
information they need to do their jobs in a democratic society?
editors around the country began experimenting with some new ways of
coverage. A lot of it used the best journalistic tools but also took
advantage of new communications technologies -- e-mail, voice mail, fax,
the Internet -- to make reporting much more interactive, to create
listening posts for reporters that were two-way conversations, instead of
the standard one-way downloading of information on readers and
I think that what's going on is really very exciting and very
creative. Here are some of the questions that are framing those
- What would happen if . .
You treated citizens as participants in a self-governing
society instead of as passive bystanders with no stake in issues. The way
some issues are framed, it's as if only the Democrats or the Republicans
have a stake -- win-lose -- in the outcome.
"We tend to cover
government as though it were an oligarchy, not a democracy where citizens
have the power... If journalists saw citizens as active players, we would
cover them just as we cover other power brokers, lobbyists, lawmakers,
pollsters, pundits, experts," says Jeannine Guttman, editor of the
Portland, Me., Newspapers.
Part of civic journalism is holding
citizens just as accountable as we hold elected officials.
- What would happen if . . .
news so that it's more than just conflict, or crises. Can we cover
consensus or collaboration? Do journalists know how?
who cover a meeting where people are talking and working on solutions would
go back to their editor and say: "There's no story, people just talked."
But actually, a lot is happening in these conversations, but we don't have
story models to write about them.
A quick example. In Tallahassee, a
couple of years ago, voters shot down a new bond issue for schools after a
very vitriolic campaign. Afterwards the paper went back to the school
district and said: "What now? We still have all the problems." And the
school administrators shrugged their shoulders and said, "Well, nothing,
our hands are tied." So the paper went back to the two primary proponents
and two opponents and instead of writing about where they disagreed, they
flipped the frame and wrote about where they agreed. And, there was a lot
more consensus than was ever aired before the election. The story launched
some new conversations in the community.
- What would
happen if . . .
We reframed our election coverage so that
instead of it being a horse race, with a winner and loser, it was a hiring
decision, in which voters get to decide who they want to hire to run for
office, and the candidates apply for the job, get interviewed, and are
asked to address issues that citizens say they care deeply about (instead
of the issues that drive wedge constituencies.?
God forbid, said
Michael Kelly, then writing for The New Yorker. Elections are
supposed to be catfights, how dare journalists tweak that frame?
around the country, paper after paper, in the past several election cycles
-- and even The New York Times -- have focused much more on issues.
And citizens are saying they like it. The Charlotte Observer said it
had fewer cancellations from readers perceiving bias towards one side or
the other after the 1996 Helms-Gantt race than any other election.
- What would happen if . . .
redefined balance? We all know journalists strive for "balanced" coverage
but I would suggest that most of what we get is bi-polar. The very pros and
the very cons. But those people who are conflicted about the issues, who
are in the middle, never get a voice in our stories. I would suggest to you
that balance is in the middle, not at the extremes. Can we cover
ambivalence without making it boring? Great novelists do it all the
Consider abortion coverage. The vast majority of people are not
really "For" or "Against". They see merits in both sides of the issue and
they just hope they'll never have to personally deal with it.
- What would happen if . . .
We strayed from
the conventional wisdom on a story, and actually reported something
Well, that's what has started to happen all over the
country as journalists have begun listening to ordinary people as actively
as they listen to elites.
Many of you may have heard about what
happened in Asbury Park. The Press decided to do a civic journalism
project on what ails that sorry seashore community. But instead of
focusing on the failed waterfront developments, they went door to door
asking residents what they thought. And people started to talk about how
their neighbors run-down house had just fetched $200,000. The paper
uncovered an amazing mortgage fraud that involved 200 flipped properties,
greedy lenders, victimized citizens, corrupt appraisers. They expect 100
indictments. It was the result of listening differently. (And by the way
the Press' circulation went up nearly 7,000 every day the story ran.)
When they listen differently, journalists also hear other meanings
behind the icons and their coverage begins to reflect those nuances. An
example: every election the same old buzz words crop up. Jobs, crime,
education. But when you talk to ordinary people about jobs it means
different things, often different from how politicians use the words.
"Jobs in the city of Portland means a better job; "jobs" up on Maine's
Canadian border means any job. If our coverage captured those nuances,
would it resonate better with readers?
- Finally, what
would happen if . . .
Without abandoning our watchdog role--
nobody wants that to go away -- we also took on a guide-dog role. If we
showed people how they could get involved, or make a difference. Papers are
helping to create all kinds of civic spaces where people can actually do
something. And editors are stunned at the response. They know they are
helping their communities help themselves. And getting some good
journalism out of the process.
- In Charlotte, The
Observer profiled 10 high crime neighborhoods by first asking residents
what was wrong and what they needed. They published those "needs" lists
with an 800 number, and 1,000 citizens of Charlotte raised their hands and
said, I could do that. I can sew band uniforms, help drive, rehab a house
whatever. And the neighborhoods cleaned themselves up and crime
- In Seattle, the Times offered to pay for pizza
for anyone willing to host a house party where citizens could meet and
discuss the growth that was strangling the region: 230 parties were held
and reported back to the paper; 100 of those citizens were invited to be
part of a mock jury that heard prosecutors and defense attorneys
questioning expert witnesses on growth. They found the government and
themselves overwhelmingly guilty for failing to plan adequately. And they
were "sentenced' to come back the next Saturday to come up with some ideas.
All but 3 people returned.
- In Binghamton, NY, 200
citizens signed up for 10 action teams to come up with ideas to counter
tremendous defense industry downsizing.
The stories go on and on.
Citizens have a tremendous appetite for this kind of engagement and new
ways of getting information. Unfortunately, they have a bigger appetite
for it than some journalists.,
Well, clearly this is all very
sinister. It's advocacy, boosterism, pandering, say the critics. We say
civic journalism has had journalism done to it. These are not easy ideas,
they involve a lot of nuances. And it's easier for reporters to write
about it using the old, "whos for it" and "whos against it" frame.
there is a growing mass of data that shows civic journalism efforts are
really having impact.
In Norfolk, The Virginian Pilot is
experimenting with some new dedicated civic journalism pages, three times a
week, and they are measuring reader feedback quarterly. Three months after
the launch, reader satisfaction of their education coverage increased 50
In Madison, Wisconsin, the "We the People" partnership aired
the first of a series of issues programs in a year-long sesquicentennial
civic journalism effort. The topic was "Family." It aired Tuesday, Oct. 21,
prime time, 7-8 p.m., on CBS and on public television. It was the same
night as Game 3 of the World Series. "Family" snared a 7 rating and a 15
share. Baseball got a 6 rating and a 13 share. (Top-rated were ABC's
"Soul Man" and "Over the Top" at 8 and a 17 share.
researchers have shown definitively that civic journalism efforts have
measurably improved positive attitudes towards the media partners. They
also have proven that citizen knowledge has actually increased after
reading civic coverage.
For you New Yorkers, a curious thing happened
in your recent referendum on a constitutional convention. Of course, it was
overwhelmingly defeated everywhere --except in Monroe County, home of the
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, which had been doing an aggressive
civic journalism project on prospects for a convention. There the vote was
a virtual dead-heat.
The teachers union, we are told, had mounted an
aggressive statewide campaign against the constitutional convention --
because the current constitution is good for teacher tenure. But they
didn't run any of their ads in the Rochester area. "Readers there knew too
much," opponents said.
Finally, you can actually see newsroom
creativity. I've included in your packet several stories that exemplify the
new writing experiments -- we're seeking more first and second person
articles, more essays. Charlotte even covered its City Council races with
first-person curtain raisers -- a sample is in your packet.
a lot of information at you. I'll sum up by saying that at best, I think,
civic journalism is working at creating the journalism of the future - in
all its forms, traditional, on-line, in-person.
And at its worst, I
think, it has initiated a stepped-up conversation and a lot of
introspection in the profession, over the role of journalists and the way
we practice our craft, our credibility. And these conversations are now
being formally conducted by the Freedom Forum, the American Society of
Newspaper Editors, the Pew Trusts. So stay tuned.