Civic Journalism:
Redefining News, Engaging Readers, Making a Difference

By Jan Schaffer
Executive Director
Pew Center for Civic Journalism

World Editors Forum, Kobe, Japan, June 3, 1998 - I welcome this opportunity to talk about civic journalism, which goes by many names. I'd like to think that one of them is good journalism.

For this discussion, 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 being done.

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.

Last month, Harvard philosopher Sissela Bok told a gathering of top U.S. newspaper editors that they are facing a great moral challenge in seeking to rebuild credibility -- at a time when the public is deeply distrustful of the news media.

Citizens are skeptical of journalistic standards -- privacy, fairness and truth. About journalistic methods -- the use of paparazzi and ambush interviews. And about journalistic motives -- profiteering from violence, scandal and sex.

The challenge to editors, said Bok, is to overcome this skepticism by going beyond talking about credibility and doing something to bring about a change in practice.

Civic journalism is not about talk. It is about change. It's about practicing change. It's about hands-on experiments with new ways of doing journalism so that it better reflects reality as our readers know it. So that it captures a fuller percentage of the truths on a subject.

Civic journalism is based on two premises.

One is that fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers or watching television news. Newspaper circulation is flat or falling at most of the nation's major newspapers -- with only a couple exceptions.

A generation ago 60 percent of 18-29 year-olds read a newspaper. Today fewer than 30 percent do.

Network TV viewership is plummeting. Numbers released earlier this week show that for the first time ever, network television's market share of sets in use was less than 50 percent of all viewers.

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.

That tells us something. One thing it tells us is that our journalism is ineffective -- ineffective at engaging the people we mean to serve.

The other premise of civic journalism is that something is eating at the foundations of American democracy. People are turning into spectators of a barrage of bad news, crime, scandal and sex. Spectators who are becoming so desensitized to what they read and hear that they suspend concern. They hold back on involvement.

Here are some worrisome trends that suggest a major shift in the last 20 years, from 1977 to 1997, in the way the news media now defines what is news. This is from research by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. *

  • One in three front-page stories used to be about government. Now it is one in five -- a drop of 38 percent since 1977.

  • 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.

  • 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.**

  • The number of stories about foreign affairs on our front pages has dropped by 25 percent, to one in every six -- from one in four 20 years ago.

  • Finally, political or international figures now front only one in 10 covers of Time and Newsweek magazines. In 1977, they anchored one in three covers. In large part, they have been displaced by celebrities.

So we have witnessed a profound change in the definition of what is news.

What's coinciding with all these trends? A fundamental erosion in the public's confidence that journalists are accurate, credible, fair.

Last year another survey reported that one out of every two people said the press is often inaccurate -- that's up from one out of every three people in 1985. More than half of those surveyed believe the media get in the way of society solving its problems.

In defining the moral challenges editors confront, Sissela Bok made another suggestion: That we journalists need to regain our self-respect. We need to focus not just on our rights, but also on our responsibilities.

Civic journalism is not just another way to do journalism. It's another way to think about journalism. It's a set of overarching values that drives all the things we do as journalists.

A conscious sense of our responsibilities to readers and to the community at large is at the core of civic journalism. Newsrooms embracing civic journalism often craft mission statements articulating these responsibilities, like the one here from the Colorado Springs Gazette.

One civic journalism pioneer, Dennis Hartig, a top editor of the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, has redefined his job description. My job as an editor, he says, is to --create citizens.

At its most basic, civic journalism is about giving readers the information they need to do their jobs as citizens. This is a lot harder to do than going out and getting quotes, and moving them around in a story -- using citizens as furniture in building our narratives. It's a lot harder than going to our bulging Rolodexes and calling the same old experts and officials we rely on for comment again and again and again.

Civic journalists believe that by listening to citizens' voices and using what they hear as an organizing principle of some stories -- not all, but some stories -- it is possible to overcome people's sense of powerlessness and alienation.

One thing that is on the current Civic Journalism Wall of Shame: When the Pope Visits Fidel Castro in Cuba: Who Wins? Who Loses? You'd think it was going to be a 10-round title bout.

Who's counting anyway? I would suggest that it's only the journalists. Not the public.

Here is what civic journalism is:

  • It is about seeking new definitions of news. About covering consensus as well as conflict. Success stories as well as failures -- particularly stories that can help other communities deal with difficult issues. The Argus Leader, in South Dakota, engaged the entire town of Tyndall in confronting community problems. And then sent a corps of ambassadors to help other small towns replicate Tyndall's successes.

  • It is about reframing stories in ways that are more relevant to readers.

    Rather than treating elections merely as a game of political insiders, civic journalism also focuses on the decisions voters have to make: Who do they want to hire to run their government? That was the frame for election coverage in Norfolk in 1996. (Slide)

    Rather than focus on conflicts between people, civic journalism may focus on conflicts in values that ordinary people are struggling with. The Kansas City Star did hundreds of stories about the values its community wanted to impart in raising children. Schools adopted the stories to teach about values.

    Rather than overwhelm readers with pages of statistics on the scope of a problem, civic journalists are also trying to focus on the choices that were made on behalf of citizens. An Idaho media coalition recently compared runaway prison spending with higher education spending, which was falling at the same rate. The coverage produced a statewide conversation on spending priorities.

  • Civic journalism is about redefining balance. Journalists report two sides of a story and believe it's fair. 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.

  • Civic journalism is about providing entry points for readers to get involved.

    When the mayor of Bradenton, Fla., tried to force a big development project through City Council, the paper invited residents to take notice and have a voice. More than 1,000 showed up at a Council meeting and got involved in searching for alternative sites.

    As Binghamton, NY, struggled with devastating job losses from corporate downsizing, the newspaper invited citizens to form 10 groups, called action teams, in a project, "Facing our Future." Scores of their ideas have already been carried out and the local Chamber of Commerce, which was 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.

    The bottom line: Civic journalists are trying to treat readers as real participants who have a role to play in a self-governing society, rather than positioning them as victims or spectators.

  • Civic journalism is also about providing the civic spaces -- in the news pages, on the air, in cyberspace, and sometimes in real space -- at forums or town hall meetings -- to let citizens talk and, equally as important, to encourage journalists to listen.

  • Finally, civic journalism is about communicating with the public much more openly about our coverage decisions -- explaining why the newspaper decided to do something. Inviting comment.

All of this is far more interactive than traditional journalism. It seeks to create two-way conversations with readers versus a one-way downloading of information that we select.

Here's what civic journalism is not:

  • It is not boosterism.

  • It is not about editors sitting on community boards.

  • It is not abandoning objectivity.

  • And it's not imposing a newspaper's agenda on a community.

Civic journalism has been around long enough now that we're starting to see some impact. Newspaper practitioners of civic journalism are reporting circulation gains. TV stations are scoring impressive ratings. Citizens are starting to adopt, on their own, models of civic engagement they first learned from a civic journalism project. And voting behavior has been influenced, as citizens become more knowledgeable in casting their votes.

The venerable political columnist David Broder told a group in Denver last year that civic journalists were doing a service by daring to suggest that "we ought not to be so complacent about the effectiveness of what we're doing that we just continue to do the same thing over and over again."

Civic journalism is daring to explore other ways of doing journalism, and I would invite you all into the grand experiment. Like any journalism, a story is not automatically good because it carries a label -- be it investigative, computer-assisted, explanatory, or civic. It's all in the execution.

The best editors -- those who are curious about all aspects of life around them and who consciously think about their responsibility to society -- are making the best journalism.

*From a from a study of 6,020 stories in 16 news outlets by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an initiative funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
** From a study of ABC, CBS and NBC nightly newscasts from 1990-1996 by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

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