Civic Journalism

Tanni Haas. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

The journalistic concept of “civic” (or “public”) journalism is multifaceted. It simultaneously represents (1) an argument about the role and responsibility of journalism in a democratic society; (2) a set of practices that have been tried in actual newsroom settings; and (3) a movement of individuals and institutions concerned about strengthening journalism’s contribution to public life. Following this tripartite distinction, this entry outlines public journalism’s basic argument, describes how public journalism is practiced, and considers the individuals and institutions most responsible for its development as a journalistic reform movement.

Public journalism’s broader journalistic significance lies not only in having inspired hundreds of newsroom experiments in the United States and elsewhere, but also in having prompted much debate among scholars and journalists alike about journalism’s fundamental mission. Indeed, public journalism’s challenges to mainstream journalism continue to reverberate throughout the profession, notably in discussions about the need for a more citizen-oriented form of journalism.

Basic Argument

Central to public journalism is the underlying argument that journalism and democracy are intrinsically linked, if not mutually dependent. While scholars and journalists acknowledge that the practice of journalism depends on certain democratic protections, most notably freedom from government intervention, they maintain that democracy depends upon journalism that is committed to promoting active citizen participation in democratic processes. Mainstream journalism’s failure to encourage citizen participation, advocates argue, has contributed to widespread citizen withdrawal from voting as well as declining civic participation in community affairs. It also has contributed to declining public interest in, and perceived relevance of, political journalism, as evidenced by declining newspaper readership. Put differently, advocates perceive contemporary society as being riven by two widening (though not yet irreversible) gaps: between citizens and government and between news organizations and their audiences. To help reduce those gaps, advocates argue that journalists should inspire increased civic commitment to, and active participation in, democratic processes.

To further such democratic ideals, advocates argue that journalists must change the ways in which they have perceived the public and their own role in public life. Instead of seeing the public as passive spectators who only seek news to be entertained, or even as consumers who watch or read news to learn about government officials, experts, and other elite actors, journalists should perceive the public as engaged citizens who are concerned about active democratic participation. Implicit in this argument is the claim that mainstream journalism’s tendency to focus election reporting on campaign-managed events, candidate strategies and image-management techniques, horse race polls, or scandal coverage positions the public as mere spectators to a political spectacle. At best, mainstream journalism’s efforts to inform the public about actions by the political elite suggest that the public need not be actively involved.

Second, and equally important, advocates argue that journalists need to reconceptualize their own role in public life. Instead of perceiving themselves as disinterested or neutral observers who occupy a privileged position detached from other citizens, journalists should be political actors or fair-minded participants who care about whether public life goes well. Implicit in this argument is the claim that journalism’s virtually exclusive focus on the perspective of elite actors has distanced news people from concerns of ordinary citizens.

While public journalism is a relatively recent notion (scholarly and practical writing on the topic date to the early 1990s), its basic argument has deep historical roots. Beginning with the famous debate about the role and responsibility of journalism in a democratic society between journalist Walter Lippmann and philosopher John Dewey in the 1920s, public journalism’s underpinnings can be traced back to the reports of the Hutchins’ Commission on Freedom of the Press in the late 1940s as well as to several theoretical and empirical works on deliberative democracy a half century later. Aside from these influences, the most immediate historical “cause” of public journalism was the much-criticized news coverage of the 1988 U.S. presidential election between the senior George Bush and Michael Dukakis. While the news coverage focused overwhelmingly on the candidates’ personalities, strategies and tactics, and horse race polls, the candidates themselves used simplistic image-management techniques to appeal to voters, as exemplified by television advertisements featuring Bush visiting flag factories to show his patriotism and Dukakis climbing aboard a tank to show his tough stance on defense policy. Following the election, scholars and journalists alike, many of whom subsequently became advocates of public journalism, called for radical changes to election reporting, notably a move away from candidate strategies and tactics to a focus on substantive policy issues of concern to voters.

Practical Manifestations

Although much has been said in favor of public journalism, the notion is defined more clearly by practice. In contrast to its advocates’ rather general pronunciations about what public journalism should be, many journalists have engaged in practices clearly different from those of mainstream journalism.

Public journalism is best understood as a series of experiments that emerged within the mainstream U.S. news media in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since 1988, when the first public journalism initiative was launched by the Columbus, Georgia, Ledger-Enquirer, more than 600 such initiatives have been carried out across the United States and elsewhere. Most initiatives have been conducted by newspapers—more than 300 dailies, or about one-fifth of all daily newspapers in the United States, have been involved with one or more public journalism initiatives. Similarly, while most of these initiatives have been carried out by individual newspapers, more than 160 (about one-quarter of all initiatives) have included partnerships among newspapers, television, and radio stations.

While public journalism initiatives exhibit different characteristics, these initiatives can be grouped into three categories: (1) elections, (2) special reporting projects, and (3) efforts to make public journalism an integral part of routine journalism practices. During local and national elections, news organizations practicing public journalism have made efforts to focus their reporting on problems of concern to voters rather than on candidate agendas. This has included identifying voter concerns through telephone surveys, in-depth interviews, and focus group discussions; elaborating on voters’ opinions and where they differ from those of candidates; soliciting voter questions to candidates and publicizing candidates’ answers; facilitating social interaction among voters and candidates in the form of town-hall meetings; and reporting the outcomes of those voter–candidate encounters.

Although election initiatives were an early and visible example of public journalism, they account for only about 10 percent of the effort to date. Most initiatives have focused special reporting on problems of community concern. Since the early 1990s, news organizations practicing public journalism have engaged in a wide variety of reporting on such problems as racism, educational inequality, and poverty. As with election initiatives, news organizations have used various information-gathering methods to identify problems of concern, reported on those problems from the perspective of residents rather than government officials and other elite actors, offered residents opportunities to articulate their opinions, elaborated on what residents can do to address given problems, and helped organize roundtable discussions, community forums, and local civic organizations.

Aside from such project-based initiatives, news organizations have also sought to make public journalism an integral part of their routine practice. Some news organizations have restructured newsrooms from conventional beat systems to focus instead on geographic- or topic-based teams. Other news organizations have met with residents on a regular basis to discuss which problems they would like to see covered, report on those problems, and encourage residents to evaluate their coverage.

Sources of Support

Several individuals and institutions have helped ensure that public journalism has been one of the best organized social movements inside American journalism. Public journalism efforts can be traced to 1987 when James Batten, then-CEO of Knight-Ridder (purchased by McClathy in 2006), instituted a company-wide initiative known as “Community Connectedness,” to strengthen the relationship between its newspapers and their local communities. When Batten learned of the Columbus, Georgia, Ledger-Enquirer‘s efforts to involve local residents more actively in community affairs through its “Columbus Beyond 2000” initiative, he appointed the Ledger-Enquirer‘s then-editor Jack Swift “Editor-of-the-Year.” Many of public journalism’s earliest practitioners, including the Akron Beacon Journal, the Charlotte Observer, the Columbia, South Carolina, State, and the Wichita Eagle, were owned by Knight-Ridder.

As he was being lauded, Swift contacted the Kettering Foundation, which works to strengthen democracy in the United States and elsewhere. Kettering introduced him to Professor Jay Rosen of New York University. Rosen and the Kettering Foundation played key roles in the development of public journalism as a journalistic reform movement. Aside from influencing the nascent movement with his writing, Rosen helped establish (with a grant from the Knight Foundation) the Project on Public Life and the Press at New York University. Led by Rosen and Lisa Austin, a former journalist from the Wichita Eagle, the project operated from 1993 to 1997, documenting early experiments in public journalism. Since the early 1990s, the Kettering Foundation has helped support public journalism by publishing books and awarding fellowships to scholars and journalists from around the world interested in learning more about the movement.

In 1993, the Project on Public Life and the Press was joined by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism (funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts) to strengthen public life in the United States. A decade-long initiative set in motion by Ed Fouhy, a nationally renowned former CBS producer and its first president, and Jan Schaffer, a Pulitzer Prize–winning editor from the Philadelphia Inquirer who became president when Ed Fouhy stepped down in 1998, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism emerged as the most important institutional vehicle for the public journalism movement. From 1993 to 2003, the center supported the movement by organizing numerous workshops for editors and reporters, funding more than 120 newsroom experiments in public journalism, publicizing the most innovative of those experiments through its “James K. Batten Awards for Excellence in Civic Journalism,” engaging in extensive publication and outreach efforts, notably through its quarterly Civic Catalyst newsletter and various publications on the theory and practice of public journalism, sponsoring empirical research on public journalism’s performance, and maintaining a comprehensive archive of newsroom experiments in public journalism submitted to it for recognition and/or advice (now housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society).

Moreover, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism complemented the work of the Project on Public Life and the Press by reaching out to commercial broadcasters, including funding numerous multiple-media partnerships among press and broadcasters, and with workshops for news directors, producers, and reporters at National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service. Finally, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism was an early supporter of the Civic Journalism Interest Group (formed in 1994 and renamed the Civic and Citizen Journalism Interest Group in 2006) of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the premier scholarly journalism association in the United States. This interest group remains one of the most important sites for journalism scholars, educators, and practicing journalists to assess the theory, practice, and teaching of public journalism.

Since the Pew Center for Civic Journalism closed in 2003, much of its work has been continued by the Public Journalism Network, a global professional association of scholars and journalists committed to public journalism. Led by Professor Leonard Witt of Kennesaw State University in Georgia, who holds an endowed chair in public journalism, the network cospon-sors various workshops in collaboration with the Civic and Citizen Journalism Interest Group, produces publications on the theory and practice of public journalism, serves as a forum for the sharing of curricular and instructional innovations in the teaching of public journalism, and maintains a weblog with continuously updated information about public journalism initiatives around the world.