Sam Chege Mwangi. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.
International journalism in the 21st century has largely been defined by transformative changes in communication technologies and a growing culture of democratization around the world (Thussu, 2006). New communication technologies have made it easier for information to travel across borders, while the democratization wave around the world has led to greater freedom of expression in global societies and a rising growth in grassroots and community media. The overarching changes have created a vibrant civil society and a new generation of empowered citizens who expect to have an active voice in deciding the issues of the day in their societies. As a result, journalism in the newly democratizing nation-states of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America is in search of an appropriate communications model that would help tap into citizens’ voices and engender a culture of civic engagement that places citizens at the center of the democratic process.
Previously, media in authoritarian states tended to follow a paternalistic model, where issues that merited attention were determined by the media houses. The search for a democratic model of communication in these countries has borrowed heavily from civic engagement theories and is aimed at making the media inclusive democratic forums by tearing down fences around the arena of public discourse. This has led to various media experiments aimed at capturing citizens’ voices on various issues deemed as important to these societies. Such civic engagement projects exploit the new information technologies and flourish in the widening democratic space that has empowered and encouraged people to tell their own stories. This chapter will examine several civic engagement models from around the world.
Defining Civic Engagement
The sociologist James Coleman, who wrote widely on public issues involving schools and families, is widely credited with laying the theoretical foundations for the civic engagement movement. His writing helped bridge the gap between the individualistic market-oriented thinking of economists and the sociologists’ concerns with social networks, values, and norms (Coleman, 1988). He used the term social capital to show ways in which social ties and shared values and norms can help people become better educated, amass economic wealth, make careers, and raise well-socialized children. He argued that economists should pay attention to social ties and culture (Coleman, 1990).
The political scientist Robert Putnam borrowed some of Coleman’s ideas on social capital in his seminal book Making Democracy Work, to explain effective democratic governance in Italy. Putnam found that regional governments in Italy, which looked very similar on paper, worked very differently depending on which region had a rich array of voluntary social groups (Putnam, 1993).
In a follow-up book, Bowling Alone, Putnam (1995) used social statistics to argue that the United States has experienced a decline in social capital in the late 20th century and Americans are increasingly going it alone instead of joining groups such as churches, bowling alleys, or civic organizations. He argued that the problems facing U.S. democracy and governance can actually be traced to the decline in social connections (Putnam, 1995). His research has inspired other scholarly works and discussions on social and political change, including studies on social capital that pay tribute to such networks as significant in the development of a democratic culture and participation of citizens. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE, 2003) has compiled a comprehensive list of indicators of civic engagement, which include voting in national elections; joining a political party; being a candidate for local office; and civic activism such as writing letters to a newspaper about social or political concerns, collecting signatures for a petition, collecting money for a social cause, and boycotting products or services because of social concerns. For citizens to be engaged in civic life, they must be equipped with certain skills such as knowledge and understanding of community issues, values that support a civic culture, a willingness to act to advance the public good, and the skills and ability to imagine a better society and direct social change (Carpini, 2000; Pratte, 1988).
The media can provide an excellent platform to cultivate such a culture of civic engagement by covering and framing stories in a way that educates citizens on the issues of the day and inviting them to participate in public deliberations of such issues. Indeed the civic journalism movement that was largely popularizedinthe United States has borrowed heavily from the civic engagement literature and inspired several international journalism civic engagement projects. Described as both an experiment and an idea in the making, civic journalism seeks to help communities work through their own problems by framing stories in a way that provides the community with possible choices to stimulate public discussion on public issues. Jay Rosen (1996), a leading proponent of civic journalism, defines the practice as a type of journalism that seeks to encourage civic participation, improve public debate, and enhance public life without sacrificing the independence that a free press demands. He also argues that civic journalism, at its best, augments a community’s ability to “recognize itself, converse well, and make choices” (p. 20). He advises that civic engagement in international journalism must not try to replicate the U.S. model but be informed by the unique political, economic, and social structures in other countries.
David Mathews, the president of the Kettering Foundation, which has funded civic journalism experiments in the United States and hosted international journalists interested in learning civic engagement, defines it this way:
Civic journalism isn’t any one particular thing. It is simply a way of looking at journalism that puts journalism in the context of a democracy, or approaches it from the context of good democratic practice. It, itself, is not a practice. It is a way of thinking. If you tried to explain it by trying to find one good example of public journalism, not only could you not do it, but, it would be misleading, as it is a way of thinking. (Mwangi, 2001)
The journalism professor Camille Kraeplin defines civic journalism by comparing it with traditional journalism. Kraeplin (2000) says that traditional journalism plays the role of a town crier: “We see something happen, or a problem that affects our readers and we say, ‘Hey! Did you know about this? Here is what’s up.’ Then we stand back and wait for a reaction.”
Kraeplin argues that civic journalism, on the other hand, recognizes that civic and political institutions are sometimes inadequate to the task of fixing the problems that traditional journalism identifies. Civic journalism goes one step further beyond the town crier approach and prods anybody who cares about the problem to come together to figure out what to do about it. Sometimes, journalistic institutions convene meetings and work with various stakeholders in addressing an issue.
In his article “Public Journalism as a Democratic Practice,” Lambeth (1998) provides a framework in which civic journalism can tap the community’s voice. He says that civic journalism seeks to do the following:
- Listen systematically to stories and ideas of citizens, even while protecting its freedom to choose what to cover
- Examine alternative ways to frame stories on important community issues
- Choose frames that stand the best chance to stimulate citizen deliberation and build public understanding of issues
- Take the initiative to report on major public problems in a way that advances public knowledge of possible solutions and the values served by an alternative course of action
- Pay continuing and systematic attention to how well and how credibly the media are communicating with the public
Critics of civic journalism argue that any involvement of journalists in solving community problems would compromise objectivity and other professional standards of journalism and that such involvement turns journalists into manufacturers of news (Buckner & Gartner, 1998; Hoyt, 1995; McManus, 1994).
The controversy surrounding the movement notwithstanding, at its heart, civic journalism speaks directly to the role of the media in a democracy. It aims at helping shape an enlightened populace that can take part in public discourse and deliberation (Carey, 1997). While the model has inspired controversy in the United States, it is very appealing in newly democratic societies, especially where the concept of public deliberation is culturally ingrained and there is a tradition of people coming together to discuss community issues, as is common in many developing countries. Today, there are media houses in Latin America, Asia, and Africa experimenting with the idea of civic journalism as a viable communications model of civic engagement (Mwangi, 2001).
Another theoretical inspiration for civic engagement models in international journalism is the body of work in development communication theories in recognition of the centrality of the quest for development in the democracy debate. To understand this theme, one must step back and understand the context of democratization in these societies, especially in Africa. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s unleashed a wave of democratization in countries that were hitherto under dictatorships. For example, in the 1990s, nearly three-quarters of African countries experienced upheavals in the form of protests and demands for more open systems of governments that would adequately meet development and societal need. The demand for change had both external and internal causes. Externally, in the early 1990s, the strategic importance of Africa declined in the eyes of the West after the fall of communism (Monga, 1996; Nzongola-Ntalaja & Lee, 1997). The new Eastern European states were now competing for Western aid alongside African states. While in the past, aid to Africa was largely allocated on the basis of African countries’ loyalty to Western allies, donor nations in the 1990s adopted different aid conditions. Arguing that after 30 years of receiving aid, Africa had little to show for it, donors insisted that African governments now had to be transparent and accountable in the management of their political and economic affairs (Ndegwa, 1996; World Bank, 1989). These values, they insisted, could only be achieved in a democratic environment.
The demand for change internally could be seen by the fact that the wave of independence in the Eastern bloc had caught on in various African countries, leading to massive protests and demands for more democratic political systems (Monga, 1996; Siddiqui, 1997). Today, nearly all African countries have given in to these demands and have embarked on a process of democratization. This was often done by adopting a multiparty political system followed by general elections. Over the years, the emphasis has shifted from elections to building institutions such as a vibrant press and civil society to support African democracy. Because of this history, a viable communication model in these societies must make a connection between democracy and development, and hence the marriage of development communication theories to civic engagement.
Development communication is a relatively young field that began to rise in the 1960s with the publication of Daniel Lerner’s classic book, The Passing of Traditional Society (1960). The book was based on years of research that Lerner had conducted in North Africa and the Middle East. He traced correlations between expanded economic activity and other modernization variables such as urbanization, high literacy levels, media consumption, and political development (voting). He argued that the media could serve as a promoter of development by communicating development messages to their audiences.
Drawing from Lerner’s research, the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) commissioned the renowned development communication scholar Wilbur Schramm to try and find out the exact place and role that the media played in development. Schramm’s research was published as Media and National Development (1964), a monumental book that provided the solid theoretical foundations for development communication for the next decade and a half. He believed in the concept of an all-powerful media that could persuasively deliver messages about innovations, use of high-yield seed, and improved daily health habits. This form of communication was authoritarian in nature and therefore nonparticipatory. It involved development agencies sending messages to a passive audience.
Schramm’s theoretical conception of the media as the great multiplier of development received a major boost from another scholar, Everett Rogers, who came up with the theory of the diffusion of innovations. Rogers argued that there appeared to be a pattern in the way innovations were adopted and accepted in societies. The sequential pattern of adoption involved “the opinion leaders” or early adopters, late adopters, early majority, and late majority. Rogers’s theoretical model was a major contribution to development communication. Indeed, as a result of Rogers’s theory, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program funded thousands of what were called development extension projects located in rural areas, where trained agricultural officers would use media such as radio and opinion leaders to expose farmers to these innovations. The research of Schramm and Rogers provided the main theoretical focus of development communication in the 1960s and early 1970s.
A major paradigm shift took place in 1975, when development communication scholars met in Honolulu to assess progress in the field. The main reason for the conference was that despite more than 15 years of development efforts using the dominant paradigm, poverty was still widespread in the world. The scholars, therefore, wanted to rethink their approach to development. The results of the conference are published in a book edited by Rogers (1976), titled Communication and Development: Critical Perspectives. The conference resolved that the dominant paradigm was not compatible with the development agenda; instead, they should use the human-centered approach. This was a significant shift that placed the people at the center of development. Unlike the top-down dominant paradigm, this was horizontal and encouraged participation, input from project beneficiaries, and use of indigenous knowledge.
The people-centered paradigm, which currently provides a theoretical framework for development communication has an interesting parallel to civic journalism. It is pluralistic and does not suffer from the authoritarian overtones of the previous dominant paradigm. According to this model, communities are expected to set their own priorities and standards, which may be unique to their problem situations. It focuses on the human and economic needs of the people rather than the general theoretical emphasis on economic growth through capital industrialization. Greater emphasis is given to the basic needs of people and the participation of beneficiaries in development programs set up for their benefit. This paradigm emphasizes indigenous and self-reliant development, which is predicated on the utilization of indigenous knowledge. But most important, this new approach seeks to democratize the decision-making process and make it accessible and sensitive to people’s needs, an approach that is parallel to civic journalism.
Gillis and Moore (2000) argue that this shift in development communication serves as the best link between civic journalism and development communication. They claim that both development communication and civic journalism serve the people, and the people use the media to get the information that is critical to them in their daily lives. The media are partners with the people in seeking solutions to their problems, in seeking self-help, self-growth, and nation building. Thus, both concepts provide a voice to communities by letting the people know what is going on in their communities and providing them with the opportunity to be a part of the solution to community problems. Both approaches refer to models of communication that allow citizens to participate in the decision-making process, deliberate on their needs, and help design solutions. And while civic journalism places a heavy emphasis on citizens’ participation in democracy and development communication’s emphasis on participation in the development process, it is important to recognize that democratization in most of these countries was inspired and driven by a quest for development and a better way of life. Hence, a good communication model must recognize this symbiotic link between democracy and development.
The following case studies of international civic engagement models are inspired by the unique political, social, and cultural environments within which the media operates.
The sprawling suburb of Pikine in Dakar, Senegal, resembles any other urban slum in African cities where poverty and unemployment collide to create a vast sea of hopelessness. In more ways than one, Radio Oxy-Jeunes reflects its surroundings, where only the very determined ever make it. Conceived as an idea in 1996, it remained just that for 3 years due to bureaucratic lethargy and government’s preference for foreign-owned stations capable of paying the huge licensing fees.
Faced with a bureaucratic stone wall, the young people behind Radio Oxy-Jeunes resorted to writing hundreds of protest letters to the Ministry of Communications, followed by many unfruitful visits. But a chance encounter with the country’s president changed all that. He ordered that a license be issued immediately.
Today, Radio Oxy-Jeunes is Senegal’s only community radio for youth and represents a good example of how a media house can engage the citizenry. Its programming focuses on the life and concerns of the people of Pikine. It does this by giving a platform to marginalized people and strengthening community organizations by trying to get people involved in development and civic awareness. In a society where oral traditions are more valued than the written word, the station attempts to capture and express the views of ordinary people through programs such as The Street, Political Satire, Traditional Healing and a news program called Pikine for Pikine focusing specifically on local news. It broadcasts in all local languages, including those of immigrant workers. The following are among the station’s stated aims:
- To support the people of Pikine in improving their critical thinking skills and insights related to the political processes that affect their conditions and prospects.
- To promote traditional African culture across the spectrum of cultures represented in Pikine
- To encourage the people of Pikine to understand their rights and to take action to make sure those rights are applied
- To facilitate and support open talk among the population of Pikine on the major issues that concern them
The following are some of the programming initiatives by Radio Oxy-Jeunes that work toward the above goals:
- Dialog Conseil: This is one of the most popular political shows in the radio’s programs. Every Sunday night, a mayor is invited to discuss, with a live audience of his or her constituents, issues and problems in their quarter. Each week, the focus is on a different quarter and its mayor. Prior to the show, Radio Oxy Jeunes reporters (who are local people) interview people in the relevant quarter in their homes and on the streets. These interviews reveal the major issues that concern the community. The interviews are played, for response by the mayor, as part of the live broadcast, which also allows citizens to follow up on concerns by either being present during the taping or phoning in. When, after three editions of this program, the mayors refused to appear because of the questioning and criticism they faced, the program continued in their absence, making the mayors seem unconcerned and uncaring. Today, no mayor dares miss a taping, and the program is ranked as one of the most popular.
- Blah Blah: This program airs every week night and focuses on evaluating local political life, issues, and dynamics. Hosted by two local comedians, the show relies on contributions from local people through phone calls, interviews, and written contributions to provide biting satire with serious political points and debate.
- The Bus: In one of its most innovative programs, the station sends out a bus to experience and discuss a prominent local issue. The Bus morning show, which airs every week day from 9 a.m. to noon, focuses on issues such as the state of the local markets and features a live coverage of the discussion involving stall holders, customers, and market management, among others. The topic changes each morning depending on the urgency and nature of the problem.
- Xam Sa Walla (Know Your Rights): This program focuses on the promotion of socioeconomic rights among young people and is aired once a week. It usually commences with a short drama on a rights issue relevant to young people. A recent program, for example, focused on the issues facing young people trying to get a small loan from a bank for an income-generating idea that they had developed. It is then followed by a live discussion that brings together the main people in the community relevant to the issue—in this case, young people who have been refused loans, young people who have obtained loans, bank and insurance company managers, teachers, parents, employers, and unemployed young people. As its popularity among the 1.5 million inhabitants of Pikine attests, the program stands out as an example of a form of engaging journalism that has emerged spontaneously in response to community needs.
Another project of note is the public journalism short course introduced by United States Information Services (USIS) in the South African country of Swaziland and taught via interactive video to midcareer journalists in Swaziland. The project was modeled after the American model of civic journalism in combination with development journalism. The design of the Swaziland project included 2 teleconference meetings held in September and October 1997, 12 interactive Internet video meetings with the journalists, and a 2-week field experience. The project adopted the six-step public journalism model of public listening, developing community issues and a time frame, developing community forums, collaboration between media within the community, promoting the concept with the community, conducting the project, and evaluating community response. Participants chose to focus on rural health care, rape, and incest stories. These final stories were published in the various media represented in the project.
As a result of this course and subsequent seminars by USIS, the Swazi Broadcasting Corporation now has a weekly regular feature on rural communities. The Observer newspaper started an ongoing weekly community page that appears on Mondays, based on community forums convened to discuss community problems. In both situations, however, the two media houses have stuck to the American model, perhaps due to the way the concept was introduced to them. Also, the two media houses do not collaborate with each other in tackling common problems.
The Swaziland case study is also interesting in that public journalism was introduced as “a practice” rather than a way of thinking and a greater emphasis was placed on teaching the media the required steps. This has placed a greater responsibility on the media, which, for instance, feels obliged to convene forums. Such a practice hinders the devolution of power and shared responsibility that is expected to occur when citizens come together to tackle their own problems.
As the world’s third most populous nation and emerging democracy, Indonesia presents a fascinating case study of an innovative media trying to rise above decades of dictatorship to represent the public voice.
Due to Indonesia’s vast territory, radio is the only medium that can reach the remote areas of this archipelago. Today, there are more than 700 private radio stations serving the entire population. During the 32 years of the Suharto regime, the stations largely aired music and entertainment programs. They were only allowed to broadcast the news provided by the official broadcasting system.
After years of entertainment programming, the opening up of the political space after the fall of Suharto in 1999 provided both enormous opportunities and unexpected challenges to the media. Most rural radio stations in Indonesia are small structures with outdated equipment. They also had no trained broadcasters.
But with the help of the UNESCO, 25 radio stations serving outlying remote areas have came up with the idea of networking among the radio stations to offer the Indonesian population new avenues and possibilities to participate in the new democratic process. The project is called Democracy on Air Project.
To prepare the stations for this maiden role, UNESCO organized successive conferences in 1998 and 1999 to provide reporters with skills in journalism and, more important, news programming with a special perspective on the democratic process that Indonesia was going through at the time. To strengthen the stations further, UNESCO linked them through an Internet-based network that allowed the daily exchange of news items among the news organizations. This was important in several ways. First, the networks that were otherwise constrained by budgets could freely obtain and broadcast news items from all parts of the country. Second, for the first time in Indonesia, people could tune in to local stations that were truly broadcasting what was happening in the community. In a country accustomed to vertical and authoritarian communication, the stations embarked on civic education campaigns broadcasting items on democratic principles, good governance, and even development issues. Every station managed to run a campaign independently by setting its own agenda. UNESCO’s role ended with the provision of technical equipment and training. In subsequent years, the stations embarked on a campaign against corruption, which was seen as the number one impediment to democratization.
Socially, people use the radio to convene meetings, send invitations to a marriage or to cultural events, or discuss local issues in a talk-show format. This service is especially critical in the remote areas, where phones and post offices are a rarity.
Australia and New Zealand
TheAustralian Public Journalism Project is interesting for the way it has tried to fine-tune the American version of civic journalism to serve the Australian socio-political situation. In the early 1990s, Australia faced the same challenges that led to the emergence of public journalism in the United States, namely, declining newspaper circulation figures, a disconnect between media and the communities they serve, and a declining interest in public affairs and in civic participation. Suggestions to try out the kind of civic journalism projects going on in the United States to help build and strengthen links between the media and their audience were met with skepticism by defensive editors who argued that they were already doing that through community forums, meet-the-candidates nights, and newspaper-sponsored activities in schools and business areas. But such reactions did not address the key issues being raised by those promoting public journalism, such as a polarizing and pejorative debate on the vexing race issue in Australia or the absence of avenues for citizens to be a part of the daily news agenda.
That resistance, however, changed in 1998 when the Queensland University of Technology and the University of Wollongong established the Public Journalism Project to try out the public journalism concept using a case study approach. Known as “Public Journalism, Public Participation and Australian Public Policy: Connecting to Community Attitudes,” the project was a collaboration between the media (The Courier-Mail newspaper, Rural Press Limited, and John Fairfax Limited), community organizations (The Australians for Reconciliation Project and the Ethnic Communities Council), and university researchers. Drawing directly from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Akron Beacon Journal series on race relations in the United States, the project called on the public to set an agenda for debate on race relations and immigration in Australia.
More than 600 people attended the two forums, a remarkable number considering that they were held during the election campaign period for a federal and state election. And although all the stories were competing for space with a major political event, The Courier-Mail devoted two eight-page lift-outs to the forums plus various articles in its regular edition reflecting the range of perspectives on the issue. This was unlike any coverage previously devoted to the topic, and the articles elicited more letters to the editor, hotline comments, and opinion pieces than the election campaign itself.
The Courier-Mail won the United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Prizes in 1998 and 1999 for its coverage of both the immigration and the indigenous issues under the public journalism initiative. Today, the Public Journalism Project has extended its activities in Queensland and outlying rural areas.
There have been other public journalism projects in Australia carried out by individual media houses, such as the one in 1999 by the newspaper The Australian around the referendum to consider whether Australia should become a republic.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has also held a number of public forums to identify issues of local significance in Ipswich and the suburb of Fortitude Valley in Brisbane. Local issues raised included crime, politics, race, and quality of government services. The forums were broadcast live, and among those in attendance were municipal officials. It was hoped that the issues raised would feature prominently in future planning of municipal affairs.
New Zealand began its experiments even earlier using the American public journalism model. During the 1993 general election campaign, politicians, frustrated with the journalistic reliance on “bad news,” 10-second sound bytes, and the adversarial A versus B reporting model made unprecedented use of talk-back radio and television talk shows that allowed them to interact directly with the voters. This public journalism technique allowed politicians the opportunity to engage directly with the citizens. Two New Zealand newspapers, The Evening Standard and Waikato Times, quickly adopted this community-centered journalism, and each recruited university researchers to conduct public opinion polls, asking readers to identify campaign issues. Among the technique tools used for the polls were telephone surveys, readers’ panels, and deliberative opinion polls that brought citizens together for discussions. Journalists then wrote stories based on the issues identified by citizens and asked parties to respond. When a party failed to answer, the papers printed a block of white space with the words “no response.” Naturally, this happened only once, when the National Party objected to the newspapers’ attempts to drive the campaign. But after the “no response” space was published, neither party missed a deadline.
Heavily inspired by American examples, the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in Stockholm, Sweden, has over the years been trying to apply engaging journalism to its coverage of Swedish issues with what the project coordinator, Petter Beckman, called increasing success. A small group of three reporters and Beckman spearheaded the effort, which aimed at strengthening and widening the paper’s capacity as an inclusive democratic forum by tearing down fences around the arena of public discourse.
The project started off with a focus on socioeconomic division and ethnic/racial relations, which are both hotbutton issues in Sweden, but later drifted more toward other unsolved problems of modern society, such as the ubiquitous shortage of time and connected issues.
They also carried out a deliberative series of stories on teenage fashion and the peer pressure that such trends put on parents and teens (in many ways depriving both kids and parents of their freedom of choice).
The group’s last project was an attempt to connect the rather technical political debate on tax levels to how low-income groups have been affected and deprived by the tax laws.
In the Scandinavian countries, efforts to launch civic engagement projects date back to 1997, when Aamuhleti, one of the biggest dailies in Finland, and two university researchers, Heikki Heikkila and Risto Kunelius, launched a short-lived pilot project. The project, which was carried out in the city of Tampere, brought together a group of 12 citizens (dubbed the budget jury) to discuss the city’s budgeting priorities in a series of meetings. A reporter from the paper covered the public talks. Out of these deliberations and the subsequent coverage in the newspaper, the researchers observed that the traditional method of reporting stories is poorly equipped for reporting deliberative forums. They are in the process of trying to develop a better method for reporters to capture deliberative talk, which they will then test out in future forums.
But this did not deter other experimental projects from taking place. So far, the largest and perhaps most fruitful project is one carried out by Savon Sanomat (a daily published in Kuopio, in eastern Finland). Between autumn of 1998 and spring of 1999, the paper conducted three small-scale projects involving six journalists, a researcher, and an informal support group within the newsroom. The reporters gathered six groups of ordinary citizens who were invited to discuss their concerns, frame problems, raise questions, and find solutions. The idea was to have these groups contributing to the news work, while the reporters would commit themselves to developing public discussion on the basis of these contributions.
The participants were selected using the “snowball” technique. First, a group of reporters set up an advisers’ list of persons who neither were journalists’ friends, nor established news sources. Once the advisers had been informed of the projects by phone, they were asked to suggest two or three names they would like to see in a group. This round of phone calls produced a list of more than 150 candidates, of which about 50 were invited. Eventually, 46 of them took part in the discussions.
The first project (which was called Citizens!) focused on generational differences in Kuopio, the paper’s hometown. The participants were divided into three groups, that is, senior citizens born in the 1930s, those born in the 1950s, and younger adults born in the 1970s. Each group met twice for 7 to 8 hours of intensive talk. In the first session, the groups focused on problems, in the second they tried to find solutions to the problems they had detected. During the project, the groups became so interested in each other’s viewpoints that a third meeting was held in which some members of all groups were present. This extra session was more informal, but it was also covered in the paper.
The second project was launched a couple of months later in two small municipalities, where “community groups” met on three occasions. In the first two sessions, the groups reflected on their concerns and the extent to which residents could influence local decision making. In the third meeting, the groups had the opportunity to present their questions and suggestions directly to the local authorities. The third project (called Voters) was an ad hoc experiment in which a group of citizens spent an evening discussing topics they thought would be relevant in the parliamentary elections; the following evening they were allowed to “interrogate” local political candidates. Since this project ended, the paper has decided to convene the group once a year to meet the MPs elected from their constituency.
All these group meetings and discussions took place in the presence of two reporters and the researcher, who also acted as a moderator. The discussions resulted in a dozen stories, which were expected to lead to “spin-off stories” and transform into public processes or even “beats” that would be under constant supervision in the newsroom. The projects were open-ended, but as it turned out, they remained rather short-lived. Spin-off stories that were supposed to develop public discussion further and cater to it with the journalistic tools available remained quite sporadic, and after May 1999, they ceased altogether. Later papers took a step toward institutionalizing a similar approach by establishing a weekly section to cover local issues from the residents’ perspective. The reporter responsible for the projects is also in charge of this new section.
The civic engagement project in Argentina represents a case where an American model has been modified to fit a local situation. The project began when Fundacion Ciudad, an Argentinean civic organization promoting citizen participation in public affairs, organized a civic journalism seminar with support from the United States Information Agency. The two-day seminar was devoted to the theories and techniques of civic journalism and was attended by more than 60 Argentinean journalists. The conference explored ways to adapt civic journalism to problems in Argentina.
Two American journalists, Max Jennings and National Public Radio’s John Dinges, were sponsored by the Pew Center to speak about their experiences in organizing civic journalism projects.
Jennings described the Dayton Daily News project Kids in Chaos, in which the newspaper convened community forums to deal with a local problem as an example of how some media organizations in the United States are trying to frame their reporting around citizens’ concerns and voices. Dinges, on the other hand, described the NPR election coverage project, which was built around an election agenda set by citizens through polls and small forums.
But unlike the U.S. situation, where civic journalism arose out of a concern of declining public confidence in the media, participants heard a different story in the case of Argentina. The Argentinean media enjoys a high level of confidence from citizens, due to its years of opposition to military dictatorship. And even after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1983, the media has continued to play this activist role as Argentina attempts to build a democratic government. One of the most memorable activist press projects, since the fall of the military dictatorship, was the vigorous campaign to expose the corruption that has shrouded the privatization of state-held enterprises.
Despite this impeccable role as a watchdog, the conference heard from participants that the reporting of public affairs does not generally incorporate the views of citizens. Participants described the media’s treatment of ordinary people as paternalistic, a treatment that massages rather than challenges them. Participants resolved to work on two civic journalism projects to change the way the media relates to citizens.
The first project, named Citizens’ Agenda, focused on the coverage and citizen participation in the election of the mayor of Buenos Aires and a convention to draft a city charter. The election was a major break from tradition in that the mayor had previously been appointed by the central government. As part of this project, Clarin and La Nación, the two main newspapers in Argentina, held public forums in which the people of Buenos Aires attempted to set a citizen’s agenda that they felt ought to drive the elections. The papers also organized meetings between candidates and the citizens in an attempt to have the candidates address the people’s concerns. As a result of these forums and subsequent coverage, the June 2000 mayoral elections are today regarded as the pioneer example of a civic journalism project in Argentina.
Argentina’s television station, Channel 13, also introduced a news program doing some pioneering work in public journalism as well. Known as Noticiero de Santo (Santo’s News Program), the program focused on helping people solve their daily problems by providing them with service-related programs.
According to Ruben Garcia, the show’s producer, the service was something that is not likely to be seen on any other media. The show is built around the high profile of Argentina’s top journalist, Santo Biasati. In his regular broadcasts of “Santo the citizen,” the journalist immerses himself in the daily routines of Argentinean citizens and reports his experiences live. Some of the most memorable episodes include Santo riding the subway in scorching summer heat and reporting on people’s complaints. Other shows have taken Santo to the neighborhoods of greater Buenos Aires to cover city life issues such as bumpy roads, speed ramps, street lights, and even safety. The best part of the show is the power that it wields over policy and decision makers, who quickly respond to issues raised in the show by solving them.
But the Argentinean initiative was by no means the first civic engagement project in Latin America. Colombia hosts an interesting project established by Ana Maria Miralles, a university researcher. As the coordinator of Voces Ciudadana Por la Seguridad y Convivencia, a public journalism project based in Medellín, Colombia, she has worked with newspapers, television stations, and NGOs to get proposals from citizens on ways to address issues of concern to citizens. One of their earliest projects involved addressing the issue of insecurity in Medelin. Maria, who has also written a book on public journalism, is currently engaged in experiments on innovative public journalism techniques to gather people’s opinion and ideas on issues through a toll-free number. Such opinion is accessible to the media participating in her project, and they can use it for story ideas.
In Costa Rica, the leading news radio station, Radio Reloj, launched a civic engagement daily program called Reloj, you and your community, which aims at involving the community more in the news and giving people information relevant to their community. This is a radical departure from the earlier techniques of gathering news in that it lets the readers and viewers set the agenda of the issues around which journalists set their stories. Some of the issues that they have covered so far—crime in neighborhoods, overcrowding, and corruption—are at the top of citizens concerns.
There are a few key points that one can take away from the forgoing discussion. International journalism is currently engaged in a search for suitable journalistic narratives that reflect the changed environment in which it now operates. The traditional watchdog narrative leaves out voices that now want to be heard. In countries with widening democratic spaces, there is an urgency to tap into those voices. There is no single model that can be replicated across boundaries. Instead, the emerging models are informed by the cultural, political, economic, and social conditions unique to that environment. Most civic engagement initiatives are conducted as individual projects within a given time frame. There is a need to move beyond project-based initiatives and mainstream civic engagement as part and parcel of international journalism narratives.