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Civic Journalism: How the Media Engages Citizens in Public Discourse

Originally appeared in Nation’s Cities Weekly, June 24, 1996.

In Charlotte, N.C., more than 1,000 citizens have responded to lists of critical needs in nine of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. The newspaper collected the lists from neighborhood residents as part of what became its award-series, “Talking Back Our Neighborhoods.”

In Binghamton, N.Y., about 300 citizens have begun grappling with the fallout from defense-industry downsizing by participating in 11 action teams that are focusing on recommendations. It’s all part of a print and broadcast media effort called “Facing Our Future.”

And in Wisconsin, dozens of citizens gathered last year to discuss urban
sprawl and farmland preservation in a live, primetime broadcast on land
use that ran on the CBS and public broadcast stations. To the surprise of
the media sponsors, the show was a runaway ratings winner. It was
watched by more viewers than any of the competing programs on Fox,
ABC and NBC.

“This shows that people really want to watch this stuff,” said Tom Still,
associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, one of the key partners in
“We the People/Wisconsin,” the nation’s longest running civic journalism

All these citizens – and journalists – have come face-to-face with news
coverage that is a little different in their local newspapers and on their
television and radio stations.

It may not be entirely new, but it does have some new names. Variously
called civic, public or community journalism, it has energized not only
called civic, public or community journalism, it has energized not only
citizens, but also editors and news directors who have been trying it in
dozens of communities across the country m the past few years.

Simply put, most civic journalism initiatives make a deliberate attempt to
reach out to citizens, to turn to them, and to have citizens listen and talk to
each other and to use that information in a way that it enables citizens to be
citizens – rather than consumers of a news “product.”

Sometimes this outreach and these listening exercises happen in large town
meetings, at other times in more intimate livingroom conversations;
sometimes at public debates, at other times in focus groups.

If attendance and response levels are any indicators, most citizens seem to
like being invited to take a more active role in their communities, to help
define just what the problems are, set an agenda, figure out solutions and
interact with the candidates who want to run their governments.

In Derry, N.H., for instance, 200 citizens battled a fierce February
snowstorm for the opportunity to attend a question and answer session with
three GOP presidential candidates before the primary. And none of the
front-runners even agreed to attend.

“When candidates did get together with the voters, the results were
illuminating,” said Don MacGilk, who coordinated the project for The
Boston Globe. “Typically the citizens would stay around, talking among
themselves and with the journalists, while the candidates were hustled off
to their next event. It showed us how starved, in a way, citizens are for this
kind of serious discussion about national problem, about having
discussions like this with people from different backgrounds, and how little
it occur, outside of events like the ones we were organizing.”

Last year, The Kansas City Star did a year-log series on 12 key values –
selected by a panel of 13 citizens after some vigorous debate – as important
to the raising of children. More than 3,000 people in the community
responded and have carried the discussions beyond the newspaper into
workshops on children’s issues and new designs for the school curriculum.

Similarly, in Sioux Falls, S.D., the Paper invited communities to nominate
themselves for a rural renewal initiative. More than 500 people nominated
56 communities; Tyndall was selected. About 1,200 residents attended the
first gathering.

“Throughout this, the towns-people alternatively worked together well and
fought like crazy. And it is those conversations that mark the biggest
success of this project,” said Peter Ellis, managing editor of The Argus
Leader, which conceived the project. “We got people communicating and
cooperating. Talk is the cornerstone of democracy.”

By the end of the year, the community had created a Tyndall Ambassadors
Program, to bring their ideas and help to other communities.

By now, enough civic journalism efforts have been printed and broadcast
to demonstrate that they are good journalism – as well as good catalyst to
civic discourse.

It would be hard to top the kind of neighborhood reporting the Charlotte
Observer has undertaken in its multiple award winning “Taking Back Our
Neighborhoods” project. It has led the city to raze community eyesores, a
bank to donate $50,000 to build a community center, local lawyers to
volunteer their services to sue to close crack houses and, most importantly
to citizens taking charge of their own communities.

And the “We the People” media partnership, based in Madison, Wis., has
found that its approach to tackling such normally dry issues as the such
budget, the race for state Supreme Court, and the University of Wisconsin
budget crunch is finding disciples at newspapers and broadcast stations
throughout the state.

Each year sees more and more civic journalism projects launched. This
year, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism helped fund 17 of them. The
Center is sort of a venture Capital fund for risky journalism experiments
around the country — experiments that seek to re-engage citizens in their
communities while still maintaining the highest values of good journalism.

Civic journalism is nourished by a concern among top editors that
something is W in their relationship with their readers and viewers. Indeed,
circulation and viewership numbers are ratifying those concerns. And some
journalists are asking whether the media might be one part of the problem.

Civic journalists seek to cover issues not so cynically that readers and
listeners give up hope for any solutions, but to cover areas of agreement as
well as disagreement. And it means finding other people to quote who
have a sense of the possibilities.

As Charlotte Observer editor Jennie Buckner has said: “All too often, we
print stories that move our readers to call us and say: `What can we do?’.
And our response is: `It’s not our problem’.”

Civic journalism tries to help citizens answer that question better.

Jan Schaffer, former business editor and Pulitzer Prize winner for The
Philadelphia Inquirer, is deputy director of the Pew Center for Civic
Journalism. The three-year-old center is a key part of the Pew Charitable
Trusts’ growing initiative to stimulate citizen involvement in community
issues, entitled “Renewing Our Democratic Heart.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 National League of Cities

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