Civic Catalyst Newsletter
Teaching Civic Journalism
All the chairs in
the hotel meeting room were taken long before Professors Jay
Rosen and Jim Carey, editors Buzz Merritt and Rem Reider, and
reporter Colette Jenkins moved toward their seats for the
panel on civic journalism.
educators continued streaming in, a couple of people trudged
steadily back and forth to other meeting rooms, stealing
empty chairs to add row after row to the back of the growing
By the time the
discussion began, people were packed in, wall to wall, and a
cluster of faces peered in from the doorway.
It was the second
day of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication's 1995 convention in Washington, D.C., and one
thing was clear: Many people who teach journalism at America's
universities and colleges wanted to know more about civic
Back then, the
few who covered the subject in class usually just added
articles about civic journalism to their reading lists, or
had students study examples of news organizations' pioneering
publication of Art Charity's book "Doing Public
Journalism" and Buzz Merritt's "Public Journalism
and Public Life" in 1995, and Jay Rosen's "Getting
the Connections Right" in 1996, professors had texts to
materials were used in upper-level courses such as advanced
reporting or media management.
however, many more professors are covering the subject, in
courses ranging from basic news writing to audience research.
They're also exploring a much broader range of teaching
Here is just a
H Dave Boeyink at
Indiana University had his students discuss five ways of
thinking about journalists' relationship to their community:
as entertainers, objective conduits, watchdogs, advocates, or
civic journalists. The class was then divided into teams, and
each team developed a news coverage plan that fit one of
those philosophies, as a way of exploring how coverage is
influenced by each of those roles.
"The aim of
the exercise is not to demonstrate the superiority of civic
journalism. Rather, it is to let people see how critical the
relationship of media and society is to the development of
news coverage," Boeyink says. "In that context,
they get to see for themselves the values--and the
problems--of civic journalism."
H Jill Swenson at
Ithaca College had students in her "Issues and the
News" class actively explore what happens when
journalists "cross the line" between observation
and involvement. Each student was required to choose an issue
that he would monitor and report on throughout the semester.
They were also required to get personally involved in making
a difference with respect to that issue.
A student who
chose to cover hunger, for instance, did a radio documentary
about food stamp program reductions and ran a canned food
drive. Her interaction with people who benefited from the
food drive gave her both sources who trusted her because they
felt she cared as well as insights into food stamp
recipients' ideas for welfare reform. "The calls for
reform by those inside the system have been completely missed
by the public," Swenson says.
wrote reflective essays about the consequences of crossing
the line. These essays showed that getting involved had
definite advantages--including redeeming journalism in the
eyes of their sources--and posed challenges that required
students to do lots of "internal grappling,"
Swenson says. "When you get close to those sources, it's
not as clean and neat."
found a line that lies beyond the one they crossed--the
dividing line of motivation. "With business and
government elites, the motivation for reporters crossing the
line is to either help the source or to help
themselves," Swenson said. "With the line-crossing
that occurs in public journalism, the motivation is to help
the public, and there is an enormous difference. The same
kinds of conflicts just did not arise."
H Jackie Farnan's
students at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., did
an extensive public listening project--including interviews,
a forum and an e-mail exchange--in their first foray into
civic journalism. The goal was to identify issues important
to the student body.
challenge was for each student to explore new ways of
interviewing five other students. "They felt that they
should steer or shape the interview, and that meant asking
focused and direct questions," Farnan says. "I
said, 'Just back off a little bit. We are engaged in a
different enterprise--let go of control and understand that
listening is different than traditional interviewing.
"For a while
they were at sea, and things seemed very nebulous and
unconnected until we got enough information that they could
see a pattern." The pattern was that some seemingly
unrelated campus concerns--diversity, racism, vandalism, and
the professionalism of campus security officers--were all
part of what students saw as a larger issue: the erosion of
mutual respect on campus. The students then wrote a cluster
of stories about those concerns, tying each to the respect
professors--including Barbara Zang at the University of
Missouri, Mike Killenberg at the University of South Florida
and Sharon Hartin Iorio at Wichita State University--have
sent students out into the surrounding community to talk to
For years, Zang
has had basic news writing students do "beat
reports" in her beginning news writing course, then
develop the material they gather into in-depth, issue-based
feature stories. Before the recent presidential election,
Killenberg had students interview citizens about whom they
planned to vote for and what issues were important to them.
Graduate student Eric Eyre then wrote an in-depth story for
the St. Petersburg Times about their findings.
Sharon Hartin Iorio had her students do in-depth interviews
with citizens about election-related concerns this fall as
part of a research course about the emerging field of
interactive audience studies.
is one of those professors who sends students out into the
community to talk to citizens. In the past, she has had
students read the local daily newspaper throughout the term
and write a final paper comparing the
"conversation" in the paper with the
"conversation" in the community. Earlham College is
in Richmond, Ind.
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