Civic Journalism: Does It Work?

A Special Report for the Pew Center for Civic Journalism on the "We the People" project, Madison, Wis.

By Frank Denton and Esther Thorson



The Wisconsin State Journal
Wisconsin Public Television
Wisconsin Public Radio
Wood Communications Group


When a bare majority of citizens bothers to vote for president, when turnout can drop into the teens in local elections, when people do not know the names of their representatives in Congress, when they blame property taxes on Congress and foreign policy on the state legislature, one might worry about the future of the American democracy.

The image that easily comes to mind is the apathetic, uninformed citizen, personally secure enough, with no economic depression to survive or foreign war to fight, just fat and happy, isolated and insulated, connected to the outside world largely through Roseanne  and Beverly Hills 90210. 

Then there is, perhaps, a more optimistic image: Citizens who are more alienated than apathetic, citizens who do  care about public affairs and want to be involved but seldom participate because they feel impotent against larger forces in the public arena. Such citizens may feel that one voice or one vote will not matter in the face of powerful organizations, particularly big-money PACs, lobbyists, political slicks and the news media.

In national focus-group research for the Kettering Foundation, the Harwood Group found that such citizens want to make a personal difference. Therefore, they are more likely to get involved only at the very local level, in neighborhood organizations or the school board, where they can make a difference. [1]

What can encourage these people to take part in their own system of governance, a democracy that depends on the participation, as well as the consent, of the governed?

One connection may be through journalism. In a civic journalism experiment in the 1994 fall elections, "We the People," a three-year-old project in Madison, Wis., combined the efforts of four news media to use innovative, as well as traditional, techniques to draw people into the public sphere.

As editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, one of the media partners, I helped design the project, then worked with Dr. Esther Thorson, associate dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, on formal research to measure its impact on readers.

The experiment is believed to be the first to try to evaluate whether a multimedia civic journalism effort could make a difference in citizen involvement in the public sphere.

We surveyed the electorate to measure public awareness of and involvement in "We the People" and, more important, the political campaigns and the election. The results were quite encouraging. Respondents said the project:

  • Made them more interested in and knowledgeable about the 1994 elections.
  • Encouraged them to vote.
  • Gave them useful tools to assess the deluge of campaign information.
  • Made them feel more positive toward participating news organizations.

The research findings encourage optimism, not only about public participation, but also about a new role for news media, especially newspapers, in connecting the public and the democracy.

The heart of American journalism, and the source of its First Amendment protection, is its role in democratic processes, particularly in politics, campaigns and elections. The dominant social-responsibility theory of the press holds that news media enjoy freedom and some privilege in the United States so that they can carry out essential functions in our society. Preeminent among those is facilitating the political system by providing information, ideas and discussion about issues and candidates for public office. [2]

Since that theory took root early in this century, newspapers - and, later and to a lesser extent, the electronic news media - have based their coverage of government and politics on one major assumption: That typical citizens are eager, or at least willing, to learn about candidates and issues so that they can become involved and vote. Journalists have been taught, and have believed, that the right amount of information, presented fairly and interestingly, is the catalyst of the democratic process.

However, despite the fact that today's public-affairs journalism is arguably better than ever in quality and quantity, public participation is the weakest in modern times. Those who actually turn out, often a minority of the electorate, come across as so fickle from election to election that public officials seem to spend more time testing the winds of current interests than they do navigating our course.

Most people pay close attention to politics and government only during times of crisis or when government actions directly and personally affect them. For example, only a slight majority in one survey (average 56 percent) can identify any congressional candidate in their districts during campaigns, according to communications researcher W. Russell Neuman. [3] The ordinary American is not actively monitoring and analyzing issues, attending meetings, helping candidates or otherwise participating in public affairs.

"A more realistic model of the typical citizen acknowledges that most political learning is fragmentary, haphazard and incidental. The citizen does not 'study' the candidates but rather picks up bits and pieces of information over time, gradually accumulating a composite picture of the prominent issues and candidates. This is a process of low-salience learning. The key distinction is between information seeking and information acceptance," Neuman wrote. [4]

For their part, the news media do not seem to be engaging their audiences in public affairs. Many academic studies find that the news media do not have significant impact on their audience. And those studies that do find impact, find only subtle effects. [5] Neuman says the power of the media has been "exaggerated," not only because of the uninterested public but also because of competition from entertainment media and inherent constraints and limitations of the media to inform and persuade. He particularly points to the shallowness of much journalism, for example, the focus on horse-race campaign coverage. [6]


A New Philosophy of the Press

Out of this gridlock among alienated or apathetic non-voters, unresponsive or manipulative politicians, and ineffectual media has come a new philosophy of the press. This theory, called civic or public journalism, holds that delivering the news to the doorstep may not be enough, that journalism organizations need to develop innovative ways of drawing a reluctant citizenry into their public affairs.

As defined by Jay Rosen, a leading theorist: "Public journalism is not a settled doctrine or a strict code of conduct but an unfolding philosophy about the place of the journalist in public life. This philosophy has emerged most clearly in recent initiatives in the newspaper world that show journalists trying to connect with their communities in a different way, often by encouraging civic participation or regrounding the coverage of politics in the imperatives of public discussion and debate." [7]

In effect, civic journalism's efforts to motivate people to get involved in civic life are in addition to such traditional press responsibilities as ongoing coverage of issues and watchdogging public officials. The philosophy, as applied, would have a news organization purposefully use its resources and activities to educate and interest people in the public sphere.

Civic journalism ideas are being applied in projects across the nation, from Tallahassee to Seattle, from Wichita to Norfolk. While the journalists involved point to anecdotal indications of some success, there has been virtually no quantitative measurement of the results of these efforts. Do they really work? Since civic journalism has become somewhat controversial for its media activism in facilitating public involvement, editors are questioning whether the complicated projects justify the time, work and criticism.


Testing Civic Journalism

This field experiment, supported by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, was designed to measure directly the impact of a multimedia civic journalism project in Madison, the capital of Wisconsin. Since early 1992, the media partnership called "We the People/Wisconsin" has been sponsoring town-hall meetings and candidate and issue debates across the state, on topics ranging from health-care reform and the federal budget deficit to statewide issues and elections. The original participants were the Wisconsin State Journal,  the morning and Sunday newspaper in Madison; Wisconsin Public Television; Wisconsin Public Radio; and Wood Communications Group, a Madison political and public-relations consulting firm. Later, WISC-TV, the local CBS affiliate dominant in the market, joined.

In the fall of 1994, the partners agreed to concentrate their civic journalism efforts on two statewide elections, for governor and for U.S. senator. In addition to their traditional campaign coverage, the editors and news directors agreed to coordinate treatment of the campaigns, in part because both campaigns were lackluster, with the incumbents (Gov. Tommy Thompson and U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl) heavily favored to win, as they ultimately did. The "We the People" partners cooperated fully with the experiment.

We planned the civic journalism campaign, taking into account several notions of why journalism has failed to engage citizens in public affairs.

We considered the theory that the news media lacked "purposefulness," that is, very diverse content is selected and presented serendipitously in response to a perceived public interest in general news about the world. [8] News itself is fragmentary, incomplete and episodic, [9] making it difficult for even a regular reader to keep up and comprehend.

In their book on the ineffectiveness of TV news, John P. Robinson and Mark R. Levy give some blame to "the way news media tell the story, particularly when so few news stories take into account the public's limited skills and interests in processing news content." [10] While some people, notably those with low cognitive skills, may learn better from television and magazines, the structure and style of newspapers make it more difficult for average people to learn about political issues, Neuman and others say. [11]

News could be truly comprehensible, researchers have pointed out, but it would require an idealized citizen to view it over time and across media, an impossibility in real life. [12]


How the News Media Might Work

In the Madison experiment, the journalists and researchers sought to use several civic journalism techniques, such as town-hall meetings and interactive exercises, to make the news more comprehensible to ordinary people and to show them how public affairs affect them and how they can have an impact. We decided to concentrate the project over a short period of time in deference to the voter's attention span and to coordinate the coverage among the media partners.

Overall, people seem to remember very little directly from the news media, particularly specific information from news stories. Television-news viewers cannot recall much of newscasts they have previously seen. [13] Controlling for other factors, particularly education, the same seems to be true of the print media. Neuman cites an "inverse law." Generally, "the higher the level of abstract, issue-oriented, political content, the smaller the audience it is likely to attract." [14]

On the other hand, people are  receptive to information that helps them gain personal power in dealing with public issues. Some media researchers have found that people were particularly enthusiastic about media content that told them what they could do about something. [15]

This is consistent with the findings of Harwood's focus-group research, which concluded that citizens are not so much apathetic as they are alienated because they feel personally powerless in politics and public affairs. That study concluded that Americans have a "reservoir of civic duty" and want to be involved, and it called for somehow reconnecting people and politics. [16]

A central goal of civic journalism is to invite people to address issues and candidates in a powerful, focused way that shows how ordinary individuals can make a difference.

So the researchers wanted to find out whether a deliberate media campaign could interest people in the elections, cause them to learn more about the candidates and the issues and, of course, inspire them to get involved, particularly to vote.

Because the project sought to provide people with news and information especially designed to help them understand and participate in the political process, the researchers wanted to know whether people would, if they did become better informed and more involved, be able to talk about that experience. What people think they "know" about their own "knowledge" can often predict how much they actually know. So the respondents were asked whether they believed they had enough information to make an informed voting choice and whether they believed news stories of various types were "easy to understand" or "difficult to understand."

Civic journalism is rooted in journalists' concerns about disconnections, not only between citizens and their government but also between people and their news media. So it must be said that civic journalism is self-interested in that it seeks to make the participating media more valuable to consumers by connecting them to their community.

One goal of this research was to measure whether the project increased the public image of the media sponsors as contributing to the democratic process.

To be fair, the researchers also speculated that a civic journalism campaign that sought to teach people about political tricks and campaign tactics might have a backlash and trigger cynicism and cause them to distrust everything about politics. Thus, the research included questions to measure their cynicism toward the political process.


The Madison Project

The project had two parallel tracks:

Continuing an effort that had begun in the 1992 presidential primaries, the partners sought to involve ordinary citizens in identifying and discussing issues and questioning the candidates at debates. In the gubernatorial campaign, the project organized well-attended town-hall meetings in three cities around the state. These were followed by a debate with questions from the town-hall participants. The Friday night debate was simulcast live on public TV and public radio; a listener call-in discussion program on public radio followed. In addition, the debate was taped; public TV broadcast the tape twice the following Sunday, and the CBS station broadcast it once that day. The newspaper made the debate the centerpiece of its Saturday front page. Later, transcripts were made available through the newspaper, and approximately 200 were requested.

Especially with such intense exposure, the debate generated substantial news coverage and interest in the community because a citizen wearing an American-flag shirt successfully demanded from the candidates specific commitments to deliver their plans on the locally important issue of property-tax reform.

The Senate discussion was less elaborate. One town-hall meeting was held just before a scheduled debate. Sen. Kohl, the incumbent, declined to take part, so the town-hall participants questioned his challenger on live, statewide public television. The rest of the hour-long program was devoted to discussion of media coverage and campaign practices, with experts answering questions from the citizens in the studio and from statewide call-ins. This program also was taped and rebroadcast on public and commercial TV. It drew some news coverage, although less than the gubernatorial campaign.

To address the issue of voter alienation, the project sought to provide readers, viewers and listeners with specific information about political tactics to help them feel some sense of control over the swirl of campaign activities.

The Wisconsin State Journal  researched and prominently presented a series, called "Armed and Dangerous," that sought to educate readers about how candidates and their strategists try to manipulate debates and how political advertisements are used to create attitudes and beliefs. One part of the series pointed out that many candidates promise to solve problems beyond the powers of the office and taught readers exactly "what politicians can and can't do for you." The last part, published the Sunday before the Tuesday election, explained the reasons for and implications of negative campaigning and helped readers cut through it. The packages featured a "voter's bill of rights" so citizens could understand what they deserve from candidates and campaigns. The advice parts of the series were reprinted in later editions of the newspaper, mostly on the editorial page.

Because this sort of detailed information and help is more suited to print than electronic media, the radio and TV partners were less involved here. However, some of the "Armed and Dangerous" information was worked into their programs: On the Friday night before the election, statewide public TV had a segment on negative campaigning, and the Sunday newspaper package promoted two related programs that day on WISC, the commercial TV station. Statewide public radio devoted a popular call-in program to the subject.

Just before the election, the civic journalism project compiled much of the newspaper's campaign coverage and "Armed and Dangerous" material into a booklet named "Voter's Self Defense Manual." Approximately 300 copies were made available to the public and quickly claimed. The idea came from a book in progress, Campaign Watchdog: A Citizens Self-Defense Manual,  by Esther Thorson and others.

Throughout all these experimental efforts, the name and logo of the civic journalism project were used repeatedly and prominently in all the media.

An important part of this research is the fact that citizens' knowledge and attitudes about issues, players and the process were measured both before and after the campaign. In September, before any of the "We the People" activities began, interviewers used random-digit dialing to select and interview 230 adult residents of Dane County, which includes Madison. The day after the election, the interviewers again contacted 141 of the original group and asked them the same questions and more. In addition, the post-election questionnaire was administered to a separate random sample of 516 people.

The questionnaire measured the respondents' knowledge of the candidates, issues and campaign activities; their voting behavior and choices; their media use; familiarity with, reaction to and attitude toward the civic journalism project; respondents' sources of political information; attitudes toward the campaigns; and self-perceptions of political effectiveness and cynicism.


What We Found

Public awareness was high. "We the People" had been active and visible in the community for more than two years, so it was not surprising that public awareness would be high. In fact, most people had heard of the program, 54 percent of males and 49 percent of females. The highest awareness, 60 percent, was among middle-income people ($30,000-$50,000). Whites were more familiar with the project (52 percent) than minorities (39 percent for all minorities, 46 percent for blacks), though there were few minorities in the sample because the county is largely homogenous. Among higher educated respondents, 55 percent were aware, compared to 38 percent of those whose education did not go beyond high school. People who voted and who watched public TV or read the newspaper were more likely to have heard of "We the People."

All the media partners caught the public's attention. The people interviewed were asked how they heard about "We the People," and those crediting each news medium increased after the fall campaign. Of those who knew about the project, the largest group, 51 percent before the campaign, said they learned about it from the State Journal;  that increased to 56 percent after the campaign. This indicates that, even though awareness through the newspaper already was high, it increased through the experimental campaign. Those who credited WISC-TV were 37 percent before the campaign and 49 percent afterward. Public TV was cited by 34 percent before and 50 percent after, and public radio's 24 percent increased to 30 percent after the election.

(The numbers total more than 100 percent because respondents were allowed to cite all the sources in which they remembered learning about "We the People." These numbers should be tempered by the fact that roughly 20 percent credited another, non-participating newspaper or a non-participating TV station, indicating confusion or invention.)

Interest in public affairs was increased. "We the People" succeeded in drawing people into the political process. Asked whether the program "encouraged your interest in politics," 26 percent of those aware of the project answered yes before the campaign, indicating general success of the three-year-old program. That increased to 32 percent after the town-hall meetings, debates, "Armed and Dangerous" stories and other parts of the experimental project.

People felt more knowledgeable. Those surveyed also were asked whether the project "informed you about what issues are important to Wisconsinites." Before the election, 51 percent said yes; the number grew to 55 percent afterward.

After controlling for education, the likelihood to vote and where people get their news, people who were aware of the project said they were more likely to feel they knew enough to decide between the candidates in both elections. The researchers asked the same people before and after the campaign whether they felt they "can meaningfully participate in the political process," and their responses were significantly more positive afterward.

And people were more knowledgeable. To see whether the "Armed and Dangerous" series really succeeded in arming citizens to participate meaningfully in the political process, the researchers asked six specific questions to test whether people read and remembered the series. For instance, we asked whether :

  • "We the People" project made available a free voters' self-defense manual to anyone who asked for it."

  • "People learn the most from debates in which real citizens ask questions."

  • "One thing a U.S. senator cannot do is lower your property taxes."

A statistical technique called hierarchical regression analysis, applied by University of Missouri researcher James Coyle, showed that people who have higher incomes and those who vote were most likely to know the correct answers to those questions. That was to be expected. But when those factors of income and political involvement were statistically controlled, the researchers found that those people who were aware of "We the People" were significantly more likely to know the correct answers.

People felt encouraged to vote. Before the election, 19 percent said "We the People" encouraged them to vote - a striking number to anyone who has tried to motivate people to actually get to the ballot box. Interestingly, that number fell to 11 percent after the campaign, perhaps indicating disillusionment with either the specific candidates or with the campaign tactics revealed in the media coverage. However, four questions designed to assess political cynicism showed no measurable increase related to "We the People."

The media also benefitted. Journalists concerned about the acceptance, credibility and future of their media may see a ray of hope in the answers to this question: "Has hearing about the "We the People" program . . . made you feel more positive toward the organizations that are sponsoring "We the People?" Before the election, 29 percent responded positively. That increased to 42 percent after the initiative, indicating that such civic journalism efforts may be one way that newspapers can build a new relationship with readers and potential readers.


What the Results Mean

This research is believed to be the first real measurement of whether a planned, coordinated, multimedia civic journalism effort can interest citizens and draw them into the public sphere. The results are very encouraging to those who want to improve the democratic processes and to those who believe the news media can take a more active role in facilitating those processes. These findings indicate that people recognize this contribution to their democracy and appreciate it.

After three years of work by the participating media, "We the People" is widely known in its area of Wisconsin. Most important, the people who know about the project say that, as a result, they were more interested in and knowledgeable about the 1994 elections - and more encouraged to vote.

In addition, the project succeeded in providing some citizens with specific information and tools to become more "armed and dangerous" in dealing with political campaigns. Since Americans tend to feel powerless in the face of big institutions, it is encouraging to learn that people in Dane County felt more knowledgeable and involved. While the causes for all the results cannot be proven, it may well have been "We the People" that led the same respondents to feel more optimistic after the campaign that they could "meaningfully participate in the political process."

Furthermore, the civic journalism effort to uncover how political campaigns try to manipulate candidates' appearances and messages for maximum impact on voters did not appear to feed cynicism.

These results should inspire news organizations across the country to experiment more with civic journalism in diverse forms, using their considerable resources to motivate a reluctant citizenry to become involved in a sclerotic polity.

There are many more questions to be answered: Can these journalism techniques truly involve people in their public affairs, or is it just novelty? Is civic journalism powerful enough to overcome the growing trivialization and manipulativeness of campaigning and politics? Can this empowerment of the electorate make public officials more responsive? Does civic journalism affect the credibility of the news media positively or negatively? Is it a key to rebuilding Americans' reliance on written journalism?

For now, there is good reason for hope.



1. Harwood Group (1991). Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street. A report for the Kettering Foundation, Dayton, Ohio.

2. Siebert, Fred S., Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm (1963). Four Theories of the Press.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

3. Neuman, W. Russell (1986). The Paradox of Mass Politics: Knowledge and Opinion in the American Electorate.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Page 8-29.

4. Ibid.,  page 148.

5. McGuire, W.J. (1986). The Myth of Massive Media Impact: Savagings and Salvagings. In W. Comstock (ed.), Public Communication and Behavior,  Vol.1. New York: Academic Press.

6. Neuman, The Paradox of Mass Politics,  pages 136 and 156.

7. Rosen, Jay (1994). Public Journalism: First Principles. In Jay Rosen and Davis Merritt Jr., "Public Journalism: Theory and Practice." Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation.

8. McQuail, Denis (1987). Mass Communication Theory.  Second edition. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, page 292.

9. Carey, James (1986). The Dark Continent of American Journalism. In R.K. Manoff and Michael Schudson (eds.), Reading the News.  New York: Pantheon.

10. Robinson, John P., and Mark R. Levy (1986). The Main Source: Learning from Television News.   Beverly Hills: Sage, page 15.

11. Neuman, W.Russell, Marion R. Just and Ann N. Crigler (1992). Common Knowledge: News and the Construction of Political Meaning.   Chicago: University of Chicago Press, page 106.

12. Kosicki, Gerald M., and Jack M. McLeod (1990). Learning from Political News: Effects of Media Images and Information-Processing Strategies. In Sidney Kraus (ed.), Mass Communication and Political Information Processing.  Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, page 72.

13. Neuman, W. Russell (1976). Patterns of Recall Among Television News Viewers. Public Opinion Quarterly,   40,1,115-123. Robinson and Levy, pages 87-105.

14. Neuman, The Paradox of Mass Politics,  page 137.

15. Neuman, Just and Crigler, p.111.

16. Harwood Group.

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