Paper prepared for presentation at the 1998 Annual Meeting of the
England Political Science Association, May 1-2, Worcester, MA
The media generally are recognized as major
environmental factors impacting "the fundamental ideas that people have
about what the world of politics is really like" (Ranney 1983, 6). That
media exercise this influence is not surprising in that "the combination of
television, newspapers, radio, and magazines represent an extraordinary
capacity to inform the public rapidly and in considerable depth about major
political news" (Flannigan & Zingale 1994, 150-51). Since few individuals
regularly experience government or politics first-hand, this capacity to
inform also is the power to shape and define the political reality
individuals come to know. This mediated political reality heavily
influences what individuals both believe they ought to know, think, and
discuss about public affairs and how they are to act and participate in
public life (Bowers 1993).
Whenever the media report on public and
political matters, they engage in a civic function important to the
maintenance of a democratic and representative political system. However,
the manner in which contemporary media carry out this civic function
increasingly raises concerns. Yankelovich (1991, 29) writes that the news
reported on by the media "is a highly refracted version of reality. The
press magnifies certain aspects of politics and down plays others, which
are often more central to the issue of governing." This selective
magnification is clearly evident in journalistic coverage of election
campaigns. In presenting this coverage to the public, reporters are
inclined to focus on candidate credibility rather than on any serious
comparison of the programmatic or philosophical differences between
opposing candidates. In the process of doing so, critics maintain that
journalists encourage the erosion of public life by sending "wrong
messages" out into the greater community (Patterson 1993, 18). Critics
argue that the result of these practices is that the projected political
reality discourages citizen participation in public life. Participation in
the mediate political world is replaced "by a kind of endless
spectatorship" (Woodward 1997, 7) and a general disdain for government and
Among professional journalists, there is a growing
appreciation both of this criticism and that "the great majority of what
Americans know and hate about politics, they get through journalists"
Jr. 1994, 21). In accepting this "fact", professional journalists also
owning up to their "own responsibility to democracy" and the
maintenance of public life (Greider 1992, 304). Within the reporting
media, this responsibility has manifest itself in the civic or
The remainder of the article examines the
potential impact civic journalism has for fostering greater citizen
participation in public life. It does so by first presenting a brief
overview of what civic journalism is. Second, a case study of civic
journalism in Rochester, New York, is presented. The case study first
details a short history of the civic journalism projects by a three-way
media partnership consisting of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
daily newspaper), WXXI (Rochester's public television
and radio outlet), and WOKR-TV (Rochester's number one commercial
television station). It then describes and assesses the impact of their
civic journalism project to stimulate voter awareness of and participation
in the 1997 statewide constitutional convention ballot referendum.
Defining Civic Journalism
Civic journalism rests on a proposition that public
life and journalism are "codependent." As David Merritt (1995a, 4-5), one
of the principal founders of civic journalism, notes: "Public life needs
the information and perspective that journalism can provide, and journalism
needs a viable public life, because without [the latter] there is no need
for journalism." Given Merritt's assessment, it is not an overstatement to
suggest that civic journalism advocates assign the very survival and
continued relevance of news institutions to involved citizens participating
in public life who are in need of information drawn from the political and
public affairs reporting of news organizations (Friedland 1996). Without
this involvement and "if people are not attentive to public life, if they .
. . retreat into only private concerns, they will have no need for
journalism" (Merritt 1995a, 6).
The media's recognition
and advancement of this codependence between public life and journalism is
the foundation upon which civic journalism is built. Advocates of civic
journalism assert that media have a responsibility to reaffirm citizen
participation in public life and to strengthen their community's civic
culture. By the latter term, these advocates mean "the forces that bind
people to their community, draw them into politics and public affairs, and
cause them to see 'the system' as theirs . . . rather than [as] the
playground of insiders or political professionals" (Rosen and Merritt 1994,
4). Civic journalism proponents proclaim that media can advance public life
and affirm a community's civic culture by providing individuals meaningful
information that is both relevant to their lives and fosters the ability
and opportunity to participate meaningfully in public affairs (Merritt
1995a, 5; Charity 1995, 2). Thus, civic journalism can be seen as
advancing a symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationship between the
public and journalism where the current focus on just reporting the news is
transformed to one where news organizations strive to facilitate people
thinking about solutions to public problems (Hoyt 1995, 2) and about
themselves as "citizens capable of action" (Merritt 1995b, 11).
above description underscores, civic journalism is principally a public
spirited orientation toward news reporting and community. Despite this
general view, there is no real consensus regarding the precise and specific
practices that make-up civic journalism (Corrigan 1997a). However, there
is some shared agreement regarding how news reporting of political and
public affairsgenerally needs to be adjusted for civic journalism to
flourish and public life to be
Perhaps most crucial to
this adjustment is the call for journalists to become "fair-minded
participants" in public life rather than detached observers (Merritt 1995a,
6). To accomplish this, civic journalism advocates assert that journalists
need to lose their long ingrained value of objectivity and neutrality on
questions pertaining to: the value of citizen participation in public
affairs; the importance of genuine debate taking place between candidates
and on public problems; and actions that enable a community to effective
address its problem. For civic journalists, taking positions on these
matters and acting to bring them about merely is distinguishing
"doing journalism and doing politics. Toward specific proposals,
particular candidates, the political agenda of this party or that interest
group, the journalist's traditional pledge of neutrality remains intact"
(Rosen 1994, 11). Thus civic journalism would be active only when public
life and public discussion "need to be stimulated or improved."
Journalists would remain neutral "(but not
indifferent) when the process of
decision making is underway, when the community gets down to making
specific choices" (Rosen 1994, 14).
The "advocacy" orientation of
civic journalism appears to place it at odds with the conventional
perspective on what is news. Conventional journalism practices emphasize
"conflict, prominence and novelty as among the important criteria for
determining what makes news. [Civic] journalism castigates these
traditional attributes of news" (Corrigan 1997b). In their place, civic
journalism favors newsrooms focusing on "stories of civic engagement,
problem-solving, and [community] renewal" (Friedland 1996).
journalism not only challenges conventional thinking about what news is, it
also challenges the "angle" from which news stories ought to come. Civic
journalism rejects the notion that the media are "the 'voice of the people'
asking the questions that the common man needs to have answered" (Walker
1997, 39). Instead, civic journalism advocates maintain that journalists
need to ground their reporting "in the concerns of ordinary people"
(Charity 1995, 16) by "listening [directly] to the community" (Walker 1997,
44). Through such techniques as focus and discussion groups, community
forums, and open-ended questionnaires, journalists can learn to rely less
on local leaders and political experts and more on "ordinary citizens" to
set the public agenda on what and how they report the news (Corrigan
In effect, civic journalism substitutes "public listening"
for elite listening for the purpose of ascertaining how public affairs
reporting ought to unfold. For example, when covering an election or
political campaign, rather than focusing on the "maneuvers of candidates or
the machination of insiders" (Rosen 1994,9) civic journalists, relying on
public listening techniques would try and discover what matters to
potential voters in order to find out what the election or campaign is
really about. Their election coverage would then center on voter identified
concerns rather the "latest political dogfight" (Thames 1995,
Ultimately, proponents of civic journalism sing its praises out
of a recognition that "the local news media touch almost every part of the
local community every day" of the year. Thus the local media become the
means through which most members of a community come to know those parts of
it with which they do not regularly interact (Friedland 1996). Since the
community rarely comes together as a whole, a surrogate is needed to
advance public life. Advocates of civic journalism maintain that the media
can be that surrogate, thus becoming the "civic space"
through which the
community can have a conversation with itself" (Corrigan 1997b).
A Case Study From Rochester, NY
The Beginning of Civic Journalism.
Civic journalism became incorporated into the political and public affairs
reporting of the Democrat and Chronicle, WXXI, and WOKR-TV in much
the same way as it had begun elsewhere. It began as, and continues to be,
a series of individual projects affecting political coverage. A wholesale
reorientation of how the three partners conduct their routine newsroom
business has not taken place. For example, at the D&C, in addition to
traditional style coverage of candidate actions and campaign strategies,
the paper has instituted a new commitment emphasizing issue coverage in its
public affairs reporting. During each election cycle, the D&C now examines
four or five community problems in depth. The paper then polls candidates
on three or four questions regarding each issue.
The initial civic
journalism-styled collaboration was undertaken among two of the three
media partners during the 1993 Rochester Democratic mayoral primary.
During that primary election, the Democrat and Chronicle joined with
Rochester public radio and television station WXXI to carry out four nights
of debates among the six Democratic candidates. Citizen-asked questions
were an important component of these debates. Citizens were invited to
query the candidates along with questions from reporters and the candidates
themselves. Those representatives from WXXI and the D&C organizing the
debates strongly believed that reporters would ask the standard "gotcha
questions" and that the candidates would launch negative attacks on one
another. Citizen-asked questions would be the "wild card" in the debate
lessen the candidates's opportunity for giving predictable and scripted
answers to all questions.
Residents throughout the city and the greater
Rochester metropolitan area widely watched, listened to, and read about
these debates. The debates seem to have had a dramatic effect on how the
voting public perceived the competing candidates. Going into the debates,
candidate and Rochester Urban League president William A. Johnson, Jr. was
a long shot candidate with only an 11 percent standing in the opinion
polls. But during the debates, he was able to sufficiently distinguish
himself from the other five candidates and present himself as a clear
alternative to the two front runners. His debate performance, public
response to it, and editorial endorsements from what was then Rochester's
two daily newspapers (both owned by Gannett) and one weekly
paper culminated in a first place primary finish.
After their initial
success of using citizen participation in the four nights of mayoral
debates, both WXXI and the Democrat and Chronicle began to expand
their use of voters to inform the kinds of questions asked of candidates.
In the 1995 election for Monroe County Executive, the two media partners
extensively used voters to help ask candidates questions in debate settings
rather than the more traditional reporter-candidate format. They expanded
this approach for their 1996 election coverage, creating what became known
as the "Voice of the Voter" campaign. WXXI and the D&C relied upon "Voice
of the Voter" participants for both citizen critiques of the Republican and
Democratic National Conventions and campaign commercials. "Voice of the
Voter" participants also queried local reporters covering the Republican
and Democratic national conventions in San Diego and Chicago and Rochester
area candidates campaigning for federal and state offices.
1995, the Democrat and Chronicle and WXXI extended their venture
into civic journalism beyond campaign coverage. In that year, the Pew
Center for Civic Journalism awarded them a $35,000 grant for a
collaborative series on the condition of education in Rochester.
series, called "Grading Our Schools," was an effort by the two partners
to gauge community satisfaction with public education in Monroe County.
Their interest in this area stemmed from a series of nationally acclaimed
educational reforms designed to raise student standardized test scores that
had been initiated by the Rochester City School District in 1987. A
significant component of these reforms were substantial salary increases
for Rochester teachers. These increases intended to attract the "best and
brightest" teachers to the city school district. Salary increases in the
city precipitated similar increases in the surrounding towns and suburbs.
With almost 10 years having elapsed since the reforms were first
proposed, WXXI and the D&C were interested in whether the public perceived
that the increased money on teacher salaries had been well spent. To find
out, the media partners commissioned poll of 768 individuals. Based on the
poll results, the collaboration produced about 70 stories printed in the
Democrat and Chronicle and Times Union. On television, three
one-half-hour WXXI REPORTS, WXXI's weekly news magazine, were produced as
companion broadcasts. The centerpiece of the effort were two live
interactive Town Meetings, each meeting was two hours long. Each Town
Meeting featured a city and suburban site, which interacted with the other
site. Each broadcast included
live "flash polls" involving several
hot-button issues such as "should public school students were uniforms?"
The results of the flash polls were given during the live programs. Given
the self-generated coverage, the "Grading Our Schools" project made a "big
splash" throughout the Monroe County community. However, the public
dialogue generated from it was very broad and unfocused, and no resulting
direct community action appears to have resulted from it.
In 1996 the
media partnership was expanded to include WOKR-TV, the number one rated
commercial station in Rochester. The first venture of this three way
partnership was a project directed at youth violence entitled "Make Us
Safe." In this project, the partners conducted and reported on a survey of
1,771 teenagers from throughout Monroe County. The poll found that about
one-third of the survey respondents feared violence would shorten their
lives. The poll also found that a core group of about 10 percent of the
County's youth were most at risk of committing violent crime. This
appeared due, in part, to the absence of a strong parental figure.
dramatize this issue, the partners again used a two week media blitz. Poll
based stories appeared daily in the paper, weekly on public television and
daily on commercial TV and on Public Radio. The first week of stories
focused on youth violence problems based on the poll results and culminated
with a one hour documentary. The documentary was based on the poll results
and was illustrated by community stories and on a youth summit held at WXXI
to give voice to the poll responses. The program aired on the one year
anniversary of the stabbing death of a 13-year-old Rochester girl at the
hands of her 12-year-old classmate. The second week focused on solutions
again with poll based daily stories in the paper, on commercial TV and on
Public Radio. The partners ended this project by convening a round-table
discussion on youth violence. Participants in the round-table included
community leaders, youth experts, teenagers, and parents.
The "Make Us
Safe" project was more successful than its predecessor. Public awareness
and concern over youth violence appears to have increased. In reaction to
this heightened awareness, both the Rochester city government and the city
school district announced new initiatives aimed at combating youth
violence. Both the city government and the school district pinned the
potential success of these new initiatives on the greater community
awareness of the issue.
Civic Journalism and the
"ConCon" Referendum. The New York State Constitution requires
that every 20 years a referendum be held asking voters to decide whether
the State should hold a new constitutional convention. Nineteen
Ninety-seven was such a year. However, the initial push for a
constitutional convention began during the 1994 gubernatorial campaign when
Governor Mario Cuomo endorsed the idea as a way to achieving institutional
and process reforms in how New York State government carried out its
During the ensuing three years leading up to the
November 1997 election, the positions of both convention supporters and
opponents hardened and became predictable. Supporters argued that voting
for a constitutional convention was the best hope for breathing life into
such proposed reforms as term limits, campaign reforms, and mandated
sanctions against the state legislature for failing to pass the state's
budget on time. (The New York State Legislature has not approved a state
budget by the constitutionally required April 1 deadline since
Opponents of a state constitutional convention included most key
legislative leaders, welfare rights advocates, labor unions, and
(surprisingly) the New York State League of Women Voters. Many of these
opponents raised fears that, contrary to the procedural reforms supporters
were stressing, an open convention would place existing constitutional
safeguards for the poor, the environment, and public employees pension
funds at risk. Other opponents, such as the League of Women Voters,
expressed concerns that the same interests and political leaders who now
ran the state would dominate the convention and thwart any real reform.
Still others questioned the wisdom of the state spending over $60 million
on the convention just to propose a new constitution that probably would be
defeated when put forth to the voters.
Aware of the hardening positions
of the opposing camps, the three media partners met in early Spring 1997 to
discuss how they should cover the arcane topic of a constitutional
convention. They agreed that they did not want the debate on the
convention to be driven by 30-second campaign commercials for and against
it. To reduce the probability of this happening in the six county
Rochester metropolitan area, the partners decided that they must take the
initiative to first
discover and then provide the type of information
citizens wanted and needed to both meaningfully participate in the
referendum discussion and make informed choices regarding their vote on it.
The approach that they developed drew heavily from their prior
experiences with their "Grading Our Schools" and "Make Us Safe" projects.
Specifically, the partners first met with readers, viewers, and listeners
to determine what citizens believed they needed to know
to cast an informed
To that end, in May 1997 the partners, particularly the D&C and
WXXI, began to run in-depth feature stories that addressed their readers
and viewers questions. The stories were presented in a clear, concise, and
easy to digest manner. The media partners took care to ensure that the
stories were balanced in their presentation of the pros and cons of holding
a state constitutional convention.
In addition to its regular new
features about the convention debate, the D&C also began a weekly feature
entitled "The Constitutional Question." In this feature, the paper
concisely answered questions asked by members of the Voice of the Voter
group that had been brought together to inform the paper on its 1996
election coverage. WXXI-TV started a parallel feature called "The
Constitutional Minute" that played between its prime-time shows. Again,
Voice of the Voter participants asked questions that were then researched
and answered by a good-government group that had taken a neutral stance on
The partners' effort to promote informed participation
in the public debate over a state constitutional convention went beyond the
reporting of feature stories on the issue. They also produced an online
constitutional convention web page that included copies of completed news
stories, opinion pieces, and an interactive feature allowing individuals
accessing the site to leave questions that they wanted answered.
Finally, to give their viewers, listeners, and readers a chance to
participate in the actual debate on the convention referendum, the partners
also held three community forums/town-hall meetings between August and
November 1997. A town-meeting held on August 26, 1997 drew
persons to a local college to hear a panel of "experts" debate the pros and
cons of convention. The town meeting was taped and made available for
rebroadcast on public radio stations throughout the state. A second public
event convened a group of voters to question
former Associated Press
reporter and Middle East hostage Terry Anderson, a vocal convention
supporter, and Jane Thompson, leader of Citizens Against a Constitutional
Convention. WXXI-TV then used the Anderson-Thompson forum as the basis for
a 60 minute documentary on the
constitutional convention debate that aired
on public television stations throughout New York State the week before the
Six days before the November election, the three media
partners sponsored an old-fashioned soapbox forum. This event, aired live
on WXXI-AM, gave individuals 90 seconds to speak for or against the
convention. More than 25 speakers addressed the issue. Most of those
spoke were neither elected officials nor associated with any special
In addition to their efforts to educate and inform
citizens in the six county Rochester metropolitan area, the Democrat and
Chronicle, WXXI, and WOKR-TV also tried to encourage their media
counterparts in other locales throughout the state to join with or emulate
their civic journalism project on the convention referendum. At the start
of the convention referendum project, the three media partners had very
ambitious goals. They were going to take civic journalism to television
and radio stations and newspapers throughout New York. But the skepticism
toward civic journalism that many professional journalists continue to
hold, resulted in only minimal, piece-meal success in expanding their
project state-wide. Most media outlets throughout the state continued to
cover the convention referendum in a very traditional way, i.e., without
first approaching readers, viewers, and listeners to ascertain issues
important to them or including them in town meetings and forums about the
Even the Democrat and
Chronicle's sister Gannett papers in Binghamton, Elmira, Utica, and
Westchester did not actively join the three partners' convention referendum
project. These papers did run most of the stories produced by the D&C. But
unlike the front-page status the Democrat and Chronicle assigned to
these stories, the other Gannett papers did not play them as prominently.
In addition while some of the D&C's sister papers assigned their own
reporters to follow the convention referendum issue, none did so in the
same manner as was being done in Rochester.
Thus while the
Democrat and Chronicle, WXXI, and WOKR-TV incorporated such
practices in their coverage of the constitutional convention referendum,
other media outlets throughout the state continued to cover the convention
referendum in a manner little different than any other political or public
affairs story. Accordingly, only individuals living in the six county
Rochester metropolitan area served by the three media partners regularly
were exposed to sustained civic journalism-styled coverage of this issue.
Impact and Analysis. The heart of civic journalism
is a commitment on the part of journalists practicing it to boost public
life by better informing community members and encouraging their civic
participation. Ideally then to assess the impact of civic journalism on
public life both intended outcomes ought to be tested for and measured.
Accordingly, to suggest that the civic journalism techniques employed by
the three media partners in their reporting on the state
convention referendum had any impact on individuals living in the six
county Rochester metropolitan area, it ought establish that individuals
living there and presumably exposed to these techniques were both better
informed about the referendum than were others in the state not so exposed
and that they participated in the referendum election at a higher rate.
Unfortunately, data exist only for assessing the participatory goal of the
partners civic journalism
project on the constitutional referendum. Thus
the analysis below focuses only on whether individuals residing in the six
county Rochester metropolitan area participated in the convention
referendum at levels higher than persons residing in the rest of New
For the purpose of comparing levels of participation in the
convention referendum election, the media partners' failure to export their
project throughout the state actually is an asset. It allows some logical
inferences to be drawn about the impact of their civic journalism project
on levels of participation. Simply stated, if the overall level of
participation in the convention referendum election can be shown to be
higher in the six county Rochester metropolitan area than it was elsewhere
in the state, the partners' civic journalism project reasonably can be
assumed to be at least among the factors that explain this difference.
Data adapted from election returns provided by the New York State
Board of Elections document that individuals residing in the six county
Rochester metropolitan area serviced by the three media partners did
participate in the constitutional convention referendum at rates higher
than other regions of the state. All six counties had levels of voter
participation in the referendum election higher than either the remainder
of the upstate region or New York City. The increased level of
participation ranged from 16 percent for Wayne County to seven percent for
Orleans County. Overall, the six county area serviced by the media partners
had a rate of participation 11 percent higher than the remainder of the
upstate region and 46 percent higher than New York City. Eighty-two percent
of individuals from the six county area voting in the 1997 general election
also voted on the convention referendum. This compares to 71 percent
participation in the remainder of the upstate region and 36 percent
participation in New York City. (See Table 1.)
Levels of Participation in Convention
Source: Table compiled
from data provided by the New York State Board of Elections.
= total number of votes cast in county
Total Participation = the sum of
persons casting yes and no votes on referendum
Participation = sum of persons voting on referendum divided by the total
number of persons voting in an area
In addition, once individuals in the six county area
voted on the constitutional convention referendum, they remained to also
vote at higher levels than the rest of the state on other ballot
referendums. Seventy-seven percent of the voters in the six county
Rochester area participating in the November 1997 general election also
voted on the referendums pertaining to limited changes in court
jurisdictions, and preferential treatment of veterans in civil service
hiring. Eighty percent of those voters remained to participate in the
third referendum on a school building bond act. The remainder of the
upstate region participated in these three referendum at levels of 65, 69,
and 71 percent respectively. Overall, on two of the three referendums, the
six county area serviced by the media partners' civic journalism project
had increased rates of participation over the remainder of the upstate
region nearly as large as that for the constitutional convention
referendum. (See Table 2.) This pattern of participation across the
referendums suggests that the civic journalism project directed at the
constitutional convention referendum may have had a residual or indirect
effect on the levels of voter participation concerning the other ballot
Levels of Voter
||All 1997 Ballot
||School Bond Act
||TP / %Part
||TP / %Part
||TP / %Part
|6 County Area
||206,997 / 77
||206,894 / 77
||1,795,891 / 71
||1,742,419 / 69
||1,803,090 / 71
|New York City
||569,496 / 40
||597,610 / 42
Source: Table compiled from data provided by the New York State
Board of Elections.
TV: Total Vote
TP: Total Participation in
%Part: Percentage of voter participation in
A further observation that can be made concerns the
convention referendum yes/no vote totals in the six county Rochester
metropolitan. Generally, voters in the six counties serviced by the three
media partners were more inclined to vote in favor of a state
constitutional convention than were voters in the remainder of the upstate
area or New York City. Voting returns in all six of these counties were
more in favor of a constitutional convention than were the voters in the
rest of the upstate counties. Four of the six counties recorded favorable
votes seven to 15 percent higher than the total percent for the remainder
of upstate. Overall the combined six county "yes vote" was twelve percent
higher than the remainder of upstate New York. (See Table 3.)
pattern of greater support for the constitutional referendum also generally
holds when comparing the six county Rochester metropolitan area to New York
City. Four of the six counties recorded favorable votes four to 12 percent
higher than "the Big Apple." Overall, the combined six county "yes vote"on
the constitutional convention referendum was nine percent higher than the
favorable vote coming out of New York City. (See Table 3.)
special observation needs to be made about Monroe County's level of support
for the convention referendum. Monroe County is the most populated of the
six counties in the Rochester metropolitan area. It also is the center of
the three media partners' service area.
It literally was the "eye of
the storm" in regards to the partners' coverage of the convention
referendum. For example, all of the media sponsored town meetings took
place in Monroe County. Living in the center of civic journalism project
appears to have had an additional impact on the citizens of Monroe County.
Of these individuals who voted on the constitutional referendum, 49.9
percent favored it.(See Table 3.)
The disparity in the "yes" vote in
the media partners' general service area and in Monroe County in particular
does not appear to have been the result of any press bias in favor of a
constitutional convention. In fact, the Democrat and Chronicle's
editorials actually came out against passge of the convention referendum.
Rather than media bias then, the "yes" vote disparity found in the six
county Rochester metropolitan area appears to have more to do with how
individuals reacted to receiving a broad range of information expressing
both favorable and unfavorable opinions on the convention referendum. This
interpretation is born out in state wide polling information collected for
the three media partners by Zogby International of Utica, New York.
According to Zogby, his survey found that the more people knew and
understood about the convention, "the more they tended to support it."
Thus the "yes" vote disparity in the six county region and Monroe County in
particular can be understood as a manifestation of Zogby's poll
Only rural Sullivan County in far downstate New York equaled
Monroe County's favorable vote on the proposed constitutional convention.
With 63 percent participation in the referendum election 49.9 percent of
those residents voting favored calling a state constitutional convention.
However, unlike those living in Monroe County, Sullivan county residents
were not exposed to any civic journalism-styled reporting about the
proposed constitutional convention. Rather, according to one Sullivan
County election commissioner, the highly favorable referendum vote appears
to have resulted from a steady stream of county charter revision
referendums that predisposed the residents of this rural downstate county
toward structural changes in how they are governed. For example, before
the referendum votes, Sullivan County had just replaced its board of
supervisors with an elected county legislature.
Percentage of Vote Favoring a State
Source: Table compiled from data provided by
the New York State Board of Elections.
The pattern of voting on the state
constitutional convention referendum detailed above strongly suggests that
any explanation of voting behavior for that election needs to consider the
impact of the civic journalism project carried out by the Democrat and
Chronicle, WXXI, and WOKR-TV. However, it is possible that the pattern
of voting behavior found in the 1997 referendums election merely reflects a
historic tendency of the six county Rochester metropolitan area to
demonstrate higher levels of voting participation on referendum than the
rest of New York State. Table 4 documents that this is not the case.
Rather, it clearly demonstrates that levels of voter participation in
referendum elections for the six county area are usually close to those for
the remainder of the upstate region and New York City. This pattern holds
for five of the six election years prior to 1997. Only in 1991 did the
level of participation in a referendum election for the six county
Rochester metropolitan area show any sizable difference from the remainder
of upstate. (See Table 4.) Thus the recent historical pattern for the six
county Rochester metropolitan area appears to converge with the rest of
upstate New York rather than diverge. That such a pattern exists heightens
the probability that the civic journalism project conducted by the three
media partners had a positive effect in increasing voter participation in
the 1997 state constitutional convention referendum election.
Absolute and Average Levels of Voter
Participation in Statewide Referendum Elections 1990-1997
Source: Table complied from data provided for the New
York State Board of Elections.
* Only 1 referendum that year
Average based on 3 referendums
*** Average based on 4
There were no ballot referendums in 1994.
Much of the redesign in political and public
affairs reporting engineered by practitioners of civic journalism has
centered around campaigns and elections. After more than a five year
struggle for acceptance and incorporation into the nation's newsrooms, an
impressive number of media outlets in many middle size cities now are
experimenting with and rediscovering their communities through civic
journalism-inspired political and public affairs reporting. Despite its
use in these newsrooms, critics of civic journalism insist that there
remains "little evidence that [civic journalism] projects have any real
impact on elections [and campaigns]" (Corrigan 1997a). However, the impact
that the Rochester-based media partners' civic journalism project had on
levels of voter participation in the New York State constitutional
convention referendum should give opponents pause to reconsider their "no
Not finding seeable or measurable impact from civic
journalism projects directed at campaigns and elections for public office
is not surprising. Noris it any reason for practitioners and advocates of
civic journalism to become doubtful or defensive. In campaigns and
elections for public office, individuals acquire "useful" information from,
and base their decision to vote or participate on, a variety of political
factors such as partisanship, ideology, incumbency, the presence or absence
of strong challengers, and negative campaigning. These additional
informational cues and determinants of participation compete with and
mitigate the influence of election-directed civic journalism
In referendum elections, though, most additional
informational cues and determinants of participation are absent, or, at
least, present in an altered form. For example, in the case of the New
York State constitutional convention referendum there were no clear
partisan or ideological differences between supporters and opponents of the
referendum. For the most part, there were no other strong alternative
informational cues and determinants of participation competing with and
mitigating the influence of the three partners' civic journalism project on
the convention referendum. Absent the usual political determinants such as
strong partisan cues, individuals in the six county Rochester metropolitan
area were more susceptible to the three partners' civic journalism project.
It was the only well organized effort to inform their thinking about the
constitutional referendum to which they were regularly exposed and
something to which other state residents were not.
and advocates of civic journalism, this conclusion is important. It
suggests that while redesigning their regular political and public affairs
coverage of campaigns and elections is not without merit, the success of
civic journalism and its contribution to a community's public life is
likely to be on those public issues where traditional cues and determinants
of political behavior are less in play. Thus concentrating efforts on
public issues such as these could produce a clear track record of success
and go a long way toward silencing critics. It is important to
acknowledge, though, that establishing the direct impact of many types of
civic journalism projects will remain difficult to do. Few public issues
or processes have the same measurable, patternable, and easily collectable
dimensions of public participation as does voting. Without such data or
pre- and post-project analysis of individual attitudes and behavior,
assessing the impact of many types of civic journalism projects will remain
difficult. This, for example, is the very situation that the Democrat
and Chronicle and WXXI experience in evaluating the impact of their two
earlier projects, "Grading Our Schools" and "Make Us Safe," Addionally, it
is important to emphasize that even if there were no assessment issues
surrounding its impact, the practice of civic journalism cannot be expected
in a only a few years to turn around the decline in public life that has
taken a generation to accomplish. Nevertheless, the three media partners'
project on the New York State constitutional convention referendum
demonstrates that in some special category of public issues that decline,
at least, can be halted temporarily.
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