What about broadcasting? For more than two decades the majority
have said they get their news from television. Oh really? The
audience for network newscasts, as a percentage of the population,
has been flat since 1981. Sure, thirty million people a night
gather around when Dan, Peter, and Tom are on the air, but they
do not command the nation's attention or set the agenda the way
their predecessors, Cronkite, Chancellor, and Reynolds, did. And
news is now available from CNN as well as many other sources around
Public television keeps alive the tradition of informed discussion
and hard-hitting documentaries, but the deficit cutters on Capitol
Hill threaten to stifle both.
Network magazine shows thrive on a formula of emotional morality
plays and entertaining fluff. TV talk shows feature not news but
salacious gossip, trailer-park freak shows, or political advocates
passing themselves off as analysts and commentators or sometimes
disguising themselves as journalists while they shout at one another.
Asked to name their favorite network for news, the largest percentage
of Americans names CNN, but remarkably few seem to watch it.
Much-scorned local TV news has been the one growth area of American
journalism for the last 15 years, but one need not spend much
time watching it in the biggest cities to see how deeply infected
with tabloid values it has become.
Declining Civil Society
The second premise on which civic journalism is based is that
something is eating at the foundations of our society. Take nearly
any objective yardstick and use it to measure where we used to
be and where we are now as a society:
Illegitimate births up 16 and a half per cent from 1973 to 1992,
more children are born out of wedlock in Washington, D .C., than
are born to married couples, violent crime is up 500% since 1960,
while personal income after inflation has been static for more
than 20 years. More Americans than ever are living alone; even,
as Harvard scholar Robert Putnam pointed out earlier this year,
bowling alone, membership in leagues is down 40% since 1980. More
people are living in walled communities out of fear of one another.
And need I cite the startling difference in the way black and
white Americans viewed the recent court jury verdict in Los Angeles?
As the Kerner Commission wrote after cities erupted in flames
in the summer of 1967, we are two societies, one black, one white.
So those are the twin premises on which we base our assertion
that it's time to take a hard look at journalistic practice --
first, the news business is in trouble; second, we as a people,
as members of a community, what some call the civil society, are
threatened. And I believe those two things are linked. Tocqueville,
the French statesman who was such a keen observer of American
life, said it 160 years ago -- you cannot have newspapers with-out
democracy, you cannot have democracy without newspapers.
Now as to the term: civic journalism, the definition that we
at the Pew Center -- professionals all, have arrived at as we
have observed the various experiments around the country -- civic
journalism is first an idea, a work in progress, an evolving theory,
but at its base it is this -- providing people with the news and
information they need to allow them to behave like citizens, to
make the decisions they are called upon to make in a democratic
society. From this conviction stems the thought that one obligation
of journalists is to find not only the problems of our democracy
but also to suggest that there are solutions.
Civic journalism is an effort to reconnect with the real concerns
that viewers and readers have about the issues in their lives
they care most about, not in a way that panders to them, but in
a way that treat them as citizens with the responsibilities of
It takes the traditional five w's of journalism -- who, what,
when, where, why, and expands them a bit to ask why is this story
important to me and to the community in which I live?
Civic journalists start with an effort to learn what is on the
community's agenda. They use the techniques of the market researchers
-- focus groups, survey research or polls. And they go beyond
those tools to use living room conversations and town hall meetings.
I was in Cincinnati last week for a town hall meeting and while
some of the issues that were raised were familiar to the journalists
conducting it, most were not.
We at the Pew Center recently commissioned a research firm to
help us learn about the issues that are on people's minds as the
election campaign begins. And the answers that have come back
after listening to fifteen focus groups in 12 cities in four states
this fall are remarkably alike. They are, in no particular order
-- jobs and the economy, education, and crime and families and
values, much the same as the issues that were high on the public
agenda two years ago. No surprises. What is different is the sense
of anxiety people feel about their lives. Four years ago we saw
anger at the state of the economy, and eventually it was focused
on President Bush. Now there is a real sense of not being in control
and how that will effect the election is not yet clear.
When you ask citizens to talk about their lives, people say how
worried they are about whether they will have a job tomorrow in
an economy that is clearly in turmoil, and in a business world
enthralled with downsizing. People talk about losing out to a
lower wage worker in a foreign country or to someone hired under
an affirmative action quota, or just getting the boot to boost
a company's stock price.
They worry about the values their kids are getting in school
and from the tube. Because typically both parents work -- they
have to in order to sustain a middle-class life style -- they
haven't the time to spend with their kids, imbuing them with their
values. They can't be at home to supervise their TV viewing habits.
And let's not kid ourselves -- television is where kids today
are getting most of their values and their picture of the adult
world. God help us.
Threats to Print and Broadcast journalism
Civic journalists are trying to plug back into their communities,
to cross the gap that has opened and widened between the news
media and their constituents -- their readers and viewers. Civic
journalists understand that technology threatens to make the mainstream
media -- newspapers and broadcasting -- less relevant because
it offers such a wide variety of choices. Soon the technology
will become cheap enough and simple enough so that anyone may
drop out of our larger society and retreat into the narrow slivers
of self-interest that are the antithesis of the broad-based community
the mass media have fostered and that democracy requires if it
is to survive.
Harder to Do
Plugging into the community is hard. It's much harder journalism
than dealing with the same old sources, the experts, the media-savvy
advocates of the same old tired points of view, the self-serving
talking heads, known derisively in the television world as the
Rolodex commandos, always available for the interview, always
ready with conventional wisdom or a cynical one-liner.
You know how hard it is? The other night Washington's local public
television station broadcast a one-hour documentary about four
self-help organizations that flourish in Anacostia, the most devastated
community in the District of Columbia. The program was the product
of the reporting of a skilled and highly experienced network camera
crew and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who worked for a year
-- a year -- to find the stories, plug into the community, and
do the hard reporting that this kind of journalism demands.
At a time when newsrooms everywhere are under tremendous pressures
to reduce costs, to shrink newshole, to cram ever more stories
into thirty-minute news programs that are actually little more
than 10 minutes of news after commercials, weather, and sports,
that sort of deep, thoughtful reporting that goes beyond the formulas
is becoming rarer, especially at smaller, struggling news operations
throughout the country. And even at some bigger newspapers hobbled
by the bean counters at their chain's corporate headquarters.
Issues of Interest
Civic journalists broaden their agenda from the usual overwhelming
focus on political and governmental news to aggressively ferret
out issues of interest to citizens who are not members of the
elite. That means things like the education of their children,
the security of themselves and their families, and the economic
future they face. That means covering an agenda that is set more
by citizens, by the people, and less by those who would manipulate
them. That means, for journalists, thinking about the news not
only from the standpoint of conventional journalistic practice
but taking it a step further and thinking about a subject from
the standpoint of the public and the public interest.
Take an example: in looking at the agenda of issues of concern
to the people of Charlotte, North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer
and their broadcast partners in radio and television, took on
crime and decided to cover it not using the body bag approach,
but instead looking at the neighborhoods where crime is way above
the city-wide average. They selected nine neighborhoods and went
into them one at a time, using lots of leg work, reporting resources
and holding town meetings in each. Then they broadcast special
reports on the neighborhood on the same day the newspaper did
a full report. They call this process media blitz day. It's not
just, "Oh look at how awful things are" -reporting. It's looking
at specific possible causes of crime, such as lack of recreation
facilities for young people, or crack houses where drug sales
are carried out and other crime occur. And it means looking at
solutions not just problems -- and telling people how they can
This kind of journalism, they learned in Charlotte, leads to
a great outpouring of civic energy and that must be harnessed
so it doesn't turn into more frustration, greater cynicism. Harnessing
that energy is not what journalists are good at, we have found.
Many of our partnerships have also found this to be true and have
hired -- sometimes with our help -- community coordinators who
know how to connect people to organizations where they can channel
that energy, organizations which are used to finding solutions
and are fostering an approach to solutions.
Another example: the debate over land use in Wisconsin, the rights
of property holders versus the rights of other citizens, between
those who would control growth and those who would use the land
for their own private gain. In many places that's a formula for
the kind of conflict-driven news coverage that I believe has done
so much to alienate citizens from one another. But the coalition
of one Madison newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal,
the CBS affiliate, WISC-TV, and the public radio and television
networks that serve the state don't behave that way. They go out
and d o the hard reporting it takes to find out what the real,
not imagined, parameters of the argument are. They listen to people,
even convene town meetings where the issue can be debated and
discussed, then they print and broadcast what they find, and tell
their listeners and viewers and readers about one another's coverage.
Finally, they convene representatives of the public with the
officials who are responsible for the land use policies, and they
put their conversation on television. And you know what? People
watch. People watch because they are hungry for the information
that affects their lives, they watch in numbers large enough to
beat the entertainment offerings on the other network-affiliated
stations. In Wisconsin they call it the "We The People" partnership
because the partners have the idea that the news media have a
stake in democracy and that people who behave like citizens need
what they are selling -- news and information necessary to make
What civic journalism does is inspire journalists to return to
their principles, to remember why they have constitutional protection,
what their important values are, and to reassert those values--
What values? Objectivity, accuracy, independence -- they are the
principles of traditional journalism most of them hold dear. Civic
journalism builds on these values, innovates in their application
and seeks ways to reinvigorate them. It does not seek to supplant
them with some new or trendy formula. It is a reaffirmation of
How does this differ from what you may be used to seeing and
reading? The first habit many journalists follow when framing
a story is to find conflict. Conflict is the chief ingredient
of so much news coverage. Republicans versus Democrats, Dole versus
Clinton, Serbs against Croats. Conflict is an element in drama.
Shakespeare's plays all are based on conflict. Some journalists
feel they have to dramatize the news. Do they? Why not just tell
Another journalistic habit is there are two sides to every story.
I used to think so, now I don't. I see many sides to most stories
and I instinctively reject the attempt to force every story into
a dramatic framework where there are only two sides, two extremes
with only the experts from the most extreme points of view allowed
on the air and into print, there to repeat their tired points
of view. Take abortion, the flash point of American politics for
two decades. Much of journalism requires that we define it in
bumper-sticker terms -- pro life or pro choice. When there is
a TV debate about the subject, we invite the people who espouse
those extreme viewpoints and no one else. This despite the fact
that even a superficial glance at poll data reveals the vast majority
of Americans are deeply troubled about abortion and reject both
those points of view.
What It Isn't
Let's talk for a moment about what civic journalism is not--
It is not boosterism, it is quite the contrary, an effort to
take an unflinching look at the hard realities of community life
while suggesting that there are solutions as well as problems.
It is not editors sitting on community boards or anchormen narrating
chamber of commerce promotional videos. But it also is not sterile
detachment from the life of the community, a detachment so remote
as to be mistaken for indifference or even hostility.
It is above all else not an abandoning of the journalistic ideal
of objectivity. We know of no serious effort at civic journalism
underway anywhere in the country today that in any way fails to
honor the principle of objectivity. Bill Kovach, at the Nieman
Foundation, says objectivity is the organizing principle of journalism.
He is right.
Finally it is not a newspaper or media partnership imposing its
own agenda on its community. It begins with an organized effort
to find the issues that are important to readers and proceeds
from that starting point. It is the Boston Globe, WABU-TV
and radio station WBUR covering the New Hampshire primary from
the point of view of the citizens of a typical town not in the
terms of so much traditional political coverage -- who's up, who's
down? Who's ahead in the candidate horse race? What are the tactics?
Who are the insiders?
It is the Rochester Democrat seeking citizen input in
the problem of poor schools. It is the San Jose Mercury
giving citizens a look at how special-interest bills get signed
Let me summarize what our approach is before going further --
Civic journalism is an effort to give people the information
they need in order to behave as citizens in a self-governing society.
It is providing news that serves the information needs of readers
and viewers and listeners. It is not using the news media as a
propaganda arm of some enterprise, no matter how highly principled.
And, equally, it is not using the news media to titillate and
Second, it is an alliance of news organizations -- ideally the
three principal ones -- newspapers, television and radio. When
people talk about how they satisfy their information needs they
talk about the news. "I saw it on the news," they say. Many times,
of course, they don't remember where they saw it; maybe the read
it in the newspaper or heard it on the radio driving home, or
maybe they saw the ten o'clock news before falling asleep. People
rarely remember the source, because they use all three media and
now many are tapping into on-line sources too. So civic journalism
isn't just newspapers, it's not just TV.
Furthermore, when people both see and hear a news story it takes
on added impact for them because they instinctively know newspapers
and broadcasters are competing for the same advertising dollars,
so when they see them cooperating on a public agenda of issues
they understand this is something different. This is something
Not Public Relations
Finally it's important to remember that this is not a public
relations technique for you. This is a different way for journalists
to think about the news. Can you help them to do that? Yes, I
think you can. You can encourage the editors and news directors
in your city to look into the growing national movement called
civic journalism or public or community journalism -- it goes
by all three names -- and more importantly you can reward them
when they begin to practice civic journalism.
So what are we saying? That civic journalism can solve the problems
facing the country or the state or the city? No, of course not.
The problems we face have very deep roots and journalists are
held in extremely low regard at the moment.
What we do say is that by listening to the citizen's voice, and
by using that voice as the organizing principle of some stories
-- not all -- but some stories, it is possible to begin to overcome
the sense of alienation and powerlessness which many Americans
Let me conclude by going back to the beginning of my remarks:
I believe both journalism and democracy are in trouble.
The two are synergistic, and therefore it is not a coincidence
both are in trouble at the same time. Further, I think there is
very little time to set things right. Technology won't wait and
the changes new communications technologies will bring are as
deep and as unpredictable and as far reaching as the changes in
society brought on by the industrial revolution 150 years ago.
Near the end of his life the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes
said, "Life is painting a picture not doing a sum." I believe
that the marketing people, who have come to play such an important
and destructive role in too many newsrooms, have convinced too
many newsmen that life is doing a sum. Civic journalists say it's
time for journalists to do what they do best and that is to paint
a picture, a picture that is rich and textured and brilliantly
colored. Journalism that makes a difference.
I would be happy to take your questions.