November 4, 2002 -- At least one fifth of all U.S. daily newspapers -- 322 of the nation's 1,500 dailies -- practiced some form of civic journalism between 1994 and 2001, and nearly all credit it with a positive impact on the community, reports a new study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Newspaper editors assert that their civic journalism increased public deliberation, civic problem solving, volunteerism and changed public policy, wrote Professor Lewis A. Friedland and doctoral student Sandy Nichols, of the Center for Communication and Democracy.
The study, "Measuring Civic Journalism's Progress," analyzed 651 projects published between 1994 and 2002 and collected by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. It traced the development of civic journalism, the innovation of techniques and the impact of the practices.
The findings point to a dynamic, evolving movement that has become fairly widespread -- it's been practiced in 220 cities in all but three states.
Seventy-five percent of the projects were undertaken by regional newspapers with circulations of 250,000 or less; 45 percent were published by papers with circulations of 100,000 or less. Forty-five percent were published by major metro newspapers.
Shift to Explanatory Stories
A key finding was that 96 percent of the civic journalism projects used an "explanatory" story frame to cover public issues instead of a more traditional "conflict" frame, which often reports two opposing viewpoints.
"The clear shift to explanatory frames is perhaps one of civic journalism's most important achievements," the study concluded.
About 85 percent of the projects provided space for citizen perspectives. "The findings in this category are among the most unequivocal and important in our research," the study noted. "Civic journalism clearly extended the reach of journalism, incorporating new voices of citizens that simply would not have been otherwise heard."
The study recorded problem-solving frames in 63 percent of the projects; 78 percent of the cases reported on possible solutions.
The evidence of community impact is based on news organizations' own reports about their work, which, Friedland and Nichols cautioned, can be biased toward the good. Their analysis, however, found evidence of multiple positive outcomes in communities. According to the authors:
The majority of the projects, 56 percent, were designed primarily to inform the public and raise awareness, said the study, noting that civic journalists shared this goal with more traditional journalism.
- 53 percent of the projects -- 297 with sufficient evidence to evaluate -- improved the community's public deliberative process, either directly, by convening events, or indirectly, by providing the impetus and tools for citizens themselves to organize events.
- 43 percent of the projects were used by other organizations, including other media outlets or schools.
- 40 percent of the cases -- 209 projects with sufficient evidence -- improved citizens' skills, including informing voters or helping people actively change community life.
- 40 percent -- 192 projects with sufficient evidence -- generated positive reader response.
- 37 percent -- 179 cases with sufficient evidence -- reported the project directly influenced a change in public policy.
- 26 percent -- 126 projects -- influenced the formation of new organizations, including non-profit community groups.
The study traced the development of civic journalism from early efforts to create citizen-focused election coverage in the early-'90s through large projects addressing major community problems in the mid-'90s. More recent trends find civic journalism tools addressing specific issues, such as race relations or failing schools, and employing new technology to expand community connections.
"Early projects addressed the role of the press in a democracy but also had to invent the new civic coverage, developing a wide variety of now-familiar techniques like citizens' agendas, polling, focus groups and comprehensive analyses of issues and candidates," the report said.
"By 1995, newspapers began to recognize the need to incorporate the new techniques into their daily work. This, in turn, led to the development of civic mapping techniques and, eventually, the use of new interactive tools, including the Internet," it said.
Several of the latest projects, the authors noted, use the Web to create an interactive journalism that allows citizens hands-on participation and gives papers rapid feedback from their communities.
The authors said their estimate of papers practicing civic journalism is conservative, because it analyzes only those projects submitted to the Pew Center -- either for funding, for the Batten Awards for Excellence in Civic Journalism or for recognition or advice from the Center. More than 100 additional projects have been collected in the center's archives since 2001.
Friedland and Nichols said they believe the actual number of newspapers that have experimented with civic journalism practices "to be somewhere between one-third and one-half" of all newspapers in the United States.
Friedland and Nichols see evidence that innovation in the field will continue. Of the 322 papers that have experimented with civic journalism, 102 newspapers have shown a strong commitment with three or more years of involvement, the study found. That is seven percent of all U.S. newspapers and may indicate the practice can be sustained even as the Pew Center ends its work as a civic journalism incubator next year.
The study was commissioned by the Pew Center, an initiative created in 1993 by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
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