Thursday, May 22, 2003

civic journalism

(executive summary: somewhat confused post raising questions to which I come up with many tentative answers. Your mileage may vary.)

Union article today reporting on Grass Valley's approval of an 'infill' development, which got me to thinking that in the past we wouldn't have seen articles like this, for two reasons: first, there wasn't the recognition of the need for this sort of development, & second, this article wasn't framed as a conflict, it was framed as "this development is consistent with commonly recognized good planning principles although not all the neighbors are happy about it" . This is civic journalism, and the community benefits from it.

So is civic (aka public) journalism the way we ought to be encouraging our community newspaper to go? The heart says yes, more, more, but this fascinating (and long) 1995 Columbia Journalism Review article brings up some downsides. Plethora of excerpts:

The civic journalists see themselves as part of an effort to try to get the wheel turning the other way, by providing those "handles" for a community to grapple with community problems in some kind of meaningful way. "In a word," writes Jay Rosen of New York University, one of the movement's founders, "public journalists want public life to work. In order to make it work they are willing to declare an end to their neutrality on certain questions -- for example: whether people participate, whether a genuine debate takes place when needed, whether a community comes to grips with its problems."
[con:] The best reason for rejecting public journalism, perhaps, is that its rhetoric makes such excellent cover for pandering, for the notion that in order to reverse our declining fortunes we have to steer clear of hard-hitting reporting on subjects that the reader is reluctant to hear about. A newsroom that would seek to market itself as the community's pal is the kind that could reflexively refrain from doing anything that might offend that community.
[pro:] "We've learned far more about our neighborhoods -- what people care about, how things actually work -- than we ever used to learn about our city by covering city commissioners and cops and the mayor's office. That's a terrible way to learn about a city. This is grass-roots reporting. It's old fashioned in that sense, old fashioned crusading. It's the newspaper saying we believe something needs to happen on this subject."
public journalism requires reporting the news "in a way that facilitates people thinking about solutions, not just problems and conflict. The most crucial thing is to figure out how you frame stories in a way that accomplishes that end."
[con:] "I'm not sure it's connected with public journalism," says one reporter, "but its almost like we're afraid to stir up as much controversy as we had in the past." "We had a zoo animal on the front page every week for six or eight weeks," says another. "It was fucking embarrassing."
Among Thomas's rejected story ideas is one that looks awfully good in retrospect -- the rise of right-wing militias -- since she proposed it months before the federal building exploded in Oklahoma City. Several such militias, she says, were forming at that time in Kansas, and she had developed good sources, partly by traveling to gun shows. "I was told our readers did not have the appetite for that kind of story," she says.

my opinion I: there's been enough divisiveness and conflict and death threats in this county to last a long time; it being a small-town paper it's not like we get hard-hitting reporting anyway, so we're not losing anything; bring on the civic journalism, we need help in encouraging civil and informed public discourse.

my opinion II: the causal relationship between "our goal is to help the community solve its problems" and "let's not bring up problems since that will anger some elements of the community" seems extremely tenuous.

my opinion III: the causal relationship involves possible primacy of self-interest (and desire not to have to report conflict) over accuracy. As the article points out - by having particular reasons to want to frame stories in a particular way, the 'whole truth' is more likely to become a secondary priority, and if the newspaper takes an active role in trying to achieve solutions, it has an even greater incentive to present its actions as having been successful. Thus "our goal is to help the community to solve its problems" could morph into "our goal is to make it look as though we're helping the community to solve its problems"...

my opinion IV: it's still worth trying.

your opinion?

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