Clinging to Tradition, Welcoming Civic Solutions: A Survey of College Students' Attitudes toward Civic Journalism

Article excerpt

For civic journalism, the road to acceptance among practitioners, educators and scholars has been a rocky one.1 Since its inception in the mid-1990s, the movement has earned supportors who think that a bedrock goal of journalism is to help solve civic problems, and that engaging the public in dialogue offers hope of fixing a troubled U.S. press and democracy.2 Doubters and detractors, however, think that civic journalism seems unnecessary, insufficient or improbable-or that it sounds too much like advocacy and threatens the media's objective stance and credibility.3

Civic journalism has been a particularly thorny issue for higher education, which counts practitioners and scholars among its ranks. Many educators believe that the profession has lost its moral compass and that curriculum reform might foster a journalism more accountable to the public interest.4 Yet the subject has not been widely or deeply integrated into many programs' curricula. And despite fervent academic debates over civic journalism's consequences for education and the profession, few scholars have investigated the attitudes of college students-a group that includes current and future media professionals and consumers-toward the practice.

Journalism researchers and educators need a current snapshot showing 1) to what degree college students support a range of civic journalism approaches, 2) whether greater support for the "new" values of civic journalism correlates with less support for traditional ones such as objectivity, and 3) what characteristics among students arc linked to greater support for civic journalism values and practices. This study, a survey of more than 400 journalism students, seeks to answer these basic questions.

Research on doing-and teaching-civic journalism

Much of the empirical research on civic journalism has focused on the attitudes of practitioners and educators. For instance, in his 1999 surveys of 1,037 journalists for the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), Paul Voakes found strong support for several dimensions of civic journalism. In that study, 59% of respondents said they strongly approved of developing enterprise stories, and 62% said they strongly approved of providing information on alternative solutions. These results "seem to confirm preliminary findings from earlier research that a new conception of journalism's role in society may be emerging."5 The ASNE surveys also concluded that age, education and gender were not reliable predictors of support for civic journalism; newspaper size, job title, approval for joining civic organizations, and respect for community news showed strong correlations.

Another survey of newspaper staff by M. David Arant and Philip Meyer showed that a majority adhered to traditional values and did not support civic journalism values that depart from traditional journalism; they found that journalists who supported certain civic journalism practices were at least as sensitive to traditional ethical concerns as those who did not.6 In a different survey of newspaper editors and journalism educators, both groups reported more support for initiating dialogue about community issues than for developing or participating in solutions to public problems-with editors endorsing such goals at significantly higher levels than educators.7

Studies on teaching civic journalism have shown a perceived need for new understandings of the relationship between journalism and society-and for new ways to educate students about this relationship. Jay Rosen, for example, notes that civic journalism classes help students experience the news production process with a degree of contemplation and self-reflection that contrasts with the routinized reporting of conventional journalism.8 Common practices such as superficial analysis of events, standard story frames and the reliance on elite sources discourage innovative thinking about solutions to long-standing problems in a community. …