Journalists' Attitudes toward Civic Journalism Media Roles

By Gade, Peter; Abel, Scott et al. | Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Journalists' Attitudes toward Civic Journalism Media Roles


Gade, Peter, Abel, Scott, Antecol, Michael, Hsiao-Yin, Hsueh, Hume, Janice, Morris, Jack, Packard, Ashley, Willey, Susan, Fraser, Nancy, Sanders, Keith, Newspaper Research Journal


In the aftermath of the 1988 presidential election, some members of the media and journalism academy began to question how the media could better address the needs of citizens in the political process. By the early 1990s, as the 50th anniversary of the Hutchins Commission approached, editors and scholars perceived a growing disconnection between the news media and citizenry, and they pointed to other cultural and economic signs that indicated newspapers as well as public life were in trouble.(1) Studies showed a significant drop in voter participation, a decline in newspaper readership and an erosion of public engagement in civic life. A 1994 Times Mirror poll indicated 71 percent of Americans believed the news media hindered efforts to solve society's problems.(2) Some journalists and scholars believed not only journalism but democracy was threatened.(3)

Civic journalism, also known as public journalism, began as a reform movement to address some of these issues. In little more than a half-decade, more than 400 media outlets, mostly newspapers, have undertaken civic journalism projects aimed at using the media's resources to reconnect the public to the democratic process.(4) This focus on connection is viewed by the movement's supporters and critics as profoundly different from the media's common practice of detachment, or objectivity. Scholar Jay Rosen, an early and vocal proponent of civic journalism, writes that democracy and journalism are inextricably linked. Without an engaged and active citizenry, there would be no need for journalism.(5) A 1995 report by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies explains the concerns of civic journalism advocates:

   Our nation's civic life is in disrepair and the implications for journalism
   are ominous. Citizens who don't participate in the life of their community
   have little need for news. Civic journalism seeks to address some of this
   detachment and improve journalism in a way that may help stimulate civic
   discourse.(6)

Civic journalism broadens the concept of journalistic social responsibility into a more active role. Davis Merritt, the former editor of the Wichita Eagle who with Rosen co-authored some of the movement's seminal works, writes that journalism's integral role in public life imposes an obligation on journalists. "The obligation is to do our journalism in ways that are calculated to help public life go well by reengaging people into it" (Merritt's emphasis).(7)

Some proponents say that civic journalism shifts the emphasis from the journalist to the public by having journalists "talking with" instead of "talking at" citizens.(8) Scholars Edmund Lambeth and David Craig place civic journalism efforts on a continuum from low to high civic involvement. Low-level involvement emphasizes journalists' more systematic listening to citizens about public problems. High-level involvement places the media as a participant with citizens and leaders in an attempt to solve public problems. Lambeth and Craig acknowledge the controversial nature of high-level involvement, writing this is "a role sometimes more active than sanctioned by conventional journalism practice."(9)

Civic journalism efforts draw heavily from works by scholars in other disciplines, such as pollster Daniel Yankelovich's Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World, Robert Putnam's writings on civic engagement and democracy, and philosophical, political and theoretical works such as Jurgen Habermas' theory of the public sphere. The movement has been embraced by several media and civic foundations, notably the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Kettering Foundation and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. As more newspapers experiment with civic journalism projects of varying sizes and goals, the debate about the practice and theory of civic journalism grows.

This debate has been fueled by the lack of a clear definition. …

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