Civic Approach Not So Different from Traditional Model.(reporting on Homelessness)

By Moscowitz, Leigh | Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Civic Approach Not So Different from Traditional Model.(reporting on Homelessness)


Moscowitz, Leigh, Newspaper Research Journal


A story about homelessness that ran in the October 7, 2000 edition of the Charlotte Observer illustrates how this newspaper--firmly grounded in civic journalism--approached the coverage of this local community problem. (1) The article focused on a local church that was opening a soup kitchen to serve the homeless and other community members in need. The reporter interviewed church officers and volunteers as well as a few regular diners. The story ended by asking readers, "Want to go?" and listed the time and date of the dedication ceremony, gave directions to the church, provided contact information, included the hours of operation and called on readers to donate money and volunteer their time on behalf of the soup kitchen.

The focus of the article was on how a local group was helping to alleviate the needs of homeless in their community. But beyond reporting community efforts to help, the newspaper actively invited readers to become involved in the solution. This approach is nothing new to proponents of the civic journalism model, who argue the press should provide readers with possible solutions to problems and engage them in taking an active role in their communities.

This study is an exploratory case study of homeless coverage designed to examine whether the civic journalism approach to reporting on issues like homelessness differ from the traditional reportorial approach. This study uses content analysis to compare the coverage of homelessness between a newspaper well established in civic journalism, the Charlotte Observer, and another following a more conservative, traditional approach to news, the Indianapolis Star.

Few studies have systematically examined the impact civic journalism has on the coverage of social issues, such as child abuse, domestic violence or homelessness. (2) Nevertheless, researchers have long recognized that coverage of particular social problems in the mass media and the way in which they are covered cannot only increase public awareness of a problem, but can also mobilize public support for certain solutions and affect policy making. (3)

Moreover, many proponents of civic journalism have called for the media to use their power to bring certain social problems to light. For example, Hume has called for a "new paradigm of news" in which media organizations act to revitalize the communities they serve--using the voices of average citizens to guide their stories, covering issues citizens are most concerned about, taking a stand on critical social problems and offering solutions to the problems they cover rather than just focusing on the problems themselves. (4)

Regardless of civic journalism's potential impact on the average of local social problems, much of the research assessing public journalism to date has been limited largely to campaign coverage--measuring what effect, if any, civic journalism has on voter learning and the coverage of elections. However, as some researchers have noted,

   ... civic journalism is about more than political campaigns ... There are 
   local initiatives that address socially and politically contentious issues 
   such as race relations, crime, education, community planning, and economic 
   development. Before one can draw conclusions about the civic journalism 
   movement, an evaluation of those initiatives is in order. (5) 

By selecting the issue of homelessness, this explanatory study is designed to examine the impact civic journalism might have on the coverage of a local social problem. The study compares homeless coverage in terms of story prominence, the types of sources used, the absence or presence of solution-oriented content and the absence or presence of mobilizing information.

Related Studies

Mass communications researchers have long recognized the media's role in communicating the relative salience of issues and events. …

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Civic Approach Not So Different from Traditional Model.(reporting on Homelessness)
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