Civic Journalism in Practice: Case Studies in the Art of Listening

Article excerpt

There is little doubt that people believe the media are out of touch with the lives of ordinary citizens. A 1994 Times Mirror poll indicated that 71 percent of Americans believe that the news media hinder efforts to solve society's problems.(1) Recent polls show little change in this public animosity toward the press. The continuing decline in newspaper readership, fewer viewers of television news and a significant drop in voter participation all create what some critics believe is a lethal brew that is threatening not only journalism but democracy.(2)

Studies show that citizens feel that no one is sincerely listening when they express their views and concerns.(3) People are growing more and more isolated from one another and from the public life of their communities.(4) And, despite evidence that people are interested in policy decisions that affect their lives - they no longer know how to access the system or make themselves heard.(5)

As the 50th anniversary of the Hutchins Commission's report draws near, journalists are expanding the commission's concept of social responsibility and enlarging the traditional community journalism paradigm. Civic, or public journalists at some newspapers are attempting to bridge this journalist-citizen communication gap by using a variety of creative methods to systematically listen to citizens - to talk with rather than talk at the people.(6)

This research examines different group-listening endeavors used by four newspapers. These mini-case studies focus on specific listening techniques reporters used to seek information and insights from citizens as they began reporting projects. The newspapers and projects are:

* The Columbia Missourian's School-to-Work project and its Religion in Public Life project.

* The Akron Beacon Journal's - Coming Together, a follow-up project of the newspaper's race relation series A Question of Color.

* The Wichita Eagle's April 1995 mayoral election coverage and its 1995 neighborhood conversations project.

* The Tallahassee Democrat's Living Room Conversations method in its Public Agenda Project.

Background

Communication theorists contend that when people hold conversations about topics they believe are important to them and to their families, a number of things happen. First, they begin to feel that their opinions are valued. They gain new insights into the topic by listening to others' opinions, and as they process the information, they start to weigh options. They begin to take ownership of the issues and to assume some responsibility in addressing community concerns.(7)

The media often depend on opinion polls, and while this method has its benefits, it allows for no group interaction. Indeed, some critics argue that polls appear to widen the gap between media and citizens and further distance the people from civic participation.(8) In Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World, pollster Daniel Yankelovich argues that polls lack depth and fail to promote public judgment, a deliberative process that leads to problem resolution.(9) Polls tend to define public judgment by adding up the score rather than by the process of thoughtful deliberation.(10)

One of the most important elements in group conversations is the interaction among group members. In fact, researchers gave found that just by participating in the group process itself, group members develop a sense of involvement in the project.(11) Often, the interactive conversation reveals information about issues that had never even occurred to the reporters.(12) One scholar observed that group communication dynamics may "lead us to change the very way that we think about the problems that interest us."(13)

Davis Buzz Merritt, Jr. of the Wichita Eagle, argues that newspapers must find new and innovative ways to listen to citizens. In Public Journalism & Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough, Merritt writes that three elements are necessary for democracy to function: shared, relevant information, a method or place for deliberation about the application of that information and shared values on which to evaluate information and base public decisions. …