Civic Journalism: Still Hanging On

By Brown, Fred | The Quill, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Civic Journalism: Still Hanging On


Brown, Fred, The Quill


FROM THE ETHICS CHAIR

You may not solve them, but at least give as much time to possible solutions as you do the problems.

When we were tossing around some ideas for this ethics edition of Quill, the words "civic journalism" somehow escaped into the electronic ether and hung there like a balloon filled with noxious gas. Some members of the ethics committee lobbed barbs at the loathsome thing, arguing that even to utter the words was to commit journalistic heresy.

And yet, if there is a theme to this issue, "civic" or "public" or "community" journalism certainly has a place in it.

In this annual ethics issue, we examine the role of journalism in self-government and the electoral process. Ideally, the journalist's responsibility is to help the public make informed decisions. Informed decisions are the essence of fair elections; an informed public is a watchdog public, and better able to appreciate the press's watchdog role.

Consider the opening words of the Code of Ethics: "Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy."

And public enlightenment - extended to public involvement - has been the whole point of civic journalism, at least in theory. Elections also depend on public involvement, and political coverage has been one of the mainstays of journalism since the beginning of the trade.

Political coverage also has been the most fertile field for civic, public or community journalism projects.

What ties this all together (hopefully) is that, once again, political coverage has been called into question. The early call of the presidential election in Florida gave new ammunition to journalism's critics and gave renewed justification to journalists' self-doubt.

It was another instance in which our thirst to be first caught us wandering in the ethical wilderness. It raised questions about whether we were trying to serve the public or trying to impress our peers. And then the early call turned into a five-week delayed reaction. What had been, for months, an unusually long but civil campaign, in the end was taken over by the usual suspects.

"Politics has never been an innocent profession, but this is different than in the past" said The Washington Post in an editorial written well into the third week of the post-election confusion.

... [T]he country has drifted into a kind of mercenary, scorched-earth politics where the issue often seems to be the winning of power irrespective of its possible uses. The only thing that matters is which candidate is standing at the end.... The journalism reflects the reality; it is at least as much about tactics as substance," The Post editorial continued.

That's not to say that The Post thinks the answer to cynical politics and turned-off voters is public journalism. …

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