This issue of Quill celebrates some of the best examples of our craft, the winners of the Sigma Delta Chi Awards in Journalism. As SPJ was assembling the judges’ findings in April, I attended an event built around another set of awards – the James K. Batten Awards and Symposium for Excellence in Civic Journalism.
It was a time for reflection on an important journalistic experiment that is entering a new phase. The Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which has fostered the experiment with millions from the Pew Charitable Trusts, will fold its tent this year, just as those who run the trusts had envisioned when they started it in 1993.
The closing of the center and the end of its grants for coverage – called “subcontracts” because foundations aren’t supposed to make grants to profit-making enterprises – will remove one of the most controversial aspects of the movement, which started as “public journalism” and was redefined largely through Pew’s efforts.
But the movement, and questions about it, will continue. It has “worked its way into the fabric of American newsrooms,” Pew President Rebecca Rimel told the annual symposium, held this year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Lewis Freidland, a sociologist and journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin, said 560 projects have been self-identified as civic journalism by 322 newspapers (many with TV-station partners) since 1993, and it’s conservative to estimate a total of 650.
Civic journalism has never had a clear definition, and it has evolved over the past decade. Pew Center booklets and officials’ speeches have called it “a broad label put on efforts … to overcome people’s sense of powerlessness and alienation” by using their voices to shape coverage. “The continuing thread is journalism that seeks to open its door to ordinary people,” a recent booklet said.
To me, the key element in civic journalism is engagement with the community, with the goal of having an impact on readers and the community at large. Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Walker Lundy suggested at the symposium that in terms of impact on readers, the winners of the Batten Awards might be more important that the winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes (and, by extension, the SDX Awards).
To me, that’s a stretch, but I can agree with something else Lundy said: “If you’re not in a newsroom that’s trying to change, you’d better be worried, because the readers and the world are leaving you behind. … You need to challenge the conventional wisdom about everything in journalism except the ethics.”
However, the practice of civic journalism can raise its own ethical questions. It often involves convening the community to address an issue chosen by one or more news organizations, which then have to cover further developments around the issue and its players – some of whom may have been involved in the project.
This can be at odds with one of the main tenets of SPJ’s Code of Ethics, “Act independently.” This tenet says “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know,” “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”
In at least one civic-journalism project, a newspaper worked with legislators to write laws. In my book, that’s going too far and compromising your credibility. I also disagree with some of the coverage techniques in other projects, particularly in my own area of expertise, politics.
One newspaper asked readers to rate how well candidates in a debate did at sticking to the issues as opposed to attacking their opponents, and it didn’t cover candidates at airport stops on statewide tours around unless they interacted with voters. The debate-rating exercise buys into the public’s distaste for campaign attacks, while dismissing the usefulness of legitimate challenges to a candidate’s record. Ignoring an airport stop means that the newspaper routinely passes up a chance to look a candidate in the eye and ask a tough question.
But I sympathize with civic journalism’s broader goals, such as fighting cynicism about politics, government and institutions, getting editors and reporters out of their ivory towers, and recognizing that a news outlet must be an active player in the community that it serves. We have a Code of Ethics, but all of us are also citizens and should subscribe to a Greater Ethic – that members of a community should try to understand and care for each other, and participate in community affairs. Journalists must foster such understanding, but be careful how they participate.
Thus, we must keep asking ourselves the question posed by Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor who has been the chief advocate of civic journalism: “Where does the god of independence meet the god of interdependence?”
Sticking to religious metaphor, Rosen told the UNC-Chapel Hill symposium that civic journalism “became a breakaway church against the high church of journalism” because its practitioners disagreed with traditionalists on matters of doctrine: What is a legitimate aim, or a legitimate partner, in an act of journalism? What are the limits of toughness as the supreme value of journalism?
Esther Thorson, associate dean of journalism at the University of Missouri, said a legitimate aim is “to persuade people to become active members of their democracy.” Persuade? In the news columns? I wouldn’t put it that way, but it does help to remember that journalism, as a fundamental element of American democracy, may have some legitimate interest in preserving it.
Philip Meyer, journalism professor at UNC, said the nicest thing civic journalism has done has been to make the news media think of themselves as part of a system. And he acknowledged the bottom-line benefit. He said media companies that mentioned social responsibility in their reports to shareholders were more likely to do civic journalism, and surveys have shown that the more credible a newspaper is, the better it is able to retain circulation. “Civic journalism gives them credibility, so there’s economic value in civic journalism,” he said.
Rosen said civic journalism posed a doctrinal disagreement on one other question: “What is the proper vision of heroism in American journalism?”
The opposing answers are what Rosen calls the old model, journalists as the exposers of wrongs, and the new one, in which we take on the garb of community leaders – as conveners, crusaders and partners, sometimes with people and organizations that are the topics of news coverage.
The old model is still the standard for one of my former editors, Michael Gartner, who has been the chief critic of civic journalism, even to the point of calling it a menace. “Reporters are supposed to explain the community, not convene it,” Mike said. “Reporters are supposed to explore the issues, not solve them. Reporters are supposed to expose the wrongdoers, not campaign against them.”
Mike used the word “reporters” to make clear that he was talking about the news columns, not the editorial page, the traditional tool by which newspapers have exercised community leadership. But what if a community obviously lacks the leadership, or the chemistry among that leadership, to face up to its obvious problems and do something about them?
Rosen said civic journalism arose from a crisis of faith and direction in some news organizations that wondered why their communities weren’t improving as a result of prize-winning journalistic efforts. Or, as Frank Denton, editor of the Batten Award-winning Wisconsin State Journal told the symposium, “We were weary of doing good journalism and seeing nothing happen.”
Denton took the bull by the horns, and using the power inherent in a monopoly newspaper and a top-rated TV station, launched “Schools of Hope,” a project that helped narrow the racial gap in student achievement in Madison’s schools.
He called together community leaders, some of whom didn’t even talk to each other. “How do you say no to the newspaper and the most powerful television station in town?” he asked us rhetorically. “A lot of them were going to come back to us for endorsements in the next political campaign, so they took it very seriously.”
Knowing Frank Denton and his reputation, I’m sure he didn’t engage in quids pro quo. He’s a modern crusader, and one to be admired. But if you ride a white horse, any dirt shows up more plainly, so civic-journalism exercises should always keep journalistic ethics in mind while they pursue the Greater Ethic.
Al Cross is president of SPJ and a political columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.