The Ethics of Civic Journalism: Independence as the Guide

"The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." So said America journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne as he described the role of his press brethren at the beginning of the 20th century. While some of that comforting and afflicting still exists in journalism as this century ends, there is a range of additional roles played by a much more broadly defined "press" that includes electronic media as well as print. And with those new roles comes considerable debate.

Should reporters be investigators of system failure or initiators of solutions? Should journalists be detached observers or activist participants? Should newspapers be independent watch dogs or convenors of public forums?

There are significant ethical questions embedded within this debate, a debate that swirls around and cuts beneath what we have come to know as civic, public, or community journalism. It is a debate that often gets bogged down in polarized positions, as advocates and critics stake out their respective territory. That polarization may ignore the common ground. It may prevent us from capturing the best elements of civic journalism while moving beyond those approaches that serve poorly both the profession and society.

Before we can explore the ethical issues of civic journalism we should consider just what this approach to journalism means, accepting that it means different things to different folks. Here's how it's been described by various supporters, and by some who don't think much of public journalism. It's "helping the public find the solutions to problems," according to Frank Denton, editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Wisconsin, a paper that has been deeply involved in the practice of public journalism. The State Journal has employed a number of approaches, including organizing town meetings on important local public policy issues and convening panels of community leaders to give feedback to stories before they are published. (Glaberson, 1995)

Civic Journalism is "a fundamental change in the way we do our business," according to former broadcast network news executive Ed Fouhy. He heads the Pew Charitable Foundation's efforts in supporting civic journalism. Fouhy (1994) sees civic journalism as a change in "how we define what news is and how we serve our viewers." And Fouhy believes there is an incentive in the civic journalism approach as TV stations jockey for success or survival in an era of converging technology. The strategy according to Fouhy: "reporting the issues on the peoples' agenda, even though they may not necessarily be on the journalists' agenda."

Cole Campbell, editor of the Virginian-Pilot, has put into practice various elements of civic journalism. He believes that news organizations must create a different sort of relationship with the public, one that reexamines the journalists role to sources and to readers. Campbell (1995) says newspapers must reframe the questions and change conventions about what is news and how it is covered. He says journalism must "cover tension not just conflict, ambivalence not just certainty."

That connection between the journalist and the public was on David Broder's mind when he wrote an important column on coverage of politics in 1990, a column that in many ways jump-started the public journalism movement. While he didn't use the term public journalism, Broder (1990) spoke eloquently about the need for journalism to move closer to those we serve, of better fulfilling "our obligations to the people who read, listen to and watch the news."It should be noted, however, that Broder talked about "shoe leather reporting, walking precincts, talking to people in their living rooms," as the modus operandi of journalism serving the democratic process. Broder's comments were focused primarily on how journalism covers the political process and his fear that we were leaving the public out of the press-politics equation. Public journalism has come to mean many other journalistic ventures and adventures in the last five years. Newspapers and television stations that have championed causes related to children, welfare reform and community volunteerism.

The Portland Press-Herald pioneered what they call "expert" reporting. Writers spend months studying and researching a particular issue of community concern and then write in-depth stories on the issue, going so far as to propose reforms. That last step--proposing reforms in the ne ws reporting--is what takes expert reporting into the public journalism category and beyond traditional reporting. In one case, as part of a project on workers compensation, the newspaper convened a meeting between the Governor of Maine and other involved parties when the reporting and the call for reform did not produce the solutions the paper hoped for.

Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark (1994) ties the evolution of public journalism to the way journalists have perceived their function. "Our role as detached observers has gotten us into a kind of problem, reflected in distrust by the public," Clark says. "The creation of a professional class of journalists may have produced an alienation between journalism and the public." Clark suggests that "the media needs to be more like the public. Journalists need to be more like the people."

Some advocates of public journalism believe that news organizations move from traditional standards of objectivity to play a more activist role in community activities, affairs, and issues. Roy Clark says public journalism asks us, on occasion, to step across the traditional line of journalistic independence--to go across the line that takes us from observers and reporters to convenors and builders. The Newspaper as Problem Solver That notion is not foreign to the Miami Herald. This from Doug Clifton, (1994)The Herald's executive editor: "The newspaper that practices public journalism should be able to provide help "related to problems of public education, health care delivery, and criminal justice, not by dictating a solution, but by facilitating broad, purposeful discourse on the issue, by celebrating victories, by diagnostically noting failures, by encouraging citizens involvement, by outlining and assessing available courses of action."

That emphasis on solutions was the inspiration for how The Charlotte Observer covered racial tension that grew out of a dispute in the use of a local park. Rick Thames, The Observer's assistant managing editor, says the paper's reporting "turned from just reporting conflict to interviewing a lot of people about what should happen, what is the solution here. The dialogue began to take place inside our newspaper that wasn't taking place in any other forum." (Glaberson, 1994)

We see in that example and others the proactive role embedded within public journalism. In Akron, Ohio, the Beacon Journal went to great lengths in bringing elements of the community together to discuss and improve race relations. The paper hired outside consultants to serve as facilitators in that exploration and public dialogue. While playing the convenor role, the paper also played the reporter and analyzer role in traditional newspaper fashion. In fact they played it so effectively that The Akron Beacon Journal won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1994.

It is that "problem-solving focus" that Jay Rosen often speaks about. Rosen is the NYU professor who has been in the forefront of the public journalism movement during the 90's. "Public journalism," says Rosen, "is not a settled doctrine or a strict code of conduct but an unfolding philosophy about the place of the journalist in public life." Rosen speaks of journalists "connecting with their communities" in different ways. He says "journalists will have to redefine their own standards of proper conduct, draw new and imaginative lines that mark off their special functions but also connect them to the work of others." (Rosen & Merritt, 1994)

Rosen's compatriot in the public journalism limelight is newspaper editor Davis "Buzz" Merritt from the Wichita Eagle. Merritt (1994) says public journalism is "about fundamental, cultural change in journalism; about attitudes and traditional concepts that no longer serve either us or our communities well." He believes that journalism can improve the quality of public life in communities, can improve "the public capacity to solve problems."

Both Merritt and Rosen challenge the tradition of objectivity in journalism. Merritt says that in order for news organizations to "help public life go well," journalists must move beyond "telling the news" to become what he calls "the fair-minded participant." He says one does not abandon "good judgment, fairness, balance, accuracy, truth. But it does mean employing those journalistic virtues on the field of play, not from the far-removed press box, not as a contestant, but as a fair-minded participant whose presence is necessary in order for outcomes to be determined fairly." (Merritt, 1994)

"The public journalist's newspaper," says Merritt, "would view a problem such as public safety not merely as an opportunity to report what is happening but as an obligation to promote the discourse that leads to solutions; to act as a conscientious citizen would act." (Rosen & Merritt, 1994) Challenges to the Citizen-Journalist Role Therein lies a major question about the role of the public journalist. Is she merely a conscientious citizen, or is there something in the role of the journalist that distinguishes her from other citizens? Is the newspaper merely a recorder and reporter of events or is it a catalyst to change?

Let me suggest that "yes" there is something special about a journalist and her role in society, something special about the newspaper or television or radio station and their journalistic roles in a community, roles that are unique. In fact, it is that uniqueness of role that prompts some journalists to challenge and even condemn this public journalism concept.

A clear voice of opposition comes from Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post, who challenges both the methods and motives of its practitioners. "Too much of what's called public journalism," says Downie, appears to be what our promotion department does, only with a different kind of name and a fancy evangelistic fervor." (Case, 1994)

An equally critical voice comes from Richard Aregood, editorial page editor of The Philadelphia Daily News. "What in God's name are we thinking about?" he exclaims. Aregood argues that the public journalism crusade is only what good newspapers have always been doing. (Case,1994)

Joann Byrd, ombudsman at The Washington Post , expresses her concerns in a less demonstrative manner. "The goals of civic journalism can be accomplished without compromising journalism's important principles. It does not help the community--or the paper--to have the paper acting as booster or as champion of its own agenda. Communities always need a newspaper that can stand back, take the long, broad view of the conflicts and the possibilities and avoid, in service to the whole community, taking sides." (Byrd, 1995)

Jane Eisner, editorial page editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, says it's true that public journalism may have a good ring for many journalists, touching their chord of idealism and their desire to "make the world a slightly better place." But, Eisner suggests, "owning part of the public stage comes with a price. Our central mission," Eisner believes, "is to report the news, to set priorities, to analyze but not to shape or direct events or outcomes. Subsume or diminish the central mission, and we become like any other player in society, like any other politician, int erest group, do-gooder, thief." Eisner, for her part, says she is not willing to relinquish this unique role that journalism plays in society. (Eisner,1994)

"I have trouble where we are seen as convenor of the solutions and responsible for the solutions," she emphasizes. (Eisner, 1995) Eisner speaks passionately about the unique role of journalism in society. "There's no lack of lobbyists in this country." Still, she believes that the discussions about public journalism have heightened her sensitivity to how journalism functions. She says she now sees more clearly how newspapers overemphasize conflict elements of community activities and issues. She suggests t hat the public perception of journalists as arrogant may be connected to how we select stories with such a heavy emphasis on conflict. The Trap Door of Involvement Arrogance was a word used by Bill Woo, editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch in a recent speech on "Public Journalism and the Tradition of Detachment. "Yes, we have been isolated, detached, arrogant, disconnected, narrow in our definitions of what's news and what isn't. We have thrived anaerobically, in airless environments," Woo said. But he added an important caveat. "Damn right that we should listen to the public," he emphasized. "But should the consensus at the town meeting automatically become our agenda, not merely in editorial support but in the expenditure of resources that determine what other stories do not get covered?" (Woo, 1995) Bill Woo continues: "Proponents of public journalism declare that at the end of the day every newspaper must make its own decisions in light of its own values and principles. Fair enough. But I have yet to hear of a paper that said 'No' to what the citizens wanted when the paper itself mobilized the people, of a paper that said to its community, 'sorry,' the agenda we helped create is not for us after all." (Woo, 1995)

So, what does the public think about public journalism. It's interesting that much if not most of the debate is among journalists, with only a smattering of the voices of people. Ironic isn't it, since the voices of the people are central to the notion of public journalism.

Jane Eisner (1995) asked her readers for their thoughts on public journalism."Nobody says we should be more active in the community," she reports, though some said the Inquirer was out of touch with the community and that newspapers are arrogant.

Also from the public side, this reaction on public journalism, from the Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, Paul Soglin. He worries that a newspaper can get too much power by mixing the roles of reporting the news and creating it. Soglin says the Wisconsin State Journal has been "wearing two hats" by reporting a story it helped create, in this case on economic development issues. (Glaberson, 1995) Searching for Common Ground You can view this civic journalism debate from a good and bad, right and wrong perspective, but that would be both unfair and shortsighted. The issues are more complex than to be scored that way. There's plenty of gray area, it's not just about winners and losers, and much of the debate can be examined by going from the philosophy of public journalism, what it is, to how it is practiced. That's the next step in exploring the ethics of civic journalism.

And, make no mistake, just as public OR civic journalism is defined in different ways by different journalists, it is practiced in different ways by different news organizations.

That in fact was the point made recently by John Dinges (1995), who headed up the National Public Radio's Election Project last year. That project involved a partnership between NPR and local newspapers and NPR affiliates, as well as several television stations. "Questions of objectivity and advocacy have not been a factor in any of our projects," Dinges says, pointing out that NPR stations and newspapers did not "organize" in the community. Rather, Dinges, says, these news organizations shared resources in developing what Dinges calls "tough reporting" on "the issues, tradeoffs, and solutions associated with the 'citizens agenda.'" That emphasis on "citizens" was key to their election project, in terms of identifying the issues on the agenda to frame the coverage and to then keep citizens as a prominent part of the story.

The focus on citizens was at the heart of the "Charlotte Project," a reshaping and renewing of political and election coverage at the Charlotte Observer. Poynter Institute associate Edward Miller (1994) who was very involved in that experiment, says that "journalism's allegiance to 'objectivity' need not come at a price of community understanding and engagement." Writing about lessons learned from Charlotte, Miller says that "Communities need journalism's insights, skills, experience, disciplines, ethics, perceptions, hard work, and above all, passion to be involved. All can be compatible with the traditional values of journalism."

Jane Eisner (1995)of the Philadelphia Inquirer worries that the discussions on public journalism are falling into extremes, and fears that the more "bells and whistles we put on what we do, the more readers will turn off on journalism. A lot of the stuff we do," Eisner says, "is very simple." She cites the work of her Inquirer colleagues Barlett and Steele and their powerful project in 1991, "America--What Went Wrong," as an example of the ingredients of good public journalism without calling it that. The paper committed great resources to that reporting project, then distributed free to the public some 400-thousand copies of the report, and it also became a best selling book. That she suggests, and I wholeheartedly agree, is a very significant journalism project focusing on the public. Furthermore Eisner points out, it did not involve the type of community activism that worries many journalists.

Bill Woo (1995) does not shine a solid red light on public journalism. He raises cautions in the spirit of a yellow light. Woo likes the connections to improving democracy, and he says he is "intrigued by what may lie down that road, beyond the bend." But he also urges all of us in journalism to listen to what he calls the "old bells ringing for objectivity, detachment, independence, for the courage to print stories that are unpopular and for which there is no consensus."

"I hope we listen for them again," Woo says, "before we grow so old and so wise that they no longer matter."

Avoiding Polarization

Bill Woo's wisdom and the ringing bells metaphor provides us with a jumping off point for examining this issue from a different perspective. Let's start by drawing a line to help us examine this issue--the ethics of civic journalism. Our tendency when we draw the line is to draw it vertically creating two sides, two positions. In fact that's the way we often speak of ethical dilemmas. We say "crossing the line," stepping across the traditional line of journalistic independence. Over on the one side is independence and detached reporting, and on the other side is participation, advocacy, activism. We see one side as right and good, the other side as wrong and bad.

That two-sided approach is not the most productive method of analysis, as it creates a polarizing effect and ignores the gray that most often exists between the black and white when you explore journalism ethics. It's a blueprint for both frustration and, I would suggest, failure as a way to explore the ethics of civic journalism. A crossing-the-line model simply does not work.

Instead of drawing a vertical line, let's draw the line horizontally, a plane if you will, a level surface. That horizontal line may be both substantive and symbolic---a level playing field to examine the ethics of civic journalism.

(I owe thanks to Joann Byrd at The Washington Post for giving me insight on such a model. She once used this horizontal line to examine issues of news reporting versus infotainment.)

Admittedly, even with a horizontal line you could trap yourself by seeing this picture as either/or, good/bad, right/wrong areas above and below the line. Instead, let's just focus on the line itself. See the line as a "continuum" if you will where we move back and forth along the line depending on a variety of circumstances. Our movement is guided by principles.

Let's identify some terms to describe various roles journalists play, words that reflect varying degrees of participation by individual journalists and news organizations in the affairs of society, in the activities of the community, in the issues of our times. 

Independent Reporter..............Messenger

Detached Observer..................Interpreter

Advocate.................................Watch Dog


Opinion leader.........................Intermediary

Agenda Setter..........................Convenor


Activist ...................................Thinker

In the vertical line model that I argued against we would have to put these terms on one side or the other of that line, connoting their goodness or badness, their rightness or wrongness with what we see as the journalists role.

But with a horizontal line we see these positions of journalistic activity differently. They rest side by side on a continuum, separate from each other but also blending together. We recognize that an individual journalist or news organization might play the different roles to varying degrees depending on circumstances, while still honoring important journalistic principles. For instance, a newspaper might move from traditional reporting on the issue of medical care for the children of illegal immigrants to a position of advocacy when no other organizations or governmental units respond to a crisis that is endangering lives. Or a local television station may move from messenger and interpreter of information about an educational crisis in the community's schools to a convenor of a town meeting on the issue when no other organization is willing to take the lead in seeking solutions. In Service to the Public We can see these blended journalistic roles in the work of Jeff Good of the St. Petersburg Times. He is a news reporter who brought his considerable journalistic skills to the editorial page. His multi-part series, "Final Indignities," focused on the issues of estate planning and the significant problems associated with weak state regulations and the horrendous quality of some legal work for those seeking estate planning assistance. Jeff researched, he reported, and he wrote, publishing the series in the perspective section of the paper where editorials and other opinion pieces run. And Jeff Good and The St. Petersburg Times also editorialized on the same issue, again within the perspective/commentary section of the paper. Then, the paper moved further on this issue, organizing a public forum on Estate Planning. The series had significant impact on the community and on state officials responsible for making laws and regulating their enforcement. The series also drew the attention of the journalism profession, earning Jeff Good and the St. Petersburg Times a Pulitzer Prize.

If we take this example of journalism and apply it to the horizontal line model we can see how the project employed a number of those roles we identified earlier. It was an example of a journalist as reporter, watch dog, analyst, and interpreter. It was also an example of a newspaper as advocate, activist, agenda setter and community convenor.

If we see these roles as different positions on that continuum rather than as being identified as right or wrong, good or bad, it is possible to see more clearly the role of civic journalism in society. And it may be a more productive way to consider the ethical issues embedded within such reporting projects.

We could do the same with other examples of what we might call civic or public journalism, giving some clarity to what decisions we should make on how far we should go in our actions and our involvements. Principles as Guideposts To be sure, a horizontal line is not enough to guide us in making such decisions. This is where ethical principles come into play.

I believe it is in the ethical principles that we find our clarity and our guidance for how we should move along this horizontal line, for when we might move, say from detached observer to agenda setter, for when we might move from independent reporter to community convenor.

Journalistic independence is a guiding principle, at the heart of our role as truth seekers and truth tellers. This guiding principle serves as a moral compass to tell us where "true north" is, where to find the polar star. The guiding principle of journalistic independence also serves as a moral gyroscope to tell us where equilibrium is found, where we find some balance, a level point in an environment where we are constantly buffeted by the winds of competition, the pressures of deadlines, the forces of business decisions, the countervailing influences of our own self interest and of peer pressure. The principle of independence guides us as to our role in society, clarifying our responsibilities to our customers, to the general public, and to our communities.

Some may question why independence is a proper principle for ethical guidance. Don't the proponents of public journalism challenge journalism for being too detached from the people we serve? Isn't public journalism about connectedness, bringing journalism and the public together to better serve community, to provide for civic good, to accomplish democratic goals?

Well, yes and no. Those goals related to community, civic mindedness and democracy are noble. But let me suggest that journalism's role in society is, as Jane Eisner at the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, "unique."

Journalism is a one-of-a-kind profession. There is nothing equivalent to it in a community. Doctors, ministers, architects, teachers--they all have essential and unique roles to play in a community. As do attorneys, law enforcement officers, bankers, government workers, entertainers, and so on. All unique in what they do.

So it is with journalists. A journalist is unparalleled in his responsibility to gather information and present it to the public, to seek out the truth and report it as fully as possible. A journalist must apply excellence of craft in fulfilling a societal mandate to tell the community about significant issues so people can make important decisions in their lives--important decisions about their children's schooling, about their personal safety, about the people they choose to hold office, about the choices their government makes, and on and on.

That's the singular responsibility of the journalist. Carrying out that role with excellence is what real civic journalism is all about. It reflects the consummate public service.

And to do so, to fulfill this unique role, we make choices. As Jane Eisner (1995) at the Inquirer puts it, "Our function does require a certain amount of independence. We have to give up some things personally in terms of activities and collectively as a newspaper in order to maintain a certain amount of distance so that we maintain integrity." It's clear that Jane Eisner sees her role as a journalist as unique. So does Bill Woo as he hears the ringing of the bells.

This role for journalists might be termed a "special calling", to use the words of Paula Ellis (1995), the managing editor at The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. Ellis is both very idealistic and very practical when she sees her role as a journalist as a "life of service....Once you identify your special gifts, you need to use them to make your community better," she says.

Paula Ellis is no detractor of public journalism. In fact, she sees some strong connections between this "service of journalism" based on traditional values and connections to the public. "My journalism and my concern for community have always been tied together," she says. And that connection is reflected in the impressive work she and The State newspaper have done on important community issues related to young people, to AIDS, and to education.

Paula Ellis (1995)believes in a solution-based model for journalism. "The old-line investigative project laid out the problems," she says, "leaving people feeling desolate and helpless. So we'd come up with solutions from experts within our mix. That was equally disempowering for the public. People still don't know what they can do about the problems. Civic Journalism is about building new models to help citizens find ways to have power." Civic Journalism as Ethical Journalism If we examine the fine work of journalists like Jeff Good and Paula Ellis, if we consider the quality projects of The Akron Beacon Journal, National Public Radio,The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The St. Petersburg Times, we can find some strong connections between the old brand of journalism and the new brand of journalism. The differences are not as great as they are sometimes painted. There is considerable common ground.

We can use the principle of independence to guide us as we explore that common ground in our quest to best serve citizens and society. Civic journalism, if it is practiced with great skill and deep commitment, and if it is guided by leaders with high ethical standards, can produce reporting that honors that century-old responsibility to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."


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  • Bob Steele

    Bob Steele asks and answers lots of questions on a wide range of ethics, values, reporting and leadership issues. In his role as the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values he has taught hundreds of workshops and thousands of journalists and media leaders at Poynter seminars since 1989.


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