CIVIC JOURNALISM: THE PRACTITIONER'S PERSPECTIVE
By Peter Gade, Scott Abel, Michael Antecol, Hsiao-Yin Hsueh,
Janice Hume, Jack Morris, Ashley Packard,
Susan Willey, Nancy Fraser Wilson and Keith Sanders
(All researchers contributed equally. Gade coordinated writing the paper.)
University of Missouri School of Journalism
10 Neff Hall
Columbia, MO 65205
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CIVIC JOURNALISM: THE PRACTITIONER'S PERSPECTIVE
The debate about the practice and theory of civic journalism has grown as
more media have experimented in the 1990s with civic journalism projects of
varying sizes and goals. Critics and theorists have voiced their thoughts on the
movement, but very little is known about what journalists think about civic
journalism. This paper attempts to address this issue by asking journalists at
two similarly sized newspapers, Mobile (Ala.) Register and the Wichita (Kan.)
Eagle, to react to a series of statements about the role of the media in society
and civic journalism.
Of the four types emerging from this Q-Methodology study, Neutral Observers
and Civic Journalists factor themselves toward the philosophical poles of
libertarianism and social responsibility, with Responsible Liberals and
Concerned Traditionalists taking more centrist positions. What seems clear from
this study is that journalists beliefs are not limited to philosophical poles.
Instead, the subjects in this study accept the idea that there is more than one
legitimate, ethical approach to journalism.
CIVIC JOURNALISM: THE PRACTITIONER'S PERSPECTIVE
In the aftermath of the 1988 presidential election, some members of the
media and journalism academy began to question how the media could better
address the needs of citizens in the political process. Their thoughts evolved
from an election that was characterized by negative campaign ads, mudslinging
and a low voter turnout.
Some media, mostly newspapers at first, began experimenting with ideas
aimed at getting citizens more involved in civic life. These ideas included
attempting to listen to citizens through the use of focus groups and surveys,
and giving readers more access to the newspaper. Some media began hosting public
forums for community dialog on important issues, and in some cases a medium's
resources were committed to resolving issues. Some journalists and scholars
welcomed civic journalism as a refreshing change from objective reporting that
seldom offered solutions; others objected, saying the practice sacrificed
autonomy and made the media a catalyst - and sometimes a participant - in
resolving social issues.
As more media have experimented in the 1990s with civic journalism projects
of varying sizes and goals, the debate about the practice and theory of civic
journalism grows, too. The flames of this debate have been fanned by an
unwillingness of the shapers and proponents of civic journalism to define it.
Critics and theorists have voiced their thoughts on the movement, but very
little is known about what journalists think about civic journalism. This paper
attempts to address this issue by asking journalists at two similarly sized
newspapers, Mobile (Ala.) Register and the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, to react to a
series of statements about the role of the media in society and civic
journalism. By examining attitudes, the researchers hope to help clarify what
civic journalism means to journalists and, indeed, to the business of
The theory and practice of civic journalism is a phenomenon of the 1990s,
but its roots can be traced to a perceived need to overcome shortcomings in
media practice and theory that have evolved over the past two centuries. Media
in the United States have attempted to adapt their role and function to meet the
needs of citizens and society, and civic journalism can be viewed as an
outgrowth of this process. The freedoms guaranteed by the bill of Rights not
only emphasized the rights of individuals, but they confirmed the necessity of a
free press to the functioning of a democratic society. American journalists have
maintained some of their core values since the writing of the First Amendment,
and much of the civic journalism controversy appears to be based on whether
civic journalism threatens these values. Proponents and critics are likely to
agree that civic journalism is asking journalists to reconsider not only how
they practice their craft, but also to reassess a much more basic concept: the
role of journalism in society. This literature review provides an overview of
the libertarian and social responsibility theories of the media, which provide a
framework for understanding civic journalism.
The role of America's press is linked to its grand experiment in democratic
self-government. Colonists were subjected to an authoritarian approach to
government, and in order to publish, a printer needed permission from the
government often in the form of a patent or license. As a condition of gaining
such permission, colonial printers were expected to publish information that
supported and advanced policies of the government. A failure to do so
resulted in repercussions ranging from loss of license to charges of sedition.
Arguing against the absolute rights of the monarchy, 17th Century English
thinkers John Milton and John Locke argued that people are rational beings who
possess natural rights. Milton, in his 1644 publication, Areopagitica, attacked
censorship in England, arguing that only through open discussion could truth be
found. Milton's "self-righting principle" assumed that truth would prevail over
falsehood in the free marketplace of ideas. Locke espoused the rationale of a
free press in his Two Treatises on Government arguing against the divine right
of monarchies and claiming that freedom was a natural right of all people.
Milton and Locke had great influence on the framers of the U.S.
Constitution, especially Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They came to trust
the rationality of the "common man," and believed ideas should be debated in
public. Following the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers and their own
experience as colonists under the rule of an imperial monarchy, the Founding
Fathers "rebelled against prior censorship and felt that free criticism was
essential to personal, as well as national, happiness and grown."
Under the libertarian theory of the press, the press functions to help
rational people find truth by presenting a multitude of voices. The media
operate outside the realm of government, free to criticize government and other
social institutions in order to further public discourse and raise the level of
debate. Beyond helping people discover truth and debate the performance of
government, the privately-owned press provides general information of interest,
entertainment, and a mechanism for generating revenue and informing the public
about commercial products. The controls on the libertarian press are imposed
by the open debate of truth and falsehood in the marketplace of ideas, as well
as the court system, which prosecutes defamation, obscenity and wartime
Libertarian ideals dominate the Bill of Rights and are expressed as they
relate to the press in the First Amendment wording that "Congress shall make no
law_ abridging freedom of speech, or of the press." Some of the core values
of the libertarian press ideals adopted more than 200 years ago remain important
today. As society has changed, however, some of the libertarian values have come
under criticism for being out-dated and excessive. Such criticism began during
the industrial revolution. As the American political and social landscape moved
away from its agrarian roots toward urban industrialization, some of the
inconsistencies of libertarian theory became harsh realities. These realities
were exposed in a new type of journalism that took hard-hitting aim at the
corruption of industrial expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Called "muckrakers," some journalists began chronicling the plight of oil field
workers and coal miners, the lives of inner-city poor and immigrants and the
corrupting influence of big business. The libertarian, rational individual was
being swallowed by a system mired in political, social and economic deception,
and the muckrakers clearly had an impact on Americans' growing suspicion of the
effects of vast corporations in a laissez-faire economy.
The media, too, became a cause of concern in the early 20th century as new
technologies - most notably radio and high speed presses - made the media more
pervasive. Early theories about media effects claimed the media was a powerful
tool, which if used in deceitful or propagandistic ways could negate the
libertarian views of human rationality and move individuals and masses of people
to perform irrational acts.
Further attacks on the libertarian ideals came from the media's
consolidation of ownership. As technology made it easier to produce and
distribute newspapers, larger newspapers began buying out smaller papers, and
the number of voices in the marketplace was greatly diminished. With fewer media
outlets, there was a growing fear that the media were coming to represent only
those voices that media owners favored, while it was becoming increasingly
difficult for unpopular or non-mainstream ideas to be expressed in the media.
These concerns about media effects and the economic realities of media as big
business led to the post-World War II re-examination of the role of the media in
Many of the issues concerning the practice of journalism oscillate between
the ideas of individual freedom of expression and the responsibility of the
journalist to society. John C. Merrill explains that journalism "is caught
between freedom and responsibility, and most of its historical and current
concerns gravitate toward these conceptual poles." The theory of social
responsibility describes one of these poles - journalists' responsibility to
Some scholars claim the practice of social responsibility in journalism is
rooted in the 1947 Commission on Freedom of the Press (Hutchins Commission) and
the establishment of professional codes of ethics throughout the 20th Century.
Other scholars trace social responsibility to Enlightenment philosophy. Werner
J. Severin and James W. Tankard summarize the theory with this comparison:
"While the media inform, entertain, and sell (as in the libertarian theory),
they must also raise conflict to the plane of discussion" (as in social
responsibility theory). Under social responsibility theory, the media are
controlled by community opinion, consumer action, professional ethics and
The Hutchins Commission report condemned sensational journalism for its
"meaninglessness, flatness, distortion and the perpetuation of
misunderstanding." Journalists must not just report facts, the commission
argued, they must disclose the truth about the facts. In brief, the goal of
journalism under social responsibility theory, according to John McManus, is to
improve the democratic process, not contribute to the wealth of private
individuals or companies:
News should orient people to their environment, thus helping them
make informed decisions. At the selection stage, then, ethical local news
departments should choose those current issues and events likely to
the most learning about the local public's environment for the most
The Hutchins Commission report proposed the press operate on the assumption
that democracy is successful only when citizens are informed, and to work toward
this end is to be responsible. The Commission urged social responsibility in an
anti-monopoly political climate that already had imposed restrictions on much of
the business community. The following are the Commission's criteria for
measuring press performance. The press should:
1. provide "a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of
the day's events in a context which gives them meaning;"
2. serve as "a forum for exchange of comment and criticism;"
3. present "a representative picture of the constituent groups in
4. be responsible for "the presentation and clarification of the
goals and values of the society;" and
5. provide "full access to the day's intelligence."
Theodore Peterson argues that the first four are followed, at least in
principle, by most American publishers, but the last one marks a break with
traditional press theory. He says the idea of "full access" is the basis for
"freedom of information" and "the public's right to know." Peterson quotes
William E. Hocking, one of the authors of the Commission report, who said true
freedom must have both its negative and positive aspects. "To be free," he says,
"is to have use of one's powers of action (1) without restraint of control from
outside and (2) with whatever means or equipment the action requires."
The Commission's report was ignored or attacked by most of the press because it
proposed government regulations and an independent agency to monitor its
performance. The government's Federal Communications Commission continued to
regulate broadcasting, however, and its goals appeared to parallel the
While the beginning of social responsibility often is associated with the
Hutchins Commission, others trace it to the Enlightenment. J. Herbert Altschull
links the idea of social responsibility to the French philosopher Jean-Jacques
Rousseau, who believed the basic good of human nature and was skeptical about
the theories of intellectuals:
In Rousseau's powerful imagery, intellect might go astray, but the
voice of the people, directed by their feelings, will always take the path
of decency. Of course, for intelligent choices to be made, those feelings
have to be fed with sound information; thus education is a dominant force
Rousseau's thinking. Informed people, acting on their feelings, provided
only kind of government worth having.
People organize themselves under governments for the express purpose of ensuring
equal rights to all citizens, according to Rousseau. This "social contract" is
moral and legal convention that proclaims, "let men be ever so unequal in
strength or in genius, they are all equalized." This 18th century expression
of social responsibility continues to be a guiding principle of American
journalists today, according to Altschull, who says the opposing ideas of
freedom and responsibility constitute one of the great paradoxes that riddle
Merrill attempts to explain this philosophical dichotomy by applying Georg
Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's dialectic. According to this philosophy, ethical
thought is a process of thesis (individual freedom), antithesis (social
responsibility) and synthesis (resolution). Synthesis also is a thesis which has
an antithesis, and the thought process continues to unfold. For Merrill,
dialectic is a moving process of the mind rather than a static product such as a
code of ethics.
A related issue is presented by Michael Schudson, who questions the definition
of democracy underlying any discussion of the media's role in American society.
He asks whether democracy is composed of a society of "rational and active
citizens who seek to realize a generally recognized common good through the
collective initiation, discussion and decision of policy questions concerning
public affairs, and who delegate authority to agents (elected government
officials) to carry through the broad decisions reached by the people through
majority vote." This is the classical definition of democracy, but Schudson
points out that the 20th century journalist and theorist Walter Lippmann claimed
democracy was government by a reactive subset of society, composed of "merely
those persons who are interested in an affair and can affect it only by
supporting or opposing the actors."
The idea of democracy underlies arguments for individual freedom and social
responsibility, and because one's definition of democracy may shift depending on
one's philosophical orientation, Schudson suggests journalists remember this:
"Journalists would do well to be of two minds because the world they report is
of two (or more) possibilities." This advice logically extends to
libertarianism, social responsibility and civic journalism.
In the early 1990s, as the 50th anniversary of the Hutchins Commission
approached, some journalism professionals and scholars began to re-evaluate the
role of the press in American democratic society. Cultural, political and
economic signs indicated that newspapers as well as public life were in trouble.
Studies showed a significant drop in voter participation, a decline in newspaper
readership and an erosion of public engagement in civic life. There also was a
growing communication gap between journalists and citizens. A 1994 Times Mirror
poll indicated 71 percent of Americans believed that the news media hindered
efforts to solve society's problems. Some journalists and scholars believed
not only journalism but democracy was threatened.
Civic journalism, also known as public journalism, began as a reform movement
to address some of these issues and is being hotly debated today. One article
ponders whether it may be "the death or savior of the craft." Jay Rosen,
associate professor of journalism at New York University and one of the early
and vocal proponents of civic journalism, argued that democracy and journalism
are inextricably linked. Without an engaged and active citizenry, there would be
no need for journalism. Civic journalism broadens the concept of
journalistic social responsibility into a more active role - to help public life
go well, to "reconstitute" the public, and promote citizen engagement and
dialogue. Its purpose then is to help revive civic life.
A 1995 report by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the Poynter Institute
for Media Studies explains the concerns:
Our nation's civic life is in disrepair and the implications for
journalism are ominous. Citizens who don't participate in the life of their
community have little need for news. Civic journalism seeks to address some
of this detachment and improve journalism in a way that may help stimulate
James Carey, professor of journalism at Columbia University, called civic
journalism "the most promising innovation in journalism in our time." Yet,
in attempting to allow fluidity to the development of the movement, journalists
have resisted efforts to define it. This lack of definition has sometimes caused
confusion, misinformation and a misuse of the term in journalism projects.
Rosen argues that it is "not a settled doctrine or a strict code of conduct, but
an unfolding philosophy about the place of the journalist in public life."
Virginia Dodge Fielder of Knight-Ridder Inc. - a corporate leader in civic
journalism projects - argues that civic journalism is journalism that treats
readers as citizens, not just as an audience "but as a public, actors in public
life." Civic journalism "accepts the possibility that solutions can be found to
vexing public problems and_ seeks out those solutions_ without advocating one
over another." It "encourages - even facilitates - the democratic process_
perhaps by finding ways to bring [people] into public discussion."
Some proponents argue that civic journalism expands the social responsibility
theory by creating an emphasis shift from the journalist to the citizen -
"talking with" instead of "talking at" people. Civic journalists take an
active role in initiating dialogue among themselves, the public and leaders
about issues of public concern. They try to move beyond providing information
and public awareness of issues and attempt to "advance public inquiry, increase
understanding and spur public participation to urge solutions."
Yet, critics fear that civic journalism is embarking on a slippery slope into
advocacy journalism, a move they perceive threatens to destroy traditional
journalistic objectivity. Some critics, such as Max Frankel of the New York
Times and Leonard Downie of the Washington Post, argue that journalism must
remain detached to retain its credibility. To focus on "solutions and
[community] connections will inevitably distort the news agenda, devalue
problems for which no easy remedy is apparent, and end up compromising the
paper's independence." Other critics charge that it panders to the public
and advertisers, becoming more a marketing ploy than a journalistic endeavor.
Civic journalism efforts draw heavily on works by scholars in other disciplines
such as pollster Daniel Yankelovich's Coming to Public Judgment: Making
Democracy Work in a Complex World; David Putnam's writings on civic engagement
and democracy, and philosophical, political and theoretical works such as Jurgen
Habermas' theory of the public sphere. The movement has been embraced by several
media and civic foundation think tanks such as the Poynter Institute for Media
Studies, the Kettering Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust.
Although civic journalism is still in its infancy, the literature on it is
growing quickly. In Public Journalism & Public Life: Why Telling the News is
Not Enough, Davis "Buzz" Merritt Jr., editor of the Wichita Eagle, argues that
journalists can help "revitalize public life and restore the core importance" to
the journalistic profession by "becoming fair-minded participants in public life
rather than detached observers." Merritt argues that understanding the
philosophy behind the public (or civic) journalism efforts is critical. Public
journalism is more than techniques. It is "a philosophical journey because it is
a fundamental change in how we conceive or our role in public life."
Subjects in this study Q-sorted opinion statements about the role of journalism
in society and about civic journalism. Because a variety of working definitions
of civic journalism exist and there is vigorous debate on the topic,
participants were left to define the term for themselves. In this way,
researchers could explore the attitudes, beliefs and values of working
Q methodology was the research method of choice for several reasons. First, it
is especially well-suited to exploring and measuring people's subjectivity.
Through the Q sorting process, individuals may reveal attitudes, beliefs and
values of which they themselves may have been previously unaware. Beyond that,
the Q method provides a mechanism by which subjects can be grouped with others
sharing similar subjective orientations. And last, through the use of a
questionnaire accompanying the Q-sort, individuals can explain their thoughts
about the stimulus statements provoking the strongest responses, whether
positive or negative.
THE Q SAMPLE
The 48 Q sample statements ultimately used in the study were chosen from an
initial group of more than 700 statements, which were derived from interviews
with journalism graduate students, faculty and professionals as well as from
reviews of scholarly literature and trade publications about traditional and
Groups of statements relating to journalism economics and education were
identified in the literature and interviews. In addition, six bipolar thematic
groups emerged. Each group was characterized as follows, with the first term
representing civic journalism ideals and the second term being more
representative of traditional journalism ideals:
y public as agenda-setters/journalists as agenda-setters.
Proportional balance was maintained between all thematic groups as the
statements were culled further through critical review and two pre-tests.
Redundant, ambiguous and "double-barreled" statements were eliminated. In this
way, the wide range of viewpoints present in the initial Q population statement
group was still represented in the final 48 Q sample statements.
THE P SAMPLE
In order to best represent a cross-section of attitudes, beliefs and values,
subjects were drawn from two distinct population groups - The Mobile (Ala.)
Register, a mid-size daily which practices mostly traditional journalism and the
Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, Merritt's mid-size daily which practices civic journalism.
A group of 40 subjects - 20 from each newspaper -- participated in the study.
Subjects were instructed to read self-referent statements (see Appendix 1), and
place them in a forced distribution along an 11-point measurement scale where -5
represented "most disagree" and +5 represented "most agree." The 40 resulting Q
sorts were correlated and factor-analyzed using the QUANL program, following
normal Q methodology procedures.
Standardized statement arrays for each of the four types are presented in
Appendix 1. For any type, the two highest (+) or lowest (-) z-scores can be
considered equivalent to +5 or -5 on the original 11-point scale.
Interpretation of each of the four factors was accomplished through the use of
three things: the factor arrays resulting from individual Q sorts (see Appendix
1); demographic data collected as part of a brief questionnaire accompanying the
Q sort packet; and individual comments made about statements with which subjects
most agreed or disagreed. The interpretation also includes a direct comparison
of the arrays between each pair of types.
This study builds on a pilot study completed by the authors in 1996, "Civic
Journalism and Perspectives on Journalism and Democracy," which included
subjects drawn from four separate population groups in a Midwestern community
including a major university. They included undergraduate and graduate
journalism students, journalism educators and professionals employed at print or
broadcast media outlets in the area. Four factors developed from the results of
this study which were somewhat different from those developed in the current
study, but which offer evidence for many of the same conclusions about civic vs.
traditional journalism in America. Subjects leaned one way or the other, but the
subjects seemed to believe the ideals overlap, and some of journalism's most
basic values were shared by all factors. The 1996 study indicated that civic
journalism should not be considered, as one journal stated, either "the death or
savior" of journalism. The relationship between the philosophies in the minds of
journalists is far too complex.
Four types developed from the results of this study: the Responsible Liberal,
the Neutral Observer, the Concerned Traditionalist and the Civic Journalist.
THE RESPONSIBLE LIBERAL
Responsible Liberals think the ideals of objectivity and social
responsibility serve journalism well, but they are open-minded toward civic
journalism. They like the civic journalism ideals of getting closer to the
citizens, but are not "activists" calling for a new press system. Ten of the 11
people on this type say they practice civic journalism.
The Responsible Liberal thinks journalists should remain detached,
reporting on issues of importance in a healthy democracy to an intelligent,
rational audience. Responsible Liberals also embrace social responsibility,
acknowledging the media's freedom belongs to the people and should be used for
the welfare of society. Responsible Liberals are practitioners of civic
journalism, but they are ambivalent or opposed to some civic journalism
concepts, and they remain much less pessimistic about the current state of
journalism than reformers.
The Responsible Liberal sees the media's role as one of providing a
"window" to the world, pointing out issues and problems for public scrutiny
(z=1.99). The average citizens are intelligent and capable of rational choice
(z=1.56), so the journalist's job is not so much solving social problems as
revealing them (z=1.30). A proponent of objectivity, the Responsible Liberal
believes the journalist's "central mission" is to report and analyze news, not
to shape it or direct outcomes (z=1.20). One Responsible Liberal writes, " A
Journalist who thinks it's his or her role to solve problems is a journalist
with an agenda. Let's focus on showing the way to solutions." The Responsible
Liberal believes good reporters have always listened to citizens (z=1.26). But
this does not mean it's the media's responsibility to get people to participate
in democracy; providing people with the information to participate is enough
(z=1.26). The Responsible Liberal doesn't see the need for major changes in the
practice of journalism, disagreeing with the statement that reporters have to
change the way they do journalism if democracy is to survive (z=-1.25). The
Responsible Liberal doesn't think there should not be any strings attached to
First Amendment press rights; freedom of the press is a conditional freedom that
should be evaluated based on media performance was the most strongly opposed
The media should be responsible, and generally they are, the Responsible
Liberal believes. Freedom of the press does not belong to editors and publishes,
but to the people (z=1.20), and the media should be socially responsible to
contribute to societal welfare (z=.97). The media play a role in democracy by
sharing information and providing a forum for discussion (z=1.98). Responsible
Liberals believe the media should provide more than just facts, but the media
should not be blamed for a lack of public knowledge or interest in civic
affairs. According to one, "Journalism and journalists have not failed - they
are doing incredible work everyday in communities, large and small. I do not
believe the overriding goal of journalism is to make sure "public" life goes
well. Sometimes it does not go well - we should not cover that up." Responsible
Liberals disagree with the ideas that journalists have failed in living up to
their responsibilities to inform people about the challenges around them
(z=1.38), and that a new kind of press system is needed to refocus the political
Responsible Liberals seem intrigued by some of the ideas behind civic
journalism, but are not ready to embrace many of the practices. Journalism
should cover the news from the citizen up, not expert down (z=.93). The
Responsible Liberal isn't excited about but thinks it's all right for the media
to use their own resources as a civic partner (z=.64). Similarly, focus groups,
town meetings and surveys are tools journalists should use regularly (z=.59).
The Responsible Liberal implies seeing merit in civic journalism by disagreeing
strongly with the idea that civic journalism is public relations (z=-1.35). But
Responsible Liberals feel ambivalence and sometimes disdain toward some civic
journalism concepts. They disagree slightly with the ideas that journalists too
often present public life as a depressing spectacle (-.58), journalism needs a
stronger guiding ethical or moral philosophy (-.47), and that journalist's
should set a public agenda based on the public's demands (-.39). And Responsible
Liberals have hardly any feelings at all on some concepts key to the civic
journalism movement: the journalist's role is to enrich the civic life of the
community (z=-.08), and it's the media's role to bring people together to solve
society's problems (z=-.05). Perhaps most telling is the Responsible Liberals's
strong disagreement with the statement that it is journalism's responsibility to
make sure public life goes well (z=-1.73).
There are 11 Responsible Liberals, the largest sort. Eight are women, three are
men. One is Asian, the rest white. Six are from Wichita, five from Mobile.
THE NEUTRAL OBSERVER
Neutral Observers believe the journalist's central mission is to report and
analyze the news, not to shape it or direct its outcomes (z=2.13). They do not
believe the journalist's responsibility is to fix what's wrong in a community
(z=-1.53), or to ensure that public life goes well (z=-2.38). Instead, they see
the media as windows to the world, institutions that point things out and hold
problems up for scrutiny (z=.95). They believe journalists should reveal social
problems, rather than attempt to solve them. (z=1.32)
Neutral Observers feel more comfortable when the media serve as independent
watchdogs over society's institutions than when they take an active role in
solving social problems (z=1.45). They believe the media should provide factual
information and let the public decide where the truth is (z=1.26). They do not
think journalists have failed to live up to their responsibilities to inform
people about the challenges around them (z=-.83) nor do they think reporters
need to change the way they do journalism if democracy is to survive (z=-1.29).
And like all of the groups represented here, they strongly disagree with the
notion that "freedom of the press is a conditional freedom that should be
evaluated based on performance" (z=-1.46).
Neutral Observers see the media's role in a democracy as separate from the
political process. For example, they disagree with the statement, "Journalists
should work to improve the way in which they participate in politics instead of
denying that such participation exists" (z=-1.15). They believe a
democracy requires shared information and a means to discuss it (z=1.22).
Consequently, they think the media's responsibility is not to get people to
participate in a democracy, but to provide people with the information they need
to take part in one (z=1.46).
These individuals are suspicious of the need to "get back to the people"
trend in some newsrooms, believing that, in many cases, it amounts to little
more than a commercial response to newspapers' declining market penetration
(z=1.58). They are the only group in this study who agree with the statement,
"civic journalism is public relations - what the promotions department does,
only with a different name and a fancy evangelistic fervor" (z=.52).
These individuals also question the professionalism of turning to readers
for a news agenda (z=-2.16). They think it's lazy journalism when reporters rely
on citizen groups to tell them what to write about (z=1.20). They disagree with
the idea that opinion polls are a good way to find out what people think
(z=-.89) and with the suggestion that focus groups, town meetings and phone
surveys are tools journalists should use regularly (z=-1.13). However, their
reluctance to follow a "public agenda" does not mean they discount the value of
ordinary citizens as sources for news. Neutral Observers, more than any other
group in this study, still believe it is a journalist's responsibility to cover
the news from the citizen up, and not from the expert down (z=.98). They also
believe, like all of the factor groups, that journalists have time to gather
opinions from the community. However, unlike the other groups, they disagree
with the statement that "good journalists have always listened to citizens."
(z=-.2) This may be attributable to this group's reluctance to acknowledge any
relationship between journalism and civic life.
More than any other group, the Neutral Observer is radically committed to
journalistic neutrality. It is, for example, the only group to disagree that
"the mass media's potential to contribute to the general welfare of society
carries a corresponding social responsibility." (z=-.18). It is the only group
to disagree that "the role of the media in society is to create forums for
dialogue and sometimes to use their own resources as a civic partner (z=-.50).
And it also is the only group to disagree that "the media are too powerful to
pretend they have nothing to do with social well-being." (z=-.61). Likewise,
this is the only group to agree that mobilizing support for public projects is
not the business of journalists (z=.44) and that subsidizing and promoting
events to get citizens involved in civic affairs is not the job of newspapers
Neutral Observers is most highly correlated with type one (.492) and least
highly correlated with type four (.122). Among the groups represented in this
study, these traditional journalists are least likely to support the ideas
espoused by civic journalists.
This group has 10 people, nine of whom are women. One person is from
Wichita, the rest from Mobile. Their ages range from 23 to 53. There are seven
caucasians, two African Americans, and one person who responded "other." Only
one person in this group practices civic journalism.
THE CONCERNED TRADITIONALIST
The Concerned Traditionalist believes in traditional journalistic ideals
and the sanctity of the First Amendment, but is uncomfortable with some current
media practices, especially their inadequate coverage of the poor and
minorities, their tendency to sensationalize news and their presentation of
public life as depressing. Although the Concerned Traditionalist sees changes as
needed and necessary, he or she has not coalesced a singular vision of what
needs to be changed or how to accomplish it.
The free press, he or she strongly believes, does have a social
responsibility to the general welfare of society, (z=1.75) a responsibility to
try and "fix what's wrong." (z=-1.08) But that responsibility is fulfilled when
the press reports and analyzes the news, letting the public decide on reactions
to problems. (z=.94) "Great journalism isolates wrongs and holds them up to the
community," one says.
Concerned Traditionalists might consider getting involved in community
activities themselves (z=-1.85), and even promoting events to get citizens
involved in public affairs. "It is difficult to report on a community you don't
love or respect," another respondent says. But the Concerned Traditionalist is
adamant that journalists are not responsible for making sure public life goes
well (z=-1.51). Some activism is approved, but the media should not involve
themselves in directing the outcomes. The Concerned Traditionalist is even
stronger in his or her belief that journalists should not set a public agenda
based on public demands. (z=-1.96) "We can't write or not write about something
because of anyone's demands," one argues. "The public can't always get what it
thinks it wants."
But the Concerned Traditionalist wishes journalists were closer to the
attitudes and opinions of the public (z=1.04; 32, z=1.58), though he or she is
somewhat cynical about new techniques used to accomplish it. Public opinion
polls, for example, are a bad idea, (z=-1.22) as are methods for gathering
anonymous comments. "I have seen, time and again, my own newspaper fall on
stories when it is too influenced by unscientifically conducted polls and
anonymous call-in opinion lines. Such features may entertain and sell but are
not serious journalism," another says. Although the Concerned Traditionalist
sees a close relationship with the public as desirable, he or she also tends to
believe that the motive behind recent "get back to the people" trends at some
newsrooms is little more than a commercial response to the declining
circulations in the business. (z=.93)
In terms of serving the public interest in today's journalism, there are
failures that need to be addressed. The Concerned Traditionalist believes that
simply listening more to citizens and endeavoring to distance themselves from
government leaders would improve the situation. (z=1.03) "Citizens are still the
most important part of journalism," one respondent says. "We are not here to
serve politicians." Reporters should develop a sense of what it is like to be
poor or a member of a minority group that is severely discriminated against.
(z=1.42) "Many of the problems we write about as journalists have to do with
poor people's issues," another says. "We need to be closer to those people to
accurately reflect their difficulties."
Concerned Traditionalists are predominantly male in their mid-30s. Twenty-five
percent are African-American. Like type 1, the Concerned Traditionalist believes
strongly that journalists have lived up to their responsibilities to inform
people about challenges around them. However, the type 1 journalist strongly
disagrees with the Concerned Traditionalists' belief that the trend to "get back
to the people" in some newsrooms amounts to little more than boosterism.
Civic Journalists appear to embrace tenets of public journalism and reject
attacks on those tenets. They believe democracy requires shared information and
a means to discuss it (z=2.19), average citizens are capable of intelligent
judgment, mature understanding and rational choice (z=1.78) and because most
Americans do not see their views and interests represented in the media, a new
kind of press is needed to refocus political debate (z=1.51).
But they feel a new kind of press system is needed to refocus the political
debate and provide broader representation in the media (z=1.51); this may help
remedy the current situation, wherein they say journalists tend to report
extreme positions rather than seeking common ground. (z=1.40). The current
approach to journalism, Civic Journalists say, relates to eroding citizen
participation in public life, and the media are part of the problem. (z=.75).
"Most (news) stories reach for external, extreme conflicts, rather than
exploring the internal values conflicts real people struggle with," one
Civic Journalists say their role is to help people confront and solve issues
and work toward public judgment (z=.98). They think it is important for
journalists to distance themselves from government leaders and get closer to
readers (z=.95), covering news "from the citizen up, not from the expert down"
(z=.94). Considering themselves citizens first and journalists second (z=1.12),
Civic Journalists believe that the First Amendment belongs to all citizens, not
just editors and publishers (z=1.07). They strongly disagree with the ideas that
relying on citizen groups to tell them what to write about is lazy journalism
(z=-1.00) and that the media should just provide facts (z=-1.14), but they draw
the line at teaching journalists to exert leadership in public service
Clearly, Civic Journalists approach their work from a new perspective, and
challenge traditional journalistic practice. "Civic or public journalism is not
just a marketing or PR plot, " one writes. "It's goal is community discussion
based on a deliberative process." Civic Journalists refute the statement that
the need to "get back to the people" trend in some newsrooms amounts to little
more than a commercial response to declining market penetration (z=-1.24). They
do not think it is enough for the media simply to provide factual information
and let the public decide where the truth lies. (z=-1.14)
Seven of the eight Civic Journalists work at the Wichita Eagle, a newspaper
edited by one of the leaders of the civic journalism movement. The attitudes
expressed by this group are consistent with a review of the literature of civic
journalism. The following comments by the Civic Journalists indicate the group's
attitudes towards public journalism:
y "Public journalism is based on the fact that democracy and free press
y "If newsrooms were more racially and socio-economically reflective of
the communities they serve, there would be a more natural ability to know
what the community is interested in and more motivation to help solve its
y "We tend to underestimate our readers _ and we are trained (often) to
shoot for the low denominator. It damages our work."
y "A journalist who doesn't get involved in community activities is like
a eunuch who tries to report on sex."
y "Insulation from involvement directly reduces understanding."
y "Being involved is how to get information and develop a strong sense
of interest and responsibility for the city."
The lively national debate over civic journalism has helped media critics more
clearly identify libertarianism and social responsibility as philosophical poles
that attract journalists. But, according to this study, "poles" may not be an
accurate description. Although the Neutral Observers and the Civic Journalists
are generally representative of the libertarian and social responsibility
ideals, the data indicate all journalists share some fundamental beliefs about
the importance of a free press and its necessary contribution to a healthy
democracy. Beyond this agreement, this study's results reflect the apparent
interest and confusion among journalists about what exactly civic journalism is.
Nearly two-thirds (26 of 40) of the journalists in this study indicated they
practice civic journalism, but their ideas of what constitutes civic journalism
and their approval of specific practices associated with it vary greatly. There
is, however, a segment of working journalists, primarily in Wichita, who have
embraced the practice and principles of civic journalism.
Of the four types emerging from this study, Neutral Observers and Civic
Journalists factor themselves toward the philosophical poles of libertarianism
and social responsibility, with the Responsible Liberals and Concerned
Traditionalists taking more centrist positions. The difference between the
Neutral Observers and the Civic Journalists is indicated by their low .122
correlation. The common ground the Responsible Liberals and Concerned
Traditionalists share with the other factors can be seen by their relatively
y Responsible Liberals correlation is .492 with Neutral Observers, .566 with
Concerned Traditionalists, and .571 with Civic Journalists;
y Concerned Traditionalists correlation is .566 with Concerned
Traditionalists, .414 with Neutral Observers, and .541 with Civic
Responsible Liberals retain some of the characteristics of classic liberalism
in their faith in the common person and open-mindedness toward new ideas and
practices. Responsible Liberals believe in the libertarian tradition that the
media's role is not to solve problems but reveal them. They think average
citizens are capable of rational thought and judgment, and as a result the media
is not responsible for getting people to participate in democracy. On these
points, Responsible Liberals agree with Neutral Observers. However, Responsible
Liberals and the Civic Journalists have the highest correlation between any two
groups. Their agreement and shared practice centers on a need for journalists to
get closer to the people in their communities. Both groups see a role for
journalists in the activities of their community and believe that journalists
should make time to gather opinions from people in the community. Both want news
coverage to start at the level of the citizen and not the expert. They both also
think journalists should distance themselves from politicians and government
leaders. Responsible Liberals are the largest type, with nearly equal numbers of
respondents from each paper (six from Wichita, five from Mobile). What separates
the Responsible Liberals from Civic Journalists is their belief in the need for
change. Responsible Liberals don't think journalists have failed in their
responsibilities and don't see a need for basic changes in journalism, while
Civic Journalists see a need for a new press system.
Among the four types in this study, Neutral Observers are the only group to
disagree with the idea that the media have a social responsibility, and the only
group to think that civic journalism is public relations and promotion. Neutral
Observers are simply opposed to many practices of civic journalism. The Neutral
Observer adheres to the watchdog role more than any other factor and is the only
group that thinks reporters should provide just factual information and let the
public decide where the truth lies. Correspondingly, Neutral Observers don't see
the journalist's role as enriching the civic life of the community and are
opposed to the use of focus groups, town meetings and surveys, all common civic
journalism tools. The agreement between the Neutral Observers and the two
centrist factors - Responsible Liberals and Concerned Traditionalists - lies
mainly where these factors retain their libertarian roots and assert a less
activist media role. The Neutral Observers distinguish themselves from the other
types by their unwillingness to support even modest changes that most
journalists believe are an improvement in practice, such as getting closer to
readers and the community.
Concerned Traditionalists are highly critical of some current journalism
practices, but they do not see the need for a new media philosophy or civic
journalism as see civic journalism as the cure for the media's problems. More
than any other type, Concerned Traditionalists see problems in journalism
practice, claiming journalists tend to report extreme positions and too often
present public life as a depressing spectacle rather than vital activity.
Despite these shortcomings, Concerned Traditionalists do not believe journalists
have failed to live up to their responsiblities, nor do they think it's the
media's responsiblity to ensure public life goes well. In this regard, Concerned
Traditionalists disagree with Civic Journalists. Concerned Traditionalists value
journalism autonomy, agreeing with Neutral Observers that journalists should not
let the public's demands set the media's agenda, and they remain skeptical about
the newspaper industry's attempts to "get back to the people.' Concerned
Traditionalists, like the Responsible Liberals, are more centrist than the other
two types, but there are some clear differences between these two factors.
Concerned Traditionalists are far more critical of journalism practice than
Responsible Liberals, and they are less optimistic. They are wary of getting too
close to the public and think journalists need to distance themselves more from
polticians and official sources. Yet, surprisingly, Concerned Traditionalists
are only moderately comfortable with the media serving as an independent
watchdog over society's institutions.
Civic Journalists distinguish themselves from the other types by their belief
that a new press system is needed. This type was the only one that thinks the
problems with the media lie in their principles, and that most Americans do not
see their views and interests represented in the media. In embracing the need
for change, Civic Journalists see their role as helping people confront issues
and work toward public judgment, which is best done by getting closer to the
citizens and further from public officials. Although Responsible Liberals and
Concerned Traditionalists tend to agree with Civic Journalists on the need to
get closer to average citizens, these two factors stopped short of Civic
Journalists' desire for a new press system.
Despite these differences, all the types share similar views on some
fundamental media ideals. As journalists, each type is critical of some
journalistic practices, but all the groups agree that freedom of the press
should be unconditional and not subject to regulation based on an evaluation of
performance. All the types agree that the media serve a vital function in the
democracy by providing a tool for sharing and discussing information, and,
quite surprisingly, all the types agree that freedom of the press belongs to the
people, not to editors and publishers. In this way, the journalists in this
study share a common vision on the media's rightful role in society. That vision
becomes splintered, however, as the debate moves from abstract ideas of freedom
and ownership to applied principles and practice.
Some journalists are struggling to redefine their field of practice and theory,
and this study shows that civic journalism has helped energize important
discourse concerning new ways of practicing journalism and the values of
libertarianism and social responsibility. Civic journalists want change to come
more quickly to the practice of journalism, with the citizen having a greater
say in shaping media content. Yet they don't appear too willing to walk too far
from the free press model and can be seen as trying to assert many of the ideals
the Hutchins Commission recommended nearly 50 years ago. What seems to be clear
from this study is that journalists' beliefs are not limited to philosophical
poles. Instead, the subjects in this study accept the idea that there is more
than one legitimate, ethical approach to journalism. The study shows that
journalists are attempting to synthesize the approaches to advance their
understanding of journalism and society.
 Werner J. Severin and James W. Tankard, Communication Theories: Origins,
Methods and Uses in the Mass Media, 3d. ed. (New York: Longman, 1992), 285).
 John C. Merrill, Legacy Wisdom: Great Thinkers and Journalism (Ames, Iowa:
Iowa State University Press, 1994), 45-47.
 John C. Merrill, The Imperative of Freedom: A Philosophy of Journalistic
Autonomy (New York: Random House, 1990), 30.
 Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm, Four Theories of the
Press (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1963), 7.
 Severin and Tankard, 288.
 J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power: The Media and Public Policy (White
Plains, NY: Longman, 1995), 7.
 Ellen F. Fitzpatrick, ed., Muckraking: Three Landmark Articles (Boston: St.
Martin's Press, 1994), 5.
 Severin and Tankard, 289.
 John C. Merrill, "Issues in Modern Journalism," The New Grolier Multimedia
Encyclopedia [CD-ROM] (Danbury, CT: Grolier Electronic Publishing, 1993).
 Severin and Tankard, 289.
 Altschull, From Milton to McLuhan: The Ideas Behind American Journalism
(NY: Longman, 1990), 283.
 John H. McManus, Market-Driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware?
(Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1994), 114.
 Theodore Peterson, "The Social Responsibility Theory of the Press," in
Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm, Four Theories of the
Press (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1963), 87-92.
 Peterson, 94.
 Tom Goldstein, Killing the Messenger: 100 Years of Media Criticism (NY:
Columbia University Press, 1989), 169-176.
 Altschull, From Milton to McLuhan, 85.
 Altschull, From Milton to McLuhan, 87.
 John C. Merrill, Dialectic in Journalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 1989), 6-11.
 Michael Schudson, The Power of News (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
 Schudson, 223.
 Thomas Winship, the former editor of the Boston Globe, indentifies some of
the early leaders of the civic journalism movement as the late James K. Batten,
CEO of Knight-Ridder; Davis "Buzz" Merritt, editor of the Wichita Eagle; Jay
Rosen, journalism professor at New York University; Ed Fouhy of the Pew Center
for Civic Journalism; Ed Miller of the Poynter Center, the Kettering and Knight
foundations; Harvard professor Robert Putnam, pollster Daniel Yankelovich and
journalists David Broder, E.J. Dionne and Hodding Carter III. Winship calls
these people a "heady_wise and eclectic group" in his article, "Civic
Journalism: A Steroid for the Press" in Editor & Publisher, (October 7, 1995):
 For further discussion on this issue, see Davis Merritt, "Public
Journalism and Public Life: A New Paradigm of Leadership Models for Community
Renewal" in National Civic Review 84 (Summer-Fall, 1995): 262-267; also Stephen
Budiansky, "The Media's Message" in U.S. News & World Report (January 9, 1995),
45-47; and Mike Tharp, "The Media's New Fix" in U.S. News & World Report (March
18, 1996): 72, 74.
 See U.S. News & World Report (March 18, 1996), 72, 74.
 See "Public Journalism: Is it the Death or Savior of the Craft?" in the
IRE Journal, (November/December 1995): 3-10.
 Rosen has written extensively about public journalism, its philosophic
foundations and its connections with democracy. For example, see "Making Things
More Public: On the Political Responsibility of the Media Intellectual," Review
and Criticism (December 1994): 363-388; Jay Rosen and Davis Merritt Jr. "Public
Journalism: Theory and Practice," An Occasional Paper of the Kettering
 Rosen, Davis "Buzz" Merritt Jr. and others have used this argument often
in numerous works.
 See "Civic Journalism: Six Case Studies," A joint report by the Pew Center
for Civic Journalism and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, (July 1995):
 Cary's comment is cited among the reviews on the back cover of Arthur
Charity's book Doing Public Journalism, New York: Guilford Press, 1995.
 For a discussion of this problem, see Davis "Buzz" Merritt's article
"Missing the Point," in American Journalism Review, (July/August 1996):29-31.
 Merritt and Rosen, "Public Journalism: Theory and Practice," 6.
 Virginia Dodge Fielder and Steven A. Smith, Knight-Ridder Inc., from a
speech given to the Newspaper Association of America Research Conference, March
 These terms are used by Bob Steele, media ethicist at the Poynter
Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, FL, to illustrate the subtle
philosophical differences in civic journalism approaches.
 Edmund B. Lambeth and David A. Craig, "Civic Journalism as a Research
Opportunity," forthcoming in Newspaper Research Journal.
 Max Frankel, "Journalists Should Leave Reform to Reformers," The Masthead,
(Fall 1995): 21-22.
 Ed Fouhy, director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, reported at the
August 1996 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
(AEJMC) conference that there is a growing interest in civic journalism
 Davis "Buzz" Merritt Jr., Public Journalism & Public Life: Why Telling the
News is Not Enough, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, (1995), 6.
 Merritt, "Missing the Point," 30.
 For an introduction to Q methodology, see Bruce McKeown and Dan Thomas, Q
Methodology, Quantitative Application in the Social Sciences (Newbury Park: Sage
Publications, 1988); and Steven R. Brown, "A Primer on Q Methodology," Operant
Subjectivity (April/July 1993): 91-138.