Civic Journalism: What Do the Readers Think?

June 27, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

A new way of covering the news -- de-emphasizing conflict and political machinations, stressing citizens' concerns and ideas about solving problems -- may be coming to a newspaper or television station close to you.

,6p,42l Or it may have already arrived. With remarkable speed, a wave of ''civic'' or ''public journalism'' is spreading coast to coast.

Civic journalism is a revulsion against the usual election-campaign coverage rituals of ''horse race'' polling, ''sound-bite'' reportage and television attack ads.

The Wichita Eagle and Charlotte Observer blazed the trail in their 1992 election coverage, switching the focus of their campaign coverage to issues their readers -- through polls and in-depth interviews -- said concerned them the most. Top billing went to candidate positions on citizen-identified issues rather than stories flowing from political charge-and-countercharges and reporters following the normal ''insiders'' game.

Candidates quickly learned a new day had dawned. When Sen. Terry Sanford said he wasn't ready to state a position on the environment, the Observer (working in partnership with WSOU-TV) told him on that issue there'd be white space beside his name. Mr. Sanford quickly relented.

In 1992, the Eagle launched a ''People Project'' of even broader import than sensitized election coverage. Through surveys and extensive interviews, citizens focused on problems local government seemed unable to solve -- faltering schools, crime and the lure of gangs, family and neighborhood tensions, and health care.

The Eagle carefully reported and analyzed each problem and then printed pages of community forum dates and times, plus lists of groups working on solutions. The newspaper's role, said editor Davis Merritt Jr. is to provide ''a huge and accessible marketplace where ideas can be formed and exchanged -- not simply ideas about what's wrong, but ideas about solutions.''

Now, as the '94 elections approach, a flood of papers, television and radio stations are moving to the new coverage style. In Florida, an unprecedented combine of six newspapers is conducting joint statewide polls to identify the issues on voters' minds, preparing to grill gubernatorial candidates on those issues. The papers -- critics call them the ''cartel'' -- include the Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Tallahassee Democrat, Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), Bradenton Herald and Boca Raton News.

In California, the San Francisco Examiner, working jointly with KQED public radio and KRON-TV, has confronted gubernatorial candidates with ''Voice of the Voter'' questions identified in citizen polls. A very reluctant Kathleen Brown -- then front-runner and later winner of the Democratic primary -- found herself obliged to engage in a televised debate with opponents. The clincher: an argument that by staying out, she'd be avoiding questions posed directly by voters.

The Examiner and its partners make it clear they'll not neglect their basic investigative watchdog role, in and outside of the election season.

Some journalists deride the idea of putting citizen views at the center of election coverage. Ex-New York Times reporter Susan Rasky, in a California Journal column, called the ''Voice of the Voter'' effort ''pseudo-journalism'' and ''a perhaps well-intentioned but ultimately hare-brained notion.'' The ''dirty little truth'' acknowledged by reporters and politicians, she wrote, is that the ''vox populi may not be all it's cracked up to be'' -- that voters, for example, often want contradictory things.

Her quote pinpoints the issue. The public journalism community, observes Jay Rosen of New York University, believes firmly ''that average citizens are capable of intelligent judgment, mature understanding and rational choice if offered the opportunity.''

If polls show citizens have inconsistent goals -- longer criminal sentences but no new prisons, for example -- then public journalism's expanded issue discussions should foster more realistic debates.

A healthy free press and a strong civic culture -- ''binding people to their communities, drawing them into politics and public affairs'' -- are interdependent, insist Mr. Rosen and Edward Miller of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Voters, they say, need ''to see 'the system' as theirs -- public property rather than the playground of insiders or political professionals.''

Buying into those ideas, National Public Radio has signed up 86 of its member stations to approach this year's elections by surveying voter attitudes, holding community forums and working with local newspapers and television stations to produce lively, ongoing political coverage with a heavy citizen participation.

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