Civic journalism (also known as public journalism) is the idea of integrating journalism into the democratic process. The media not only informs the public, but it also works towards engaging citizens and creating public debate. The civic journalism movement is an attempt to abandon the notion that journalists and their audiences are spectators in political and social processes. In its place, the civic journalism movement seeks to treat readers and community members as participants. With a small but committed following, civic journalism has become as much of a philosophy as it is a practice.
In the 1920s, before the notion of public journalism was developed, there was the famous debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey over the role of journalism in a democracy. Lippmann viewed the role of the journalist to be simply recording what policy makers say and then providing that information to the public. In opposition to this, Dewey defined the journalist's role as being more engaged with the public and critically examining information given by the government. He thought journalists should weigh the consequences of the policies being enacted. Dewey believed conversation, debate, and dialogue were what democracy was all about and that journalism has an important piece of that conversation.
Decades later Dewey's argument was further explored by Jay Rosen and Davis Merritt, who were looking at the importance of the media in the democratic process. In 1993, Rosen and Merritt formed the concept of public journalism. In their joint "manifesto" on public journalism that was published in 1994, Rosen explains that "public journalism tries to place the journalist within the political community as a responsible member with a full stake in public life. But it does not deny the important difference between journalists and other actors including political leaders, interest groups and citizens themselves...In a word, public journalists want public life to work. In order to make it work they are willing to declare an end to their neutrality on certain questions – for example: whether a community comes to grips with its problems, whether political earns the attention it claims.”
According to the now dormant Pew Center for Civic Journalism, the practice "is both a philosophy and a set of values supported by some evolving techniques to reflect both of those in journalism. At its heart is a belief that journalism has an obligation to public life – an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts. The way we do our journalism affects the way public life goes." Leading organizations in the field include the now dormant Pew Center, the Kettering Foundation, the Civic and Citizen Journalism Interest Group in the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) and the Public Journalism Network.
Although they developed the concept of public journalism together, both Rosen and Merritt have differing viewpoints on what exactly public journalism is.
Rosen defines public journalism as
a way of thinking about the business of the craft that calls on journalists to (1) address people as citizens, potential participants in public affairs, rather than victims or spectators; (2) help the political community act upon, rather than just learn about, its problems; (3) improve the climate of public discussion, rather than simply watch it deteriorate; and (4) help make public life go well, so that it earns its claim on our attention and (5) speak honestly about its civic values, its preferred view of politics, its role as a public actor.
Rosen explains five ways to understand public journalism:
- As an argument, a way of thinking about what journalist should be doing, given their own predicament and general state of public life.
- As an experiment, a way of breaking out of established routines and making a different kind of contribution to public life.
- As a movement involving practicing journalists, former journalists who want to improve their craft, academics and researchers with ideas to lend and studies that might help, foundations and think tanks that gave financial assistance and sanctuary to the movement, and other like minded folk who wanted to contribute to the rising spirit of reform.
- As a debate with often heated conversation within the press and with others outside it about the proper role of the press.
- As an adventure, an open-ended and experimental quest for another kind of press.
Merritt, on the other hand, explains that it is the responsibility of the journalist to act as a fair-minded participant in the public arena. His famous analogy of the journalist having the same role as a sports referee best depicts this idea:
The function of a third party – a referee or umpire or judge – in sports competition is to facilitate the deciding of the outcome. Ideally, the official impinges on the game; if things go according to the rules, he or she is neither seen nor heard. Yet the presence of a fair-minded participant is necessary in order for an equitable decision to be reached. What he or she brings to the arena is knowledge of the agreed-upon rules, the willingness to contribute that knowledge, and authority – that is, the right to be attended to. The referee's role is to make sure that the process works as the contestants agreed it should. In order to maintain that authority, that right to be heard, the referee must exhibit no interest in the final score other than it is arrived at under the rules. But, both for referees and contestants, that is the ultimate interest. It is important to remember that the referee doesn't make the rules. Those are agreed on by the contestants – in this case, the democratic public. The referee, rather, is the fair-minded caretaker. What journalist should bring to the arena of public life is knowledge of the rules – how the public has decided a democracy should work and the ability and the willingness to provide relevant information and a lace for that inofrmation to be discussed and turned into democratic consent. Like the referee, to maintain our authority – the right to be heard – we must exhibit no partisan interest in the specific outcome other than it is arrived at under the democratic process.
In a National Public Radio interview Merritt summed up civic journalism as "a set of values about the craft that recognizes and acts upon the interdependence between journalism and democracy. It values the concerns of citizens over the needs of the media and political actors, and conceives of citizens as stakeholders in the democratic process rather than as merely victims, spectators or inevitable adversaries. As inherent participants in the process, we should do our work in ways that aid in the resolution of public problems by fostering broad citizen engagement."
According to The Roots of Civic Journalism by David K. Perry, the practitioners of civic journalism – who saw the movement's most drastic growth in the early 1990s – have always adhered to the basic tenets of public journalism:
- "Attempting to situate newspapers and journalists as active participants in community life, rather than as detached spectators."
- "Making a newspaper a forum for discussion of community issues."
- "Favoring the issues, events and problems important to ordinary people."
- "Considering public opinion through the process of discussion and debate among members of a community."
- "Attempting to use journalism to enhance social capital."
Usually formulated by a few devoted members in a newsroom, civic journalism projects are typically associated with the opinion section of papers. These projects are usually found in the form of organized town meetings and adult education programs. The Public Journalism Network explains that "journalism and democracy work best when news, information and ideas flow freely; when news portrays the full range and variety of life and culture of all communities; when public deliberation is encouraged and amplified; and when news helps people function as political actors and not just as political consumers."
Key proponents of civic journalism
- David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation and a supporter of civic journalism states that, "when people are in the business of making choices, they are going to look for information to inform their choices." Mathews affirms that civic journalism is aimed at aligning journalistic practices with the ways that citizens form publics, in turn creating a more efficient and reciprocal way of communicating with readers.
- Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, is one of the earliest proponents of civic journalism. From 1998–99, Rosen wrote and spoke frequently about civic journalism. He published his book, What Are Journalists For? in 1999 about the early rise of the civic journalism movement. Rosen writes a popular blog called PressThink.
- W. Davis "Buzz" Merritt Jr., a former editor of The Wichita Eagle, is another pioneer of civic journalism. Merritt is a key advocate for news media reforms, and published his book Public Journalism and Public Life in 1995. Merritt began exploring civic journalism after acknowledging loss of public trust in traditional journalistic values. Merritt feels that journalists need a clear understanding and appreciation for the interdependence of journalism and democracy.
- James W. Carey, a media critic and a journalism instructor at Columbia University, was an advocate for the public journalism movement. He saw it as a "reawakening of an antecedent tradition of journalism and politics, one that emphasizes local democracy, the community of locale, and citizenship as against the distant forces that would overwhelm it...public journalism performs a great service in reminding us what is work protecting."
- Citizen Voices
The Citizen Voices Project was one newspaper’s attempt to facilitate civic conversation within the diverse city of Philadelphia. Citizen Voices came into effect in 1999, during a very close mayoral election between a black democrat and a white republican. Citizen Voices was modeled on the National Issues Forum and was intended to amplify minority voices not frequently acknowledged in the political realm. Forums were held throughout the city, facilitating deliberation of the most important issues facing citizens: jobs, neighborhoods, public safety, and reforming city hall. Essays written by Citizen Voices participants were published in the commentary pages of The Philadelphia Inquirer, while the editorial board framed its coverage of the campaign around the five designated issues. While the Citizen Voices Project did not increase voter turnout, it has given journalists a new perspective on how to cover urban political issues.
- The Front Porch Forum was introduced in Seattle in 1994 through a partnership between the Seattle Times newspaper, KUOW-FM radio station and the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. The mission of the Front Porch Forum was to strengthen communities through news coverage that focuses on citizens’ concerns, encourages civic participation, improves public deliberation and reconnects citizens, candidates and reporters to community life. Over the course of 5 ½ years, the Seattle Times and KUOW-FM featured a series of stories highlighting issues that affect Seattle residents, and encouraged readers' participation.
- Robert Cribb is an investigative reporter for the Canadian newspaper the Toronto Star. He has written several stories about modern slavery, irresponsible doctors, organized crime and corruption within government. Cribb is well known for his Dirty Dining series about the amount of health inspections that are conducted at Toronto restaurants and how that information is dealt with.  This led to a disclosure policy in Toronto that requires restaurants to post the results of their health and safety inspections in their front windows, which is one of the first of its kind in Canada.
- American journalist Matt Taibbi wrote a highly publicized article in 2009 called “The Great American Bubble Machine" exposing the historical corruption of Goldman Sachs since the Great Depression until today. He described Goldman Sachs as being "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."
- Rosen, Jay (2001). What Are Journalists For?. Yale University Press. p. 75.
- Pew Center for Civic Journalism, "Doing Civic Journalism," at http://www.pewcenter.org/doingcj/, accessed Dec. 25, 2008
- Glasser, Theodore (1999). The Idea of Public Journalism. Guilford Press. p. 44.
- Glasser, Theodore (1999). The Idea of Public Journalism. Guilford Press. p. 22.
- Merritt, Davis (1998). Public Journalism and Public Life. Routledge. pp. 94–95.
- Jeffrey A. Dvorkin. 2001. "Can Public Radio Journalism Be Re-Invented?" National Public Radio interview with W. Davis "Buzz" Merritt Jr. (Dec. 30) at http://www.npr.org/yourturn/ombudsman/2001/010705.html, accessed Dec. 25, 2008
- David K. Perry, Roots of Civic Journalism: Darwin, Dewey, and Mead. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.
- Public Journalism Network, 2003. “A Declaration for Public Journalism,” (25 January), at http://www.pjnet.org/charter.shtml, accessed Dec. 25, 2008
- Jay Rosen. What Are Journalists For? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
- Glasser, Theodore (1999). The Idea of Public Journalism. Guilford Press. pp. 63–64.
- Cribb, Robert (February 2000). "Dirty Dining". Toronto Star.
- "How Freedom of Information Requests Can Impact Your Life". Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada. Retrieved 2010.
- Taibbi, Matt (2010). "The Great American Bubble Machine". Rolling Stone.