In light of the post-election angst gripping journalism, the biggest project I was involved with in 2016 is seeming more significant than it did even a few months ago.
It’s a project under the auspices of the Kettering Foundation to explore the intersections of journalism, citizenship and democracy.
(A bit more specifically, the project involves a number of journalism educators developing research and curriculum that will help teachers prepare their students to create journalism that serves democracy better. The first phase is wrapping up with publication of some academic research on the topic; we’re now designing what the next stage will be.)
Problems with the Fourth Estate
In an era where journalism is thought somehow to have failed democracy in the run-up to the 2016 election, or at least under-performed in its role to help democratic practice, the search for creative solutions about improving that performance seems vital. The stakes are even higher when journalism’s systemic shortcomings are compound by a soon-to-be president who presents fabrications as statements of fact to such a degree that even his advisers say he should not be taken literally. Meanwhile, he and his supporters actively work to undermine the work of legacy news outlets because they disapprove of what is being reported.
All of this adds up to serious problems for American democracy. As Alexander Meiklejohn observed nearly 70 years ago, democracy works only when citizens are informed well enough to participate effectively in self-governance.
This is also common sense; without good information to use as a basis for democratic decision-making, how can we as a people possibly expect good decisions about self-governance?
But assorted problems posed by misinformation and filter bubbles that serve only to reinforce political beliefs create publics that make political decisions rooted in a warped sense of reality.
A different view of democracy
To be clear, the Kettering project that I have been engaged with won’t offer any panaceas against these and other media system failures that have been highlighted and analyzed since Nov. 8. Rather, it is about answering the question: “What would a journalistic system operating more effectively in service of democracy look like?” – taking the construct of “democracy” a bit broader than electoral politics.
Some background may be helpful here. The Kettering Foundation promotes research about getting democracy to function as it should by examining “what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.” To enable this, Kettering says, democracy requires:
- Responsible citizens who can make sound decisions about their future and can act on these decisions;
- A community, or a society of citizens, that can work together to address commons problems; and
- Institutions with public legitimacy that contribute to strengthening society.
When examined from this perspective, an answer to the question “How can journalism operate more effectively in service to democracy?” becomes more manageable because it addresses how news organizations can contribute to the conditions described in those bullet points. And if you know where to look, some answers to that question already can be found in the form of emerging organizations that seek to connect journalists, citizens and institutions in a common cause of solving community problems.
News experiments take a different tack
In classic “Fourth Estate” theory, as distilled by Meiklejohn, political information shared through the media informs, educates, and mobilizes citizen action. This happens both through voting and other means; Kettering focuses primarily on the “other means.” The present breakdown in the system arises from abundant misinformation plus news consumers’ over-reliance on a social-media sharing system that has proven wholly unreliable in circulating the “good stuff” – even when it is out there in the political ecosystem.
But experiments are under way that seek to construct news coverage in ways that really do connect and mobilize citizens through a focus on civic engagement.
For example, Hearken, the Engaging News Project and the Coral Project all seek to bring audiences and journalists closer by developing and promoting ways to give audiences a role in deciding what gets covered and how the coverage unfolds.
It turns out that when journalists truly engage with their communities, their work can have greater impact. An American Press Institute study of the journalistic engagement process, for example, pointed to a listening-first project about covering public education conducted by the Seattle Times that led to deep public involvement in crafting solutions for problems in the schools. In a similar vein is the Solutions Journalism approach, which emphasizes explaining root causes behind social problems and describing how individuals and groups within a community can best respond to them. The Solutions Journalism network has documented more than 1,500 stories taking such an approach.
Experiments offer promise for future
Clay Shirky’s famous 2009 blog post “Thinking the Unthinkable” is, in my judgment, one of the most prescient pieces ever written about journalism. For those who haven’t read it, the essay mostly concerns the inevitable collapse of a business model for printed newspapers and concludes on the note that what matters is not saving newspapers, but rather, saving journalism.
For that to happen, Shirky says, “Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments. … No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.”
In other words, what we need is not one big thing doing the job that newspapers did in service of democracy, but many different approaches each doing a portion of the job. I believe that we are beginning to see this happen with some of the new approaches putting journalism’s focus in civic engagement.
It’s legitimate to have some Game of Thrones-style “Winter is Coming” fears for journalism in some regards. But, like early spring crocuses and daffodils poking through the snow that winter brings, some new engagement-oriented approaches connecting journalists with their communities are helping to create an atmosphere as described by Meiklejohn at the important local community level.