Civic journalism

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."[1]


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."[2] Leading organizations in the field include the now dormant Pew Center, the Kettering Foundation, the Participatory Journalism Interest Group (formerly named 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.[3]

Rosen explains five ways to understand public journalism:

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 information 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.[5]

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."[6]

Main tenets

According to The Roots of Civic Journalism by David K. Perry,[7] 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:


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."[8]

Key proponents

Case studies

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.


  1. Rosen, Jay (2001). What Are Journalists For?. Yale University Press. p. 75.
  2. Pew Center for Civic Journalism, "Doing Civic Journalism," at, accessed Dec. 25, 2008
  3. Glasser, Theodore (1999). The Idea of Public Journalism. Guilford Press. p. 44.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Glasser, Theodore (1999). The Idea of Public Journalism. Guilford Press. p. 22.
  5. Merritt, Davis (1998). Public Journalism and Public Life. Routledge. pp. 94–95.
  6. Jeffrey A. Dvorkin. 2001. "Can Public Radio Journalism Be Re-Invented?" National Public Radio interview with W. Davis "Buzz" Merritt Jr. (Dec. 30) at, accessed Dec. 25, 2008
  7. David K. Perry, Roots of Civic Journalism: Darwin, Dewey, and Mead. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.
  8. Public Journalism Network, 2003. “A Declaration for Public Journalism,” (25 January), at, accessed Dec. 25, 2008
  9. Jay Rosen. What Are Journalists For? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
  10. Glasser, Theodore (1999). The Idea of Public Journalism. Guilford Press. pp. 63–64.
  11. Cribb, Robert (February 2000). "Dirty Dining". Toronto Star.
  12. "How Freedom of Information Requests Can Impact Your Life" (PDF). Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada. Archived from the original (PDF) on April 4, 2013.
  13. "The Great American Bubble Machine"
  14. Taibbi, Matt (2010). "The Great American Bubble Machine". Rolling Stone.

External links

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