The Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press released its report in 1947. During this, its 60th anniversary, it is appropriate to revisit the roots of social responsibility, particularly to examine the forms its descendants have taken. This paper illustrates how civic journalism became the "next generation" of social responsibility in the press. It compares the five recommendations of the Hutchins Commission to civic journalism, and examines other similarities to illustrate how closely the concept of civic journalism relates to its social responsibility predecessor.

In its infancy, civic journalism (also known as public journalism) seemed to defy definition. In 1995, its co-founders, Jay Rosen and Davis (Buzz) Merritt (then-editor of the Wichita Eagle), clarified the movement in Imagining Public Journalism: An Editor and Scholar Reflect on the Birth of an Idea (1995). Rosen held that civic journalism consists of at least three components. First, it is an argument about the role of the press and a call to "help citizens participate and take them seriously when they do" because "journalism cannot remain valuable unless public life remains viable" (p. 14). Second, civic journalism is a set of practices undertaken by news organizations that are designed to help citizens engage in civic life, and third, it is a movement to "recall journalism to its deepest mission of public service" (p. 16). For the purposes of this article, civic journalism will be defined as these founders did.

The Hutchins Commission

The work of the Hutchins Commission began in 1943. It was spearheaded by Robert Maynard Hutchins, an educator and lawyer who became president of the University of Chicago at age 30. He took the post of chairman of the commission at the urging of magazine publisher Henry Luce, of Time, Inc. who, according to Bates (1994), funded the inquiry to the tune of $200,000, but had no control over its membership, deliberations or findings. Hutchins personally chose the other members from among the foremost scholars and intellectuals in the United States at that time, most of whom were connected in some way to the University of Chicago or Yale University.

The Hutchins Commission produced its general report, A Free and Responsible Press (Leigh, 1947); the statement of principles, Freedom of the Press: A Framework of Principle (Hocking, 1947); and other books on related topics. A Free and Responsible Press served as the core of the commission's findings. After the introduction, the statement of the problem is given, followed by five recommendations. The members stated that they had "no idea" whether these recommendations would ever be met and acknowledged that no one medium could meet them alone. These recommendations were:

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 the exchange of comment and criticism.

3.Project a representative picture of the constituent groups in society.

4.Be responsible for the presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the society.

5.Provide full access to the day's intelligence. (Leigh, pp. 21-28)

The Hutchins Commission Recommendations and Civic Journalism

An analysis of the five recommendations of the Hutchins Commission as they relate to the early years of civic journalism makes the connections between them strikingly evident. It also makes clear that civic journalism demands that journalists go beyond the call for responsibility to adopt an even deeper level of commitment.

The first major recommendation required a "truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events, in a context which gives them meaning." This called on the press to be accurate, but also to go beyond the facts and report the "truth about the fact[s]." This suggested a need to outline the larger context of news stories and called for reporters' interpretations. Civic journalism addresses this recommendation in numerous ways. For example, it questions the reliance of traditional journalism on a context of conflict vs. connectedness. Glasser and Craft (1996) stated that civic journalism "strikes a hopeful tone" as a replacement for the "ironic tone that enables journalists to report the news while conveying, quietly and discretely, their disgust for it" (p. 8). Merritt (1995) also challenged journalism to provide context. He suggested a more active role for journalists beyond the "bare provision" of information and analysis, moving to a middle ground between conveying information and engaging in activism. This allows civic journalism to "advance the broad goal of increasing civic capital while maintaining the legitimate and necessary aspects of journalism's traditional 'Fourth Estate' role" (p. 8).

The second Hutchins Commission recommendation called for journalists to provide "a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism." Members feared that with media ownership falling into fewer hands, controversial ideas would not be given a voice in the press. Though the commission recognized that not every individual citizen could be heard, they suggested that the media "assume the duty of publishing ideas contrary to their own" on a regular basis (Leigh, p. 24).

Civic journalism addresses this recommendation with the notion of opening the editorial pages. For example, the Spokane Spokesman-Review abandoned the title "editorial page editor" and declared its opinion pages a forum for civic journalism. It regularly issued invitations for reader-written copy on unorthodox topics to run on the editorial page (Sheppard, p. 18).

Also considered civic journalism, newspapers and television stations arrange physical forums for public debate. Rosen cited the Norfolk Virginian Pilot's project to "cover politics and government in a more public way":

Among the techniques they employ is the use of small deliberative forums, what they call "community conversations" not to ask people what they want to read, or to survey their opinions, but to discover how non-professionals name and frame issues. (Merritt & Rosen, p. 15)

Many other news organizations have undertaken civic journalism projects that included forums. Most of them began as election projects designed to establish the citizens' agenda rather than let politicians, handlers, or the press drive the coverage (Schaffer & Miller).

The third recommendation requires the press to "project a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society." This recommendation asks that the media be aware of under-represented groups of all varieties and specifically denounces displaying only the "weaknesses and vices" of a particular group (Leigh, p. 26).

Many civic journalism projects have focused on under-represented areas of coverage, often minority coverage, and worked to facilitate dialogue among divergent groups. The Akron Beacon-Journal's project, "A Question of Race," organized focus groups to facilitate open dialogue. Editor Dale Allen echoed a common response of civic journalists involved in this kind of work: "If a few more people in the community begin having dialogue, starting talking to each other for the first time in their lives, then there's been some success" (Waddell, p. 2).

The fourth recommendation is for "the presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the society." This recommendation emphasizes that the media need to recognize their power as "an educational instrument, perhaps the most powerful there is" to influence and educate. It asks the press to assume responsibility in "stating and clarifying the ideals toward which the community should strive" (Leigh, p. 28).

Doug Clifton of the Miami Herald, a paper that was actively involved in civic journalism, stated that newspapers should participate "not by dictating a solution, but by facilitating broad, purposeful discourse on issues, and by celebrating victories." Clifton also called for "diagnostically noting failures, by encouraging citizens' involvement" and by outlining and assessing available courses of action (Steele, p. 3).

Rosen argued that, under civic journalism, not only should the press present societal goals and values clearly; sometimes they also should actually create them:

Good journalism requires more than good journalists-more even than enlightened ownership, First Amendment protections, and a strong economic base. For without an engaged and concerned public, even the most public-minded press cannot do its job.. This is precisely the predicament of the American press today. It addresses a "public" it does little to help create.. Rather than assuming that a vibrant civic culture exists-or simply lamenting its absence-the public journalist takes responsibility for helping to support and even create it. (Rosen & Merritt, pp. 6-7)

The final recommendation is for the press to provide "full access to the day's intelligence." This recommendation advocates that citizens in a democracy should have access to information to ensure a democratic government that is "carried on by consent" (Leigh, p. 28). Black interpreted this as a break from libertarian theory, wherein the responsibility for being fully informed is placed entirely on the shoulders of the individual, as well as a profound move toward social responsibility. Following this recommendation, Black asserted that the press should take on the primary responsibility for informing the citizenry (Black, p. 608).

Brian Steffens addressed this type of responsibility when he called on journalists to be "more proactive" than simply "dropping an exhaustive 10-part series in the reader's lap," or listing legislators' addresses and phone numbers. He said that journalists must take more responsibility to bring the readers "face to face with their leaders in a so-called town hall meeting," adding, "We may have to schedule it, promote it, maybe even rent the hall" (Steffens, p. 16).

Similarities between the Origins of the Hutchins Commission and Civic Journalism

As similarities are evident when comparing the five recommendations of the Hutchins Commission to civic journalism, further parallels can be found when examining the origins of civic journalism and the Hutchins Commission.

Philosophy: The principles section of the Hutchins Commission report articulates the philosophical underpinnings of the commission's work. Early in the meetings, philosopher William Hocking (1947) submitted an essay on freedom, liberty, and legal and moral rights in a democracy, which became the outline for the principles section of the report. The Commission articulated the core of its meaning as a shift from the right of the press to publish to the duties that accompany it. The commission clearly did not deny the press's right to publish, but declared:

The element of duty involved in the right requires new scrutiny; and the service of news, as distinct from the utterance of opinion, acquires a new importance. The need of the citizen for adequate and uncontaminated mental food is such that he is under a duty to get it. Thus his interest also acquires the stature of a right. To protect the press is no longer automatically to protect the citizen or the community. The freedom of the press can remain a right of those who publish only if it incorporates into itself the right of the citizen and the public interest. (Leigh, pp. 17-18)

In analyzing the commission's philosophical framework, Fackler stated that the members clearly recognized their "place in the vortex of the crisis of democratic values." He characterized the commission members as a group that came together when the country was "entering the nuclear age [as] a world power without a world view. Aware of the passage during which they worked, Hutchins and his colleagues sought a press theory adequate to their present crisis and durable for the next" (Fackler, p. 358).

As the Hutchins Commission had philosophical underpinnings, so too did civic journalism. Jチrgen Habermas has been the most noted philosopher cited regarding the foundation of the civic journalism movement. According to Glasser and Craft, his work is integral to the philosophical groundwork of civic journalism. Specifically, they addressed his writing on the collapse of "public discussions about the exercise of political power which are both critical in intent and institutionally guaranteed," as well as the recognition that "the communicative network of a public made up of rationally debating private citizens has collapsed" (Glasser & Craft, p. 9).

Responsibility: The Hutchins Commission stated that the forces of economic logic had created an "omnibus product" that included something for everyone (Leigh, pp. 52-53). It blamed the effort to please all in an attempt to increase profits for the press' shortcomings:

When a journalist says that a certain event is news, he does not mean that it is important in itself. Often it is; but about as often it is not. The journalist means by news something that has happened within the last few hours which will attract the interest of the customers. (Leigh, pp. 54-55)

This drive damages the news because it leads to an emphasis on the sensational rather than the significant. As a result, event-driven news lacks a context and robs the society of its need for analysis and issue coverage. While the commission did not necessarily object to reporting events, they said that the press' preoccupation with it resulted in news designed to "catch headlines" that did not provide citizens with the information they needed to participate in a democracy. They charged that the press focused on the novel and sensational to fulfill the profit interests of media owners, and the result was a "miscellaneous succession of stories and images which have no relation to the typical lives of real people anywhere" (Leigh, p. 68).

In the early stages of civic journalism's development, strong voices such as that of David Broder of the Washington Post fueled it. Broder also objected to the content of news; however, he did not criticize event-driven news, but election coverage. He asserted that radical changes would have to occur after the troubling 1988 elections left journalists concerned that the political process of which they were an integral part was empty at best and dangerous to democracy at worst. His words would become a vital underpinning of the civic journalism ideology concerning political coverage. Broder (1990, p. B1) argued that there existed a great chasm between the "campaign process and the governmental process" and that a shift would have to occur to not merely substitute the press' agenda for the politicians', but to put the American voters "in the driver's seat." In particular, Broder (1991, pp. 7-11) attacked the manipulation of political advertising during the 1988 campaign and suggested a "repositioning" on the part of the press to gain distance from politicians and move closer to the voters. Specifically, he suggested that political reporters switch from the common practice of spending most of their time with politicians to spending a much larger percentage with common people for the purpose of understanding and clarifying the public's agenda-which should drive the campaign's coverage.

Societal Fears: In the 1930s and 1940s, the international scene was turbulent, with many countries using their press for indirect or direct government control, as propaganda devices instead of news services. Well aware of the international instability, the Hutchins Commission members were apprehensive about the possibility that the U. S. government would seek to take control of the American press system. They were specifically concerned that no clear policy defined the role for agents of mass communication after World War II (McIntyre). The commission lamented the rise of totalitarian doctrines, wherein the state was valued over individuals, who became "merely instruments" of the state's purposes (Leigh, p. 4). The report warned that the defeat of the German and Italian governments was no insurance that the potential for this doctrine's growth had been permanently defeated.

Though with differing catalysts, both the Hutchins Commission and civic journalism were born in times of strong societal fears of an American democracy in danger of collapse. In the early 1990s, James K. Batten discussed these threats and addressed the growing evidence that millions of "our fellow citizens feel little interest in-or responsibility for-their communities." He pointed to decreasing voter turnout as the most obvious sign of deteriorating public participation. Batten said others also felt the sense of a community breakdown, including John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, who said that "the sense of community" and "any common venture" is increasingly rare (Batten, p. 5). In Public Journalism and Public Life, Merritt outlined the disintegration of democracy as evidenced by "sodden and largely ineffective" formal politics, as well as a "civic-ethic" that is increasingly "inward-looking" as citizens become more isolated and insular in their communities and activities (Merritt, 1995, p. 8).


When the Hutchins Commission gathered in the 1940s, it was from a vantage point uncomfortably close to the propaganda machines of wartime. Based on the post-war fear that the U. S. democracy would be in danger if the press were not responsible and thereby lost its freedom to government control, the commission said that owners of the media had to recognize some moral duty. Specifically, they said:

[The press] must be free for making its contribution to the maintenance and development of a free society. . . . It must be accountable to society for meeting the public need and for maintaining the rights of citizens and the almost forgotten rights of speakers who have no press.. Freedom of the press for the coming period can only continue as an accountable freedom. Its moral right will be conditioned on its acceptance of this accountability. (Leigh, pp. 18-19)

From the Hutchins Commission roots, civic journalism arose and found its footing some four decades after the commission released its historic report. Civic journalism resounds with the ideas of the Hutchins Commission, but also takes its place as the next generation when it demands a further expansion of the paradigm of social responsibility. Civic journalism calls on the press to "recognize its role in fostering public participation and public debate [and] expects the press to acknowledge that the decay of democracy . . . requires a commitment from the press to improve the conditions for self-governance" (Glasser, 1986, p. 3). In addition, while the Hutchins Commission saw solutions in the public taking a distant posture toward the press and the press itself taking primary responsibility for democracy, civic journalism challenges the public as well to take responsibility for the survival of American democracy. The public is asked to engage in a joint venture with the press, and civic journalism provides ideas and actions that help the public and the press work together to strengthen the democracy.


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Judy Buller is associate professor and chair of the Communication Program of Notre Dame de Namur University (Belmont, CA). Her E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2007 (18:2), pp.9,25-28.