“Community engagement,” for media ranging from start-ups to established dailies or weeklies, was a key discussion theme during the “Journalism That Matters” conference at the University of Denver, April 3-4, 2013.

    These and other topics produced an array of ideas—many with inherent ethics issues—on what 21st century journalism should be. A key ethics question, which found no final answer at this conference, was how—and whether—to balance an activist approach with the detached perspective that mainstream journalism has usually tried to maintain.

    One conference session wrestled with whether it’s possible for media to move their audiences to act on issues without becoming advocates themselves, and also reached no final conclusions. But in his keynote speech, Bill McKibben, a leading activist and founder of the climate-action group “350.org,” argued that climate-change reporting requires something other than “objectivity” and would be the ultimate test of whether journalism can serve as society’s early warning system.

    “I’m more comfortable than I was when I started with journalism and movements . . . being intertwined,” he said. “The natural outcome of good journalism is to make people care, (and) go do something about something.”

    More than 60 people from across the country attended the conference, sub-titled “Journalism is Dead; Long Live Journalism.” Many said they were trying to work with their communities to produce social change, using journalism as a tool. Others are focused on creating a community or hyper-local news outlet in what they called “media deserts”—places that aren’t served, or are under-served, by mainstream media, or where language or other barriers exist to media access.

    Attendees included five of the seven board members of Journalism That Matters (JTM), which describes itself as “an evolving collaboration of individuals” that aims to convene and connect “people who are shaping the news and information ecology so that journalism serves the needs of individuals and communities to be self-governing.”

    The JTM Web site adds that it views journalism as a conversation, a perspective it calls “a groundbreaking shift from journalism as a lecture.”

    One suggested approach to community (or civic) engagement was to replace editorial boards with “engagement boards” that would include community members as well as editorial staff. This, supporters said, would provide meaningful audience input on editorial stands and, perhaps more important, on what news to cover.

    The suggestion came from Dan Moulthrop, the “curator of conversation” and co-founder of The Civic Commons in Shaker Heights, Ohio—a social media environment designed for civic (and civil) conversation and thoughtful dialogue. 

    Ted Anthony, editor-at-large for the Associated Press, said he preferred the term “civic involvement” to “engagement.” But either way, he said, the key question is how to get started on discussions a community needs to have but doesn’t want to begin.

    Rita Andolsen, director—since last August—of advocacy and community initiatives for WKYC-TV (the Gannett-owned NBC outlet in Cleveland), provided one possible “civic engagement” model. Andolsen spent the prior six years as the station’s news director, and said her new position was created to leverage the station’s influence by blending journalism and advocacy to produce positive change in the community—but without giving up the newsroom’s journalistic integrity.

    So far, she said, the station is one-for-one, with the strong support it gave to a school tax levy increase that passed last fall after failing a half dozen times in the past. The campaign used school children as the focus of on-air editorials explaining why the increase was needed, and drew no backlash whatever, Andolsen said.

    A second conference theme was inclusiveness, particularly in reaching “the communities we don’t hear from.” One suggested approach was to work with non-profit agencies to reach the people who think local media outlets were never interested in their stories, and then to gather and report those stories. Another was to show clearly how news impacts underserved and under-informed communities in a real way—something that the non-profit news outlet OaklandLocal.com does well.

    Michelle Ferrier, an associate professor of communications at Elon University and a JTM board member, cautioned that efforts to be more inclusive should avoid making “engagement” a synonym for “privilege” by excluding people who lack the time, money or resources to “engage.”

    Mike Fancher, another JTM board member (and executive editor of The Seattle Times for two decades until his retirement in 2008), suggested the need for a revamped journalism structure that would recognize more gatekeepers for the news process.

    One useful change, he suggested, would be “a system where those who understand the process of news reporting and distribution would teach everybody else” to become proficient at it. A second change, he said, would be to have journalists look for points of commonality rather than focusing on points of disagreement.

    Kelly McBride, senior faculty member in Ethics at The Poynter Institute, said that Poynter and CQ Press will publish a book this summer discussing changes in journalism ethics for the digital age. The book, with contributions from 14 writers on ethics, will include a new code designed to replace SPJ’s Code of Ethics. The new version will retain the SPJ emphasis on truth-telling, she said, with two chapters devoted to how one determines whose voices to use in finding “truth.” One new and crucial focus of the Poynter code will be on transparency, McBride added.

    Tom Stites, head of the Haverhill (MA) Banyan Project, said he has now completed all steps required to be certified as a consumer cooperative (in this case, news consumers) by the National Cooperative Business Association. He said he hoped this model could be used elsewhere to finance news operations that would serve existing “media deserts.” 

    As the conference wrapped up, participants were asked to summarize what they thought it had pinpointed as essential to a healthy 21st century news/information ecosystem. The two statements which drew the greatest agreement both dealt with civic engagement: “Nourishing community engagement is journalism’s bedrock purpose,” and a commitment “to putting engagement at the center of our work.”

A. David Gordon

  • Note: Portions of this report were originally written for the May, 2013 newsletter of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. Gordon, a member of the ISWNE board, is a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and senior author of Controversies in Media Ethics, 3d. ed.