Civic Journalism

I knew this would come up sooner or later in the context of both the Lebanon situation and the Daily Barometer, so I want to take a second and introduce the idea of civic journalism, also known as public journalism.

Specifically, I was prompted by this comment at LT’s blog by Express reporter Larry Coonrod, speaking for himself about the role of journalists:

Our job is to fairly and accurately report the facts surrounding the issue and let our readers make up their own minds.


This is, in a sense, absolutely uncontroversial. It is orthodox to journalism. It’s an idea that has, in no small amount, defined an era of journalism, from roughly WWII onward. Implicit in this comment is a belief in the ability of journalists to be neutral.

That idea also happens to be problematic. The world has changed significantly in that time, as has humankind’s understanding of ourselves and our societies. That idea, however, has not changed.

I am thinking of Howard Zinn’s book (and DVD) You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

The world today is a moving train. No question about that.

As I wrote about the Barometer situation:

Journalists, like everyone else, bring to work with them the sum of their experiences and their values – and are therefore not the neutral or objective actors that ancient media theory hold them to be.


This, of course, holds just as true for the Lebanon Express and Albany Democrat-Herald as it does for the Barometer.

No one can completely remove themselves and their values from their work. Every decision made about what to cover, and how, and who to ask for quotes, and where to do research – all of those reflect in some sense both professional values and personal values.

If journalists are no longer the neutral, objective actors they used to be, if they must take a position, then what position should they take?

Enter Civic Journalism:

The civic journalism movement (also known as public journalism) is, according to professor David K. Perry of the University of Alabama, 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 growing following, civic journalism has become as much of an ideology as it is a practice.


I actually think that the DH and also the Corvallis Gazette-Times are doing a good job of opening themselves up to the public in some ways (see the community forums of the DH and the 10-part series on Corvallis at the GT). It’s harder for a smaller paper like the Lebanon Express to do so, but I’d like to see it nonetheless.

Then there is the Daily Barometer. Of all of the aforementioned newspapers, the Baro needs to be the most responsive to the community, and needs to allow for the most engagement on the part of its readers.

Needless to say, it is not. In fact, I would go so far as to say the Baro is digging its own grave in the long term if it refuses to acknowledge the nature of its own existence and instead pretend it’s somehow removed from the community. That position is increasingly untenable.

I understand the desire for editorial independence (though the Barometer does not have it even by their own definition). But opening up the paper’s internal workings/production process to readers (and staff!) and increasing community participation does not have to undermine that independence – as long as the integrity of the editorial staff is solid. Right now, of course, the integrity of the editorial staff is under question.

What is the Barometer going to do to (re)gain credibility among its audience?

How is the Express going to envision its own role in the slow-motion meltdown of the Lebanon School Board? How is the community going to view the Express?

Civic Journalism provides good answers to those questions.

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Explore posts in the same categories: daily barometer, journalism, LCSD, media, newspaper, theory

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