August 17, 2004

Don't Reflect the Community, Be the Community

When the newsroom diversity debate is in full foment and charges of indifferent white managers or recalcitrant minority journalists arc in the air, it can be easy to forget the underlying goal of diversity is not just numbers but content.

There is much talk about parity and about having newspapers reflect the communities they serve and while these goals are necessary because they compel action in an industry in which inertia is a core characteristic they are not only ultimately unrealistic for many newspapers, particularly those small publications in heavily minority communities that cannot compete in salary or location for minority journalists and are therefore the least diverse, but they also obscure their basic purpose, which is to turn their newspaper's coverage away from its traditional focus on the predominantly white institutional power structure and toward coverage of the whole community, the total community.

Newsroom diversity is not an end in itself. It is a means, but not the only means. Minority communities are under-covered not just because most newsrooms are still mostly white, but also because newspaper managers don't make coverage of the of these communities a priority, just as they don't make it a priority to increase coverage of health, home, food, travel, obituaries and the much disdained "chicken dinner" category of community announcements - all topics identified by the Readership Institute as high in reader interest.

Wait, you're saying, we have a health reporter, a travel writer and we do obituaries. Yes, I'm sure you do, but what percentage of your newsroom resources are devoted to these areas? How many editors and reporters are assigned to the health beat? How many write obits every day? By comparison, how many reporters cover cops and courts? How many of your page one or local front stories are about crime or politics or other institution-heavy topics?

A new content audit of 52 newspapers done by the Readership Institute found that:

"Two topics dominate news content - Politics / Government and Sports. Politics / Government and Sports make up nearly half of all stories in the newspapers. Stories about Ordinary People, Obituaries and Community Announcements combined comprise less than 5%. On Page 1, almost half the stories (about 45%) are about Politics / Government alone."

Horrible. With all the industry's emphasis on reflecting the community - newspapers appear to have forgotten how to cover the community. Don't interpret this as anti-diversity. [ Read: What is Diversity in Journalism? ] Diversity is necessary, but it alone doesn't insure coverage of the total community. Only decisive, continual commitment by newspapers to rearrange their priorities and abandon dysfunctional beat structures based on institutions in favor of coverage focused on the needs of the people in the community can do that.

Hodding Carter, president of the Knight Foundation, talked about newspapers and community in a terrific speech to a group of journalism educators at their recent convention in Toronto.

Journalism - and journalism education - has distanced itself from the community, created a barrier between those that cover and those who are covered, and by doing so "ducked its obligation as citizen."

"We in journalism and in the academy have been playing the wrong game, the game of separation from our own society, " says Carter. "We complain because 'they' don't read what we write, appreciate what we teach, understand the fundamentals of our trade and our society - but we complain at arms' length, from on high, from the sidelines." (Emphasis added)

This division harms newspapers in several ways. It deflates passion. How can a reporter be impassioned about covering a community he or she is not part of, geographically or intellectually? It breeds mistrust: We in the media vs. them in the public. It fosters false arguments of objectivity: A newspaper cannot be a good civic citizen because it must remain neutral.

Carter recalls a time in his youth when he worked for the newspaper in Greenville, Miss.:

"We practiced journalism with zeal and, occasionally, foolhardy abandon. We took up the implicit demands - the implicit responsibility inherent in the First Amendment - and let people know our editorial mind when most of them would have happily been spared that opportunity. We covered our region, warts and all. "And we participated in the life and civic causes of our town - Greenville, Mississippi - with avocational fervor. We saw ourselves as citizens as well as journalists. We saw ourselves not simply as a mirror reflecting what was happening in the community, or as its critics, but as indivisible from it, a piece of the community's fabric.

"We did not believe freedom of the press could be healthy in our time and place unless our time and place were healthy. We did not see our newspaper as isolated and apart from the larger society, but as integral to and dependent upon that society.

"We practiced civic journalism, public journalism, regularly and routinely, without ever having heard the term. God knows we did so with no anticipation of the intensely vapid and frequently demagogic controversy that was to surround its articulation or of the overt attempt by certain of the journalistic elites to suffocate its resurrection three and more decades later.

"For us, the journalist as citizen was not a doctrine or a debating point - it was the whole point of the enterprise." (All emphasis added.)

There it is, a definition of civic journalism so simple that it seems no journalist, no matter how hidebound, could reject it. Why shouldn't a newspaper be more than a "mirror reflecting" the community? Shouldn't a newspaper, in its roles of chronicler, watchdog, thought-leader and forum be part of the community, be institution made up of people who care about, and therefore report on, the needs of the community, and, when necessary, provide the leadership to fulfill those needs?

"We must be about the business of encouraging and supporting citizenship education, beginning in grammar schools and progressing straight through secondary and higher education," says Carter, and we, as journalists, must proclaim "the old time First Amendment gospel without sophisticated reticence or foot-dragging embarrassment. As believers, not stuttering apologists."(Emphasis added.)

Carter is correct. The debate about civic journalism should be put to rest. What other kind of journalism is there? Un-civic journalism? Given the arrival of technologies that enable all citizens - not just the newspaper - to participate in coverage of the community, the concept of public journalism is more relevant today than ever.

Journalism is embracing total community coverage with or without the help of newspapers. They have everything to gain by continuing their march toward diversity and accelerating (or in many cases, simply initiating) innovations in coverage. If they don't, and if they maintain their isolationism and their belief that community coverage depends on the color of the newsroom, they are in danger of their most valuable commodity - relevance to the community.

 Hodding Carter Giving new life to a free society

Posted by Tim Porter at August 17, 2004 09:43 AM