Tapping civic life is another name for practicing good journalism. It should be the very essence of how journalists see and relate to the world around them. It is an approach to covering a community in which a journalist seeks to understand and engage with the entirety of civic life, a life that is dynamicand complex and contains many voices, layers, institutions, perspectives and experiences. No lecture, article, or financial incentive can replace the windows that open when journalists tap into civic life. For when they do this, they examine and rethink what they think they know and how they do their work.
Yet the sad truth is that in too many newsrooms reporting on civic life becomes buried beneath the pressure of deadlines, the rush to fill news holes, and the widening separation between journalists and their communities. Journalists also bring with them preconceived notions and biases that are often not recognized. Seldom do I meet a journalist who does not care about the life of the community that he or she covers. But I do meet many journalists who resist the fullness of tapping civic life because it sounds like just another task in a long list dreamed up at an annual editors’ conference. [In journalists’ training, the words “tapping” and “mapping” are used interchangeably in presenting this approach to reporting on a community’s civic life.]
Another sad truth is that many Americans are enormously frustrated with the news media. Their laments remind me of the refrain in an old country song, “I can’t see me in your eyes anymore.” Many people feel they do not get the whole story from the news, but have to settle for partial truths and fragments instead. They complain that journalists value the most scintillating or interesting, rather than illuminating the most important, the complicated, or even the mundane. A sense of reality is missing in the news, only to be filled in by an aberration, an odd fact or event.
Pushing journalists to recognize the public’s frustrations with their work often makes them quite defensive, even arrogant, in dismissing people’s concerns. But try asking journalists two questions—“Why did you go into journalism?” and “What do you do every day?”—and the conversation shifts dramatically. In 15 years of working with journalists, I have heard their words often echo public sentiment as they yearn to find ways to report on communities with more perspective and context and depth.
The gap journalists see in their work is often about better fulfilling a personal calling or the noble purpose of their craft. For the public, it is about credibility and trust. What to do? Too often, journalists take the path of adding special one-time features or gimmicks, but fail to change the essence of what they do daily. Gallant efforts are made to get more citizens’ voices into the news, do a special project or section on an issue, hold a community forum, and run excerpts.
But the real avenues for progress lie elsewhere. These avenues lead to discovering a broader and deeper picture of communities and developing sensibilities for experiencing the breadth and depth of a community in reporting on it. Journalists are not alone in needing to seize such an opportunity. I have found similar challenges face folks from public agencies, foundations, schools and other public organizations. For a journalist to truly tap civic life, several basic questions need to be asked in new ways:
Who is an authority about civic life? And how do journalists write with more authority? Our research suggests that journalists tend to spend much of their time in two layers of civic life. First, they cover the official layer of institutions, leaders and process. Second, they turn to the private layer to get individual reaction to a news story, write profiles or cover individual tragedies or triumphs. But there are at least five layers of civic life, each providing fundamentally different insights and knowledge (authority) about communities. These layers include the official, quasi-official, third places, incidental and private. Experience in these layers broadens a journalist’s view of who speaks with authority in a community, about what and where knowledge exists. This approach changes journalism.
Routinely I hear journalists say, “Average people don’t know what they’re talking about.” This assumption is based on whether people can name a piece of legislation or some other vital fact about a story. Yet, in tapping civic life, journalists can come to see that these same people can hold different and important knowledge. Some are able to define with great complexity their concerns and why they hold them; the competing values they are struggling with; the ambivalence they might feel over different courses of action; the emotions they hold. These are critical pieces of knowledge that give journalists the opportunity to write with far greater authority; ask far better questions of citizens and leaders alike, and think far more deeply and creatively about ways in which to frame their stories.
How can journalists’ work become more authentic? And why does that matter? A clarion call in America is for leaders and institutions to act with greater authenticity. But what might this mean for journalism? Some suggest journalists and their news organizations must show they care about their communities by offering up more feel-good news, creating new marketing slogans (“We’re on you’re side!”), or by having journalists volunteer in the community.
But authenticity is not generated, first and foremost, by whether journalists undertake extracurricular activities or try to make their institutions feel kinder and gentler, but by the care journalists bring to everyday journalism. That care is defined, in part, by whether journalists are able to uncover and reflect the many dimensions of peoples’ lives, which takes root whenjournalists tap into civic life. It is then that they come to see that their questions must give people room to bring their whole lives to a response, not simply the fragment of their lives that a journalist might demand. That is how people engage. Journalists then see with greater clarity that several different views of an issue exist, and this prevents them from reflexively pursuing a master narrative of two-sided conflict or acrimony. They come to hear the language people use in their lives, and its various meanings, and to understand the implications for their reporting.
What makes journalists accountable? And why is that important? “Accountability” is often focused on what one can count. Is the news hole consistently being filled? (This is no small feat for some newspapers I’ve worked with.) Are morning newspapers hitting customers’ doorsteps on time? Have line editors and reporters met their weekly story quotas? Tapping civic life helps to emphasize additional questions of accountability, such as focusing on how journalists account for themselves in their daily work. For instance, by gaining a deeper understanding of civic life, I’ve found that journalists have a much greater willingness and openness to engage in sharper discussions about their stories, deciding whether to redo or even pull a story because it is incomplete, potentially misleading or simply misses what people need to know.
Perhaps the most powerful force of accountability is when journalists come face to face with their hidden preconceived notions and biases about the world in which they are reporting. Common biases include whether ordinary folks care about issues and are worth interviewing beyond man-on-the street quickies; whether businesspeople are concerned only about money in their interactions, or whether low-income folks ever see themselves as political actors or just powerless victims. I have found that when these biases are uncovered and talked about, it changes the very questions a journalist views as being relevant, how one listens during an interview, and the stories a journalist might pursue or even consider.
To make tapping civic life part of the culture of a newsroom is not an easy task. Many journalists resist such efforts from the get-go, saying that tapping civic life is too soft, they already do it (and some do!) or that it is simply Journalism 101. Others embrace the approach only to co-opt the language but never change their behavior. And there are those editors and journalists who say that it takes too much time.
The challenge of making this approach work in the newsroom is not to impose it as yet another project on journalists who already feel strapped for time, but to connect it to the very calling and sense of craftsmanship they yearn to pursue. Demonstrate how tapping civic life actually helps journalists fulfill this yearning. The best way to get started is to work with a small group or team of editors and reporters (which also can include photojournalists, librarians and others), and from there, step by step, spread the ideas and practices throughout a newsroom. There is little that can substitute for people gaining from their own experiences and having to produce stories; they discover for themselves the usefulness of tapping civic life.
Still, too many newsrooms will approach this idea merely as another project. Then it becomes ghettoized to a handful of weeks or stories or a special section of a newspaper. Then, like so many other efforts that come and go, tapping becomes discredited and dies—seen as just another flavor of the month.
At its core, tapping civic life poses a fundamental choice to journalists. They can “visit” civic life to do a story from time to time, or they can decide to live there—to come to know communities deeply and to have that knowledge inform their daily work.
Richard Harwood, president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, created Tapping Civic Life and has now trained scores of journalists in its approach and methods.