Citizen journalism is good. Civic journalism is better.

I think it’s time to move away from the low standards of citizen journalism to a higher standard of civic journalism. A different ethos now has to infect our newsrooms if our journalists are to avoid repeating the transgressions of the Ian Alleyne’s “Crime Watch”.

In a previous post, I mentioned that the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago had issued a legal letter to CCN TV6 and forwarded a copy to the Director of Public Prosecutions in view of the fact that the airing of a video clip on CCN TV6 allegedly depicting the rape of a 13-year-old girl may have constituted a breach of the station’s own ethical guidelines, a breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and a breach of the Sexual Offences Act.

I described the situation as a watershed moment because TATT’s action, indirectly, issued a call to all media practitioners and media houses to consider more deliberately the need for principled self-regulation in editorial decision-making.

Central to the discussion about principled editorial decision-making is the question of what fundamental responsibility, if any, the journalist has to society. As Klaidman and Beauchamp point out, “We cannot reasonably demand that the press give an account of itself or improve its performance until we determine what it is the press is responsible for doing” (p. 210).

Many scholars and practitioners have considered this fundamental question. The preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics (Society of Professional Journalists, 1996) suggests that the journalist has a civic duty to further public enlightenment, justice and democracy by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. A central goal of civic journalism is to invigorate people to address issues in a powerful, focused way that shows how ordinary individuals can make a difference.

Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001) identify six broad principles of journalistic responsibility to wider society: disinterested pursuit of truth; loyalty to the public; commitment to the rigour of diligent verification; independence from other interests, including employers and subjects; independent monitoring of the powerful few in society; and brokering for public debate, criticism and compromise. The authors’ position appears to be that the journalist’s primary responsibility is to report factually and impartially on relevant issues and current events.

Voakes’ (1999) highlights four dimensions and indicators of civic journalism: enterprise, information for decision-making, facilitation of discourse, and attention to citizens’ concerns (p. 759).

And Nip (2008) lists six ideas and techniques that are components of civic journalism. His list includes listening to the public to help shape the news agenda, giving ordinary people a voice, and covering stories in a way that facilitates public understanding and stimulates citizen deliberation of the problems behind the stories (p. 180).

However, even among proponents of civic journalism, no consensually delineated definition of the term has yet emerged. Since its emergence in the United States of America following the 1988 Presidential Elections, civic journalism has become highly contested as a theory and as a practice (Davis, 2000).

I tend to agree with Rosen (2000), who says that civic journalism involves: “seeing people as citizens rather than spectators…making it easier for people to become engaged in, as well as informed about public life, local culture and politics. Seeing discussion and debate as democratic arts that journalists have a clear interest in strengthening…learning to frame the news in a way that invites people into civic activity and political conversation…reducing the personal and professional costs of an unearned or reflexive cynicism that is strongly rooted in newsroom culture. Finally, reclaiming for trained professionals a stronger civic identity, so that journalists can be better citizens and better journalists for fellow citizens” (p. 680).

Nobody rises to low expectations. I think we all need to get past the sensational so-called “citizen journalism” of Ian Alleyne and reach for a higher standard of civic journalism.

References

Davis, S. (2000). Public Journalism: The case against. Journalism Studies , 1 (4), 686-8.

Klaidman, S., & Beauchamp, T. L. (1987). The virtuous journalist. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2001). Elements of journalism: What newspeople should know and the public should expect. New York: Crown Publishers.

Nip, J. (2008). The last days of civic journalism: The case of the Savannah Morning News. Journalism Practice , 2, pp. 179-196.

Rosen, J. (2000). Questions and answers about public journalism. Journalism Studies , 4 (1), 679-82.

Voakes, P. (1999). Civic duties: Newspaper journalists’ views on public journalism. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly , 76, 756-774.

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