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Citizen news: A democratic addition to political journalism

Sociologist Herbert Gans argues it’s time for political reporting to stop focusing solely on the elites and experiment with new models for bottom-up journalism.
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Editor’s note: Herbert Gans is one of America’s preeminent sociologists, and some of his most notable work has come in examining the American news industry. His seminal 1979 book Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time was born out of years spent in newsrooms, watching how the never-ending flood of human activity was distilled into the news. Here he argues for a new area of emphasis in political reporting for a democratic society — what he calls citizen news.

Journalism and the news media are supposed to be a bulwark for democracy. But through their history, they have more often served as messengers for the high-level public officials whose actions and pronouncements they report regularly. Political news has not paid much attention to the citizenry.

True, citizens — like the 127 million Americans who voted this month, and the approximately 100 million who didn’t — may not always seem particularly newsworthy. But even so, political journalism should figure out how to add what I’m calling citizen news to what it delivers to audiences. More important, citizen news ought to become a standard category in the news and be visible enough to show the role that citizens play in democracy. Citizens may not make news very often — showing up only in poll numbers and vote totals — but the category should be available when they do. Perhaps the mere existence of the category will even turn them into more frequent newsmakers.

What’s needed are stories about what citizens are doing directly and indirectly in the political process. Or, to put it more broadly: what they, politicians, and political institutions do with, to, and against each other, at all levels of government.

Journalism and the citizenry

The political news delivered by the major news media is mostly top-down; it is made by and flows from high-level public officials to an audience whose citizen role is usually ignored. Conversely, these media rarely send news from the bottom up.

To be sure, journalists are not primarily responsible: American politics has never given citizens much to do other than vote every couple of years. Since most citizens play no other regular role in politics, they have never been particularly interested in political news — which is one reason why day-to-day political news has always been so top-down.

In addition, journalists are not very helpful to citizens. They supply what they perceive to be newsworthy facts as well as authoritative opinions, but citizens must draw their own conclusions. They receive little analytic help to understand how American politics, the political economy, and for that matter, the American economy, work.

Kinds of citizen news

What I’m calling citizen news would take three forms.

One is about citizen political activities in general — and thus not necessarily only about partisan ones. This would include stories about local community meetings, including what goes on behind the scenes. Whatever other contact citizens have with politics and government is citizen news too — for example, experiences at motor vehicle bureaus, welfare agencies, and the tax assessor’s office. Where do politicians and citizens lunch together? News from there is citizen news.

Citizen inactivity is also a story, especially when people are expected to be active. News about nonvoters is particularly important, because their failure to vote affects elections and thus what elected officials can and cannot do.

A second form of citizen news should report what elected and appointed public officials are doing and not doing for citizens. With whom do they and their staffs meet, and with whom do they not? Whose requests and demands do they respond to and whose do they ignore? These are all newsworthy subjects.

So are meetings of lesser-known elected and appointed boards, and those that go on in the mayor’s, city manager’s, governor’s, and other offices. Citizens should also know more about who is invited to the Oval Office. Even routine meetings and gatherings may make important or interesting news for some citizens.

Citizen news should be especially interested in the governmental agencies that supply the public services essential to everyday life. Federal agencies should not be newsworthy only at times of natural disaster. Local reporters should cover the sanitation department, police stations, and firehouses, and agencies with inspection duties — especially in poor and rich neighborhoods where services may be out of the ordinary.

The routine activities of public bureaucracies may seem cut and dried — except when they are not. What goes on between meetings or behind the scenes will sometimes turn up news that citizens need to know.

Citizens are affected by more than public agencies; journalists should be reporting on the activities of lobbies and lobbyists wherever they work, including at the local level. The activities of corporate lobbies affect the citizenry, but so do citizen lobbies, such as those looking out for senior citizens, veterans, and poor people.

Citizen news should pay particular attention to the likely effects on citizens of decisions public officials make or participate in making. Determining these effects is difficult, especially when they vary for different sectors of the citizenry, but who may benefit and who might be hurt by public decision making is vital citizen news.

A related story is which citizens public officials keep in mind, ignore, and forget about when they make budget and other important decisions. Poor people and library patrons are almost always the first victims when city budgets must be cut, but the whys and wherefores of this pattern are rarely covered. Stories about the victims of such decisions at the state and federal level should be yet more newsworthy.

Even if the economy lacks a citizenry, citizens should have access to economic news relevant to their concerns. Economic powerholders often make more significant decisions, with more widespread and serious effects, than politicians do. Citizen news should therefore end journalism’s tradition of covering government continuously but the economy only sporadically, leaving it to business journalists when it is relevant to their beat.

The third form is citizen-relevant service news: whatever journalists find out that serves, hurts, or is otherwise relevant to people’s lives. Journalists assigned to citizen service news should report regularly on the quality of public services, whether these are supplied by government agencies or by publicly subsidized agencies. They now cover instances of corruption but they do not often report instances of incompetence and other failings.

Shouldn’t citizens know which hospitals provide the best nursing care, or which government branch offices have the shortest waiting lines? And now that newspapers no longer make big money from classified ads, they or other news media can more freely report on who is hiring and laying off workers.

Possibilities and problems

“Citizen” is a deceptive and slippery term, and I use it here almost as a synonym for political civilian or resident. It covers everyone — including felons, immigrants who will become citizens, and undocumented ones who perhaps will not. Even the president of the local electric company and the head of a multinational corporation are citizens, although they are more likely to be newsworthy in their business leadership roles than as citizens.

Citizens have different positions in the economic, social, and other hierarchies. They pursue different and often conflicting interests. Consequently, citizen news often deals with the same conflict, competition, and struggle as other political news.

Unfortunately, citizen news rarely makes headlines. It is also, on its own, unlikely to attract sizeable audiences or free spending advertisers, and therefore may not be a money making enterprise. And because citizens are not full-time political actors, citizen news will probably never generate enough stories, ongoing or otherwise, to fill vast amounts of empty time or space. It may be no more than a weekly or fortnightly page in a newspaper, or a weekly half hour program on radio or television. The likeliest platforms are to be found on the web, and citizen news websites are probably the best way to begin. In the longer run, citizen news should be a regular category on the websites that might eventually replace printed newspapers and television news programs.

Citizen news will not be easy to cover. Citizens and their organizations rarely have spokespersons or other functionaries to generate news coverage or help reporters. Citizen news may thus require more legwork than other political news. But since citizens are not professional politicians, beginning journalists, supervised stringers, and even experienced amateurs — the so-called citizen journalists — can probably do a goodly share of the reporting.

The practices of current objective or balanced reporting could be applied; in theory at least, reporters do not have to take sides. Objective reporting designed to minimize angering anyone may be more difficult, citizens being more thin-skinned than professional politicians. However, citizens may want reporting that offers opinions and takes sides; it could even attract larger news audiences. Thus, commentary might have to be added to citizen news fare. Some citizen news might end up in partisan formats, or in forms that cater to different genders, classes, and races. In any case, citizen news can only flourish if it transcends — and violates — the pieties of civic reporting.

Conclusion

For now, citizen news is an idea for discussion: whether and how it can be initiated and how it can survive. If it is worth trying, experiments with various kinds and formats of citizen news are in order to determine what is of most significance to the major sectors of citizens and what will attract an audience. The experiments must also determine whether citizens can, in fact, be regular newsmakers and whether the three kinds of citizen news I have outlined will be sufficiently newsworthy. Perhaps foundations can fund such experiments and journalism schools can carry them out and evaluate them.

However, citizen news may not be a feasible project until citizens need to take a more active interest in political news.

Such a possibility is not out of the question in the future, particularly if some current economic trends persist. If rates of unemployment and underemployment should remain high and economic growth low, government eventually may have to take a more direct and active role in assuring people’s economic survival. In that case, they will need more information from and about government than they do now — and citizen news might quickly become newsworthy.

Herbert J. Gans is Robert S. Lynd Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Columbia University. He is the author of, among other books, Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time (1979/2004), one of the most important sociological accounts of how journalists do their work, and Democracy and the News (2003).

Photo by Mark Sardella used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/ Medicalquack

    I have a lot of what you want over at my blog and have for a few years:)  I agree though on the sad state of affairs on journalism but it’s not all their fault either as their job description usually require they get rated and the OMG and drama queen stuff wins hands down all the time so if journalists really start covering what matters they might be out the door looking for another job.  I try to be fair and get down to the real cause and not attack people functioning in algorithmic designed jobs too much as they didn’t create them:)

     I am also doing my best to bring folks into the world of reality since I used to write code and also have a sales background so I’m strange hybrid running out here:)  Most of the time both don’t mix well in the same brain:)  Our big problem is math and the fear people have as there was a big PLOS one study on this and how the fear creates physical pain and I think they are on to something so much that I blogged it as I get the same stuff with consumers frowning and wimping at just the mention of it and programmers fell pain too with complicated formulas.  I wonder what the real pain level is for quants.  Here’s the published study….

    http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/2012/10/algo-duping-plos-one-journal.html

    I see a lot of complaining but you are right with nobody doing much more than complaining so I broke that mold a while back and here’s one great example on how to tax data sellers that make billions in profits, nobody sees this but heck Walgreens in 2010 made short of $800 million in selling data only so how’s that for reality reporting:)  It is a wake up call to look at a tiny bit of math and reality.  It is why manufacturing can’t compete and create jobs all all companies just hire a few geeks and mine data to make profits as the risk exposure is minimal by comparison to building factory and hiring people  This is why we are screwed with those over inflated valued intangible algorithms, Wall Street did it.  Taxing data sellers could fund the NIH and FDA too, a good thing. 

    http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/2012/09/one-more-good-reason-to-tax-data.html

    Just come over and visit the Medical Quack when you get tired of these same old stuff as I try to keep it interesting for sure and bring some very technical stuff down to the layman, having been a former programmer and coder gives one such great visualization powers and I’m not alone, listen to the good ones that are not writing code just for profit and are advancing human kind.  

  • http://mathew.blogactiv.eu mathew

    Journalists will cover “citizen political activities … meetings of lesser-known elected and appointed boards, and those … in the mayor’s, city manager’s, governor’s, and other offices … who is invited to the Oval Office…” if there’s a market for it. And frequently do. Or did.

    “Citizen news should be especially interested in the governmental agencies that supply the public services essential to everyday life … [and] should cover “what elected and appointed public officials are (not) doing for citizens”. Haven’t you just described normal journalism, given that government agencies and programmes are – either directly or indirectly – run for citizens?

    Journalists already cover “the quality of public services … [and] the sanitation department, police stations, and firehouses, and agencies with inspection duties”, if there’s a market for it.

    Similarly for covering “activities of lobbies and lobbyists”. Sounds like normal journalism to me. As does covering “which hospitals provide the best nursing care, or which government branch offices have the shortest waiting lines”.

    These are all journalistic staples. Why give it a different name?

  • dhymers

    “The political news delivered by the major news media is mostly top-down; ” And utterly as irrelevent as the politicians that it features.

    Journalism as a profession has become a bit of a fractured and failed “Bulwark of democracy” because faux objectivity is a staple of salable “news” but this is what people do want, as mentioned, partisan news is sickeningly popular; in depth analysis and balanced coverage is less so.

    The best media sources which consistantly deliver “actionable intelligence” and not news are those that are 100% independent and pledge no alligence to either ideology or political faction. I’m unsure that developing a citizens news beurea would avoid this divide, especially since newsprint, airwaves and computer screens are already filled every flavor of news to choose from, and everything however banal is news.

    My local paper is a good example of one that discusses community issues and the views of citizens at length, they also have a frequent turnover of interns, publishing fresh content, it also publishes opinion pieces, not just letters, by regular citizens. The dynamic of a local paper is still a pretty consistently good model for dissemnination of important local news, I hold that its not going to vanish beneath a trillion websites, it still offers one thing they struggle to do: locality, and unsolicited opinions of your own community members, so it is a ripe arena for conflict and discourse of which citizens can’t pick and choose.

    Blog networks and social media also fill a bit of space that a citizens buerea might fill, people follow and read the opinions and posited facts of regular citizens and professional journalists alike, and are free to compare, contrast and discuss.

    Interesting piece and concept, but it is a bit like reinventing the wheel.

  • http://linkedin.com/in/bobjacobson Bob Jacobson

    Community-media activists promoted these ideas in the 1970s during the emergence of the Public Access movement to democratize cable — which regrettably has only become more monarchical and impenetrable.  The roster of activists has changed a bit, but the effort to create citizens media continues unabated.  Just Google “community media” for a list of participants.  Gans is a distinguished sociologist — a very great one — but like many academics, he deals in ideal forms and perfect types.  His article ends with the same conundrum, we can’t get citizens more involved until citizens care more.  Sorry, that’s a non-starter for those of us who’ve made lifelong careers of encouraging and actually doing in some cases community — “citizens” — media.  So what do we need?  Money, exposure, volunteers, time.  Same old, same old.  So how do we get it?

  • MarvinSRobinsonII

    Maybe through this article and format we can almost find / or discover a path – or road towards becoming almost like HUMAN BEINGS again.  VETERANS are being openly and flagrantly denied access to protections of the ” DEPRIVATION of RIGHTS Under the COLOR of the LAW” with DENIALS of UTILITY services: while at the same time we have some of the most expensive UTILITY fees and cost in the entire country in the urban poor low-ncome Black residentail community of Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kansas !!!
    Then the local government continues to escalate the taxes and then very sleekly trick the public, with “OVER-EXAGGERATED Appraisals in Personal PROPERTY REAL ESTATE Taxes”- we are being thrown-out of community with these two factors, while the local, state and federal govenrment continues to thsi second turn federal governmental dolars for transportion to out of area persons’ and then go UP on our TAXES, Fees and Appraisals.
    More cruel, than my ability to describe are the horrific powerful circles who keep telling the news media how GREAT everything is and becoming, while we are beiing shffled – into HOMELESSNESS and no JOBS to hire or prioritize for regular American citizens or Veterans.  the sufferage index is beyond OVER-WHELMING and painful, yet official and authorities in leadership positions’ are so intoxicated with their power-status, they do DO NOT even remotely care anyMORE about the  very POOR, except, how to get the next VETERAN out of the homes’ to make way for other populations’ of newer possible residents’.
    We have asked and gotten absolutely NO-WHERE with years of trying to get JOBS CREATED and Entreprenuerial Development trainings, with the restoration and preservation of the QUINDARO RUINS / Underground railroad archealogical site- in our community: so having the opportunity to be able to communicate this second, at least allows me / some of us the breath of relief, THAT maybe, just MAYBE- we might be able to try and HUMAN BEINGS , again- with a national news gathering facility that UNDERTANDS the value and importnace of ” CITIZEN  JOURNALISM”.
    If, just on inth of this communication attempt made ANY sense: than I done well: in communicating to the outside world, the very type of  HELL’ that is, in progress, right this second in real -TIME, in the very center of the UNITED STATES, the only nation we have to call HOME.
    THIS very moment the illegals are working on a TrANSPORTATION Department federal grant in front of the POLICE  Department, and pretty soon, the local government will use that project, like they do all the other projects’ as a reason to increase our TAXES and run: us out of HOMES adn community.
    THANK GOD, for the PRAYER-Line and the possibiity that a format, with an organizaton like yours might, be able to one day, consider, that this is NOT the AMERICA that many VETERANS took the OATH to serve and protect and then be caloulsy just thrown -out, like thrash: and then be denied, any intervention into the “DEPRIVATION of RIGHTS Under the COLOR of the LAW”.
    Particlarly dropped-back with the ENORMTY and VOLUMINOUS TOXIC Hazardous Waste all around the poor low-income Black African American community: at least today, this moment- your organization was discovered /-identified; so maybe we can almost become like LIKE HUMAN BEINGS, again- I pray this as, I send this in name of our BLESSED Savior and with the utmost love for both our great nation and Divine Creator God-

    Marvin S. Robinson, II
    Quindaro Ruins / Undergound Railroad- Exercise 2013