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Nov. 28, 2012, 10 a.m.
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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.

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.

POSTED     Nov. 28, 2012, 10 a.m.
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