News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Civic

April 05, 2010

Going on the record: Civic engagement is for journalists, too!

The traditional culture and ethics of professional journalism encourage journalists to hold themselves aloof from the communities they cover; to maintain objectivity through distance. Generally this means not voicing personal opinions on politics or controversial issues, and not engaging directly in civic processes. Sometimes even voting, campaign contributions, or speaking up at civic meetings are considered dicey territory for “real” journalists.

Now might be a good time to question this tradition…

By Amy Gahran

(This is the final guest post in a series by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” See all posts in this series.)

The advent of the Obama administration has led to substantial policy activity in areas that directly affect the work that journalists do, the communities they serve, and ventures that publish and distribute journalism. Earlier in this series I discussed the civic engagement implications of the proposed National Broadband Plan, the FCC’s Future of Media project, and the emerging government 2.0 movement.

Currently, US government at all levels is seeking (or at least is claiming to seek) to become more transparent. Obviously, this won’t just benefit communities and citizens. Journalists and news organizations also stand to reap direct benefits from increased government transparency.

Similarly, the ability of journalists and news organizations to continue to work effectively hinges partly on policy issues such as net neutrality, and the outcome of the FCC’s Future of Media project. (UPDATE Apr. 6: Today Mashable reports that “A U.S. appeals court has ruled that the FCC doesn’t have the right to enforce net neutrality principles for ISPs.” This could significantly affect the long-term prospects of anyone—but especially anyone not with a major media organizations—who relies on broadband for content distribution or community building.)

As Robert Niles says in OJR this week, online publishers can no longer afford to remain politically neutral. It’s time for journalists, news organizations, journalism schools, and other journalism organizations to speak up on their own behalf. To publicly participate in relevant civic processes. To push for policies that will further the interests of journalism and the communities served by journalism.

ACTION STEP: Find and use all opportunities to comment publicly in media policy debates. Doing so does not “taint” journalistic purity or otherwise sully your reputation. These actions cannot damage your credibility or compromise your objectivity—because if you’re being honest with yourself (and your audience) you cannot be objective when you’ve got so much at stake.

A good example of this comes from the Society of Environmental Journalists. In March, SEJ submitted a list of eight suggestions for improving transparency to the OpenEPA discussion forum. Suggestions included:

“1. End the practice that prevents EPA scientists or employees from talking to reporters without press office permission and a press officer present.”

“4. A presumption that press officers and other officials are talking on the record unless otherwise agreed to explicitly in advance by both sides. ‘Background’ should be the rare exception, not the standard operating procedure.”

“7. Improve press office inclusiveness to include routinely a broader spectrum of media types that make up today’s changing news media landscape.”

Submitting these suggestions supports SEJ’s ongoing efforts to work with EPA to improve transparency at the national and regional levels. But better EPA transparency would also translate to better environmental reporting at the local level, too.

(Disclosure: I’ve worked with SEJ in various roles for many years, but I was not involved in this particular engagement effort.)

Many states also have sites to collect public ideas on increasing transparency. The Pew Center on the States recently listed several. Where these sites exist, journos and news organizations should use them to lobby publicly and specifically for the kinds of transparency changes that will enhance journalism and democracy.

Also, submit public comments on the FCC’s Future of Media project. The deadline has been extended to May 7. This is a valuable opportunity to offer input on core issues affecting all aspects of the media business. It looks like most comments are being submitted via the FCC’s electronic comment filing system. Reference docket No. 10-25 in comments you leave there, and be sure to related your comments back to the specific questions posed by FCC. (See the document embedded at the end of this post.)

My closing thought for this series is: Civic engagement really IS for journalists, too. We’re definitely affected by government policy and transparency. We have legitimate interests. And if we don’t speak up in civic processes, on the record, our views won’t really count.

So put aside any cultural qualms about “getting involved.” This is a story journalists are living and working, not just covering. This is our story. If we don’t claim a leading role, we’ll be relegated to the background. Ultimately, communities would pay the price for our reticence.

FCC Future of Media Questions


November 03, 2010

Election coverage: Quick newsroom action today could boost community engagement

Everyone wants to know how yesterday’s midterm elections turned out, so today is a peak time for the news business. Right now, most daily news organizations are probably seeing much higher-than-usual traffic to their web sites—as well as above-average audiences for print and broadcast news.

...All about a topic that is fundamentally about civic and community engagement. Imagine that.

Robert Niles wrote today in Online Journalism Review that community engagement is the key to local news venues winning back audiences and advertisers. With this in mind, I’d like to suggest how news orgs might capitalize on today’s peak traffic…

By Amy Gahran

Elections tend to pique public interest, but in the long term citizens care mainly about issues that affect them directly. Therefore, persistent topic pages focused on community impacts are a better “hook” to foster broader community interest and engagement than traditional election news stories which fall of the radar quickly. (It also doesn’t hurt that topic pages yield significant search engine visibility benefits, too.)

So, today you should create some topic pages that highlight likely long-term local community impacts of today’s election results.

If your content management system allows you to easily designate topic pages (and it should!) then today you should set up web pages intended to track over time how the races or issues decided in this election will affect the communities you cover.

For instance, here in California, the defeat of Proposition 23 means that many locals are hoping for more local jobs and other economic benefits related to green energy and clean technology. Therefore, a Bay Area news org might do well to set up a “green economy watch” topic page today, and there list stories about Prop 23 and other related election news.

Don’t go crazy—just pick 3-5 obvious long-term, hot-button issues that probably will be significantly swayed by the latest election results. Funding for education, public safety, and the environment are likely suspects. Then, designate someone responsible for updating these page over the next six months (an hour or two a week to post fresh links).

Keep these topic pages simple: just a quick overview stating the topic and perhaps asking leading questions, followed by links to coverage and other items in reverse chronological order. (This tutorial intended for local bloggers works equally well for news orgs.)

Engagement generally improves when you demonstrate that you’re listening as well as talking. Therefore, your election-impact topic pages also should republish especially thoughtful or relevant community views. You should gather these views not just from comments submitted to your news site, but also from public posts to Twitter, discourse on your news org’s Facebook presence, or from the public Facebook pages or sites/blogs of other key local players.

Aim to showcase a diversity of views (political, geographic, economic, ethnic, etc.) which are expressed with civility and good-spirited humor. Don’t neglect to respond directly to these community members to show them how you’ve showcased their remarks. Such recognition encourages everyone to make better contributions to the public conversation. It also increases link-sharing to your topic pages.

Make sure your topic pages are mobile-friendly, especially for feature phone users. Skip the fancy graphics and complex navigation. Get right to the point, in a page that loads fast and displays well on a very small screen over low bandwidth.

Include sharing tools on your topic pages—and on all your election news. Encourage people to e-mail, text, share or like on Facebook, and tweet your news. This helps foster a sense of shared ownership or responsibility for the story and for the issue. Also, provide an option for people to sign up to get e-mail alerts (daily or weekly) with fresh updates to a particular topic page.

If your content management system does NOT make it easy to create topic pages, then knuckle down and manually hack a few pages together. Then, when you upgrade your CMS to make topic page generation easy—and that’ll be very soon, right?—you’ll already be ahead of this game. (Next week I’ll be covering a third-party tool called Scribble Live which can streamline integrating real-time and ongoing coverage from many sources into pages on your site.)

Create short redirect URLs for these pages that are easily transmitted via print and broadcast. If you don’t have your own URL shortener, use so you can track clickthrough and estimate secondary sharing. You want it to be as easy as possible for people to find your topic pages. Mention these topic pages and their short URLs alongside your related print and broadcast coverage.

Finally, promote your election-related topic pages prominently on your site today, and especially in the coming week. Do this on your home page, on your elections section head page, and in a house ad throughout your site at a minimum. Also, make sure that every story that you add to your topic page receives a prominent link (at or near the top, if possible) back to the topic page.

If community engagement is a priority for your news org (something the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy strongly recommends), you can find more ideas for accomplishing this goal in my KDMC series on building civic and community engagement.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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