News Leadership 3.0

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



If we don’t claim a leading role, we’ll be relegated to the background.i’ll remember that all the time

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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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