Ethan Zuckerman and the future of news

We go to conferences to glean new ideas and confer, of course, with people about topics that interest us. I got to do both this weekend at the Byte B@ck, the Society of Professional Journalists Region 1 Conference. A side note: the SPJ, the largest journalist organization in the U.S., has 12 regions. Region 1 covers New England, New York, New Jersey and Eastern Pennsyvlania. This conference was fabulous (disclosure: I helped organize it, but just look at the sessions and the speakers)! I wish we had recorded things, because at almost every point there were at least two sessions I wanted to attend, and sometimes three.

I want to highlight some of the things I did attend. I’ll start with Ethan Zuckerman’s session on whether civic news was the future of journalism.

It may be possible to interact with Ethan and not find your mind whirring about something new, but in half-a-dozen engagements I’ve yet to have it happen. He has a gift for bringing into sharp focus something I’m been trying to articulate for myself. His session at Byte B@ck was on civic journalism, and as director of MIT’s Center for civic journalism, he has a lot to say on this. He started by stating the main challenge for journalists today: we are competing for people’s attention in a world saturated by demands for attention. Here’s what he said about why people often don’t pay attention to the news:

I think journalism has a civics problem. My argument is that we talk a lot about the survival of journalism, because we are deeply concerned about what happens if we don’t have a strong 4th Estate.

But I think a lot of our assumptions about how citizens participate in that debate probably could be challenged.

I agree about the civics problem, though I haven’t said it that way. I rarely write about politics per se, but I get angry when I read political coverage because so much of it is what Thomas Patterson calls horse race stories [Informing the News, a book summarized by Phil Hilts at the Byte B@ck session on specialized journalism]: who’s ahead, who’s behind. There is little room in that kind of reporting about the real winners and losers: the people political action affects most directly. I have fantasized about becoming a political reporter and *never* writing a horse race story, focusing solely on how what the candidates and elected officials say plays out in the lives of ordinary citizens.

I’m sure I’m naive to think I could avoid falling into the trap of covering politics like sports, or to think I could connect it to people on the ground in a way today’s political journalists don’t. Honestly, on the few occasions when I’ve interviewed elected officials, what they say actually is so carefully couched that it’s hard to figure out what it means. I can no more connect these people to something practical than I could connect a celebrity to my daily life.

I’ve probably unconsciously fallen into what Ethan calls ‘learned helplessness.’ News coverage is so regularly about something we can’t do anything about that it may make us more passive and withdrawn about being involved politically. This lack of action is a tragedy; democracy works, at least on the local level, because people involve themselves in making it work.

Ethan recommended The Good Citizen: A History of Civic American Life in part as a sanity check; our democracy has gone through different iterations, and the political process is vastly different than it once was. There is room for change. He also highlighted several examples of democracy in action: Carmen Rios and her SPARK Summit combating sexual violence, Pakistan’s Sughar Center, which promotes the involvement of women in civic life in rural Pakistan, the Icelandic entrepreneurs who founded Mailpile to help protect our email from prying eyes, and the Dream Nine immigration activists. Ethan also talked about one of his graduate students, who is writing on civic crowdfunding (note to self: could be a good story there).

These become examples of what he calls “monitorial citizenship.”

My question was whether journalists were even necessary for these kinds of independent political action. The examples Ethan gave of journalists effecting ways to involve people in the news were not satisfying to me (or to Ethan). He highlighted things like the ShoutBack feature now being used by some publications to give people a voice on stories, David Bornstein’s Solutions Journalism and Danish Broadcasting Corp.’s ‘constructive journalism’ movement. That last sounds most promising — no reporting critical stories unless you can find an alternative answer. Ethan’s own PromiseTracker project in Brazil sounds fascinating (note to self: there might be a story there, too).

Ethan said journalists “all need to get over their allergy to advocacy journalism.’ I’m not so sure. I have friends who become so engaged in their stories that they become activists; their stories are wrapped in the context of the cause, meaning they might miss all the reasons why the cause will fail. Advocacy journalism is perhaps better than partisan journalism; I think there would be a thin line between advocating for political change and becoming partisan about a topic, and while there’s a place for partisan writing and reporting, I think we would lose something important if all journalists became advocates or partisans.  Advocates tell stories that matter to them and their cause. Partisans likewise focus on their party’s point of view and advancing it. I don’t think these forms of journalism work well in what Ethan called the pointillist world that is emerging from our vast technological advance. Who will cover that in its context? Not advocates or partisans. They eliminate points of view. At the same time, advocating in some form for those without a voice has long been a tenet of journalism that I admire.

I emailed Ethan to see what role journalists play in a world of monitorial citizenship. He responded “I see a huge role for journalists in the politics I’m imagining. Many of the important civic issues aren’t ones average citizens are likely to discover for themselves. My hope is that we might see a bigger role for journalists, as people realize the profound value of having someone knowledgeable investigate issues they care about. My hope is that linking reporting and mobilization will get people to value journalism more, not less. Fingers crossed.”

Fingers crossed, indeed.

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