In a recent interview in The Economist Jay Rosen talked about the intersection of journalism and personal agency. He said, “journalists should describe the world in a way that helps us participate in political life.” Were I to rewrite that line I might have said “civic” life. Last year, in a post over at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media Ellen Hume wrote, “My bottom line has always been: how can people understand their real choices for shaping their own lives and communities? How can the flow of news actually promote personal and community agency? This is why the future of journalism and civic media are important to me.”
I have been excited to see the way so many independent, public and new online newsrooms are thinking about journalism and community engagement in this way. A few months back I charted how this idea is built into the mission statements of a number of new news organizations. At the time I lamented that fact that this kind of community engagement seemed to be lacking from so many commercial newsrooms. However, since I wrote that post one notable new commercial online newsroom has been embracing its role as a civic instigator.
I had no doubt that when TBD launched it would put a premium on engaging it’s readers in meaningful ways on and offline. But I have been impressed by their ongoing emphasis on engaging DC area citizens specifically around civic participation. On 9/11 TBD did a big push to document and celebrate the various ways citizens were serving their communities. This morning I saw a stream of tweets from TBD staff promoting a special tag for the day: “Tell #whyivoted or why you’re #notvoting. Follow the @TBD Election Day liveblog: http://tbd.ly/bsQjyq.” In doing so they are encouraging people to make politics public, and make civic participation something to be proud of. This kind of engagement with your audience can also help us better understand the impact of new kinds of reporting on our communities.
Obviously, we need careful and quality coverage of candidates and election issues – this is a key part of creating informed communities. But I would argue we also need to encourage readers and citizens to employ that information, to help them be informed and to help them act. TBD’s efforts to showcase the active civic life throughout the DC area reminds people that democracy is not a spectator sport. In his interview with The Economist, Rosen pointed out that too often journalists treat their audience like “savvy analysts of a scene we are encouraged to view from a certain distance, as if we were spectators to our own democracy, or clever manipulators of our fellow citizens.”
Journalism and democracy share a few key characteristics. They are both a process, and they are both messy and complex. It’s good to see more newsrooms becoming vital community sites for active citizenship.