Citizens, Journalists and Institutions: A Power Shift in Civic Information and News

Changes in media and technology are rippling through our society, shifting the power structures that have traditionally shaped the public square of news and information in America. The old dynamic might be described as a clash of titans – the institutions of news and journalism working to monitor and hold accountable the institutions of government, commerce, and civic life. In this construction, like spectators at a colosseum, consumers of news were little more than an audience.

However, one of the key findings of the Federal Communications Commission’s new report on the “Information Needs of Communities” was that “Citizens can now play a much greater role in holding institutions accountable.” This, in and of itself, is nothing really new. The notion of the “people formerly known as the audience,” and the increase in participatory, citizen driven journalism have been well documented and discussed in-depth.

The report’s optimism about citizen engagement is tempered, however, by another important fact. “While digital technology has empowered people in many ways, the concurrent decline in local reporting has, in other cases, shifted power away from citizens to government and other powerful institutions, which can more often set the news agenda.” The gap between these two ideas animates the entire report.

As the institutions of journalism have been rocked by tough economic times, new competition from the Internet, and an array of self inflicted wounds (media consolidation, paltry investment in R&D, etc…) the institutions of power have grown far more influential in shaping the narrative of the news. As we look out over the field of new journalism efforts, we have to consider issues of power and questions of institutionalization. Undergirding the entire FCC report, from its optimism about new journalism models to its lamentations about the failures of legacy media, is a debate about the role of institutions in journalism and the ability of the new journalism landscape to hold government, corporate, and civic institutions to account.

The authors of the FCC report highlight a range of influences that have helped to undermine journalism’s ability to hold institutions of power accountable (quotes below are a mix of the authors’ and studies the authors quote):

  • Trust: “Given that polls show the public has a low opinion of journalists, it is easy to forget that when reporters have less power, other institutions tend to end up with more.”
  • The Pace of News: “As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important.” “Reporters who have less time per story become more reliant on news doled out by press release or official statement, which means that they report the news powerful institutions want us to know rather than what has been concealed.”
  • The Rise of PR: “By one estimate, the ratio of public relations professionals to journalists is now four to one, compared with one to one just 30 years ago.” “Newsrooms with reduced staff who are facing pressure to produce are more vulnerable to public relations and advertising pressures.” “We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such.… The watchdog reporter hates a press release; the busy reporter often loves it.”
  • Newsroom Layoffs: “With fewer reporters on the job, governmental institutions drove much of the coverage.” “Newspapers, local TV stations, and local radio stations employ fewer reporters now than they used to, and many of those that have survived have become more like 1930s wire service reporters—filing rapidly and frequently, doing fewer interviews, and spending less time pressing for information. This has resulted in a shift in the balance of power—away from citizens, toward powerful institutions.”
  • Closing Bureaus: “In part because the big regional newspapers have slashed Washington bureaus, most regulatory agencies—institutions whose job is to protect Americans from food poisoning, banking collapse and mine explosions—are receiving less coverage.”

It’s worth noting that the current inability of journalism to adequately serve as watchdogs over institutions of power is not simply a structural issue related to shrinking newsrooms or folding newspapers. It is also a cultural issue that strikes at the root of what much of mainstream professional journalism has become. Conspicuously absent from the FCC’s list of causes are the way much of mainstream journalism has aligned itself with power instead of in opposition to it, and the tyranny of false objectivity or what Jay Rosen has called the “View from Nowhere.” Both of these trends have eroded journalists’ ability or willingness to speak truth to power.

Instead of grappling with the culture of journalism, the recommendation in the FCC report instead seek to change the culture of institutions, by emphasizing the need for greater transparency, and the promise of transparency as a bulwark to power (even though, it acknowledges that many non-governmental institutions have little reason or impetus to embrace transparency). “As noted above, the Internet has been a boon for democratic engagement and citizen empowerment in many ways,” the authors write. “However, our on-the-ground research turned up numerous examples of a countervailing power shift, away from citizens and toward institutions.”

The debate about the changes in journalism and institutional power are not new. Indeed, the Knight Commission report, which inspired the FCC inquiry, emphasized the vital role of “anchor institutions” in informed communities. The Knight Commission argued that these places – such as libraries, schools, and community media centers – can and should serve as information hubs in communities helping connect, organize and make accessible the diverse and atomized information resources of a given community.

To that end, Clay Shirky has argued that what we need is a shift in how we think about institutions in general “from one class of institutions to the ecosystem as a whole where I think we have to situate the need of our society for accountability.” For Shirky, we’ll never see one model replace all that newspaper have traditionally done (because if one thing could effectively fill all those roles, newspapers wouldn’t be in trouble). “We don’t need another different kind of institution that does 85 percent of accountability journalism,” he said in a discussion at Harvard. “We need a class of institutions or models […] that produces five percent of accountability journalism. And we need to get that right 17 times in a row.”

In response to this idea, Alex Jones, the Director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, asked a critical question about the viability of networked journalism: “Do you see in this array of of smaller entities, an institutional power, that is going to, not just simply make this information available online, but effectively force the attention of the public and bring institutions of power to heel?” Chris Anderson raised a similar concern: “Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism used to cover aren’t going anywhere.” Chris notes, and the FCC report reinforces, that thus far the new networks of journalism are fragile at best. Thus, we have to “ponder how this fragility can affect the work that journalists used to do” as it relates to the “slow, grinding, daily, regimented, hierarchical” bureaucracies of political and corporate power in America and globally.

That “slow, grinding” pace is the source of many institution’s permanence, argues Shirky. The great institutions of our society, he says, gain their power in large part from their “infinite time horizon” – the fact that they are in some form or another “too big to fail.” He continues, “Because when you have institutions with infinite time horizons, whether the government or a church or have you, almost the only thing that can bring them to heel is other institutions that also have infinite time horizons.” So, if we are concerned about local accountability journalism, we have to be concerned about both the institutions and the culture of journalism. “What kind of culture do we need around investigative journalism to [produce] organizations that can afford to waste things,” asks Shirky, “that can deal with the institutional questions of suing in court to get access to documents, and have the infinite time horizons necessary to have a watchdog function that brings other institutions with infinite time horizons together.”

Anderson wonders if the “entire notion of the beat system stems from a realization in early journalistic institutions that covering bureaucracies seemed to require creating bureaucracies.” Reinforcing that notion, the FCC report chronicles the decimation and disappearance of beat reporting:

“Local metropolitan and state-level coverage represent the areas of greatest concern— especially when it comes to how often and how thoroughly journalists report on powerful institutions such as city hall, the school board, the statehouse, and the local hospital. Almost every sector of media that covered these beats in the past has been shaken and transformed.”

Some point hopefully to the growth of niche publications and blogs as the natural transition of beat reporting in the digital age. But too many of these niche outlets are privatized walled gardens, meant to serve a professional audience who can pay, not a general audience or a diverse public.

The digital age has ushered in new questions about the role of institutions in the future journalism – both the institutions of our society which need to be held to account, and the institutions of journalism, that are shifting, changing, and in some cases disagregating. The contradiction at the center of the recent FCC report – that citizens have more tools than ever to be watchdogs, but have less power than ever to hold institutions accountable – highlights one of the most troubling aspects of the shifting journalism landscape. While there are no simple answers, this is one case in which gaining a clearer understanding of the problem may help define the path forward as we experiment and innovate with new models and new institutions.

Update:

Two tweets from Dan Kennedy have given me the opportunity to weave in one other thread that I couldn’t fit in the earlier version of this post:

Dan is right, of course, and my point here has been that the question we ned to be asking is how we build new structures and encourage new cultures of journalism that build on the best of these “recent accidents” but isn’t bound by them. Indeed, I think there are new forms of institutional and individual power but we don’t fully know what they are yet, and I worry that too often we aren’t asking the right questions to get us there.

In her response to the Chris Anderson post I link to above, Lisa Williams, of Placeblogger, tries imagine what one such structure might be. I have chopped up her comments below – read the original here.

My read is that the institutions of power — government, corporations — have gotten a hell of a lot better at repelling the advances of the institutional press. […] In this way, institutional journalism is a bit like antibiotics, and the powerful have become resistant to it. […] This is why de-institutionalization and distribution is so powerful. […] For journalism to work, we must turn stories into signals — if we can know Apple’s stock price every second of every day that the market is open, why can’t we know the status of veterans’ care, literacy, and the environment in the same way? (Perhaps what replaces a beat is community management? Unknown).

In the end, Lisa argues that even with all the unknowns – or because of all the unknowns – it is better to dive in and start building something new, rather than wait for old institutions to adapt. I think the FCC report would agree, but it raises the important question: What is lost in that time while old institutions are deteriorating and the new ones are not yet built?

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7 thoughts on “Citizens, Journalists and Institutions: A Power Shift in Civic Information and News

  1. Great post Josh.

    This leads me to think back to a nagging concern I constantly have and one that Jay Rosen has articulated in the past in a Rebooting the News episode (not sure if he’s written about it or not).

    The concern is that one of the problems we seem to have now is that news consumers’ attention is HERE and the good work is often being done THERE. What I mean is that many people, despite the growing diversity of news sources, are still locked into a fairly narrow group of outlets which are usually legacy media institutions. As these institutions struggle, news consumers are becoming turned off while at the same time not knowing where else to turn.

    Meanwhile, some independent and small media outlets might be doing amazing work, but because they don’t have the brand power of NYTimes, WSJ, etc., they are struggling to get their work seen by a wide enough audience to get to a point of sustainability and/or profitability. It ends up being a bit of a vicious cycle.

    So the challenge is: how do we get news consumers’ attention aligned with where the good work is being done? I don’t have the answer; do you? :-)

    And secondly, how do we get media organizations to collaborate more? Legacy news orgs can tap into the power of the indie upstarts to the benefit of both. We’re already seeing it happen in a few places. How can more of that be encouraged?

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