Community journalism text

The work in community journalism that was done
over the past decade indicates that the more journalists engage in conversation
with the audience, the more likely they are to get information that is reliable
and comprehensive. It stimulates conversation about community concerns rather
than conversation about how the journalist missed the story. The result is
greater credibility because the end result is reporting closer to the
community.<br /><br />

A Mediated Culture of Sadism

Many, many years ago, almost in another life, I listened as the program director of KLNG radio, where I was host of a daily talk show, delivered his critique of my on-air methods after an “air check.” This was a routine coaching session that all station personnel went through, designed to improve performance. A recording of your work on the air was played back and the program director commented on strengths and weaknesses.

But this time it was different because we had a consultant from a company that helped stations boost ratings and the consultant had recommendations for me. The first was to jump right into the beginning of the show with a provocative comment. Be controversial. Make them angry from the start.

The next was to stay away from subjects no one cares about, such as Social Security. “It’s for old people (those were his words, not mine), and when an old voice is on our air dials click off all over the city. Don’t even let them continue. Get them off the line.”

The mantra around the station for commentators like me was “Be controversial.” We did as we were told. And, as we did, the on-air culture of the station began to change. The audience changed. And the format changed.

My job was to be provocative. I was supposed to hold the audience long enough to expose them to the commercials that were scheduled with precision, and we were held tightly to this schedule. The consultant determined that the average listener stayed with us for no more than 15 minutes. So we programmed in 15-minute increments. Weather, news, traffic, talk and commercials every 15 minutes.

Paradoxically, local television news was moving in another direction–the beginning of the insipid “happy talk” news format, coupled with an emphasis on local news. But local news did not mean more reporting on the school board, the state capitol or the city council. It meant fires, auto accidents, murders and controversy. Television was also going after attention-getting visuals. Compelling video, even if it had no direct connection to the local audience, was more likely to be aired than useful information from a school board meeting that was less visual. This was the beginning of “if it bleeds it leads.”

It was weird. Stories of gore and death were sandwiched between banter and sophomoric joking.

After 30 years
of analyzing
TV violence
and its effects
on viewer
George Gerbner
concludes that
the mass media
have become
the primary
source of
the information
we use to
make sense
of the world
around us.
Media Channel

It’s clearer now in hindsight that a shift was occurring in the broadcast industry, especially at the local level. Information was becoming a commodity. News and information were being treated like a tangible product. And the audience was becoming the consumer. If information is a product to be consumed, then service to the community and public dialogue become less important.

There’s a difference between providing information for community dialogue and treating listeners as consumers to whom a product is sold.
Clay Shirkey writes that consumers “have no way to respond to the things they see on television or hear on the radio, and they have no access to any media on their own — media is something that is done to them, and consuming is how they register their response.”

One result of this was a growing distance between the media and the audience. A subtle shift was occurring. News and information were becoming entertainment and viewers and listeners were spectators, not participants. While the audience and the entertainer may interact, entertainment is not about dialogue, it’s more passive and limited.

Instead of
in media,
media [are]
done to us
–Clay Shirkey

First broadcast licensees were able to get the fairness doctrine repealed. This was a federal mandate which required broadcasters, operating on airwaves owned by the public, to provide air time to opposing points of view in a balanced manner. Then public access rules were eased. These required broadcasters to provide programming in the community’s interest.

The result is that fewer voices are heard. A less diverse image of local communities is seen. And significant discussion that once provided balanced community dialogue is absent from the airwaves.

Instead of participating in media, media are something done to us, as Shirkey writes. The idea that broadcast media serve the public interest is almost gone. Access to broadcast media is available only to those with the money to purchase time. This excludes the poor, non-profit community groups and community service organizations. Those with access are, for the most part, commercial interests.

Evangelical radio and television programmers adapted to this entrepreneurial model. Their followers seem content to fund their programming even if they have no other mission but to keep the programming on the air. Likewise, the political right was prepared to offer provocative and controversial radio content that fit the consultants recommendations. The whole idea ran counter to the basic practices of Mainline communions and most liberal organizations. Neither were prepared for this coarsened style of programming and they were left out.

Mainline denominations face very different internal constraints than the evangelical right because they have a more diverse constitutency. They devote significant financial resources to mission and ministry and often they regard communication as an optional expense. This, plus other constraints, has kept Mainline groups out of significant engagement in the old line media (broadcast radio and television) for twenty years.

It’s important to remember that deregulation did not come at the request of the audience. It came from pressure by licensees who claimed that the equal time clause was onerous and no longer necessary with the proliferation of new media. Similarly, they sought to escape their responsibility for public access programming by citing increased competition from cable companies, which, they noted, provided an entire channel for community access as a part of their licensing agreements with municipal governments.

In those days I often heard employees joke that a broadcast station was a license to print money, a claim that was commonly heard when it was time for contracts to be renewed.

viewers develop
an exaggerated
sense of the
world as a
violent and
dangerous place
…our violence-
and news media
are “nurturing
a culture of sadism”
–Paul Klite

Today we have media that are not particularly responsive to community needs or even community standards. The public is unaware that broadcasters are given virtually free use of the publicly-owned broadcast spectrum, with no meaningful requirement to serve community needs or to include the community in the programming. We have seen the tone of the public dialogue change as a result of program consultants whose concern was bottom line profits, not advancing the public dialogue. We have seen how this has changed the quality of news coverage, and by extension, how it has changed the public dialogue itself. It has become more polarized and confrontational and less inclusive, participatory or pertinent to community concerns.

The critical issue is that the media shape perceptions. Even today, the vast majority of people in the U.S. get their information from broadcast media. Rocky Mountain Media Watch conducted a study over 5 years that found that 40 to 50% of newscast airtime is devoted to violent topics irrespective of crime rates. “As a result, the group concludes, viewers develop an exaggerated sense of the world as a violent and dangerous place…our violence-obsessed entertainment and news media are “nurturing a culture of sadism,” said Paul Klite, executive director of RMMW.

The U.S. media have also shaped the coarsening of the national dialogue by highlighting extreme voices and behaviors while shutting out the voices of moderation.
Klite suggests the media “decrease the frequency of violent stories, but also become more sensitive to their potential effects, educate viewers about these effects, and create news stories which seek to make sense of the background and social context of crime, rather than simply churning out tabloid tales of horror.”

How do progressives and Mainline theology deal with media today? How does a humanitarian perspective get expressed in media today? How important are the broadcast media in an environment of new media that is empowering individuals and giving them the ability to tell their stories themselves? How does this empowerment relate to faith?

These are questions that I’ll write about in future posts.

Credibility and Trust

Four seemingly unrelated articles cause me to think about trust, credibility and communication in our media-saturated culture. The first is Nicholas Kristof”s column on April 12 about public attitude towards newspapers and television news operations. He reports that according to “Trends 2005,” a Pew Research Center report, 45% of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers.

The Fox News Channel has the trust of less than one-third of Republicans, and even fewer Democrats.

In the second article Ed Garvey writes in the Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin), that the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church face a confidence gap among their U.S. flock. A New York Times poll shows only 18% of Roman Catholics have a great deal of confidence in those running the church. Garvey notes that church membership is up but attendance is down.

The next
20 years
are going
to be
years for
those on
the religious right.
But a reaction
will set in
over the
next quarter
of a century
that may
hurt Christianity
in all its
–Tony Campolo

The third is a report on remarks by the popular evangelical speaker Tony Campolo referenced by Dale at Movable Theoblogical and reported in Ethics . Campolo tells a British audience the current success of the religious right is sowing “disillusionment” that will result in “a departure from churches” in the next 20 years as “thoughtful converts” realize the Bible addresses a broader range of issues than the limited agenda of the religious right. He says this will harm all Christian groups.

The fourth is a survey (All the Mainline News That’s Fit to Print ) of coverage of Mainline denominations in the New York Times over the past twenty years by Lovett Weems and David Schoeni for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. It reveals decline in coverage and concludes that the Mainline voice is less influential today than in years past.

These whet my appetite. They are fertile ground for comment, critique and speculation. By looking beneath the surface of these stories I think we can learn a lot about ourselves, the culture and how communication shapes us and misshapes us. In the next few posts I will look at these and I invite you to reflect on them as well.

College Life and Prayer

Nearly two-thirds of first-year college students pray at least weekly, according to a survey reported in this morning’s Christian Science Monitor .

The study indicates that a large number of first year college students feel secure in their views about religious or spiritual matters and it’s important for them that their college encourage further exploration in this part of their lives. While they are searching for greater understanding, they look to a variety of methods to explore the spiritual–meditation, sacred music, ecumenical discussion groups, and prayer.

In a society that claims to offer us products to meet every need, this survey seems to say there is still a yearning for more meaningful understanding about why we are here and what we are to do with our lives. It’s encouraging that these young people are both practicing and searching out ways to comprehend these important questions.

A story reported in this way stands in stark contrast to those reports of college drinking binges and rankings of party schools. It reveals another side of the concerns of college students that is less sensational, but perhaps more revealing about what really concerns them.

Darfur Action

The pledging conference on Darfur has ended with pledges of $4.5 U.S. dollars linked to progress toward ending the violence. This is hopeful, but the “long shadow of violence” as the U.S. representative described it, continues to loom large over any real end to the genocide. In a Catch 22 that is deadly, those who suffer from the violence are powerless to prevent it, and those who are causing it, won’t suffer if aid is with held. It’s the people caught between the guns who are dying. And they will continue to die if aid is held back because the government and rebels don’t stop the fighting.

The following website has information, action steps and addtional links.

The Slow Motion Tsunami

Recently on a trip to Liberia I realized I was getting frustrated and even depressed. It was unexplainable. I love Africa. I was with people I really enjoyed being around. The work we were doing was important and challenging.

As I watched two young girls pull water from a well, lift plastic buckets onto their heads and walk off toward their homes, it began to dawn on me that I was reacting to the scene being lived out before me.

I’ve been writing about economic development and poverty for thirty years. I got into this work because I wanted to help change things. Living conditions for these girls haven’t changed much at all. Like their sisters before them, they are carrying water, searching for wood for fuel, cooking on open fires and facing grinding poverty every waking moment.

That brought on the frustration and depression. But, truth to tell, my reaction was indulgent and superfluous. These girls don’t need my sympathy, they won’t benefit long from short-term charity, they need our partnership. They need allies to change policies and practices that keep them poor and powerless.

Their lives do not have to be this way. We can change the economic and social policies that hold people back. It’s long past time when we should have done this. In fact, for people of goodwill, and certainly for people who follow the Christian way, it’s a mandate:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.

–Matthew 25:31.
The Message
Eugene Peterson

Now comes a UN report that projects by 2050 the world’s urban poor will grow to 3 billion people. This means a life of hardship, hunger, disease and early death.

…urban poverty
[is] “a slow
motion tsunami”
deadlier than
the giant
waves that
the Indian
Ocean in
–Ms. Anna Tibaijuka
UN Habitat

It means more unemployed, unskilled people concentrated in cities. It means more demand on municipal services that are already woefully inadequate; more shanty towns lacking in privacy, sanitation and safety; more families living below the poverty line, enduring pressures and stresses that tear them apart and contribute to domestic violence, child abuse and self-medicating use of alcohol among other drugs. It means more children in the city who should be receiving education but will be on the streets begging or running drugs or stealing to survive.

These are the conditions that are present in every major city in the developing world. Unable to survive in rural villages and lured by the hopes of a better life in the city, hundreds of thousands are making the move. It’s not because they lack character, desire or moral fiber, and it isn’t because they don’t want to work hard. In fact, being poor and surviving in the urban environment is incredibly difficult and requires enormous effort.

It’s because they are desperate and hopeful. It’s because they want a better life.

This is why the debate about the federal budget makes a difference. It prioritizes how we will distribute resources to help people lift themselves out of poverty.

It’s why the debate about John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the UN is important. Because our support and partnership with this agency in the world community makes a difference in the lives of little girls in Liberia, and in urban slums everywhere.

It’s why the talk about a “culture of life” is important. Because the sanctity of these lives is violated by the indignity of poverty and by the neglect of the world community.

I am haunted by the rest of the story:

“Master, what are you talking about?
When did we ever see you hungry and feed you,
thirsty and give you a drink?
And when did we ever see you sick
or in prison and come to you?
Then the King will say,
“I’m telling the solemn truth:
Whenever you did one of these things
to someone overlooked or ignored,
that was me–you did it to me.’
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.

–Matthew 25:31.
The Message
Eugene Peterson

This morning two young girls started their day by drawing water from a well, lifting plastic buckets on their heads and walking towards home….

TV and Four-Year-Old Bullies

What I suspect
is these violent
animated shows
are causing kids
to become
to violence.
–Frederick Zimmerman

Four-year-olds who watch a steady diet of television cartoons are more likely to become bullies than children whose parents read to them or those who eat together as a family.

A study by researchers at the University of Washington finds that children who watch three and a half hours of TV per day are 25% more likely to be “cruel or mean to others.” Between the ages of six to eleven these children start to act as bullies. Children who watch more than eight hours of television per day are 200% more likely to become bullies.

The American Academy of Pediatric Medicine, which released the study, has added bullying to the list of potential negative consequences of excessive television viewing. The list includes obesity, inattention, and other types of aggression.

The study is reported in New Scientist .

Sometimes It’s Not the Answers, It’s the Questions

It is a
with the
of framing
by fiercely held
science and
hotly contested
claims that
defy simple
–Kelly McBride

When there are no simple answers to complex ethical questions such as the Terri Schiavo dispute, the best thing journalists can do is raise questions that help frame the conversation, in the opinion of Kelly McBride writing in Poynter Online.

McBride says the Schiavo case was an opportunity for journalists to lead by attending to the way they presented the positions advocated by the various persons concerned with Ms. Schaivo’s medical condition.

At the intersection of complex medical science, fiercely held beliefs and the unknowable, it’s important to consider how we talk to each other. Journalists who recognize this and act on it can make a positive contribution to the conversation.

Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that framing is critical. Journalists have an ethical responsibility to provide us with the information we need to carry on a helpful conversation while also avoiding, in so far as its possible, being used by any side. This is a matter of style and content.

…we are
the power
of words
to convey
untruths and
some things
that are
–Kelly McBride

Framing involves setting the context of a story, precisely describing the medical circumstances, reporting the multiple dimensions and assuring that pertinent voices are heard. The current practice of featuring extreme voices and inflammatory language results in a synergy in which journalists use advocates and advocates use journalists. When this happens, the public good is rarely well-served.

As we move forward with stem cell research and abortion policy among a host of other ethical policy debates, we will have the opportunity for a more thoughtful and considerate conversation. The questions become as important as the answers because they provide the means for the multiple dimensions to be given attention and multiple voices to be heard. Journalism that opens the way for this wider conversation to occur will strengthen the whole civic community.

Seeing Through the Glass Darkly

The certainty with which some express their convictions today is quite remarkable. Even more so when they base their convictions on revelation and biblical interpretation.

I’m well into a collection of essays that leads me to this thought. The essayists attempt to say what God is by discussing what God is not.

They make the claim that God is not: religious, nice, one of us, an American, nor a capitalist, among other reductionist “nots.”
They find fault with ecclesiastical leadership that has accommodated to the culture. They reject Western culture that has been overtaken by a feel-good therapeutic model. And they critique religion that remakes and recasts “God” in the image of humans and most modern theology that has been done since Thomas Acquinas in the thirteenth century and Julian Norwich in the fourteenth.

Much of the critique of culture and politics is right on. I agree with it. But reading their claims, I am left feeling pretty much outside the community they describe. The whole enterprise of the church reaching out to people in the culture is not just mistaken, they say. It’s mean-spirited!
“it is pious language that stands on the false assumption that the purpose of the Christian faith is to give our lives ‘meaning’ and to satisfy our individual souls. The reason for the dominance of this language is understandable; it is the logical consequence of turning all Christians into potential consumers and turning the church into nothing but a vendor of goods and services–one more corporation vying in the marketplace for its own special niche…But this niche only appears tolerant. It actually uses the language of hospitality to cover a vindictive spirit.

seems not to be a concern for them. Their concern is to acknowledge that “God is.” They know what this means. They know what practices are necessary to express the convictions of faith. And by virtue of their own critical insight and intellectual acumen, qualities lacking in the rest of us who have sold out to popular culture and the shifting sands of modern theology, they know who and what God is.

There is in the dialogue about faith that speaks with a sense of certainty that excludes a lot of faithful people who live in a more ambiguous world. I read these essays and I come away thinking the case is closed. There is nothing to discuss. They have the answers, I’m wrong and that’s it.

1Corinthians 13:8-13
8Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 10but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. 13So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Media and Control: A Futile Exercise

The absence of the voice of Mainline theologians, ethicists and other religious leaders in the public conversation about significant life issues has become obvious to some who have written to me recently.

One note asks plaintively, “Why is my church not offering guidance on these things? I feel like I’m not being heard.” She was speaking of the Terri Schaivo debate.
Over the past two decades the Mainline denominations have consistently made intentional decisions to remain outside the public conversation for many reasons. They once were deeply engaged in media but the current disengagement is both intentional and a result of public policies that marginalized and then eliminated them from public media.
I remember my first day of employment years ago at a national ecumenical organization. At a reception to welcome me, the CEO came to me in the hallway at the elevator on the sixth floor and said, “Just remember this. You do not write or send press releases.” She punctuated her words by tapping my lapel with her index finger.
Since I was hired to be a communications director, this came as rather shocking instruction. But I came to understand soon enough that in this Mainline organization the issue for communication in my unit was not getting the word out. The whole culture was focused on controlling communciation. It was a reactive strategy motivated by damage control on one hand and internal organizational competition on the other. Communication was not about an aggressive proactive strategy to tell the story of the organization.
The effort to control communication didn’t work, of course. It simply gave permission and power to others to frame the organization and create public perception about it. Those who cared enough to do this were antagonists who characterized the organization negatively. Our leaders were in a constant state of defensive reaction.
The harsher the attacks, the more they clamped down. The more then clamped down, the more emboldened the antagonists became because they had the initiative. Eventually, I moved on.
There are many reasons Mainline denominations are not speaking in public media. Lack of financial resources. Lack of experience in media. Fear. Lack of agreement within constituencies about where the denomination should stand.
These uncertainties make it difficult for leaders to speak. However, the requests I’ve had are not for pronouncements from the organization. They are questions of faith. What does the church teach about end-of-life care? How am I to decide upon the ethics of prolonging my father’s life inf the face of great suffering? What are my moral obligations? and in this religious leaders are especially skilled and equipped to share their perspectives.