Published Online: April 9, 1997


Civic Journalism Putting Spotlight On School Issues

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Last spring, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison's WISC-TV gathered the head of the local teachers' union, the superintendent, the mayor, and other community leaders at the newspaper's offices for an unusual briefing.

Using an overhead projector, State Journal reporter Andy Hall described the findings of a months-long investigation into the achievement gap between the Madison district's white and minority students. The results had yet to be published in the paper or broadcast by the station.

When Mr. Hall finished, the group voiced some concerns. To be fair, the report should provide similar racial breakdowns for other Wisconsin districts, they said. The newspaper concurred, and delayed publication for several days while Mr. Hall crunched more numbers.

And when some participants warned that the story could imply African-American students were doomed to fail, the journalists assured them that they would include stories about minority students with good grades.

The resulting series showed that the achievement gap had actually increased in recent years despite nearly a decade of efforts to close it.

School officials rarely welcome such scrutiny. But many district leaders in Madison saw the coverage as a significant turn for the better.

"It was such a powerful balance that we'd never seen before," said Cheryl Wilhoyte, the superintendent of the 25,000-student district in the Wisconsin state capital.

Ms. Wilhoyte credits this new relationship to the State Journal's decision to join a national movement of sorts called public journalism.

Also called civic journalism, the stated mission of the approach is to help cure growing public cynicism that says citizens are helpless to bring about positive change.

Arguing that journalists bear great responsibility for this malaise, proponents say the news media should no longer simply cover what they see as important, but facilitate public discussions aimed at solving their community's problems. School issues are often the focus of such efforts.

In practice, public journalism has yielded a host of unorthodox reporting techniques, such as the pre-publication briefings in Madison. There and elsewhere, the media have also made liberal use of polls and town hall meetings to give their audiences more say in how the news is covered.

But as public journalism spreads to more media outlets across the country, so too do charges that its use of polls and surveys amounts to pandering, and that it's made the news media too cozy with the people they cover.

Making Connections

Unfazed by such criticisms, public journalism has grown into a formidable trend that's sparked a wider debate about the media's role in democracy. It's also drawn significant interest from the nonprofit world.

The Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia set up the Pew Center for Civic Journalism in Washington in 1993. Since then, it has jump-started public-journalism projects at more than 40 media outlets with grants averaging about $27,000. The Madison project got off the ground with a $10,000 Pew grant.

"The rationale for it is pretty straightforward: to focus on how to get information to citizens, in a timely matter, on issues that they can act on," said Pew's president, Rebecca W. Rimel.

Also in 1993, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami began financing the Project on Public Life and the Press, a think tank devoted to public journalism based at New York University. The project is also administered by the Kettering Foundation of Dayton, Ohio, and the Reston, Va.-based American Press Institute.

"It's safe to say this kind of work has gone on in at least 50 cities, but I'd say that hundreds of news organizations have tried these kinds of projects," said Lisa Austin, a research professor with the project at NYU.

The first public-journalism projects, launched in the early 1990s in such cities as Wichita, Kan., and Charlotte, N.C., sought new ways to let citizens set the agenda for local election coverage. It wasn't long before the news organizations began turning their attention to schools.

"When you get people to talk about what they want for their communities, you can't have that conversation for very long until you get to education," said David A. Smith, a Kettering scholar. "It's something that is central to our idea of democracy in this country."

But when it comes to news about its local schools, too often the public hears only of bitter contract disputes or bickering between school board members, said Jay Rosen, who directs the Project on Public Life and the Press.

"The public feels shut out from these big institutions," he said. To counter that, Mr. Rosen said, journalists need to "help a community not only read about, but also address their problems."

A Citizens' Agenda

That idea rings true for State Journal Editor Frank Denton, who recently explained public journalism to educators at a conference of the American Association of School Administrators in Orlando, Fla.

"I think our readers are tired of people fighting all the time and not talking about solutions," he said in a recent interview.

He kicked off "Schools of Hope" in the fall of 1995 as school leaders approached a decision on whether to revamp the Madison district's 11-year-old desegregation plan. In addition to publishing an in-depth look at the debate over neighborhood schools and integration, the media surveyed public opinion and hosted town hall meetings.

As in many other cities attempting public journalism, the print and television outlets in Madison joined forces in their reporting. The State Journal willingly hands its conclusions over to WISC-TV days before the paper runs its own story.

Although this lets the broadcasters scoop the newspaper, the newscasts end with a pitch for the State Journal's coverage, which Mr. Denton feels increases his own audience.

Based on input from their surveys and meetings, the State Journal and WISC built their coverage around five issues: academic achievement, safety and discipline, school costs, race and culture, and family participation. Their investigation into achievement eventually led to last year's series showing the widening gap between whites and minorities.

Early on in the project, the State Journal and the television station also convened a 20-member committee, the Schools of Hope Leadership Team, including Ms. Wilhoyte and Mayor Paul Soglin.

The group, which includes no members of the press, has met several times at the newspaper's offices to review reporters' findings, often before they are published.

Mr. Hall contends that the relationship has deepened his coverage, not watered it down.

"We never turn over editorial control of our stories, but we do have some detailed discussions," he said.

The Madison leadership team that the media helped convene is now making recommendations to address the issues raised in the coverage.

Last summer, the panel approved a four-year plan for reducing the achievement gap, including the recruitment of volunteers to tutor and mentor students needing extra help.

"One of the things this accomplishes is that it's harder for things to be political," said Leslie Howard, the president of the United Way of Dane County, Wis., and the team's chairwoman.

In Bed With the Media?

Although many local school and community leaders applaud this apparent spirit of cooperation, not everyone feels so comfortable. Mr. Soglin says he has no regrets about his participation, but he also views the process with caution.

"I've been concerned about journalists sitting at the table who are part of this discussion," the Madison mayor said in an interview. "But unlike the rest of us, they are in a position to circulate to a couple hundred thousand people not just their own opinions, but also their perception of the others'."

The new relationship also disturbs Dave Zweifel, the editor of Madison's afternoon newspaper, The Capital Times. While Mr. Zweifel's newspaper is locally owned, the State Journal is affiliated with the Lee Enterprises newspaper chain, based in Davenport, Iowa.

"People already feel the newspapers are all in bed with the politicians and the power structure," said Mr. Zweifel, whose paper has a daily circulation of about 24,000, compared with roughly 87,600 for the State Journal. "I just think some of these projects put us really in bed with them."

Such concerns are often voiced by other critics of public journalism, including editors at influential newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, who have accused the movement of treading too close to advocacy journalism.

"I subscribe to the school which says that papers ought to cover the news and raise hell," Mr. Zweifel said.

'A Clear Line'

Leadership-team members stress that although the State Journal and WISC brought them together, the group has charted its own course.

"I think they've maintained their independence and point of view," Enis Ragland, a mayoral aide who co-chairs the team's subcommittee on minority achievement, said of the media. "It's giving us a chance to reflect on what they've come up with."

Charges that such efforts amount to advocacy journalism are based on a misconception about public journalism, Mr. Rosen of the Project on Public Life and the Press added.

"To us, there's a clear line between convening a discussion and dominating it," he said. "We're saying do one and not the other."

Most involved in "Schools of Hope" agree that the project has helped Madison leaders cooperate to improve the city's schools.

What's harder to measure is how well it has engaged citizens at large in more meaningful discussions.

Mr. Denton said the paper's surveys suggest a more informed public, and Ms. Howard says the project has boosted public interest in volunteering to work with the city's youths.

"That is without a doubt the hardest thing there is to gauge," said Ms. Austin of the Project on Public Life and the Press. "If I am talking in a different way to my next-door neighbor about what's going on in the schools, then this is working."

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