Civic journalism and why it matters

Posted October 12th, 2011 by in

I attended a public lecture at City University, London yesterday to hear Heather Brooke speak about civic journalism and why we need it.

What is civic journalism?
Before we jump into the key points made at the discussion, I want to clearly define what civic journalism is. Civic journalism, at its heart, is a belief that journalism has an obligation to public life – an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts, according to the Pew Centre for Civic Journalism. It follows the notion that journalism can help empower a community or disable it. Civic journalism provides the people with the information they need to function in a democratic society.
Democracy Place defines civic journalism as “an effort to reach out to the public more aggressively in the reporting process, to listen to how citizens frame their problems and what citizens see as solutions to those problems… and then to use that information to enrich news stories.”

Heather Brooke | Image credit:

Modern media is “morally bankrupt”
Heather Brooke opened the discussion on civic journalism and why it matters with this bold statement: “journalism is suffering an identity crisis.” She’s accused the modern media of being “morally bankrupt” and having lost touch with its core function of holding the powerful to account. “The ultimate moral bankruptcy of modern journalism is it’s forgotten its core purpose of informing the public.”

Journalism is one of the most important ways to change society and challenge power, noted Brooke. But she argued that “proper” journalism has been usurped by marketing, PR, and selling products, and journalists no longer look at courts, schools, and local councils – the very things that comprise civic life. “When profit becomes the main reason for journalism, journalism loses its public purpose,” she said.

Brooke said there is a real lack of “challenging journalism” today, highlighting the lack of reporting of justice in courts, as an example. The Royal Courts used to have 25 dedicated reporters. Currently there are only 4, and 2 at the Old Bailey (Press Association). Today, journalists in court are often treated in low level disdain, said Brooke.

Brooke cited another example: The Guardian, unlike politicians, used court reports to analyse the people behind the UK riots. However, they found it extremely difficult to obtain information on people who were charged during the riots because the [court] clerks wouldn’t allow access to court records. The Guardian eventually gained access to some of the datasets via the Ministry of Justice and cross-referenced addresses of those charged with riot locations. Prior to this, the court registers had never been requested before. Does this mean that the bureaucracy prevents journalists from holding power to account? It was discovered that police incidence reports, fire inspection reports, and parliament reports are still not public. Brooke questioned: why is this case? She expressed her outrage at this and asked how the UK media, who are supposedly aggressive, could not be asking these basic questions. “Journalists are meant to be finding out where power exists and challenging them with questions.” Because of these factors, said Brooke, people don’t feel like the media represents their interests anymore.

“If you really want to be a journalist, you have to invest in fighting for the information that’s in the hands of the powerful. If the information was easy to get, everyone would have it.” –  Heather Brooke.

Brooke said the growth of new media, where everybody is now a journalist or can be a journalist, makes it hard for readers to know where to go to find a trustworthy and reliable news source. So how did we get to this state in journalism? “We treat journalism like any other business, like a widget in a factory… News is just not like that,” answered Brooke. Readers now seek out news sources that have proved reliable and have stopped going to sources that have failed on this front. Brooke also noted that professional journalists, who are needed now more than ever, can differentiate themselves through their brand and their reputation to verify news. Only then can the public turn to media they know can be trusted. As a reminder, Brooke cited the tagline of The Uptake, a citizen-fuelled online news gathering organisation: Will journalism be done by you or to you?

Where to from here?
Importantly, journalists will lead the way with change. We’re seeing shifts in the way people are thinking about power. Brooke reminds us that as journalists, we need to remember our public purpose. “Journalists will lead the way if they stay close to the people. We need to remember the public,” she said.


What are your thougths on the importance of civic journalism in today’s society? Do we need it now, more than ever?