the press and civic engagement

Below the fold, I have pasted a longish draft essay on the evolution of the news media and its impact on democracy. (A revised version will go into a book on civic engagement that is due next month.) In essence, I argue that we had a particular model of the news business between 1900 and 2000 that became increasingly dysfunctional for citizens. It offered limited opportunities to write the news–that’s a well-known flaw. It also assumed an audience of people who were interested in public issues and who trusted professional reporters to be objective, balanced, reliable, and independent. That audience encompassed the most active citizens, as surveys show. But it shrank rapidly in the last quarter of the 1900s. Resurrecting the twentieth-century press now seems impossible, but the new digital media have promise.

Until the Progressive Era (ca. 1900-1914), most American newspapers and magazines reflected the positions of a party, church, or association and aimed to persuade readers or motivate the persuaded. The exceptions, beginning with the New York Sun in 1833, were independent businesses that sought mass audiences in big cities. All 19th-century newspapers freely combined opinion and news. They printed fiction and poetry along with factual reporting. They often ran whole speeches by favored politicians or clergymen. Standards of evidence were generally low. However, publications were relatively cheap to launch, so they proliferated; 2,226 daily newspapers were in business in 1899.[1] A small voluntary association or independent entrepreneur could break into the news business, hoping to make money or to push a particular ideology, or both.

The nineteenth century was also an age of partisan citizenship, in which people were expected to show loyalty to a party, a union, a church, a town or state, and sometimes a race or ethnic group. Often such loyalties were ascribed from birth; they were matters of affiliation rather than assent, as Michael Schudson writes.[2] Voting was a public act, an expression of loyalty, not a private choice. Politics involved torchlight parades and popular songs; the essence of civic life was boosterism; and newspapers were written in a similarly rousing, communitarian spirit.

As Schudson has shown, the new model citizen of the Progressive Era–an independent, well-informed, judicious decision-maker–needed a different kind of newspaper, one that provided reliable information clearly distinguished from opinion, exhortation, and fiction. Leading newspapers were separated from parties and religious denominations and began to claim objectivity and independence. Their intended audience became all good citizens, not just members of particular groups. When they introduced opinion columns and letters pages, they often strove for ideological balance. As Adolph Ochs announced when he bought The New York Times in 1896, his intention was to ?give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved; to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.?[3]

The transformation of the American press coincided with the ascendance of logical positivism, which sharply distinguished verifiable facts from subjective opinions.[4] Furthermore, the independent newspaper arose along with the modern research university, whose mission was to create independent, judicious decision-makers instead of loyal members of a community. Finally, the new press reflected an ideal of a trained, professional journalist that took shape when many other occupations were also striving to professionalize.[5]

At about the time when journalists developed ideals of objectivity, independence, and neutrality, the news business consolidated. For example, the number of daily newspapers in New York City fell from 20 in the late 1800s to eight in 1940. Meanwhile, the first newspaper chains were established.[6] Most people began to obtain news from a daily publication with a mass circulation, and they had relatively little choice. Consolidation of the news business and journalistic professionalism could be justified together with one theory. An excellent newspaper–and later, an excellent evening news show on television–was supposed to provide all the objective facts that a citizen needed in order to make up his or her own mind. The citizen did not need much choice among sources, because any truly professional and independent news organ would provide the same array of facts. Some competition might be valuable to encourage efficiency and rigor, but all credible journals would compete for the same stories. Choice was a private matter to be exercised after one had read the newspaper or watched TV. One was to be guided not by an ascribed identity but by making informed selections among policy options.

This new model had idealistic defenders, but it also had several serious drawbacks that became increasingly clear as the century progressed. First, the new journalism was probably not as effective at mobilizing citizens as the old partisan press had been. Although we lack data on individuals? newspaper use and civic engagement from before the 1950s, we know that overall turnout and other measures of participation fell as the press consolidated and aimed at professionalism. It seems likely that the new journalism was less motivating.

Second, it became harder to break into the news business once newspapers needed not only printing presses, ink, and paper, but also credentialed journalists, editors and fact-checkers, and a staff large enough to provide comprehensive coverage (?all the news that?s fit to print?). Thus the telling of news became the province of a few professionals employed by large businesses, not an activity open to many citizens. That problem worsened once radio and television arrived.

Third, journalistic professionalism often seemed to introduce its own biases. For example, journalists were trained not to editorialize in news stories. That meant that they often simply quoted other people?s controversial views, usually aiming for as much balance as possible between voices on either side of a debate. To call the president a liar is to editorialize; to quote someone who holds that view is to report a fact. But one still has to choose whom to quote, and the tendency is to interview famous, powerful, or credentialed sources–often those with talents or budgets for public relations and axes to grind. In 1999, 78 percent of respondents to a national survey agreed: ?powerful people can get stories into the paper–or keep them out.?[7] Sometimes the norm of ?balance? created a bias in favor of the mainstream left and mainstream right, marginalizing other views. On occasion, it meant that reporters gave excessive space to demonstrably false opinions, because they saw their job as reporting what prominent people said, not what was right.

While professional reporters felt bound not to promote policy positions, those who closely covered campaigns and administrations believed they could say who was winning and losing and why politicians had adopted their current positions. Similarities between candidates? views and public opinion (as measured by the newspaper?s own polls) were taken as evidence that politicians were simply trying to attract votes. Thus readers were offered a relentlessly cynical view of politicians? motives, plus an interminable policy debate among experts who were equally balanced between the right and left, plus polls showing that one side or the other was bound to win. It is no wonder that many lost interest in politics. None of this coverage helped citizens to play a role of their own.

Modern professional journalism placed a tremendous emphasis on politics as a ?horse race.? Three quarters of broadcast news stories during the 2000 campaign were devoted to tactics and polls; only one quarter, to issues.[8] As CNN political director Mark Hannon explained in 1996, his network conducted daily polls because they ?happen to be the most authoritative way to answer the most basic question about the election, which is who is going to win.?[9] In fact, during a campaign, the most basic question for a citizen is not who will win, but which candidate to support. But reporters reflexively see that question as one for the editorial pages, whereas they can cover polls as simple empirical facts. Yet the depiction of politics as a horse race suggests that a campaign is a spectator sport (and not a particularly elegant or entertaining one). Controlled experiments have found that such coverage raises cynicism and lowers engagement.[10]

Finally, the ideal news organ of the Progressive Era demanded a lot of trust from its readers. Perhaps objectivity, independence, and balance are possible in theory; in practice, however, any news source is a fallible human product. Major newspapers, magazines, and broadcast news have powerful effects on politics and public opinion. The newspaper that claims to be objective, independent, and nonpartisan asks us to believe that the consequences of its reporting are involuntary, caused by the facts and not by any political agenda. That defense can be hard to swallow. In 2004, two thirds of all Americans thought they detected at least a ?fair amount? of bias.[11]

The most glorious chapter in the history of the modern American press was written between 1965 and 1975, when The Washington Post and The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, broke the Watergate scandal, and had their constitutional role as independent watchdogs upheld by the Supreme Court. Their reporting certainly had consequences, helping to end a war and bring down a president. That was all very well if one opposed the Vietnam War and President Nixon. But the same power could also be used against President Clinton or against the welfare state. Anyone whose political goals were frustrated by the press might find it difficult to trust reporters as objective and independent. One?s skepticism might be reinforced by the fact that each newspaper has owners, investors, and advertisers with economic interests. Writers and editors, too, form a definable interest group.

The debate about corporate power in the news media is at least a century old and is perennially important. In the 1990s, a new discussion began that concerned reporters? professional norms. Some reporters, editors, and academics argued that the newsroom ideals developed during the Progressive Era no longer served democracy and civic engagement. A newspaper like The New York Times, as Ochs had envisioned it, presumed a public that was interested in current events and ready to act on the information it read. But that public was shrinking, and it could be argued that the prevailing style of news reporting was actually making it smaller by increasing cynicism. Adversarial, ?watchdog? journalists still played an important role in periodically uncovering scandals, but it was not clear why an individual citizen should spend money and time reading such information every day. When a big scandal broke, the opposition party or law enforcement was supposed to address it. Why should individuals pay for independent oversight as a public good? Only those who were already civically engaged would choose to subscribe to the watchdog press. Their numbers were falling, and they could find ever less information in the newspaper that could inform for their own civic activities.

In the 1990s, under the labels of ?public journalism? or ?civic journalism,? news organs experimented with new forms of reporting that might better serve active citizens and enhance civic engagement. For example, instead of reporting the 1992 North Carolina Senate campaign as a horse race (with frequent polls and numerous articles about the candidates? strategies), the Charlotte Observer convened a representative group of citizens to deliberate about issues of their choice and to write questions for the major contenders. The newspaper offered to publish the questions and responses verbatim. Meanwhile, its beat reporters were assigned to provide factual reporting on each of the topics that the citizens chose to explore. When Senator Jesse Helms refused to complete the questionnaire that the citizens had written, the Observer published blank spaces under his name.[12]

Careful evaluations have found positive effects from this and other such experiments. But public journalism faltered as a movement by the end of the decade.[13] One of the reasons was the sudden rise of the Internet. The newspaper business, panicked by independent websites and bloggers, lost interest in civic experimentation. Meanwhile, many of proponents of public journalism began to see the Internet as more promising than reforms within conventional newsrooms.

After all, blogs, podcasts, and other digital media make possible a return to the press that existed before the Progressive Era–for better and, for worse. The barriers to publication have fallen, not only because websites are cheaper than printing presses, but also because a mass audience has returned to products created by individuals and amateurs. Blogs are endlessly various. Some are specialized sites devoted to careful, factual reporting on particular topics, but most are motivational, ideological, and opinionated, with comparatively low standards of evidence and no trained reporters, fact-checkers, or editors. However, there are millions of them and they often check one another?s facts. Young people are heavily represented and have better opportunities to enter the fray than at any time since 1900.

Twentieth century news media claimed to separate fact from fiction–not always successfully. Then the audience for straight news reporting shrank, along with the rate of civic engagement. But fiction can promote civic participation, as long as it is of high quality. For example, it appears that watching and discussing the fictional world of The West Wing (an NBC television drama) has positive civic effects, whereas watching sitcoms is bad for civic engagement.[14] Unfortunately, the balance of material that major entertainment businesses provide is not good for democracy. But barriers to making films have fallen: artists and other citizens have growing opportunities to create and promote work in all genres that helps people to engage.

Blogs, short videos and audios, and other innovative news media should help to many people to mobilize and organize their fellow citizens. Until recently, trust in journalists, consumption of newspapers, and civic engagement were strongly correlated, but the links may be weakened if people can gain the information they need to participate from other sources. Those who are not inclined to trust the mainstream press will still be able to participate.

Clearly, there are also dangers. An online audience can screen out uncomfortable ideas, thereby splitting into ideologically homogeneous ?echo chambers.? There is a relative scarcity of online content devoted to local communities. It can be difficult to distinguish the source and reliability of online information. And the web provides a sometimes confusing mix of fact, opinion, error, deliberate falsification, and overt fiction.

Each of these dangers can be addressed by citizens working online, and sometimes software can help. For example, Wikipedia provides surprisingly reliable information through a system of peer review involving many thousands of volunteers. Technorati?s software increases the chance that bloggers will engage in conversations with their critics, by alerting them whenever their writing has been linked from elsewhere. Social networking software like MySpace (which is currently very popular among the young) can be tweaked so that it helps people identify neighbors with similar political interests.

If there is hope that citizens can address the drawbacks of the new online media through voluntary action, then it would be unwise to enact policies to shape what should be a free space. We should, however, act to prevent two pressing problems. First, it is possible to make handsome profits by limiting customers? access to material produced by ordinary citizens and driving them to corporate content. Internet service providers may be tempted to provide quicker access to websites that pay them for that advantage; cable companies may charge higher fees for uploading data than for downloading corporate material; and most search engines already sell preferential treatment. Legislation is needed to keep the Internet neutral and open.[15]

Second the ?blogosphere? still depends on daily news journalism. Therefore, cuts in newsroom staff and attempts to replace hard news with entertainment are still damaging, even in the Internet era.


1. Bruce M. Owen, Economics and Freedom of Expression: Media Structure and the First Amendment (Cambridge, MA, 1975), table 2A-1.

2. Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (New York: The Free Press, 1998), p. 6.

3. Quoted by Schudson, p. 178, who notes that Ochs also pledged to promote ?right-doing? and to maintain a commitment to political principles, such as ?sound money and tariff reform.? But it was the section I quote that was most influential,

4. An influential defense in English was A.J. Ayer?s 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic. However, the prestige of logical positivism owed more to the apparently unambiguous progress of science before World War II than to any theoretical defense.

5. Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: the Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., l976); Schudson, pp. 179-182.

6. Mitchell Stephens, ?Newspaper,? Collier?s Encyclopedia, 1994, available via

7. American Association of Newspaper Editors, ?Examining Our Credibility,? August 4, 1999, available via

8. Annenberg Public Policy Center, ?Networks Only Aired About One Minute of Candidate-Centered Discourse a Night in the Days Leading to the Election: More Stories Focused on Horse-Race & Strategy

than Issues & Substance,? press release, Dec. 20, 2000.

9. James Bennet, ?Polling Provoking Debate in News Media on its Use,? The New York Times, Oct. 4, 1996, p. A24.

10. Joseph N. Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)

11. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, ?Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe: Perceptions of Partisan Bias Seen as Growing, Especially by Democrats,? January 11, 2004.

12. Peter Levine, The New Progressive Era (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), pp. 156-7

13. Lewis A. Friedland, Public Journalism: Past and Future (Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press, 2003 {P???}

14. Dhavan V. Shah, Jack M. Mcleod, and So-Hyang Yoon, ?Communication, Context, and Community An Exploration of Print, Broadcast, and Internet Influences,? Communication Research, Vol. 28, No. 4, 464-506 (2001)

15. Jeffrey Chester, ?The Death Of The Internet : How Industry Intends To Kill The ‘Net As We Know It,?, October 24, 2002.

1 thought on “the press and civic engagement

  1. Pingback: playing the horse race game « Peter Levine

Comments are closed.