It’s been nearly nine years since I wrote in this space about attending a conference touting the virtues of so-called “public” journalism and its role in strengthening democracy.
This past week, I journeyed to Dayton, Ohio, to participate in a conference session sponsored by the Kettering Foundation titled “Journalists in Public Life,” and the sense of deja vu was nearly overwhelming. Academics and foundation officials were again urging us to get beyond exposing problems and actually help citizens solve them. To reclaim its credibility, the press, they said, should become an agent of change by empowering citizens to make important choices wisely.
This coda was part of a movement several decades ago that foundered amid the upheavals of 9/11, the Internet and the Great Recession. But the time may be ripe for a revival. Citizens who have tested the waters of the worldwide web are beginning to realize it is easy to get in over their heads. Although information that once was scarce and hard to get is now plentiful and easy to find, how to learn what is important and connect with other citizens to stay better engaged with democracy has never been harder. Journalists can empower that engagement, but only by changing the way we go about our business.
One change is to start tuning in to what citizens — defined by one participant as “two or more people working together to solve a shared public problem” — are really concerned about, not necessarily politicians or certified experts. That requires engaging in conversations that allow for ambivalence as well as emotion, a safe space for fact-finding, listening and testing ideas. This is one goal of the Hot Topics forums sponsored by NAU’s Philosophy in the Public Interest program and it is why the Daily Sun is partnering with them this year in moving some of the discussion online to our website.
This kind of attentive listening is crucial for framing questions and problems in new ways that present multiple options for choosing a direction, recognizing resources and organizing action. It’s not enough anymore to stage candidate debates that only heighten polarization, then report on them as if something significant had taken place.
Once journalists have gotten citizens to help them frame a question, the next step is to find those who are working on solving the problem. Flagstaff is awash in these citizen groups — from the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership to the local STEM initiative, the new Excellence in Education coalition and even the citizens who labored four years over the Flagstaff Regional Plan 2030. Even government agencies could be covered not just as sources of news but as resources for problem-solving by citizens.
It is a common lament of the Internet Age that we are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. Journalists should at least help citizens make better sense of the world and the possibility for positive change. Look for more attentive listening by the Daily Sun in the coming election season — and reaching out for help from citizens in how to frame the questions and issues that matter.
Randy Wilson is editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. You can reach him at email@example.com or 556-2254.