Tapping Civic Life:
Reporting First, and Best, What's Happening in Your Community

"The public concerns that drive issues in a community normally don't arise at city hall or the courthouse," says Wichita Eagle editor, Davis "Buzz" Merritt. "They bubble up from the rich and, to most journalists, dark and trackless swamp of civic life.

"They attract journalistic notice only when they near the point of getting on an official body's agenda or in some other way come general attention," he said,

Tapping Civic Life, a Pew Center workbook for journalists, is an attempt to map how journalists can enter that messy swamp in ways that will allow them to know about the real issues that concern people before they reach "official" notice. And it is an at tempt to help reporters and editors use this information in ways that will improve journalism.

The workbook is based on 18 months of research at The Wichita Eagle, designed by The Harwood Group and funded by the Pew Center.

"The results of this study my reporters is that we learned some new kinds of questions to ask," Merritt told the 100 journalists who attended the unveiling of the book at this year's Batten Symposium May 14 in Washington, D.C.

When journalists locate the unique civic spaces in their communities and listen to those citizens, it adds a lot of value to journalism, Harwood added.

* For one, it helps journalists deal with what Harwood calls "ambivalence," which occurs when citizens are still actively sorting out their thinking on issues as they work toward making a decision. "By illuminating that, you'll get harder-hitti ng stories, stories that better reflect where a community is; stories that uncover where the real tensions in values are in a community."

* It helps journalists write more accurate stories. "How do we not just get the facts right, but get the right facts. What's the true story here?" Harwood asked.

* It also helps journalists get the whole story. "The difference is between tapping more voices for the sake of tapping them, so that we meet some kind of quota, and hearing different perspectives so that we understand the wholeness of an issue ."

The process of tapping into a community's civic spaces, cautioned Harwood, is incredibly messy. "It's like stepping your foot into a swamp and what you come up with a lot times is mud, and goo and a lot of water."

Or journalists will say they are already doing it by going to a couple of town meetings or holding instant polls or running reader "call-in" boxes even though "we don't get deep answers," he said. "And yet, people say we miss what they talk about in the ir civic life."

In mapping the civic swamp of Wichita, Harwood said he found, like in any ecosystem, multiple layers. Yet journalists, again and again, tend to tap only two of them: the "official" layer, involving coverage of City Council and city agency meetings, and t he "private" layers, when we do stories about people's personal lives.

"But civic life actually occurs between those two layers," Harwood said. It happens in "quasi-official" civic association meetings, at the market, in churches and child-care centers, on the sidewalk.

Harwood also found two other important kinds of leaders who "actually make civic life tip," he said. "Connectors" can tell journalists about different kinds of conversations that are going on in a community because they move between various groups. And "catalysts" are those who make things happen by using their influence to get others involved.

"So the challenge is how do journalists get beneath the quasi-official layer to really hear what's going on," Harwood said. "Depending on where you tap into your community, you will hear fundamentally different kinds of conversations. "

To order a copy of Tapping Civic Life, call the Pew Center, 202-331-3200. There is no charge.

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