Events of the recent past have underscored the deep political and cultural divisions within these dis-United States, although some would argue that the public is not as divided as are the political leaders and news commentators who dominate the conversation in Washington, D.C.
Some elements of the news media and social media have been playing an increasingly exploitative role in deepening the bitter divides that already exist in order to broaden their audiences and maximize their clicks.
But other news outlets and start-ups have been looking for a different kind of journalism that seeks to circumvent the artificial divisions plaguing our political institutions and find common ground in efforts to address community challenges.
During the 1990s and early 2000s there was a movement within the news profession variously known as “civic” or “public” journalism. Newspaper and broadcast journalists joined civic organizations in efforts to engage the public in deliberative processes aimed at addressing critical community challenges.
Often the newspapers and broadcast stations would begin by gauging members of the public to find which concerns were most pressing to them. Instead of telling the public what they should care about, they began by asking the public what they did care about.
Reporters would be asked to research public problems and write about potential solutions. In some regions and communities, media outlets would serve as conveners, sponsoring months long civic journalism projects that combined fact finding efforts with deliberative public forums.
The emergence of civic/public journalism in large organizations such as the Knight-Ridder media chain, however, led to a backlash within the news profession. More traditionally minded editors and reporters deplored the movement as “local boosterism” and worried that the trend would discourage hard-hitting investigative journalism and undermine the independence of the press.
Ultimately, the old business models that supported professional news operations in the Twentieth Century proved unsustainable. The dominance of social media and a more partisan press have changed the nature of journalism (and politics) leading to the invention of a new phenomenological category known as “alternative facts.”
Welcome to the Atlanta Civic Circle, a new nonprofit publication founded by a former business reporter and the director of a local food bank. The mission of this news startup is to “inform the public on the most critical issues facing metro Atlanta by providing in-depth reporting and presenting possible solutions with opportunities for civic engagement online and in the community.”
The Atlanta Civic Circle is an example of the growth of small nonprofit news outlets that are trying to promote civic learning and public engagement. It joins a growing group of public-spirited media start-ups that are trying to transcend the fact-free, conflict-oriented world of cable shout shows, cliché-ridden horse-race journalism, and mean-spirited, fake-news websites.
Some of these nonprofits are merely trying to revive an old-fashioned tradition of honest, fair-minded professional journalism. Others are seeking to expand the role of the public in gathering news and guiding the public conversation.
The Public Insight Network, an offshoot of American Public Media, encourages news audiences to share their insights with journalists. Spaceship Media is “refining a journalistic process that begins with lightly facilitating online dialogue.” After the divisive 2016 elections, for example, Spaceship worked with an Alabama Media Group to facilitate dialogues between residents of Alabama and California.
On the national level, USA Today has joined Public Agenda, the National Issues Forums and other groups on a Hidden Common Ground initiative combining public deliberation, polling, and newsgathering efforts to challenge the dominant “narrative” that the American public is hopelessly divided.
Although these civic enterprises may not enjoy as large an audience as the biggest cable news outlets or online news sites, they do represent a range of creative activities that may lead to a more civic and productive approach to journalism and public discourse in some communities.
The good news is out there, waiting for an audience big enough to keep it going.