Considering The Peoples Voice

Judy Roberts thought it was about time someone asked for her opinion. At 36, the Quincy insurance agent had long ago grown tired of politicians who ignore what matters to ordinary people and journalists who let them get away with it. So when The Boston Globe invited her to be part of a citizen panel questioning the candidates in the 1996 U.S. Senate race, she leapt at the chance to take the microphone.

Her 60 minutes of fame came in mid-October on a stage at Stonehill College in North Easton where she sat with six other voters facing incumbent Sen. John Kerry and Gov. William Weld, the challenger. Four Greek columns draped with diaphanous white sheets towered behind them, a not-so-subtle reminder that this was supposed to be democracy in action. The cameras started to roll and local public radio talk show host Christopher Lydon welcomed hundreds of thousands of viewers to “a debate that is designed to be different.”

Two citizen questions and a few candidate quips later, Lydon stood next to Roberts and held the microphone to her mouth. She looked down at her notes, then straight at Weld and Kerry, and put it to them: Don’t they think it’s in this country’s best interest to institute term limits for some, if not all, public offices?

“I just felt it was an important topic to bring up,” Roberts, a Republican, said recently, reflecting on the experience. “All I could do, little teeny person that I am, is bring it up in the form of a question at a public debate….That was my way of saying, ‘Wake up!’ ”

It was hardly earth shattering. Any reporter covering the campaign already knew the answers–Weld was for term limits, Kerry against. But with the election just a few weeks away, it was the first time that subject–and her other question about what each candidate would do to help small-business owners–had come up at any of the six televised debates so far. Along with other citizen queries about Social Security, capital punishment, and the CIA’s alleged involvement in inner-city drug-trafficking, it made for a refreshing change from the mind-numbing policy minutiae that Weld and Kerry had been debating since April. The next day’s front-page Boston Globe headline: “Citizens take Round 6.”

The folksy forum was one high-profile part of a journalistic experiment in taking power from the pundits and giving it to the people. Known as “civic journalism,” or “public journalism,” it attempts to make citizen concerns the center of campaigns, rather than allowing them to get lost in the usual cacophony of attack ads, strategy stories, and horse-race results.

The Boston-area version was “The People’s Voice” – an unprecedented cooperative effort by the Globe, public radio station WBUR-FM (90.9), and two local television stations to improve campaign coverage. They pooled their resources and polled the populace to find out which issues mattered most, organized focus groups to delve deeper, convened panel discussions for citizens to question the candidates directly, and spent countless hours just talking with voters. The result was hundreds of newspaper stories, radio segments, and TV broadcasts that explored the citizens’ agenda in the 1996 Senate race and the presidential primary in New Hampshire that same year (with WABU-TV, Channel 68), and the 1994 races for U.S. senator and governor (with WBZ-TV, Channel 4).

It was a dramatic departure for New England’s largest daily newspaper and its media partners. The opening segment proclaimed the project nothing less than a “redefinition” of the Globe‘s political coverage. Some observers found it right-minded. Some called it risky. To others, it was fluff.

Now that another election season is upon us–love it, hate it, or tune it out–The People’s Voice will be heard once more.

Those in charge of political coverage at some of the state’s major media outlets–if not all of their reporters–are committed to trying again, though on a smaller scale than before. This spring, the Globe was talking with public broadcasters WBUR radio and WGBH television about forming another partnership. WABU wanted in again, too. (WBZ had enough after 1994. News Director Peter Brown says the project was “an interesting experiment” but made for “dry” television.)

In June, Globe Editor Matthew V. Storin said the paper was planning to publish a “modified People’s Voice project,” which will pursue the same goals as previous efforts, but with less space devoted to it than in the past. He said it was still unclear whether the paper would team up with other media organizations.

Teresa Hanafin, the Globe‘s assistant managing editor for local news and an avowed fan of civic journalism, was ready for the paper to go it alone if necessary. She sent two reporters to travel the state for two weeks each early this summer to have “as many conversations as they can have” and learn what’s on the minds of Massachusetts residents as they prepare to elect a governor. The goal was to develop a “baseline of an agenda” that the newspaper would put before the candidates and “not allow them to ignore what we find,” she said. More detailed discussions were to be held with voters in Framingham, whose demographics represent the state.

The paper does not intend to boycott press conferences, ignore political ads, or stop investigating the candidates’ records. But despite some grumbling from the State House bureau and the political editor, Hanafin said she wants to integrate citizen concerns into the traditional coverage as much as possible. “The most important people in any election are the voters,” she said. In addition to running stories about the issues voters say are most important, the Globe may ask candidates to answer citizen questions in the pages of the newspaper, at roundtable forums, and during debates.

The details were still to be decided in June, and Hanafin did not expect the year’s first People’s Voice installments to appear until July. So to what extent people become part of the coverage–and whether the candidates pay attention–remains to be seen as the campaigns unfold. But after three previous election experiments–amounting to thousands of inches of text, photos, and pie charts–it’s clear the Globe is still searching for a formula that balances public purpose with the realities of modern-day campaign politics and reader attention spans.

Though civic journalism champions the citizen, it has not yet been popularly embraced in return. For the better part of a decade, the debate over its value has been raging primarily inside newsrooms, journalism schools, and trade publications, with an occasional story about the most controversial projects in The New York Times.

The movement began in the aftermath of the 1988 presidential election, which until the Monica Lewinsky scandal many considered the low point of American political journalism. That was the one that brought us Mike Dukakis in a tank, Willie Horton ads, and plenty of polling, but little attention to the issues most voters cared about.

A Kansas newspaper, the Wichita Eagle, vowed to do it differently the next time around and launched “Your Vote Counts” during the 1990 governor’s race. The Charlotte Observer of North Carolina tried its own version in 1992. Then came the new Pew Center for Civic Journalism, a Washington, D.C.-based organization funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts that helped news organizations pay for citizen-focused coverage. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen started visiting newsrooms–including the Globe‘s–to spread the word.

The concepts have since caught hold across the country. Since 1993, the Pew Center has funded more than 60 projects involving 130 media organizations. Many more (several hundred by some estimates) have experimented on their own–and not only with election coverage, but also trying to help build safer neighborhoods, decide the future of downtown development, and improve public schools.

Even to civic journalism’s detractors, it seems obvious that both politics and journalism need help. The signs are everywhere–low voter turnout, declining newspaper readership, contempt for politicians, disgust for the media. In fact, Massachusetts voters have less confidence in the news media than in local government, state government, the courts, the much-maligned public schools, police, or the business community, according to a recent poll by UMass- Boston’s McCormack Institute of Public Affairs. One-third of those polled reported “hardly any” confidence in the news media, while half said they have “only some.”

To its most ardent supporters, civic journalism is the cure for a sick democracy. As Pew Center Executive Director Jan Schaffer put it in a speech last year, traditional journalism is at least partly responsible “for the U.S. turning into a nation of civic couch potatoes.” Focusing attention on citizens and their concerns should re-engage people in the political process, she says. “So often journalism treats them as bystanders or spectators and they tune out,” Schaffer told CommonWealth. “[But] we’ve seen it again and again, the appetite for citizens to engage in issues….When they’re invited they come. They will do things.”

It seems harmless, even helpful, to many. But that’s the sort of talk that makes critics cringe. Traditionalists balk at the idea of abandoning the role of objective watchdog for one of civic guidedog. It’s too easy to cross the line into advocacy for particular causes, they say. Cases in point are news organizations that have formed questionable partnerships with groups such as The United Way. Besides, letting readers drive the coverage sounds more like marketing than journalism, opponents say.

“Giving the people what they want is only part of journalism,” says Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers, who thinks civic journalism can be useful but has been over-hyped as a political panacea. “Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is not always what people are going to say they want in a focus group.”

“Giving the people what they want is only part of journalism.”

Bruce Gellerman, a former WBUR business correspondent who is developing a news magazine for the station, can’t voice his objections loudly enough. To him, civic journalism is “junk journalism” and “academic nonsense.” Gellerman, who ran some focus groups and did stories for previous People’s Voice projects, says he can’t see why anybody takes it seriously. All good journalists should constantly be talking to people and reporting their concerns, he says, but not advocating for them. “It’s people who don’t know reporting trying to put the media in a role which it doesn’t deserve and shouldn’t be in,” he says. “We are surrogates of the people….That doesn’t mean I’m the people’s parrot.”

Compared to the newspapers that have been gung-ho about civic journalism, the Globe and its media partners found a reasonable middle ground. They didn’t overuse focus groups or abandon traditional hard-hitting coverage of the candidates. But that hasn’t prevented newsroom protests about the projects’ excesses and questions about its ultimate value.

On the plus side, The People’s Voice did produce some memorable moments. A frequently mentioned favorite was Sen. Ted Kennedy’s obviously uncomfortable appearance at a panel discussion with voters during his tough 1994 re-election campaign against venture capitalist Mitt Romney. In a September Globe story headlined “Panelists less than charmed by Kennedy’s lengthy record,” reporter Sally Jacobs wrote that “even the panel’s lone Democrat expressed surprise at his sometimes prickly demeanor.” Teresa Hanafin says “that was very telling about him as a politician, as a candidate, and as a person.”

Earlier in the campaign, the newspaper published a long series of candidates’ responses to citizen questions about crime, welfare, health care, education, and the economy – issues a poll identified as important to people. Sometimes the Globe went back to the questioners for their assessment of the answers and printed those, too.

Bruce Mohl, who coordinated the 1994 coverage as the Globe‘s political editor and now has the consumer beat, said it was interesting to see that “regular people” did, indeed, ask different questions than reporters. But in the end, “I don’t think it accomplished anything,” he said. “I don’t think it changed the campaign at all. I don’t think it changed the dynamics of the race, and I don’t think it forced the politicians” to address the concerns of the people.

To many observers, the Globe learned from its early efforts and produced its best work in the 1996 presidential primary project “Derry Decides.” This time, the paper and WBUR received a Pew grant that allowed them each to hire a People’s Voice coordinator to work full time on the project. (Pew’s Schaffer would not disclose the grant amount, and Globe and WBUR editors said they could not recall it. But Schaffer said the average Pew Center grant this year is about $28,000.) Long before the national media explained Pat Buchanan’s appeal, they revealed the deep-seated economic anxiety in the southern New Hampshire town.

But when it came time for the citizens to meet the GOP presidential candidates in a town-meeting forum, only longshots Richard Lugar, Alan Keyes, and Robert Dornan showed up. Bob Dole and Steve Forbes refused and Buchanan had a conflict. More than ever before, the campaign was won on television advertising. “I don’t know how you go about making sure candidates actually come before your little groups,” said Donald MacGillis, who was the Globe‘s coordinator in 1996. “I would have loved to get Steve Forbes to talk about so many issues he barely addressed in that campaign….To have him hear people talking about problems in their lives….That would have been very illuminating.”

A recurring complaint among Globe staffers was the project’s air of artificiality and the amount of space devoted to people who didn’t always have anything interesting to say. Ironically, one of the biggest critics is the Globe‘s current political editor, Doug Bailey, who was expected to run this year’s People’s Voice project. “I’m not a big fan of The People’s Voice,” Bailey said in May, before the paper’s plans were finalized. “There’s an element of manufactured falseness that rubs me the wrong way as a journalist.” Bailey said he realizes that political reporters can become “almost as entrenched as the politicians they cover,” but he was not convinced that dozens of stories about ordinary people and their views of the campaign were the solution. He said he hoped to use civic journalism techniques, including polls, interviews, and focus groups, to identify the issues that should drive campaign coverage. But he wanted to avoid endless stories about the people themselves.

More broadly, Bailey wonders about the wisdom of choosing certain citizens to speak for the community. “We sort of anoint them to be our voice, our ‘people’s voice,’ but we have no way of knowing if they’re truly representative,” he said.

Often past participants ended up as celebrities of sorts, almost pundits themselves. Judy Roberts, for example, was quoted repeatedly, commenting at length on two debates, in addition to being a panelist. After the Stonehill College event, the stage was flooded with reporters. Roberts says she was interviewed on almost every local TV station–Channels 25, 38, 56, 4, 5, and 7.

One notorious citizen–a Republican real estate appraiser from Charlestown who was vehemently anti-Kennedy–seemed to revel in the spotlight. He solicited questions for the candidates over the Internet, and posed one on behalf of Howie Carr when the talk show host could not get an interview himself. At one point he asked Kennedy whether he had ever used cocaine. “Some people came in and tried to sort of imitate being a journalist. They tried to be Sam Donaldson or something,” recalls WBUR News Director Sam Fleming, who liked the coverage overall but would not call on the same people to be panelists as frequently in the future.

On the other hand, many people simply asked softball questions that didn’t challenge the candidates or help determine distinctions between them. “I found it rather dull and boring,” said longtime Globe State House reporter Frank Phillips, who thought the attempt had its merits, but was overdone. “I’m a big Red Sox fan, but I don’t want our sports reporters sitting out in the bleachers talking to the fans and asking… how Pedro Martinez is pitching that day.”

It’s difficult to judge whether any of this made a difference. The only formal evaluation of The People’s Voice was a series of focus groups following the New Hampshire primary. Tara Murphy, the WBUR coordinator who ran the discussions, said people clearly preferred the Globe‘s stories about citizen panels to its traditional campaign coverage. Some even wanted to read transcripts of the events. But they also wanted the paper to do more to “push back to the candidates” to get the politicians to respond to the people’s concerns, she says. “There was sort of a feeling that O.K., now what?”

Studies by the Pew Charitable Trusts found there are some positive things going on in public journalism towns, such as people feeling more connected to the community, knowledgeable about issues, and encouraged to vote. Some people also reported feeling more positive about the news media. But there has been little tangible evidence of improvement in standard measures such as newspaper readership or voter turnout, says Charlotte Grimes, a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy who spent the last year studying civic journalism across the country.

One Pew-sponsored study found that readers of the Hackensack, N.J. paper, The Record, were no more likely to vote in the 1996 presidential and congressional elections despite six-day-a-week, full-page “Campaign Central” coverage from Labor Day through election day. More than 40 percent of the paper’s readers could not even name either U.S. Senate candidate. The few independent studies of civic journalism, Grimes adds, have been largely inconclusive.

Lou DiNatale, a senior fellow at the McCormack Institute, says more needs to be done. The problem with the news media, in Boston and elsewhere, he says, is, “They’re unwilling to change their basic behavior. They’re still only trying to tweak the system.” DiNatale argues the Globe should try to incorporate the values of civic journalism into all of its coverage, not just election-year politics. “It requires a culture shift inside the media operations, and it requires a lead time of a few years to learn how to do it properly,” he says. “You can’t just pop it out. You have to make a commitment for it. And I don’t see that.”

In retrospect, The People’s Voice did not exactly rock the political establishment. True to its name, it was usually as useful as the opinions sought–sometimes provocative, sometimes pedestrian, sometimes a waste of space.

As for Judy Roberts, she says she is still as cynical about politicians and journalists as ever. Moreover, now that she and her husband, Mark, have a 16-month-old son, she pays even less attention than she used to.

Meet the Author
Mark Jurkowitz, the Globe‘s media critic, who has written frequently about the civic journalism debate, says it’s time for everyone to calm down. He argues that the debate “has been a foolish side show” that “mirrors the problem with our politics. Immediately people had to take up camps… had to see it as a sweeping philosophical issue. In doing so, both missed the point.”

If people could see civic journalism as “let’s get our ideas and our agenda from the grass roots up rather than from the Rolodex down,” Jurkowitz says, it could do much to help make the media more relevant. “My dream of civic journalism is that it sort of becomes part and parcel of daily behavior of the newsroom,” he concludes. “The truth is journalism has gotten far enough away from that; it doesn’t hurt to give it a name…. By giving it a name and operating principles, you’re sort of forcing people to think about it.”