Perhaps the best way to rescue our decaying democracy is from the bottom up, community by community. After all, we citizens do hold the sovereign power.
What, then, do people need to know to be effective citizens and exercise their power to govern themselves? In other words, what kinds of news is most supportive of a healthy democracy?
Through my many years of exploring this subject, it strikes me that most people don’t think about the critical relationship between their ability to engage as citizens and the news and information they consume.
Rather than serving as trusted guides to an increasingly complex world, news — online, in print or on air — can create an uneven playing field for citizens trying to exercise their power. Worse yet, it can contribute to disempowering feelings of apathy, disgust, and deep polarization.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Today, we have an opportunity to start considering local news as something which can be — ought to be — designed and co-produced with community residents for the specific purpose of helping them to work democratically to solve problems.
This might sound crazy to many because, for most of our lifetimes, the news business has been just that — a business. And finding, reporting, and distributing local and hyper-local news has been very expensive. National news can be delivered at scale. On the other hand, collecting the itsy-bitsy details of life that can build community and can translate complex issues into understandable reports can be labor-intensive and costly.
What if we could relax some of the professional constraints that were meant to ensure quality but created distance between the scribes and the people?
News today does not have to be a business. What if we thought of it as a gift economy with some sort of peer-to-peer news network? This would not be the old-fashioned kind of network on television, but a digital community network that could be crowdsourcing the news from within, 24/7, to share what it knows – like, for example, that the city council is about to locate a toxic waste dump across the street from the local school but hasn’t yet made that part public? Years ago, when I secured the web address, Newsbyus.org, this is what I had in mind. It would be a kind of Associated Press collaborative for home-grown news from across the country.
I have a hunch that if “everyday” people were more involved in crafting the news, the stories we would tell each other and the world would be different, more meaningful and thus more useful. I’m not talking about sweet, light, and trite stories here, but I am thinking of the kinds of stories that build the culture, create muscle memory, and contribute to greater resilience. Stories are the way we transmit our values and each story contains a parable, be it man against man, man against nature, man against system, or man against self. (Yes, I know that’s overly manly but please bear with me for the sake of ease.)
What’s the story we’re feeding to ourselves? What’s the story we’re feeding to each other as a group? What’s the story we’re feeding to each other as a neighborhood block? Let’s get a handle on the daily stories that are shaping us.
Research shows that people mostly want an acknowledgement of the bigger whole — their place in it and to see their contribution to the larger community. They want the correct narrative about them to be out there in public. They don’t want to be misrepresented. They want their voice to be heard and to participate.
In the past, journalism was mostly about the power of just giving witness to what is happening inside a community, but maybe we’re now witnessing the wrong things. Maybe now it’s time to start listening to the community; to give it a role to inform others, with us as curators.
In this way, journalism becomes a crowd activity – and also a civic act rather than the work of individuals trying to remain detached out of some narrow allegiance to one definition of fairness as getting “both sides of the story.” Today, there are multiple sides to all stories, and our fear now should be that we’re not hearing all of them. Embracing a “he-said, she-said” framework for fairness is not the only lens through which to find the truth. And while I’m breaking ranks here with much of my traditional journalistic upbringing, I’ll add that we could focus more on strengths rather than deficits and agreement rather than conflict. We’re not always divided, and division is not, by far, the only stories we need to be covering today.
There’s no doubt that journalists, like researchers, are highly skilled at describing problems. That is, of course, a necessary first step to helping community residents recognize a shared problem. But the more interesting news can be found in how they are responding to the challenge and if they are trying to solve it together. Do they have the resources they need to do so? The ideas? Where might they find a moderating force to help them learn how to discover these things for themselves?
That kind of coverage would be one big shift: one based on optimism rather than pessimism and on cooperation rather than division. It’s a necessary shift in mindset for journalism and for democracy, itself.