Posts Tagged ‘journalists’

What is a citizen?

david holwerk

By Annetjie van Wynegaard

Date Released: Sat, 31 August

david holwerk

This week David Holwerk, director of communications at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation in Ohio, USA, was visiting the School of Journalism and Media Studies to talk about how journalists write about citizens. The Kettering Foundation is a research organisation in the USA with a strong interest in work done by citizens, communities and journalists in a democracy.

Holwerk said that it seems to be a universal article of faith among journalists that they serve the needs of citizens in democracy. But journalists seem much less certain about what citizens actually do, which raises doubts about the ability of journalists to serve citizens’ needs effectively. “Why do people need things?” asked Holwerk. When you need something, he said, it implies that you want to do something. “If need implies action, then what is it that citizens do? They vote. We give them the information they need to vote. Why? Are citizens only voters?”

These are the questions Holwerk has been grappling with for the past four years. At the Kettering Foundation many political scientists and theorists have some ideas about what citizens do. So Holwerk started to think, “You ought to be able to figure out what citizens do by looking at what journalists do.” But when you look at newspapers, watch television or listen to the radio, it’s difficult to find citizens there doing anything, he said.

Journalists and editors need to develop a broader, denser, more robust understanding of what it is that citizens do, he said, but the conversation seems completely theoretical in the context of American journalism.

Enter the Eastern Cape. Holwerk said the Eastern Cape in particular is a rich place to pursue these questions about citizens and journalists that are current and real here. Holwerk said the conversations he has had with journalists from the Daily Dispatch and the Herald he could have had with few American journalists. He said because citizenship and democracy are still fairly new in South Africa, it gives these kinds of questions currency. He found in some South African newspapers community dialogues that bring citizens together to wrestle with issues and solutions.

What is a citizen?

Holwerk said an obstacle to journalists everywhere is not having a clear definition of the word. The legal definition of citizen is someone who is entitled to full rights, including voting rights, in their native state, he said, but this is both too broad and too narrow for the purpose of journalism. Another definition is anyone with the ability to act, he said, but if merely having the ability to act makes you a citizen and you choose not to act, there is no need for journalists to act, and nothing to cover.

Holwerk’s definition of citizens is two people working together to solve a shared public problem. For journalists, if two people work together to solve a private problem, it’s not news, but if they find a solution that benefits the public, that is news.

This was not Holwerk’s first visit to South Africa. Last year he moderated a panel on journalism and citizenship at the National Arts Festival, and in 2011 he was a speaker at the symposium on Ethical Reporting of Health Issues in Africa. In 2008 Marietjie Oelofsen, a PhD Fellow in the Mellon Media and Citizenship Project at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, went to the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio as a Fanning Fellow in Democracy and Media. At that time Holwerk was the editor of the Sacramento Bee and the foundation sent Oelofsen to Sacramento to speak to him about journalism and his work around citizenship. Holwerk joined the Foundation as director of communications and resident scholar in June 2009. Oelofsen went for another meeting and they started to talk about Holwerk visiting South African newsrooms and journalism schools.

Before coming to the Kettering Foundation, Holwerk worked for more than 30 years as a journalist at newspapers in Kentucky, Minnesota and California. He worked as a copy editor, reporter, editorial page editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief. He has managed staffs that have won numerous national awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for editorial writing.

Holwerk is a graduate of the University of Kentucky. He spends his spare time fishing, writing country music and perfecting his recipes for barbecued chicken and hot sauce.

Photograph by Annetjie van Wynegaard

Part 2 – Community Media, Social Media or Traditional Media?

In the second part of the discussion concerning avenues for participation, lecturers from the School of Journalism and Media Studies looked at issues around educating future journalists and the role of the media in encouraging political and civic action by citizens. Prof Anthea Garman (Writing & Editing lecturer) chaired the discussion which included: Jeanne Du Toit (Radio lecturer), Jude Mathurine (New media lecturer) and Rod Amner (Writing & Editing lecturer). Below is a short excerpt of the discussion (you can listen to it or read the transcription).

http://soundcloud.com/mellon-media-citizenship/media-citizenship-recording-1

Anthea: Very often your definition of politics is incredibly narrow. When we think of people’s agency, activity, participation, quite often newspaper will aim that – I’m thinking in particular of Grocott’s Mail, and it was a very interesting experiment around the municipal elections last year. Aimed a whole lot of informational stuff at people. But the fact is, how are people going to be active, and be agents in their communities if they don’t build networks and movements around the issues on the ground. And education for us, is a severe one in the Eastern Cape and in Grahamstown. So I’m thinking what you’re saying as a kind of journalist that proactively doesn’t just use media and in a more sophisticated and conscious way but also uses it to create networks and movements and spaces for activity for taking up agency and holding to account. And there are spheres in which that could be ear-marked and they will be the spheres in which politics has failed spectacularly to deliver on the things in which it would substantially make people’s lives different. So it is a very different attitude to what the journalist does. Jeanne, you wanted to say something.

Jeanne: Ja, there’s two things, listening to what you’re saying now. It strikes me that in the context that we are in here in the Eastern Cape and in Grahamstown there’s kind of added challenges that people don’t necessarily face in all situations. And with us that has to do with the extent to which people’s voices have been marginalised and the extent to which civil society has been broken down because that’s really what this kind of media depends on is that there is a spontaneous up rush of involvement from people talking about the issues and wanting to engage and claiming that space. And I think to a large extent that’s been hollowed out because of poverty, because of all complicated reasons of history. So that’s an added burden that we bear because of being able to facilitate media to work in that particular way here. But the other thing also is that we’re talking about a society that’s in the process of radical change, it’s radical change that happening at all sorts of levels. How do you keep up with making sense of all of that. In a way before you even now what you want to say you’ve got to create the language to say it in because the media’ changing so fast and because we’re doing it in such new ways. It’s a massive paradigm shift and I don’t think it’s surprising that people find it difficult to make sense of how they do that.

Jude: The challenge going forward if one wants to talk about journalism is about the sustainability of present journalism practices. In South Africa the figures for the ABC for the last quarter October to December shows we lost circulation of 90 thousand newspapers. Now consequently, particularly large commercial begin engaging in activities to try to build audiences but maximise mass audiences. That’s always what it’s supposed to do. We have seen initiatives like the Daily Dispatch and even Times Live and others, or we saw a ratcheting up of experimental approaches to new media in particular and the connection between new media and communities ratcheted back as a result of these and other pressures. And the dominant mindset when this starts to happen is cut back on costs and try to build mass audiences. The mass audience mindset to go back to that which you and Rod happened to mention, is different from the network media mindset. And in truth one has to hold a range of mindsets in place because the media in the present environment works in a range of different ways. Present media can for example be interpersonal, can be networked and it can be mass. And what we’re actually not teaching our students and we’re not doing this at all I think in respect to these so-called practices that we’re talking about is to engage our students about what we do about engendering a networked mindset that says that the mass isn’t all there is because the mass was supposed to generate the economies of scale for large media organisation but that a big part of the role is what you do when the mass is broken down into fragments and those fragments mobilise around their own needs.

Anthea: But I think what we’re saying, based on our location, our particular location based in Grahamstown and the Eastern Cape is that we can’t see the one just flowing the information leading necessarily to the other one. Which is what we want, deep in democracy, citizenship participation great activity in repairing the things that have gone wrong. We don’t necessarily see those things just flowing into each other. So I suppose what you’re leaving us with is that challenge that as educators we’ve got to think more carefully about what is, and how can we use that networked mindset. So it’s not just the informational mindest, the mass media mindset, but what is the networked mindset. What is it to reconceive the landscape of media. What is it to think of people as citizens. What is it to broaden the political so that all sorts of spheres of activity and participation can be found. What is it to be the proactive journalist who takes on all that regardless of where you’re located.
Rod: I think one of the questions that arises for me in my head when you say that is that there’s an awful lot of proactivity needed on our side. It’s a bit like the linearlist theory of organisation, you’re using media and facts as a kind of vanguard tool to whip up the masses and play that mobilising role and being proactive. But you know, one has to be careful of taking on the mantle of reconstructing social capital in a city and taking over politics. And I don’t think that the media can do that on its own and maybe it’s problematic that it would even imagine that that’s what it should be doing. I think it’s also about finding, it’s about that term civic mapping, actually finding out how things work. Where is the social capital. Who is out there, what are they doing. There are churches, there are environmental activists out there, there are people who care about education out there, there are people who care about all sorts of things.

Jeanne: So would we meet people where they are?

Rod: How do you meet people where they are? How do you build partnerships with social movements and civil society and with – and make real connections with people about things that matter to them. That’s seems like a fairly fundamental and obvious thing to say but it’s actually not what journalists ordinarily go about doing.

Anthea: I think I’m going to draw this to a close. It’s part of an ongoing series of conversations. Thank-you very much for giving us your thoughts and time. Jude Mathurine from the New Media Laboratory, Jeanne du Toit from the radio section of the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rod Amner, who teaches writing editing. And I’m Anthea Garman, also in the writing and editing section of the School of Journalism and Media Studies.

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