Resource Journalism: A Model for New Media
by Ellen Hume

The State of Democracy in the Digital Age

In the formerly Communist Czech Republic, where democracy is struggling to be born, life is "incomparably better and richer now than it was in times when almost everything was forbidden, and almost everyone was afraid to say aloud what he or she really thought," Czech President Vaclav Havel observes. But "the life of our society... has another face," he emphasizes, "which we might describe as the relationship of citizens to their state, to the social system, to the climate of public life, to politics. It is our primary responsibility to concern ourselves with this second face, to try to understand why it is so gloomy and to think about ways to brighten it up--at least a little."1

The new media technologies, which hold so much promise for empowering citizens, are building new stresses into our democratic discourse. If they were used differently, these technologies could do democracies significant good. More people than ever can get access to information and make their own views heard. And in a media culture dominated by journalists, some are doing important and courageous work, such as the international reporting from Bosnia during the "ethnic cleansing" of 1993-1996. The use of faxes, videocassettes and the Internet help keep outlawed democracy movements alive in repressive countries like China.

But in the United States, the world's most important incubator for democracy, these tools are largely squandered. It is the message, not the medium, that is the problem. If the content is wrong, it is wrong in all of its media forms. All the gorgeous streaming video and razzle-dazzle delivery systems won't make it any better for our civic culture. America's media-driven culture is saturated with entertainment, much of it violent. We've cleaned up the air but toxified the airwaves. A mounting body of scholarship demonstrates the deleterious impact some of this material is having on children and on democracy in general.2

When it comes to information, citizens now are overwhelmed with its quantity and skeptical of its quality. Fewer journalists and media consumers are separating out the important information from the false diversions, and fewer still seem ready to reward the truth. Across the country, a constant stream of issue and candidate advertising on television, radio, the Internet, telephone "push polls" and the mails deliberately distorts the facts. More media noise has not created more melody. Appearances have become more important than facts. Heaven help the policy maker who doesn't know how to surf the airwaves; officials' effectiveness these days is measured by their media performance.3

More sources of information have not improved our "civic face," the joint enterprise we call democracy. In fact, the opposite has happened.

Democratizing the Wrong Information

The easier access provided by today's mass media, particularly radio, television and the Internet, have democratized extreme hate speech and pornography, making the worst content more prevalent and thus more legitimate. Noxious material that once was walled off in small cul-de-sacs on the information highway--music lyrics, films and video games which glorify violence and pornography, including sexual attacks on women and children, sadistic and racist comedy routines, talk radio which calls blacks "primates," praises violence against the government and vilifies Jews and others-- all are now available to a mass audience through the old and new media technologies. In some countries, including Bosnia and Rwanda, this kind of material has been used to incite genocide.

But in America the problem is usually more subtle than the direct damage done elsewhere by such extreme messages. American journalists seem to have lost their footing in the new media landscape. When they do navigate the important democratic issues of public or government policy, they often talk in code--concentrating more on strategies and who is winning or losing politically, than on what difference it might make to the average American.4

Just when we need them the most, journalists who purport to offer veracity and relevance standards for the news seem to be abandoning their mission.5 With a falsely-placed sense of responsibility to report any rumor because it is "in play" in cyberspace, news organizations offer legitimacy to intentionally false attacks that spring up through the Internet and talk radio.6

A scandal--any scandal--tends to take priority now over other news, as the networks run in tabloid panic after their fragmenting audiences.7 While investigative reporting on real abuses is vital to democracy and journalism, real scandals today seem to be buried in an avalanche of meaningless gossip and unverified attacks. This can be harmful to democracy in at least two ways. First, a frivolous scandal wastes everyone's time and attention. Policy-makers, who need to find some public resonance for their work, must divert their attention to fielding whatever rumor might be dominating the day's news.

Secondly, excessive scandal coverage can actually reduce the government's accountability to the public. It is likely that the American people have been cool to the Clinton sex allegations not just because the economy is strong and the public wants to restore a distinction between private and public behavior, but because they are suffering from "scandal fatigue."

Ironically, many journalists genuinely are trying to serve the public interest, reporting the "tough stories" and "difficult facts" in each new scandal. Yet too few editors and producers recognize that serving the public interest is not the same as simply serving what the public is interested in. Just because sex scandals and celebrities are interesting doesn't mean they should replace other news. Similarly, just because the new media technologies enable television to go "live" to show the unfolding drama of a man's freeway suicide, it does not mean that journalists are serving the public interest by doing so.8

News organizations that should know better are constantly choosing entertainment, violence and scandal news priorities over more substantive political discourse--as in, for example, the networks' decision to cut away from the live broadcast of President Clinton's State of the Union address in 1996 in order to cover reactions to the O.J. Simpson civil trail verdict.9 Americans may want to tune in to all the salacious gossip, but they also know that there is more to democracy than celebrity and sex. It's not surprising that the lowest poll ratings these days are the journalists'.

What is lost when all the news arteries are clogged with muck is a flow of information to the public about what their government is actually doing from day to day--as well as information about what real choices they have to shape the nation's future. Most news organizations simply are not trying hard enough to offer political news that is meaningful to people. When offered encrypted political news interrupted by hysterical feeding frenzies, citizens conclude that the political system belongs to someone else, and doesn't have any real need for them.10

There are notable exceptions to this sorry picture. Television news executive Carole Kneeland11 was widely admired for holding her local Austin, Texas television news division to a higher standard. She determined that crime coverage wouldn't depend on "can you go live at five?" which had been the previous test at her station. Under Kneeland's management, KVUE reporters got crime and accident news on the air only when it genuinely was relevant to the public. Thus a private tragedy involving a suicide, accident, court case or family violence that did not involve any threat to the public would not normally make it to air. A crime which the public should know about in order to increase its own safety, news about a public figure, or news about patterns, responses or solutions to crime would meet her broadcast test. Under her leadership, KVUE has been number one in its market.

Similarly, many `civic journalism" experiments have helped, in their finest moments, to inform voters and draw communities together to tackle racism, crime and other problems. Studies of civic journalism projects in Charlotte, NC, Madison, WI, San Francisco, CA and Binghamton, NY concluded that these localized efforts to cover relevant issues from a citizen's perspective made people "think more about politics, gave them a better idea about important community problems, made them want to be more involved in the community, and made them feel more strongly they should vote."12

These civic journalism projects create a critical mass of multimedia coverage and even a temporary "public square" for citizens to face common problems. In the summer of 1994, for example, the Charlotte Observer teamed up with competitors WSOC-TV, the local ABC affiliate, and two local radio stations, WPEG and WBAV, on a project called "Taking Back our Neighborhoods/Carolina Crime Solutions." After using crime statistics to identify neighborhoods that had been hard hit by crime, the news organizations held joint town hall meetings and produced special issue coverage featuring citizens' proposed solutions. They reported "success stories" about fighting crime. Their collective efforts inspired a burst of civic activity: about 500 people volunteered to help out in targeted neighborhoods. Eighteen law firms helped to file pro bono public nuisance suits to close down crack houses; a local bank even donated $50,000 to build a recreation center. Crime rates went down in the wake of all of this civic activity.13

The Technology Could Help

The new technologies should make it easier for journalists and others to improve--not weaken--their service to democracy. We journalists used to shrug when people complained about the shallowness of our work by saying "I ran out of space" or "I was on deadline, and ran out of time." Now, thanks to the Internet, there are no deadlines, space constraints or excuses. Journalism can be much more accurate, thoughtful and complete. A constant deadline means no deadline, so a journalist now has whatever time is needed to check out the facts. And whatever can't fit into the old media container (the print news story or newscast) can be put onto the companion Website. There is a bottomless news hole.14

Yet the new technologies are not being used this way by most news organizations. Instead, we get even more raw "instant" information now which has not been tested for accuracy and relevance. It is time-consuming to seek additional information to assess the meaning of the news story, and even harder to discover one's options for impacting future developments. Since anyone can throw half-baked material onto their Websites in order to be "first," why do we need journalists at all, if they aren't going to offer the benefits of verification, relevance and context?

And what, finally, is the marketplace value of that precious "scoop" that so often now trumps the traditional two-source rule? Who broke the Paula Jones story first? The story about O.J.'s bloody glove? The Kathleen Willey story? The fact that Linda Tripp taped Monica Lewinsky's conversations with her? Nobody in the audience remembers. Scoops, which may have mattered when newspapers competed side-by-side on street corners for each customer through multiple editions a day, have no marketplace meaning to the audience in a constant deadline, 24-hour news environment.15

Scoops matter only to other journalists, as a way of keeping score. This makes no sense in terms of the journalist's long-term survival, and in fact it often has the opposite effect. Throwing accuracy to the winds undermines the credibility of the news brand. Better to build the brand by offering them a consistently trustworthy, accessible place to go for news.

There are, of course, all the "quality" channels emerging on cable, from CNN and MS/NBC to the A&E and Discovery. Do they have a "public service" mission, or just a neat marketing niche? Test the democracy quotient by asking, how much of this new channel is taken up with pundit score-keeping, celebrity gossip and voyeur crime news, issue-free animal features, sports, entertainment and weather programs? The transformation in particular of MS/NBC from a promising television/Internet laboratory to a scandal news service has been disheartening. Neil Postman's lament--that we are "amusing ourselves to death"--has never seemed more accurate.

David Fanning, senior executive producer of PBS's "FRONTLINE" documentary series, described recently to The New York Times how difficult it is to place a hard-hitting documentary these days:

"I was once told by someone at Discovery that they would not do a film on human rights in China because then they would not be able to film pandas there,' he said. In response, Michael Quattrone, the Discovery Channel's senior vice president and general manager, said that a film on Chinese human rights would not fit with Discovery's mix of programs. He said he found it unlikely that anyone at Discovery would use the panda excuse. "We make programming which is as credible and informative as possible, while being entertaining, but with a subject matter that people expect to find on Discovery. I make no apologies for concentrating on science and natural history. There is some great stuff in there."16

Public and Private are Reversed

One reason that democracy isn't being served well by the new media outlets is that our popular culture has been turned inside out. What should be private is now becoming public, and what should be public is being privatized. Our current obsession with the president's sex life, for example, is something most people believe should remain his own business. The journalists' self-righteous "outing" of officials' sexual adventures has to be blamed to some extent, on the falseness of politics to date (the phony "family values" candidates who can't wait to run off with their mistresses) and on the broader culture in which the journalists are operating. Thanks to the confessional Jerry Springer and Laura Schlessinger talk shows on television and radio, we now have a culture saturated with perverse revelations, exposed as voyeur entertainment. If there were commensurate reporting on the sex histories of prominent Washington journalists and media executives, it would reveal a fair number of boss-employee adulterous affairs, and perhaps even a few intern seductions.

Veteran newsman Robert MacNeil argues that substantive "issue" news is less interesting to people now because there are no major overriding public policy issues as there were when the nuclear threat hung over the world during the Cold War. But this inattention is more a failure of civic imagination and journalistic effort. We are likely to look back some years from now as some major challenge demands our action, and say, as we did with the Savings and Loan crisis, "why didn't we see this coming?" The stakes are particularly high in America; as this democracy reigns as the world's leading superpower, its public priorities and actions resonate beyond our borders.

The private has taken on too much national importance, while the public has lost the attention it deserves. Anti-government activists use the word "public" as a pejorative, equating it with the word "government." The word "public" actually means "of the people." It would be helpful to restore this core definition if we are to build digital public squares and honor democracy as a common responsibility and goal.

Getting the Point: Resource Journalism

It is time for a new model for news--a multimedia model that relies on objective, independent journalism that better serves democracy than today's journalists normally do. Our proposed new model--"resource journalism"-- draws especially on the flexibility offered by the new digital technologies, and on lessons learned from watching local and national television news, the magazine and pundit shows, the Internet, and the civic journalism experiments.17

Resource journalism attempts to offer thorough but unbiased reporting, assembling for citizens the authentic information they need to make civic choices. It seeks to enlist not only the traditional charms of television, radio and print but the interactivity and depth afforded by the Internet. Resource journalism provides historical context, local, national and international reference points, and tries to answer "compared to what?" It tries to explain "why does this matter to the average American?" Resource journalism works to combine news about problems with news about a range of potential solutions to those problems, but it does not seek to encourage any particular action. Through carefully curated Websites, resource journalism tries to offer a relevant selection of deeper information resources, a range of clearly labeled, diverse opinions, and interactive access points for citizens who may want to get involved.

Clearly not every breaking news story can be spun into all of these forms. But a thoughtful news organization could divert some of the time, talent and money now spent on chasing the entertainment side of politics and culture, and instead assemble an updatable set of interactive, multimedia resources about the top 10 issues that will shape our nation's future.

It doesn't have to cost a lot of money. In fact, resource journalism was developed by PBS's Democracy Project in the spring of 1997 when it was presented with the need to cover, with limited resources, the prospect of unlimited daily Congressional campaign finance hearings in both the Senate and House. If PBS offered the traditional live daily feeds of the hearings to its participating stations, CSPAN-style, few stations would have pre-empted what has become very important daytime programming for families and schools: Sesame Street, Magic School Bus, Arthur, Wishbone, etc. More importantly, few people would actually have watched these hearings as they stretched through the entire workday. (CSPAN and MS/NBC were expected to offer daily hearings feeds for the tiny minority who might do so.)

What could be a better way for PBS to serve the busy adult who should have access to more than the brief nightly news coverage of the hearings? We determined that a weekly highlights show would be the most accessible and cost-effective approach. But we wanted to be sure the content was truly useful, that the series was more than just insider score-keeping or theater criticism. We saw our news colleagues assessing the opening hearings according to the wrong measurements--by whether or not Senate Committee Chairman Fred Thompson had a smoking gun, a great television show, or a presidential campaign.

Our different approach, a 24-week half-hour series called FOLLOW THE MONEY, started each broadcast Friday night with a documentary-style highlights tape of the week's hearings in both houses. We had "tour guides" who weren't encouraged to prattle as pundits, but rather to provide citizen-oriented insights into what the hearings were telling us about money and politics in America. We surrounded this news summary with history mini-documentaries (George Washington plying his voters with rum-laced bumbo), field reports on what citizens were thinking and doing about these issues, news about a range of reform efforts, a soapbox of citizen and expert viewpoints, and other features.

We reached out to partners to expand the impact of the project and offer more resources to our viewers. There were spinoff radio discussions on NPR's Talk of the Nation thanks to Ray Suarez, who was host of both the television and radio shows. Our Website created much of the series' interactivity--providing viewers with a chance to make their comments for others to see online, and to answer the "question of the week" posed by the television hosts--who then reported back some responses on the next television program. It also assembled an archeological trove of related resources--providing not just the transcripts of all the programs in the series, but html click and point access to layers and layers of specific information about money and politics generated by such research groups as Public Campaign and the Center for Responsive Politics. There was a reform game called "Destination Democracy" invented by the Benton Foundation, to navigate each Web visitor through the likely changes each reform option would entail. For those viewers who wanted to know how they could get involved, we offered click-through access to the websites of the such groups as Common Cause, who favored the McCain-Feingold reform legislation, and the Cato Institute, which opposed it. We offered insights from historians, including a congressional expert from the Library of Congress, and signed opinion columns. The Capitol Steps comedy troupe provided real audio comic relief.

Lacking any advertising funds or coverage in the "free media," we generated a core audience for the television show and Website through national civic groups. At a series of hastily-organized meetings, we invited the Washington representatives of these grassroots organizations who had some interest in the issues of campaign finance to use their listservs, e-mail, Websites, newsletters and phone banks to invite their members to watch and critique the show.

Ultimately our FOLLOW THE MONEY audiences were relatively small but actively engaged in feedback and Web discussions prompted by the series--a desirable audience model for the niched media landscape. We had compliments from all across the political spectrum--the National Rifle Association as well as liberal groups and ordinary citizens who don't align themselves with any particular ideological camp. They liked the efforts at fairness and comprehensiveness. They liked the doors we opened for citizens to put themselves into the action. They loved the attempt to bring history and humor into the unfolding scandals, and also the pairing of problem news with solution news.

There has been some concern, as PBS has experimented with such multimedia projects, that the Internet Websites might divert audiences from the television programs. But PBS has found that many viewers are online at the same time as they are watching television, using both at once. FRONTLINE, PBS's documentary series, has pioneered separate but complementary "webumentaries,"18 as well as a moving webmarker bug along the bottom of the screen which prompts viewers to go to PBSOnline for more information about the subject of the program. When FRONTLINE's Whitewater documentary program "Once Upon a Time in Arkansas..." used the webmarker bug just as they were getting into the details of the Castle Grande investments, thousands of people hit the Website at that particular moment. FRONTLINE's " Jesus to Christ" series last month similarly drew so much Internet traffic that it temporarily overwhelmed the PBS server.

For the fall 1998 elections, PBS will apply the "resource journalism" model to two special projects. In early October we will have PBS DEBATE NIGHT, featuring a live national Congressional leadership debate hosted by Jim Lehrer, broadcast from the historic House of Burgesses at Colonial Williamsburg. Before and after that debate, on the same night, local PBS stations will conduct local congressional candidate debates. The websites will offer voting records, interest group score cards, issue summaries, biographies, campaign donation information and other background on the candidates.

A week later, we will have a one-hour national PBS "The 30-Second Candidate" documentary on the history of political advertising in America, including a look at how ads are shaping some 1998 campaigns. Participating local stations will do "ad watches" during regular news programs or as interstitial messages between programs, providing fact-checks, funding sources and other contextual information. Perhaps most valuable will be the "ad watch" websites, which will offer the information that voters need to get beyond the ads, including voting records, issue positions, financial backing and news coverage of the races. Educational materials will be developed so that schools can use the "as watch" project as a critical viewing tool as well as a political science project.

These projects all carry the hallmarks of resource journalism, including complementary local and national news, interactive background information that is useful to citizens, a citizen soapbox, and educational tools.

PBS is not the only media provider making efforts to harness new media technologies to serve democracy. But at the national level, it remains a lonely fight. The television cable channels and broadcast networks seem to be retreating from their moral responsibility to offer bread as well as circuses.. "Our national adventure is taking a wide and dangerous turn. We are entering an age when problems are deep-set and government cannot necessarily provide the answer, when citizens need to claim a place at the table or watch the table get spirited away, when democracy will either become a willed achievement or a sentimental dream," concludes Jay Rosen of New York University. "Journalists should not huddle together in the press box, wondering how the story will come out. They need to rejoin the American experiment."19

PBS's Democracy Project invites others to offer models for news that better serve our nation's civic life. We hope that many will join the attempt to create a multimedia "public square" for American democracy, a source of updated information, discussion and decision-making that offers citizens real opportunities to participate in their own governance.

Even modest efforts can have ripple effects. As James Baldwin once observed, "Words like `freedom', `justice' `democracy' are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply."20

1 "State of the Republic" address to the Czech Parliament, February, 1998. return

2 See Kathleen Hall Jamieson's works, and Sissela Bok, Mayhem, Addison-Wesley, (Reading, Mass: 1998.) return

3 Harvard sociologist Kiku Adatto recounts during the 1988 campaign, for example, how Sam Donaldson of ABC news faulted Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis for not playing his trumpet in camera-range, measuring this as an example of his unfitness as a presidential candidate. See Adatto, "Sound Bite Democracy," Research paper, Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University, June, 1990. return

4 Kathleen Hall Jamieson has written extensively about this problem. In particular, she has mapped the way this "strategy" formula distorted network television and newspaper coverage of the Clinton health care debate in 1994. Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella, Newspaper and Television Coverage of the Health Care Debate, Annenberg Public Policy Center, August 12, 1994. return

5 For a lengthy examination of this point, see my monograph, "Tabloids, Talk Radio and the Future of News" (Annenberg Washington Program,1996). return

6 Examples are rampant. Miami Herald Tom Fiedler recalled how during the 1988 campaign, a Newsweek editor justified the printing of rumors about Gary Hart's sex life (before the celebrated Donna Rice townhouse story which the Herald broke.) "When Newsweek was asked about that later, why they chose to report the rumor which they hadn't substantiated, the answer was...that the rumor itself reached such crescendo level that it had achieved a critical mass of its own. It had somehow become reality. The rumor had gotten so large that it was reality. So therefore the press was justified in printing it," Fiedler said at a June 10, 1988 conference at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. return

7 Even scandals that prove to be untrue make big news stories. The syndicated television magazine show "Inside Edition" on May 4 featured charges that Cristy Zercher, a former flight attendant, was groped by President Clinton on a 1992 campaign flight. On May 5, the show offered a "world television exclusive," outlining how Zercher "failed miserably" a lie detector test administered on behalf of "Inside Edition." The King World vice president in charge of the show concluded that "there's a 99 percent probability that she's not telling the truth." In a last-minute change, he decided to reveal in the final minute of the May 4 report that the next program on the following night would show it to be false. As Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post asks, in reporting on this May 4, "Why air the story at all? The answer from King World vice president Marc Rosenweig: : "You have to set up the premise of what her story is in order to thoroughly examine the results." return

8 When this gory incident was shown on live television in Los Angeles May 1, 1998, pre-empting cartoons watched by children, one Los Angeles television station representative compared the criticism of his live broadcast to support for "censorship." Others argued that the unfolding suicide had tied up freeway traffic, and this justified the high-priority live news coverage. return

9 At least ABC's Sam Donaldson regretted on May 4 1998 his network's decision not to carry President Clinton's last news conference live the way CBS and NBC did. "There are some events that major news organizations have to cover, even if it's unlikely that news will happen..." he told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. One wonders, what would the President have had to do to meet Sam Donaldson's standard for "news"? He covered the Clintons' recent trip to Africa by implying that they were there only to "duck the executive privilege controversy." Thus the sex scandal was his news frame for even this historic and long-planned presidential trip. return

10 "Key Findings," Markle Commission on the Media and the Electorate, May 6, 1990. return

11 Kneeland, who also helped to innovate television "ad watches", died of cancer in 1998 in the prime of her career. return

12 "New Civic Journalism Research," Civic Catalyst, January1997, p. 10. For more information about the specifics of these experiments, contact the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, whose website is return

13 Ed Fouhy, "The Dawn of Public Journalism," The National Civic Review, Summer-Fall, 1994, p. 263. return

14 When PBS's FRONTLINE series runs a moving "bug" prompting viewers to go to the PBS Website for more information, the flood of "hits" is enormous. At least twice, the instantaneous response has crashed the overwhelmed PBS server. return

15 One could argue that financial and weather news still has a legitimate place for timely "scoops" since each is so time sensitive. return

16 New York Times article (get cite) return

17 The Pew Center for Civic Journalism in Wasington, D.C. has numerous publications and studies which map the positive civic impacts, the pitfalls and the still uncertain effects of "civic journalism" experiments around the country. return

18 David Fanning, the impresario who created FRONTINE and led it to win the gold baton at the duPont Columbia awards this January, has copyrighted this wonderful term. return

19 Jay Rosen, Getting the Connections Right, (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1996), p. 6. return

20 As quoted in the Freedom Forum's 1998 calendar. return