Role of the media in the civic space

2013-10-23 00:00

LAST week, I had the honour of being able to introduce myself briefly to the mayor and exco of the Msunduzi council.

I believe it’s been some time since a Witness editor popped into the Pietermaritzburg City Hall to meet the team running the city, so I was grateful for the opportunity in more ways than one. As a former local-government reporter for the Sunday Times who once covered the Johannesburg Metro and other councils for a time, I’ve long been fascinated by what makes cities tick.

I’m also interested in the role of media in the civic space and I spoke about this briefly in my interaction with the city leaders. Several years ago, I began reading about the public or civic journalism movement in the United States and was particularly inspired by some examples from the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. Back in 1994, the Charlotte Observer joined with competitor news organisations in television and radio to launch a joint project called Taking Back Our Neighborhood (sic). They isolated the most crime-ridden precincts in the state and held a series of town-hall meetings asking citizens what could be done to turn things around.

The paper and the broadcasters produced special coverage exploring these possible solution, highlighting success stories and trying to act as a catalyst between citizens and power brokers to get things done.

The results were remarkable. Some 500 people volunteered to help out in the neighbourhoods that were the focus of the project, 18 law firms worked for free to file law suits to get drug houses shut down and thousands of dollars were donated to create facilities that helped turn these neighbourhoods around.

This example has always inspired me, and in a previous job as editor of the Daily Dispatch, I ventured into the civic-journalism space with my team. It was a steep learning curve but we had some success and I’m glad to see my former colleagues there continue the mission. What I love about the philosophy of civic journalism, and I hasten to add that I am no expert, is that it fundamentally changes the role of the media from being a reflector of problems to being a connector of people exploring solutions.

It is a very different role to that typically associated with the media. While I firmly believe in many of the traditional roles of the media, including acting as a watchdog to hold the powerful to account, I also believe they have limitations. In South Africa, the concept of public accountability is so tenuous that it is rare — although not uncommon —to see a public figure fall due to a media expose. As a former investigative editor, I know these frustrations well.

The media are often criticised for being disconnected from the citizenry they serve and that their mandate is assumed rather than legitimately acquired. This is not an invalid critique, in my view.

This is why the concept of public journalism is so important. It sees a media organisation trying to mould an agenda through dialogue and direct consultation with the public that it serves, and then work to that service this citizen-focused agenda. Newspapers that do this produce better, more legitimate journalism, I believe.

But I don’t see this approach replacing the traditional media roles but augmenting them, and you will taste the flavour of civic journalism in The Witness in the months to come.

Under the careful eye of Witness stalwart Nalini Naidoo and her Witness Warriors, the seeds are already planted, and I hope to work with my team here to build on this in the months to come.

You will have noticed through this space in the past couple of weeks that I welcome engagement with readers and try to respond and correspond as much as time allows. This is part of developing and investing in the relationship that The Witness needs with the readership which it serves.

So, while many of you continue to offer me input on other aspects of the paper, I also invite you to be part of this conversation about what matters in your life, about the ideas that you have to make a difference, and about the role The Witness can play in this. As I indicated to the mayor and his colleagues last week, there are many opportunities for us to act as partners. We may be journalists over here at The Witness and we can be a cynical bunch, but this is our world too — and we also share the dream that it can be a better place.

• andrew.trench@media24.com

• On Twitter @andrewtrench

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