Pulitzer winner delivers
Civic Journalism talk

 

Jan Schaffer, a Pulitzer-winning reporter and former executive director of the Pew Center on Civic Journalism, shared information and insights about civic journalism with Elon School of Communications students and faculty members April 24 in Whitley Auditorium.

"Civic journalism has imparted some tough love on some tough issues," she began, explaining that Pew's initiative put the spotlight on a number of such efforts across the nation and trained 4,000 journalists, and adding that J-Lab, where she now works, is archiving 800 of the best civic journalism projects.

Schaffer spent a decade at the Pew Center for Civic Journalism in Washington, D.C., overseeing an incubator of journalism projects that created new ways of reporting aimed at keeping people engaged in public concerns. When the funding for the Civic Journalism project expired, she moved to J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, a new center at the University of Maryland's College of Journalism. J-Lab is developing newsroom use of innovative technologies to involve and inform people about vital issues - the emphasis remains on civic journalism.

"Civic journalists create a neutral zone of empowerment; civic journalism advocates citizen engagement, not a particular outcome," Schaffer explained. She said that civic journalism is an "overarching set of values" that drive enlightened newsroom decision making. It treats citizens as participants rather than victims or spectators, recognizing that people are capable of doing something to solve their own problems.

She outlined four major points about civic journalism: 1) It educates people about issues; 2) It helps them make decisions. 3) It invites them to engage in civic dialogue and action. 4) It enables them to exercise their responsibilities in our democratic system.

She encouraged Elon University's young communicators to think beyond the typical government and business sources in seeking information for their messages, "going out in the community to find deeper layers of players - the catalysts and connectors who lead people and motivate people despite their lack of a title."

Schaffer said responsible journalists should be seeking out "master narratives" - adding that these are stories that can be missed in the daily rush, but for communities they are far more important stories over time. "You're trying to connect the dots," she urged, "making sense of things for your community. Focus not so much on the noise; focus on the silences, which means you have to have a whole new set of listening skills ... seek out the things that make people squirm." She used a series published by a newspaper in Maine as an example. The project focused on the myriad ways alcohol does damage to the people in Maine's communities.

Schaffer also addressed an area of civic journalism that is a particular focus of J-Lab: interactive journalism. "In journalism, we concentrate a lot on craftsmanship of a story or a layout," she said, adding this is not enough. "We need to train young journalists to build connections through entry points." New entry points for news audiences include blogs, e-letters and interactive news-based exercises or games that help people see the choices they face in budget decisions, redistricting, selecting future energy sources and so forth. "This interactive communication helps people become involved and understand the choices they can make," she said.

Newspapers are providing readers with online calculators to help them figure out how much they might have to pay under a new tax plan; clickable maps that explain development plans; video conferencing; webcams; and simulations. "You involve people by showing and telling, by giving people entry points for participation," Schaffer said. "People are increasingly engaged in creating their own stories. I would posit that future news is not so much about storytelling as it is about storymaking. We can construct our own narrative. News consumers can very much be co-producers of the news."

Schaffer is a former business editor and Pulitzer Prize winner for the Philadelphia Inquirer. While working as a reporter covering the federal court system in Philadelphia, she was a co-writer on a series of stories that won freedom for a man wrongly convicted of five murders. The series earned Schaffer and the Inquirer a number of national journalism awards, including the 1978 Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service.

Schaffer was also the reporter to break the Abscam story about the FBI operation utilizing agents posing as Arab sheiks. She was sentenced to six months in jail at the time for refusing to reveal her sources; the sentence was stayed on appeal, so she avoided doing jail time. As business editor for the Inquirer, Schaffer directed the reporting and editing of two investigative series that were named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, one on pharmaceutical pricing, and one on abuses in the nation's non-profit sector.

Schaffer is involved in teaching and coaching in newsrooms around the country, and in public speaking and writing. She is maried to a Washington Post editor and has two young children.

The civic journalism presentation was sponsored by Elon University and Project Pericles, which encourages civic engagement. To find out more about Schaffer and the projects with which she has worked, see the following web sites:

http://www.j-lab.org

http://www.pewcenter.org

 

 

 

 

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Last Modified:  4/24/03
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