Brooklyn College - The City University of New York
Civic Mapping as a Public Journalism Tool
The international journalistic reform movement known as "public" (or
"civic") journalism emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s in
response to two perceived gaps of critical proportions: between news
organisations and their audiences and between citizens and politics. In
the United States, and increasingly elsewhere, scholars and journalists
alike became alarmed by the low level of audience interest in
journalistically-mediated political information, as evidenced by
declining newspaper readership, as well as by the low level of citizen
involvement in democratic processes, as evidenced by declining
participation in political elections and, more generally, in the public
affairs of the localities in which they reside (see Haas, 2007a for a
While much has been done in the name of public journalism to reduce
these two gaps over the past decade and a half, little attention has
been paid to which tools news organisations could use to best address
them. Indeed, aside from a single effort to classify the various tools
applied by news organisations committed to public journalism (see
Willey, 1998), no attempt has been made to specify whether there are
particular tools news organisations could use to address both gaps
This article introduces a research and reporting tool known as "civic
mapping" whereby news organisations committed to public journalism
might be able to both enhance audience interest in
journalistically-mediated political information and
involvement in democratic processes, and in ways that overcome the
weaknesses of some of the other, more commonly applied public
journalism tools. Specifically, it elucidates the underlying principles
and practical manifestations of two complementary approaches to civic
mapping, which Campbell (2002, 2004) refers to as the "cognitive" and
"structural" approaches, respectively. The article concludes with a
brief summary of the challenges that civic mapping poses to
Cognitive Civic Mapping
The cognitive approach to civic mapping dates back to 1996 when the Pew
Center for Civic Journalism, public journalism's principal
institutional supporter in the United States, commissioned the Harwood
Institute for Public Innovation, a public policy consultancy led by
Richard Harwood, to develop a method whereby news organisations would
be better able to tap into and report on the concerns of their local
constituencies. The Harwood Institute subsequently devised a manual in
which the principles of civic mapping were laid out (see Harwood, 1996;
revised in 2000), produced four practical training videos, and
organised numerous seminars for interested news organisations. Since
1999, when the first civic mapping seminar was held, more than three
dozen news organisations in the United States (see Campbell, 2004), as
well as a couple in South Africa (see Davidson, 2004), have engaged in
civic mapping projects. Moreover, civic mapping has been used as an
educational tool in various journalism programs across the United
States, both in the form of joint projects between given news
organisations and journalism programs (see Spurlock, 2001) and as
self-contained in-class projects (see Hetrick, 2001).
According to Harwood (2000), journalists' failure to capture the
breadth and depth of concerns of their local constituencies can be
attributed to the fact that they spend most of their time and energy on
two particular "layers" of local civic life. These include the
"official" layer of local governmental institutions, such as when
journalists report on the deliberations and actions of City Council,
and the "private" layer of local residents, such as when journalists
report on the reactions of ordinary citizens to given news stories or
otherwise produce human-interest stories on individual triumphs and
tragedies. As Harwood (2000, p. 14) puts it, "When journalists venture
into [local] civic life, often they gravitate to the official and
private layers. Then when they want more sources, they expand the
number of people within those layers".
Yet, Harwood (2000) discovered, every locality contains five distinct
"civic layers", each offering fundamentally different insights about
that locality. These include the "official" layer of local
governmental institutions; the "quasi-official" layer of local
municipal leagues, civic organisations, and advocacy groups; "third
places" like community socials, places of worship, and diners;
"incidental" encounters on sidewalks, at food markets, and in
backyards; and the "private" spaces of people's homes. Cognitive
civic mapping, then, should be understood as an effort to "identify
those other [civic] layers and the people and news in them" (Harwood,
2000, p. 4). The goal, as Harwood (2000, pp. 5-6) puts it, should be
"to move beyond the usual suspects into a deeper and broader
understanding" of given localities.
Following Harwood's (2000) call to move beyond the "usual suspects",
many prominent news organisations in the United States, including the Denver
, the Detroit
(Michigan) Free Press
, the San Diego
, the Tampa
, and the Wichita
have broadened their range of news sources by attending community
socials, paying attention to the conversations taking place in various
public spaces, and seeking out citizens in the privacy of their homes.
The results of these investigations, in turn, have been made available
to the entire newsroom in the form of written lists of news sources,
electronic databases, and, as Harwood (2000) intended, actual
geographic maps (see Clark, 2001; Farwell, 2001; Miller, 2001).
More broadly, Harwood's (2000) five-part typology of civic layers
(and news sources) represents an analytical advance over both
mainstream, journalistic understandings of local civic life and
prevailing public journalism thinking. Instead of presuming, as most
mainstream journalists appear to do, that the deliberations taking
place within local governmental institutions offer a representative
picture of the concerns of citizens of given localities more generally,
Harwood's (2000) typology presumes that different, if not conflicting,
concerns are held by people within various civic layers. And in
contrast to prevailing public journalism thinking, which asserts that
journalists should simply turn entrenched information-gathering
procedures upside down by focusing attention on the concerns of
"ordinary citizens" rather than "elite actors" (see, for example,
Charity, 1995; Merritt, 1998; Rosen, 1999), Harwood's (2000) typology
offers a more nuanced understanding of where and how journalists can
tap into those citizen concerns by distinguishing between "third
places", "incidental" encounters, and "private" spaces.
Indeed, Harwood (2000) argues that, in these latter three layers of
local civic life, journalists are likely to encounter conversations
that seldom take place in the more organised spheres represented by the
"official" and "quasi-official" layers. The problem with the
official and quasi-official layers, Harwood (2000) emphasises, is
that they tend to be frequented primarily by "professional citizens"
(p. 28), and that their formal and informal rules of participation tend
to restrict the range of participants, topics of discussion, and modes
of deliberation. As Harwood (2000, p. 4) puts it, "A concern that
bubbles up from [below] will sound quite different from one that is
discussed at a [formal] public meeting". For example, during a civic
mapping project on redevelopment of a neighborhood in Tampa Heights,
Florida, journalists from the Tampa Tribune
discovered that, once they went beyond the official and
quasi-official layers of that neighborhood, local residents had very
different concerns; differences that separated rather than united what
the journalists had previously assumed to be a united neighborhood (see
Campbell, 2002, 2004).
Harwood's (2000) argument that journalists should go beyond the
organised spheres of local civic life, with its formal meetings and
attendant rules of participation, is indeed important. While no
empirical research has looked at the various types of deliberative fora
that news organisations committed to public journalism commonly sponsor
(see Friedland & Nichols, 2002), the more general scholarly literature
shows that such fora offer a very limited understanding of citizens'
concerns. Indeed, the literature shows not only that a small, select
strata of citizens tend to participate in such fora, but also that
their formal and informal rules of participation tend to exclude the
vast majority of citizens and their concerns. While most citizens,
contrary to popular belief, do engage in extensive conversations about
political issues in the private sphere of their homes, at work, and in
various informal settings, they do not attend more formal fora and,
when they do, either tend to stay silent or, as Eliasoph (1998, p. 16;
see also Kim, Wyatt, & Katz, 1999; Mutz & Mondak, 2006) found, speak
in "hushed tones".
To capture the nature of these latter, more informal conversations,
Harwood (2000) argues, it is essential that journalists alter the ways
in which they traditionally have interacted with citizens.
Specifically, Harwood (2000, p. 4) emphasizes, instead of engaging
citizens in "formal interviews" by "knocking on a family's front
door to ask a few questions", journalists ought to engage citizens in
"civic conversations" by sitting down "in their living rooms to
understand their lives". That is, "The goal should not be to find the
quote [but rather] to discover patterns in what people are saying, to
probe to uncover meaning and figure out how people's thinking unfolds
as they talk" (p. 23).
Like his five-part typology of civic layers more generally, Harwood's
(2000) notion of "civic conversations" represents an advance of
other, more commonly applied public journalism tools, notably public
opinion polls and focus group discussions. In contrast to public
opinion polls, which require citizens to respond to concerns already
defined by journalists rather than to independently (and publicly)
define those concerns themselves, civic conversations would allow
citizens to elaborate on their concerns at length, in their own words,
and through interaction with others. And in contrast to focus group
discussions, which take place among groups of strangers who are
unlikely to meet again after the encounter, civic conversations would
take place between citizens who are already familiar with one another
and within the actual contexts of their everyday lives (see Glasser &
Craft, 1998; Heikkila & Kunelius, 1996; Iggers, 1998). Simply put,
civic conversations are much more likely than public opinion polls and
focus group discussions to offer journalists a comprehensive and
nuanced understanding of what is on citizens' minds.
Taken together, by broadening their understanding of local civic life
to encompass various civic layers, seeking out conversations taking
place outside the organised (official and quasi-official) layers, and
doing so by engaging citizens in genuinely civic conversations,
journalists might be able to reduce the gap between news organisations
and their audiences. To the extent that citizens see the breadth and
depth of their concerns represented in news reporting, and in ways that
accurately reflect the nature of those concerns, citizens might be more
likely to find news reporting relevant and meaningful to their lives.
Structural Civic Mapping
While the cognitive approach to civic mapping could help
strengthen citizens' interest in journalistically-mediated political
information, there is little reason to believe that this approach would
also inspire citizens to participate more actively in democratic
processes. To further that second goal, it would be necessary to
supplement the cognitive approach with what Campbell (2002, 2004) calls
a "structural" approach to civic mapping.
The problem with the cognitive approach to civic mapping, Campbell
(2004, p. 252) notes, is that "it concentrates on the horisontal
expansion of [news] sources and does not sufficiently theorize the
vertical connections among the source layers it identifies". More
pointedly, I would argue, the problem with this approach is that it
conceives of citizens exclusively as news sources on given issues and
does not also conceive of citizens as active participants who are
willing and capable of addressing those issues. Instead of aiming to
involve citizens in efforts to solve issues of particular concern to
them, it merely aims to enhance journalists' understanding of those
concerns. Second, and relatedly, the cognitive approach too readily
dismisses the importance of the official and quasi-official (or
organised) layers of local civic life in favor of the more unorganized
layers of third places, incidental encounters, and private spaces.
While it is certainly important, as previously discussed, for
journalists to broaden their range of news sources beyond official and
quasi-official institutions, actual efforts to solve given issues are
rarely carried out by individual citizens but rather by organised
(quasi-official) citizen groups, either on their own or in
collaboration with (official) governmental institutions.
Campbell (2002) reaches much the same conclusion, arguing that the
cognitive approach to civic mapping ought to be complemented by a
structural approach, which would be aimed at enabling "citizens to
participate more fully and effectively in civic life and the public
decisions that effect them" (p. 228) or, more precisely, at enhancing
citizens' "problem-solving capacity" (p. 11). This could be
accomplished in practice, Campbell (2002) notes, by mapping the various
problem solving-oriented "social networks" (p. 147) within given
localities. An important component of such a structural approach to
civic mapping, Campbell (2002, p. 232) emphasizes, following Burt
(1992), would be to identify the "structural holes" in given social
networks; that is, the "places where [social] ties are weak or
non-existent". Ideally, Campbell (2004, p. 155) notes, journalists
ought to solicit citizens' help in constructing such structural maps
which, in turn, should "be made available to [citizens] as a resource
to further encourage and inform" their problem-solving efforts.
A structural approach to civic mapping, then, would require
journalists, in collaboration with citizens, to map the various problem
solving-oriented social networks within given localities and to
evaluate whether and how those social networks could be strengthened,
so as to enhance their problem-solving capacity. The goal of such a
structural approach would be to assess whether existing efforts to
address given issues are adequate and, if that is not the case, to
determine how those efforts could be enhanced through new, reconfigured
One of few examples of a structural approach to civic mapping is that
of the Spokesman-Review
in Spokane, Washington. As part of
its "Key Moments" public journalism initiative, journalists from the Spokesman-Review
examined why some teenagers end up leading
successful lives while others end up in prison by mapping the
distribution of social networks (and their support services) across the
city and comparing that map to maps of particular neighborhoods where
teenagers were more or less likely to lead successful lives. Indeed,
the journalists involved with this initiative tried to locate the
structural holes in existing social networks so as to be able to
specify how support services in neighborhoods with the highest
percentage of troubled teenagers could be improved (see Campbell, 2002,
Like the cognitive approach to civic mapping, such a structural
approach poses certain challenges to the practice of public journalism.
First, if journalists are to construct maps of existing social networks
and, more importantly, assess whether and how those social networks
could be strengthened (e.g., by identifying "structural holes" in the
form of "weak" or "non-existing" social ties), they would need to
abandon their stance of political neutrality in favour of political
advocacy - or what Rosen (1999, p. 76) refers to as the distinction
between "doing journalism" and "doing politics". Indeed, without
explicitly stated evaluative standards, journalists would be unable to
articulate (and justify) why certain configurations of social networks
are more appropriate than other possible ones.
Second, and equally important, journalists would need to broaden their
understanding of what constitutes appropriate problem-solving by
considering other forms of intervention than local, citizen-based
problem-solving. Instead of presuming a priori, as most public
journalists appear to do, that all issues can and should be addressed
by local citizen groups (see Glasser, 1999; Parisi, 1997; Schudson,
1999), journalists ought to consider whether given issues could be
adequately addressed by citizen groups themselves, or whether those
issues require more deep-seated, political intervention by
governmental institutions. Moreover, journalists ought to consider
whether given issues could be adequately addressed through local
intervention, whether by citizen groups or governmental institutions,
or whether those issues require intervention of a broader, non-local
scope. While it is certainly imaginable that many issues could be
adequately addressed by given (local or non-local) citizen groups
themselves, many other issues would require intervention by (local or
non-local) governmental institutions to be adequately addressed (see
Haas, 2007b for a more in-depth discussion of public
journalism-inspired problem-solving options).
Regardless of which problem-solving options journalists try to
further in given contexts, such a structural approach to civic mapping
is likely to inspire citizens to participate more actively in
democratic processes. By involving citizens in efforts to evaluate
given problem solving-oriented social networks, and including them in
discussions of how those social networks could be strengthened,
journalists would be likely to inspire citizens to become more
politically involved themselves. Indeed, by encouraging citizens to
participate more actively in problem-solving efforts, either through
involvement in organised citizen groups or in collaboration with
governmental institutions, journalists are not only likely to inspire
more citizen participation in the public affairs of the localities in
which they reside, but may also prompt citizens to participate more
actively in political elections. Importantly, such a structural
approach to civic mapping is also likely to enhance audience interest
in journalistically-mediated political information. The vast
scholarly literature on "community integration" shows that the more
communicatively-integrated given localities are, the higher the
interest in local news coverage (see, for example, Emig, 1995; McLeod,
Scheufele, & Moy, 1999; Park, Yoon, & Shah, 2005).
The Challenges of Civic Mapping
The prior discussion shows that the research and reporting tool known
as civic mapping can fruitfully be used to address the two gaps that
inspired the emergence of the public journalism movement in the first
place: between news organisations and their audiences and between
citizens and politics. Specifically, while the cognitive approach to
civic mapping can be used by journalists to broaden their range of news
sources, and thereby to produce news coverage that is more relevant and
meaningful to people as audiences, the structural approach can be used
by journalists to strengthen existing problem solving-oriented social
networks, and thereby to inspire people as citizens to participate more
actively in democratic processes.
While these two approaches to civic mapping, if used together, could
help journalists further public journalism's goals, their actual
implementation poses certain challenges to the practice of journalism.
Briefly put, the cognitive approach requires journalists to broaden
their understanding of local civic life to encompass various civic
layers, make efforts to seek out news sources that are not part of
organised civic life in given localities, and engage those news sources
in naturally-occurring interactions, in the form of civic
conversations, rather than formal interviews. Moreover, the structural
approach requires journalists to rethink their role in and
responsibility for civic life by abandoning their stance of political
neutrality in favour of political advocacy as well as conceive of
problem-solving in broader terms than local, citizen-based
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Tanni Haas, Brooklyn College - The City University of New York, E-mail: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org