I figured this out during the two years I served as executive director of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. And the role I've played in producing a follow-up project, Information Stories, deeply reinforced this lesson. Launched in March, this multimedia project features personal stories that illuminate what's at stake when the flow of local news and information fails to serve well all the members of a community.
It was at the January 2008 initial planning meeting to set up the commission that Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, first described our task. He did this by setting forth what he called three straightforward questions:
If reporters and editors are looking for a word to identify what Americans need journalism to accomplish in the service of both community and democracy, that word is "inclusion."
What are the information needs of local communities in our 21st-century American democracy?
Are they being met?
If not, what should we do about it?
Of course no question could be less straightforward or more profound than the first. The meaning of each of its three key elements—information, community and democracy—is not only ambiguous, but also hotly contested. Adding "journalism" to the mix hardly simplifies matters. Yet bringing these ideas within a single frame was itself a conceptual breakthrough.
The challenge the commission took on was to give expression to their relationship and to convey its importance in concrete language—using as few four-syllable words as possible.
Democracy and Information
Meeting that challenge meant placing the emphasis on democracy. Focusing on democracy has two immediate, critical implications. First is the importance of linking information needs to geographically defined jurisdictions, not just those informal human networks of shared interest or mutual support that might or might not correspond to physical space. This is because of the way democracy is organized by geography.
While I may self-identify with loosely knit communities of law professors, dog owners, or movie lovers, it is as a resident of the city of Columbus, located in Franklin County, Ohio that I am empowered to exercise a democratic civic role. My fellow residents and I have the power and the authority to make choices regarding our school districts, city, county, state and nation. Without information to attend wisely to those choices, democracy withers.
The second implication is that democracy has to be defined. Too often people understand democracy in only a thin procedural sense. Political systems are sometimes called democratic for the sole reason that the government holds regularly scheduled elections. However, democracy represents more than elections, and the Knight commission embraced without hesitation the conclusion that "at a minimum, democracy means self-governance in a political system protective of liberty and equality."
This was no trivial consensus to reach, especially given the diversity and independent-mindedness of the members of this commission. What their final report calls "a political system protective of … equality" must be, by definition, a system in which the needs of everyone are recognized and, at least, taken seriously. Achieving this, the commission stated, requires a healthy community information system to "reflect the interests, perspectives and narratives of the entire community."
Journalism is central to this process of democratic inclusion. It is what draws us, as citizens, out of our private corners and into a shared conversation by helping members of a community solve problems, coordinate activities, achieve public accountability, and generate a sense of connectedness. Performing these functions in a democratic fashion requires those who provide information to draw the attention of an entire community to the interests and perspectives of every part of itself. Recognizing—and fairly evaluating—everyone's interests and needs won't happen unless those who are telling the community's stories are determined to provide the public with relevant, meaningful news and information that is both credible and comprehensive.
After living with these issues for two years and helping to produce the commission's report, my hope was that activists throughout the country would grab hold of the Knight commission's ideas. I yearned for grass-roots assessments of every community's information ecology and widespread advocacy for stronger, more democratic media. But any report—no matter how well founded or well written—tends to be a weak mobilizing tool.
Information Stories became for me a digital vehicle to make these ideas vibrant and visible, concrete and accessible. This project was produced in collaboration with Liv Gjestvang, a filmmaker based in Columbus and the coordinator of Ohio State University's Digital Union, and helped by a small Knight grant. We recruited people who could describe what it means to suffer the consequences of a broken information flow—and then seek ways to remedy the silence. They scripted and helped to produce three- to five-minute videos about their personal and community experiences. On our website, each story can be watched on its own, but we also produced a DVD that integrates all of them—along with an introduction and conclusion I created—into a documentary.
These seven women and five men storytellers form a mini-tapestry of America—teenager to senior citizen, white, black, Latino, Asian, Native American, rural, urban, straight, gay, native-born, immigrant, with and without recognized disabilities, living variously in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Far West, Southwest and California. (Hoped-for recruits from the Deep South fell through.) Each responded in a different way to the inadequacy of the community's information flow. Some turned to newspapers, both print and online; for others, radio, TV and broadband access became their vehicles. Still others used e-mail lists, public art, face-to-face structured community conversation, or direct engagement in community organizing.
Some of their stories are explicitly about journalism:
Some are stories about activism:
All are stories about the need for inclusion and the dangers of exclusion. In "Why I Mind," Brenda Jo Brueggeman, a hard-of-hearing English professor, explains her determination to bring the voices and concerns of deaf students into the flow of information in her community. She tells the story of Carl Dupree, a student at Gallaudet University whose repeated failures to pass a required remedial English exam led to an angry confrontation in the English department office. With the arrival of campus security, Dupree became so agitated at being handcuffed—an action that caused him to lose his one mode of communication—that the police forcefully subdued him. When they inadvertently placed too much pressure on his neck, he died.
It is hard to imagine a more graphic image of the life and death stakes for individuals when they are silenced, misunderstood or ignored in the flow of information.
I recently spoke about the Information Stories project to Fiona Morgan, a graduate student at Duke University and a former reporter who coordinated another follow-up initiative to the Knight commission, the New America Foundation's study of the media ecology of the Research Triangle in North Carolina. When I asked her what she learned from her own project identifying gaps in information flow in North Carolina, she expressed a conclusion identical to my own: "Being left out of the conversation is such a toxic experience for people that it threatens a community's ability to make public decisions and resolve conflict."
Living amid a digital overload of information at a time when people often limit their attention to stories and commentary confirming the beliefs they already hold, the need to expand awareness of "the other" within our communities has never been greater. Many neighborhoods, towns and villages get virtually no journalistic attention although digital media makes such attention more possible. The key questions remain of who will tell these stories and about whom and for whom they will be told. The stakes for democracy are serious, and they reside in how these questions are answered. Journalists have an important role to play—and the 12 narrators of Information Stories offer instructive paths to follow.
Peter M. Shane served as executive director of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. He is the Jacob E. Davis and Jacob E. Davis II Chair in Law at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. During 2011-12, he will be a visiting professor of law at Harvard Law School.