Civic Contribution Index
Last July the Contra Costa Times devoted a huge swatch of its front page to a story about how government might limit urban sprawl across the grassy hills of Contra Costa County. There were maps and photos and nearly every point of view on this complex, but bloodless, issue. Channel 5 gave it 39 seconds in the same news cycle.
Government stories create a dilemma for commercial journalism. They are often important, but dull. They pit the commercial logic of maximizing audience (and thus advertising dollars) with the journalistic logic of maximizing public understanding. As one veteran local TV reporter put it, “it’s so boring to go to a meeting.”
Good journalists have found ways to mitigate the dryness of covering city councils, school boards, county boards of sups and state legislatures. They focus on the impact of government decisions among students, or people in a particular neighborhood.
So rather than just counting government meeting stories, we undertook a much more relaxed approach that allowed reporters broad license to make reporting about government action more interesting. If only a quarter of the story’s time or space related to a government action, we counted it as a civic contribution.
This index measures reporting on the actions of those at the controls of our government at all levels, but not those who carry out their decisions. So we count the percentage of time or space taken by all stories in which 1/4 or more of the story describes politics, actions (related to public business) or deliberations of government supervisory or regulatory or lawmaking boards or bodies, elected officials or the heads of any agencies of the U.S., state or local governments. We include studies (conducted by government or outsiders) of effectiveness or problems of arms of domestic government and their policies. Likewise, we include court cases involving civil liberties, and government vs. corporate defendants (e.g. Microsoft), but not prosecutions of individuals unless they are government officials.
We exclude routine actions of police, schools, fire departments and other arms of government, unless expressly political. Also excluded are actions of governments outside the U.S. One exception: We include any investigative report about government or about a private company that touches on its relationship with government.
Journalism ethics asks for constant scrutiny of how our government is behaving. So such stories ought to be a mainstay of coverage. However, they need not consume the majority of news space or time.
The grading standard is as follows: 40% or more=A; 37-39=A-; 34-36=B+; 31-33=B; 28-30=B-; 25-27=C+; 22-24=C; 19-21=C-; 16-18=D+; 13-15=D; 10-12=D-; <10=F.