Community Information and Civic Engagement
The degree of engagement in communities — from participation in the governing council and recreation committee to the school board and recycling program — can vary widely across the United States. Some towns see an activist spirit, while others see thin attendance at meetings and few volunteers for initiatives. Likewise, some municipalities have an atmosphere in which decisions, events and opportunities are publicized through both public and commercial channels, while other communities see little communication or news.
A 2011 study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Monitor Institute and the Pew Research Center, “How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems” (PDF), surveyed three communities to examine the perceived availability of local-level information and news and how this related to civic engagement. Researchers focused on perceptions of civic information environments in Philadelphia, San Jose and Macon, Georgia.
The study’s findings include:
- 72% of those who reported that their local government “does very/pretty well at sharing info” also reported that they feel people could have a “big/moderate impact on the community.”
- 65% of those who reported that their local government “does very/pretty well at sharing info” said they were “quite satisfied with their community.”
- 69% of Internet users said that the Web had made a major impact on their ability to learn new things; 34% said that the Internet had made a major impact on their ability to participate in their community.
- Only one quarter of survey respondents who reported searching for local civic information on the Internet said they could always find what they were seeking. Moreover, only 37% said the information they sought was presented clearly.
- 78% of residents said it was very important for communities to set up a website.
- Many citizens approve of their local information systems even if they do not “have direct contact with or knowledge of some of the system’s features.” This may be because impressions are passed on second-hand from other residents.
The researchers conclude that empowering citizens with good communication and information can produce many benefits: “Those who believe they can impact their community are more likely to be engaged in civic activities and are more likely to be satisfied with their towns.”
Tags: technology, recycling
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Pew, Knight, Monitor Institute survey "How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems" (PDF).
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related Chicago Tribune article "State legislators push for more open local government meetings."
- If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.