Our partners at the Kettering Foundation recently posted about a write-up on their own David Holwerk’s talk at Rhodes University in South Africa on how journalists talk about citizens. His remarks focused on the question, “What is a citizen?“, and how the answer is related to the role of the press in a democracy.
In the U.S. Constitution, the role of the press is given explicit protections, ostensibly because a free press that can cover whatever it wants is an integral part of a well-functioning democracy. Indeed, journalism is sometimes conceived of a service provided for citizens to be able to participate in an informed way in their governments. But in a time like ours when news is often hard to discern from entertainment — with celebrities, Twitter commentary, and the results of award ceremonies often getting as much air time air time as local political issues, if not more — what do the big stories in our press say about what journalists are thinking about what is is to be a citizen?
Holwerk delved into the question’s implications for journalists:
Holwerk said that it seems to be a universal article of faith among journalists that they serve the needs of citizens in democracy. But journalists seem much less certain about what citizens actually do, which raises doubts about the ability of journalists to serve citizens’ needs effectively. “Why do people need things?” asked Holwerk. When you need something, he said, it implies that you want to do something. “If need implies action, then what is it that citizens do? They vote. We give them the information they need to vote. Why? Are citizens only voters?”
These are the questions Holwerk has been grappling with for the past four years. At the Kettering Foundation many political scientists and theorists have some ideas about what citizens do. So Holwerk started to think, “You ought to be able to figure out what citizens do by looking at what journalists do.” But when you look at newspapers, watch television or listen to the radio, it’s difficult to find citizens there doing anything, he said.
Journalists and editors need to develop a broader, denser, more robust understanding of what it is that citizens do, he said, but the conversation seems completely theoretical in the context of American journalism.
His reflections were made all the more powerful because Holwerk was in South Africa, a country still relatively early on in its life as a democracy, where questions of citizenship are more regularly discussed in newspapers and the press. But when it came to actually answering the question, “what is a citizen?”, Holwerk offered an insightful answer that pointed to the fact that other people in one’s community
Holwerk’s definition of “citizen” is actually a definition of “citizens” – casting the word as one necessarily addressed to implying a plurality of people.
What is a citizen?
Holwerk said an obstacle to journalists everywhere is not having a clear definition of the word. The legal definition of citizen is someone who is entitled to full rights, including voting rights, in their native state, he said, but this is both too broad and too narrow for the purpose of journalism. Another definition is anyone with the ability to act, he said, but if merely having the ability to act makes you a citizen and you choose not to act, there is no need for journalists to act, and nothing to cover.
Holwerk’s definition of citizens is two people working together to solve a shared public problem. For journalists, if two people work together to solve a private problem, it’s not news, but if they find a solution that benefits the public, that is news.
This definition of citizen is, for me, one of the best I’ve ever heard. It gets to the heart of why we value things like dialogue and deliberation: at bottom, we know that we are in something together with other people around us, and we need to relate to and interact with them to make it work. And when we engage in collaboration with others around us for our common good, that is getting to the essence of what it is to be a citizen.
How do you answer the question “what is a citizen?” How does Holwerk’s definition strike you? And what does it mean for the journalists of our nation? Share your reflections with us in the comments section or in the NCDD Facebook group.
You can find the full coverage of Holwerk’s talk on the Rhodes University website here: www.ru.ac.za/jms/jmsnews/name,93835,en.html.