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Published : Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Reading/s : 42
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Number of pages: 26
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Community Press:
Watchdogs Serving the Public?
Leo W. Jeffres and Anup Kumar
School of Communication
Cleveland State University
Paper presented at the annual conference of the Midwest
Association for Public Opinion Research, Chicago, Ill., Nov.
18-19, 2011.Introduction
The relative importance of the traditional functions
assigned to the media by Lasswell (1948)—surveillance,
correlation and transmission of the social heritage—did not
differentiate by the nature of the press nor the status of
the community.
Yet today’s media environment is fragmented, diverse and
challenged by economic models that no longer sustain the
same level of activity, particularly of the daily press. With a more complicated environment where the lines
between modes of communication have become
increasingly blurred, we need to investigate how
traditional media serve the public beyond the functions
stipulated more than a generation ago by Lasswell (1948)
and Wright (1960).
As business interests have assumed greater control over
the media, have journalists responded to the economic
pressures by downgrading the functions and goals
assumed by earlier generations?
If younger generations are satisfied by what they can
receive through mobile technologies and Google and
Wikepedia are seen as credible, how do current
journalism professionals view their roles?Theory/Concepts
Functions of the press linked to two streams of research:
• Structural pluralism & “watchdog function”
Tichenor et al (1980) argued that papers in more
heterogeneous communities report conflicts, getting them
into the open for public discussion, while papers in more
homogeneous communities avoid conflict, reflecting a
consensus among influentials in the community.
This “conflict reporting” style operationalizes the
“watchdog function.”
Later, Tichenor and Olien (1995) offered a “guard dog”
perspective on the social role of mass media, suggesting
that media act as a sentry for powerful groups more than
for the community as a whole. • Social capital and civic engagement
Putnam’s (1995) “bowling alone” article and subsequent
research focused on declining civic engagement or
participation, which he blamed on TV, a claim
subsequent research failed to support.
Later research looked at how media use could stimulate
civic engagement.
Jeffres et al. (2007) found that reading the newspaper and
talking about things in the media make unique
contributions to explaining community social capital and
do not merely reflect demographics and values people
This leads us to ask whether journalists accept this civic
function as an explicit goal for newspapers. Research Questions and Hypotheses
• RQ1: How do community newspaper editors and
publishers assess the importance of different functions
they perform for their communities?
This allows us to see whether Laswell’s traditional
functions of the press still are operative for community
journalists today.
• RQ2: How are these functions related to newspaper
characteristics and to the nature of the communities
Structural pluralism addresses the relationship between
community characteristics (distribution of power, diversity) and
how it affects media operations. Here we ask if community
characteristics affects functions journalists see themselves
• H1: Editors and publishers in communities perceived as
more diverse will assign greater importance to conflict
reporting and less importance to consensus reporting.
This hypothesis reflects the pluralism perspective, though the
community level measure is a perception by the journalists
rather than a sociological measure.
• H2: Editors and publishers in communities perceived as
having more "social capital" will assign greater importance
to stimulating civic engagement in the community.
This hypothesis is based on the same logic as the first one but
reflecting Putnam's (1995) concern with social capital. Methods
Grassroots Journalism Project
• Online survey of editors and publishers of non-daily
papers across the U.S. conducted in late 2010, early
• 527 journalists from across the country
• Identified geographically by state (about 100 respondents)
• Members of the National Newspaper Association (some
• 20% response rate for eachMeasures
• Perceived functions of community press
14 functions used were modified versions of earlier items
Cutietta & Jeffres, 1993; Jeffres et al, 1999)
operationalizing surveillance, coordination and socializing
functions of media:• surveying the community for the public and acting as its “watchdog”
• motivating ordinary people to get involved in public discussions of
important issues
• letting people know what’s going on in their schools
• informing the public about local arts & entertainment
• covering city council and other meetings so the public can judge elected
• covering crime and law enforcement for the public to monitor
• covering political issues locally so citizens can develop informed
• informing people about community events & activities
• getting people engaged in their community
• providing a way for local businesses to reach consumers.
• connecting residents with their community history and heritage
• helping sustain sense of community among residents
• bringing people in the community together [consensus reporting style]
• getting conflict out in the open so the public can deal with it. [conflict
reporting style]

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