The time has come for new thinking and aggressive action to dramatically improve the information opportunities available to the American people, the information health of the country’s communities, and the information vitality of our democracy.
The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy believes America is at a critical juncture in the history of communications. Information technology is changing our lives in ways that we cannot easily foresee. As dramatic as the impacts have been already, they are just beginning.
The digital age is creating an information and communications renaissance. But it is not serving all Americans and their local communities equally. It is not yet serving democracy fully. How we react, individually and collectively, to this democratic shortfall will affect the quality of our lives and the very nature of our communities.
America needs “informed communities,” places where the information ecology meets people’s personal and civic information needs. This means people have the news and information they need to take advantage of life’s opportunities for themselves and their families. They need information to participate fully in our system of self-government, to stand up and be heard. Driving this vision are the critical democratic values of openness, inclusion, participation, empowerment, and the common pursuit of truth and the public interest.
To achieve this, the Commission urges that the nation and its local communities pursue three ambitious objectives:
- Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities;
- Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information; and
- Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.
Public testimony before the Commission showed that America’s communities have vast information needs. Those needs are being met unequally, community by community. Some populations have access to local news and other relevant information through daily newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, local cable news channels, hyper-local Web sites, services that connect to police reports and other sources of local information, blogs, and mobile alerts. Others are unserved or are woefully underserved.
Local journalistic institutions that have traditionally served democracy by promoting values of openness, accountability, and public engagement are themselves in crisis from financial, technological, and behavioral changes taking place in our society. Even before the 2008 recession, many news organizations faced shrinking audiences and declining advertising revenue. With the recession, they are struggling even more. There is plainly reason to be anxious about the consequences for local journalism, and therefore for local democratic governance.
Technologies for acquiring and disseminating news and information are changing rapidly. Emerging media have become amazing forces for enabling people to connect. But their full potential is not yet realized in the service of geographic communities, the physical places where people live and work.
America’s information needs are yet more urgent because of the economic recession of 2008. But such crises often create opportunity, and the Commission believes the current moment marks a time of great possibility.
It is a moment of technological opportunity. Experiments in social communication abound. The advent of the Internet and the proliferation of mobile media are unleashing a torrent of innovation in the creation and distribution of information. Those who possess and know how to use sophisticated computing devices interact ever more seamlessly with a global information network both at home and in public.
It is also a moment of journalistic and political opportunity. Information organizations, including many traditional journalistic enterprises, are embracing new media in unique and powerful ways, developing new structures for information dissemination and access. Political leaders and many government agencies are staking out ambitious agendas for openness. The potential for using technology to create a more transparent and connected democracy has never seemed brighter.
At this juncture, muddled strategies and bad choices will result in missed opportunities for society. Mistakes can reinforce existing inequalities and worsen second-class status for people who lack the resources, skills or understanding required in the digital age. Clear strategies and smart choices can produce a revolution in civic engagement, government openness and accountability, and economic prosperity.
The Commission believes that achieving its vision of informed communities requires pursuing three fundamental objectives:
- Maximizing the availability of relevant and credible information to communities. The availability of relevant and credible information implies creation, distribution, and preservation. Information flow improves when people have not only direct access to information, but the benefit also of credible intermediaries to help discover, gather, compare, contextualize, and share information.
- Strengthening the capacity of individuals to engage with information. This includes the ability to communicate one’s information, creations and views to others. Attending to capacity means that people have access to the tools they need and opportunities to develop their skills to use those tools effectively as both producers and consumers of information.
- Promoting individual engagement with information and the public life of the community. Promoting engagement means generating opportunities and motivation for involvement. Citizens should have the capacity, both individually and in groups, to help shoulder responsibility for community self-governance.
Information is as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools, and public health. People have not typically thought of information in this way, but they should. Just as the United States has built other sectors of its vital infrastructure through a combination of private enterprise and social investment, Americans should look to a similar combination of strategies in developing its information infrastructure as well.
Information is essential to community vitality. Informed communities can effectively coordinate activities, achieve public accountability, solve problems, and create connections. Local information systems should support widespread knowledge of and participation in the community’s day-to-day life by all segments of the community. To achieve the promise of democracy, it is necessary that the creation, organization, analysis, and transmission of information include the whole community.
In addition to the information necessary to participate in elections and civic affairs, people need access to information to better their lives. Where families struggle to make ends meet and many men and women work multiple jobs, free time is limited. Indeed, the path to active civic engagement may begin with fulfillment of basic information needs, including information about jobs, housing, taxes, safety, education, transportation, recreation, entertainment, food, shopping, utilities, child care, health care, religious resources, and local news.
A community is a healthy democratic community—it is an “informed community”—when:
- People have convenient access to both civic and life-enhancing information, without regard to income or social status.
- Journalism is abundant in many forms and accessible through many convenient platforms.
- Government is open and transparent.
- People have affordable high-speed Internet service wherever and whenever they want and need it.
- Digital and media literacy are widely taught in schools, public libraries and other community centers.
- Technological and civic expertise is shared across the generations.
- Local media—including print, broadcast, and online media—reflect the issues, events, experiences and ideas of the entire community.
- People have a deep understanding of the role of free speech and free press rights in maintaining a democratic community.
- Citizens are active in acquiring and sharing knowledge both within and across social networks.
- People can assess and track changes in the information health of their communities.
Another insight that emerged from the Commission’s study: journalistic institutions do not need saving so much as they need creating. Both private and public investments are needed to exploit this moment of journalistic opportunity fully.
Original and verified reporting is critical to community information flow. The challenge is not to preserve any particular medium or any individual business, but to promote the traditional public-service functions of journalism. Rather than ask how to save newspapers, a better question is, “How can we advance quality, skilled journalism that contributes to healthy information environments in local communities?”
The Commission applauds efforts throughout the country to find new solutions and business models to preserve valued journalistic institutions and create new ones. There is a transition underway requiring fresh thinking and new approaches to the gathering and sharing of news and information.
The Commission has formulated 15 strategies for pursuing the three fundamental objectives of information availability, citizen capacity, and public engagement. The recommendations propose action by government, communities, the media, and citizens. The following are condensed versions of those recommendations.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information
People need relevant and credible information to be free and self-governing.
THE COMMISSION CONCLUDES:
● The current financial challenges facing private news media could pose a crisis for democracy.
● Public media should provide better local news and information.
● Not-for-profit and non-traditional media can be important sources of journalism.
● Public information belongs to the public. Government must be more open.
● Informed communities can measure their information health.
THE COMMISSION RECOMMENDS:
Recommendation 1: Direct media policy toward innovation, competition, and support for business models that provide marketplace incentives for quality journalism. [...read more]
Recommendation 2: Increase support for public service media aimed at meeting community information needs. [...read more]
Recommendation 3: Increase the role of higher education, community and nonprofit institutions as hubs of journalistic activity and other information-sharing for local communities. [...read more]
Recommendation 4: Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records, and make civic and social data available in standardized formats that support the productive public use of such data. [...read more]
Recommendation 5: Develop systematic quality measures of community information ecologies, and study how they affect social outcomes. [...read more]
Enhancing the Information Capacity of Individuals
People need tools, skills, and understanding to use information effectively.
THE COMMISSION CONCLUDES:
● All people have a right to be fully informed.
● There need be no second-class citizens in informed communities.
● Funding to meet this goal is an investment in the nation’s future.
● Americans cannot compete globally without new public policies and investment in technology.
THE COMMISSION RECOMMENDS:
Recommendation 6: Integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials. [...read more]
Recommendation 7: Fund and support public libraries and other community institutions as centers of digital and media training, especially for adults. [...read more]
Recommendation 8: Set ambitious standards for nationwide broadband availability and adopt public policies encouraging consumer demand for broadband services. [...read more]
Recommendation 9: Maintain the national commitment to open networks as a core objective of Internet policy. [...read more]
Recommendation 10: Support the activities of information providers to reach local audiences with quality content through all appropriate media, such as mobile phones, radio, public access cable, and new platforms. [...read more]
Promoting Public Engagement
To pursue their true interests, people need to be engaged with information and with each other.
THE COMMISSION CONCLUDES:
● Creating informed communities is a task for everyone.
● Young people have a special role in times of great change.
● Technology can help everyone be part of the community.
● Everyone should feel a responsibility to participate.
THE COMMISSION RECOMMENDS:
Recommendation 11: Expand local media initiatives to reflect the full reality of the communities they represent. [...read more]
Recommendation 12: Engage young people in developing the digital information and communication capacities of local communities. [...read more]
Recommendation 13: Empower all citizens to participate actively in community self-governance, including local “community summits” to address community affairs and pursue common goals. [...read more]
Recommendation 14: Emphasize community information flow in the design and enhancement of a local community’s public spaces. [...read more]
Recommendation 15: Ensure that every local community has at least one high-quality online hub. [...read more]
The United States stands at what could be the beginning of a democratic renaissance, nurtured by innovative social practices and powerful technologies. With tools of communication (both old and new), dynamic institutions for promoting knowledge and the exchange of ideas, and a renewed commitment to engage in public life, Americans could find themselves in a brilliant new age.
The Knight Commission has recommended a series of strategies that, in various ways, exhort our major public and nonprofit institutions to give new priority to values of openness, inclusion, and engagement. The values questions posed are equally profound, however, for individual citizens and for media institutions. Creating informed communities is a task for everyone.
Communities throughout America need for their members to re-examine their individual roles as citizens in the digital age. More than ever, technology enables each citizen, as well as every business firm and every nonprofit organization, to be a productive part of the community. Those opportunities, however, and the social benefits they offer, imply a reciprocal responsibility to participate.
Likewise, communities can call upon their media institutions to confront how new technological capacities and social practices are challenging core values. The evolving relationship among journalists, media firms, and the public should engender a deep discussion about how these changes affect such values as objectivity, privacy, and accountability.
This report is intended to help America maintain its commitment to enduring information ideals, even as individuals and communities create information ecologies more relevant, participatory, and inclusive than ever. There need be no second-class citizens in the democratic communities of the digital age. Whether America fulfills this vision will require individual and collective initiative at every level of society.
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