Part I: What are the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy?
Community Functions Depend on Information and Exchange
American democracy is organized largely by geography, which is why the Commission has focused primarily on the needs of geographically defined communities.9 Local communities need to accomplish at least four things that depend on information.
- Communities need to coordinate. Activities like elections, emergency responses, and even community celebrations succeed only if everyone knows where to be at what time and what role to play. This requires a system of information and exchange. Information is also the central resource in enabling the creation of economic and social connections that build a community’s capacity for action.
- Communities need to solve problems. They have to identify goals, challenges, and options for response on everything from building the local economy, to improving the performance of community schools, to protecting health and safety and combating local hunger. They have to estimate the consequences of alternative approaches. They have to weigh those consequences in light of community values. All of this requires information, interpretation, analysis, and debate.
- Communities need to establish systems of public accountability. Public officials answer to voters for their performance in office. Voters need information and analysis to assess how officials are doing their jobs.
- Finally, communities need to develop a sense of connectedness. They need to circulate ideas, symbols, facts, and perspectives in a way that lets people know how they fit into a shared narrative. A community’s system of meaning evolves as new voices and new experiences enter the information flow. People need access to that information to avoid feeling alienated and excluded.
Communal and Personal Needs Intersect
Communities can fulfill their key functions only through the individuals who live there. This means that the information needs of any local community are inevitably connected to the personal information needs of its people.
To begin with, people have to be able to meet their personal and family needs in ways that leave time and energy available for community issues. Then, for community processes to work, people require information that relates directly to participating in public life.
Moreover, the streams of personal and civic information shape each other. In many cases, news about the larger community may be essential to helping people fulfill their personal objectives. Conversely, as people work on their individual goals, they see the links between their personal lives and the public life of their communities. The civic and the personal are inescapably intertwined.
The Commission’s emphasis on democracy reinforces this insight. At a minimum, democracy means self-governance in a political system protective of liberty and equality. In its deepest version, however, democracy means something more. It connotes a commitment to individual freedom in daily life. It means opportunity to pursue one’s personal goals and objectives, within the law, however one chooses. The citizen’s information needs are both civic and personal.
Envisioning and Measuring Success and Failure
In a perfect world, citizens could reliably measure their information needs and gauge their satisfaction. Community members could quantify the assets of their local information ecology. Researchers could correlate information assets with positive social outcomes. Citizens and their representatives could formulate recommendations to improve social outcomes by making specific, measurable improvements in information handling.
However, information researchers have not developed the tools to perform these tasks with precision. The Commission has viewed international efforts at such indexing with interest.10 It has looked at efforts to create tools that would be useful locally to assess a community’s information ecology.11 Such efforts do not yet enable us to measure information flow successfully or relate that flow to other community outcomes.
Millions of Americans meet their information needs through broadband service and home computers or Web-enabled mobile phones. At their desks or just walking their neighborhoods, they have access to more information than many nations hold in all the books in their national libraries. Today’s information consumers can pull together the news they want to follow in a convenient Web page. They can apply online for a job, a loan, or college admission. They can check their children’s school lunch options and keep track of homework assignments. Before they go to the doctor, they can arm themselves with information from health Web sites or online support groups. They do not overdraw their bank accounts because they can check balances online and move funds from one account to another. They pay bills efficiently without ever using a postage stamp.
Against this baseline, it is easy to describe what failure looks like. For individuals, failure is the inability to apply for jobs online. Failure is the inability to get relevant health information. Failure is not being able to take advantage of online educational opportunities or use online tools to track the education of one’s children. Millions of Americans lack the tools or the skills to match their information-rich contemporaries in pursuing personal goals. The freedom they enjoy to shape their own lives and destiny is stunted. These people are falling into second-class citizenship. This is true even putting aside the actual civic activities that online connectedness makes possible. Even if they want to engage in the public affairs of their communities, the navigation of life’s daily mundane tasks requires disproportionate time and energy. This is not democracy at work.
In terms of community coordination, failure looks like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. People know of dangers but do not organize in response to them. When emergencies strike, information systems break down. People do not know where to find food, shelter, health care and basic safety.
In terms of community problem-solving, failure is the proliferation of problems unaddressed. Downtowns dry up. Pollution spreads. Employers leave. Unemployment climbs. Dropout rates increase. Public health problems intensify.
A community without public accountability suffers from unresponsive government. Neglect is common, corruption all too plausible. Money is wasted as government officials are slow and awkward at doing what other governments do quickly and nimbly. Voter turnout is low, not because people are satisfied, but because people are resigned.
A community without a sense of connectedness is a group of people who know too little about one another. Social distrust abounds. Alienation is common. Everyone assumes that somebody else is getting “a better shake.” The community loses out on the talents of people who lack either the opportunity or motivation to share their skills. When problems arise, there is little common ground to solve them. People feel excluded, that they are not “part of the action,” and they disconnect from one another.
Engagement Involves Both Information and Information Intermediaries
Part of what is missing in these sketches of individual and community failure is information. But the problem is not the lack of information; it is an absence of engagement—personal involvement with the larger community based on accurate and timely information.
Information alone does not guarantee positive outcomes. Consider one famous example. A front-page story in the June 8, 2004, Times-Picayune12 in New Orleans detailed a near-stoppage in the work needed to shore up the city’s levees. The mere revelation of that information in itself did not mobilize the effort that might have spared the city the worst ravages of Hurricane Katrina 14 months later. Interested or influential people did not engage with the information in timely, effective ways. Unless people, armed with information, engage with their communities to produce a positive effect, information by itself is powerless.
Engagement is the critical point where community and individual information needs intersect. Communities need policies, processes, and institutions that promote information flow and support people’s constructive engagement with information and with each other.
A community’s information ecology works best when people have easy, direct and timely access to the information they need. Many communities are developing online systems to access a variety of public records. Information aggregators use tools to help people quickly find the relevant records and data. Among the more exciting developments is increasing online availability of all kinds of public data, not just conventional “records.” Initiatives like these enable private and nonprofit entrepreneurs to use existing government information as the basis for new businesses and civic projects. The sharing of data can also improve the quality, accountability and efficiency of government.
Direct access to information, however, is not a complete solution to a community’s needs because information can overwhelm. Emerging technologies may help people sift, organize and evaluate information. But even tech-savvy individuals are unlikely to possess the institutional resources they need to meet all their personal information needs and objectives without help. No individual can generate all the analysis, debate, context and interpretation necessary to turn raw information into useful knowledge.
Thus, just as communities depend on citizens for engagement, individuals depend on formal and informal institutions for support to engage with information. The local daily newspaper is one such intermediary. So are local television and radio newsrooms. Some support comes from private enterprise. Public and nonprofit institutions can also function as intermediaries, sometimes through face-to-face programming, sometimes via Web sites. Family, friends and co-workers can be intermediaries. But the key point is simple: effective, trusted intermediaries help people engage with information.
Journalism Is a Critical Intermediating Practice
Individuals and communities depend on news as a critical element of the information ecology, and effective intermediaries are critical in gathering and disseminating news.
The 1947 Hutchins Commission Report, A Free and Responsible Press, defined news as “truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account[s] of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.”13 The best journalism serves the interests of truth by reporting as fact only what can be verified through multiple trusted sources.
News can be life-enhancing. It can be decisive to individuals in their personal affairs. Local, national and international events can point the way to important challenges and opportunities. News can affect decisions that are both mundane and essential to personal well-being: where the Board of Education will locate a new school, whether plans are advancing for light rail through city neighborhoods, early reports of a possible flu outbreak at a local community college.
The news also helps people to connect their private and public concerns. It helps them identify and take advantage of opportunities to put issues of personal importance on the public agenda. To serve their individual purposes, people need continual access to news that is credible, verified and up-to-date.
News is also essential for the community as a whole. Community coordination cannot exist without shared news. The dissemination of information, debate and analysis is central to problem solving. The Hutchins Commission emphasized the importance of media’s role in projecting a “representative picture of the constituent groups in the society.” The news connects subcommunities by letting one neighborhood know what another neighborhood is doing and how the affairs of some affect the fortunes of all.
News promotes accountability. Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and the 2007 Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal are iconic examples. A 2003 international study showed a strong association between national levels of corruption and the “free circulation of daily newspapers per person.” The same investigators found a similar relationship across American states. Government corruption declined in the United States between the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. Historians identify the development of an information-oriented press as a possible factor.14
In the same vein, a 2008 MIT study found that members of Congress who are covered less by their local press work less for their constituencies, as evidenced by lower federal spending in their districts. They vote their party line more often, testify less often before congressional hearings, and appear to serve less frequently on constituency-oriented committees. This research suggests a tie between news coverage, voter awareness, and official responsiveness. Voters living in areas with less coverage of their members of Congress were found to be “less likely to recall their representative’s name, and less able to describe and rate them.”15
In any community, journalists are the primary intermediaries for news. They are the people most systematically engaged in gathering, analyzing and disseminating news. The connection between the potential positive effects of news and the vitality of professional journalism makes sense. Public accountability is an obvious case. People behave better if they think they are being watched. But journalism that is good at watching people in power is hard. It requires training, determination and time. It can also be expensive, especially when the prospects of legal expenses are added to the budget necessary to cover the basic costs of reporting and production.
The journalism of the future may or may not take the familiar form of newspapers. But for true public accountability, communities need skilled practitioners. They ask tough questions. They chase obscure leads and confidential sources. They translate technical matters into clear prose. Where professionals are on the job, the public watchdog is well fed. Part-time, episodic or uncoordinated public vigilance is not the same.
The Commission recognizes that new technologies and techniques can bring more information to light and can complement or substitute for more traditional journalism. This is an evolving process. But in the end, the goals of journalism persist and remain vital. Someone needs to dig up the facts, hold people accountable and disseminate the news.
Information Intermediaries Need Both Private and Public Investment
Effective information intermediaries require resources. But because information is often a public good, there are at least two challenges in funding them.
First, information creates what economists call “positive externalities.” These are benefits for the public as a whole from which no individual firm can profit. An informed public is likely to be a more engaged public. It is likely to make better decisions and to resolve conflict more productively. Better informed people are more helpful resources to one another. But no one economic actor will invest enough personal resources to achieve these outcomes because the benefits will flow to everyone in the community, not just to the investor.
Much information is also “non-rivalrous.” One person’s consumption of information does not reduce the amount others can consume. People who do not pay for information can thus make free use of a lot of the information that other people have paid for. This produces a “free rider” problem. People underinvest in information because they suspect that they can benefit, without paying, from the investments of others. (If others read newspapers and share what they learn, why subscribe?)
These facts point to a critical economic consequence: just because communities need journalism does not mean that consumers in the marketplace will generate enough revenue to support that journalism. Specialized publications, whether for investment counseling or restaurant reviews, can be market-supported. But subscriptions alone have never supported and are not likely ever to pay the full cost of gathering and disseminating general local news. In the 20th century, advertising compensated for much of the shortfall because advertisers were willing to pay substantial sums to newspapers and local broadcast stations to reach their audiences. The Internet and the fragmentation of media markets through the proliferation of new outlets have undermined this business model. Adjusted for inflation, newspaper ad revenues fell 31 percent between 2000 and 2007,16 hitting metropolitan dailies the hardest. These trends clearly call into question how communities and their citizens will pay for news and information in the future.
Because of information’s special character, America has a long history of providing social support for the development and transmission of news and information. Beginning in the 18th century, the Postal Service subsidized the delivery of newspapers,17 and postal subsidies still support nonprofit publications. Congress created and partially funds public radio and public television. Commercial broadcasters have enjoyed protected use of their airwaves at little or no cost. States help to finance schools and colleges, and local communities fund libraries, as forms of social support for the generation and transmission of knowledge.
Accordingly, if communities are to enjoy the kind of information ecology that fosters individual and collective success, they will need to pursue a dual course of action. Public policies need to allow or encourage private market mechanisms to robustly serve community information needs. But because so much information is a public good, communities and the country also need to make some public investments in the creation and distribution of information.
Promoting Democratic Values
In sum, a compelling vision for meeting the information needs of communities in a democracy must first take account of the needs of individuals who make up America’s communities. It requires attention to the core community functions we have identified, the role of intermediaries, and the economics of information. But it also requires pursuing the values that a democratic information system should serve. In distilling all that it has read and heard, the Commission has come to regard the following five values as paramount here:
1. Openness. The information ecology should be maximally available to everyone as a producer and consumer of information and, within the bounds of law, should support the widest possible range of choices for personal lifestyle and civic initiative.
2. Inclusion. The information system should reflect the interests, perspectives, and narratives of the entire community; everyone should be able to find information relevant to their needs.
3. Participation. The information system should operate to encourage and support people’s productive engagement with information for personal and civic purposes.
4. Empowerment. Individuals should have the opportunity to pursue their talents, dreams and interests. Communities should be able to govern their own affairs successfully, reflecting the needs and values of their members.
5. Common Pursuit of Truth and the Public Interest. People should be able to differentiate what is credible, verifiable and rigorously determined from what is speculative, false or propagandistic. They should also be able to engage with information and each other to develop public decisions that maximize community welfare.
The Commission recognizes that putting these principles into operation is challenging, in large part, because important values often exist in tension with one another. Democratic communities must invariably struggle, for example, with the balance between openness and privacy, and between the freedom of speech and the accountability of speakers. These issues, however, only underscore every citizen’s need for the news, information and analysis necessary to participate meaningfully in the public decisions that effectively strike that balance.
The Commission believes that achieving its vision of informed communities requires pursuing three fundamental objectives, each discussed in the following sections of the Commission’s report:
- Maximizing the availability of relevant and credible information to Americans and their communities.
Availability implies the creation, distribution and preservation of information. In addition to making important public information available directly to individuals, information flow improves when credible intermediaries help people to discover, gather, compare, contextualize and share information.
- Strengthening the capacity of individuals to engage with information.
Attending to capacity means that all 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. Everyone in a democracy should be able to communicate their information, creations and views to others. The Commission envisions actions that expand access to information and communications technologies, create more effective and affordable use of existing technologies, and foster lifelong learning at all levels and in multiple settings.
- Promoting individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.
Promoting engagement means generating opportunities and motivation to engage. The Commission envisions actions for engaging young people more deeply in the lives of their communities. It also envisions enabling communities to capitalize on the creativity and technological skills of young people and other segments of the community who may otherwise be overlooked or underengaged. Finally, the Commission encourages actions that empower citizens, both individually and in groups, to assume greater responsibility for community self-governance. This includes local community activism around access to information as a public need.
The Commission believes that the vigorous pursuit of these objectives would help produce what truly deserve to be called “informed communities.” In such healthy democratic communities:
- 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 generations.
- Local media—including print, broadcast, and new media—reflect the full reality of the communities they represent.
- 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 community’s information health.
An informed community would regard the health of its information environment as being as central to community success as the quality of its water system or electrical grid.
It would protect that health by persistent and simultaneous focus on issues of information availability, citizen capacity and public engagement.