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What is a citizen?

Date Released: Sat, 31 August 2013 08:27 +0200

This week David Holwerk, director of communications at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation in Ohio, USA, was visiting the School of Journalism and Media Studies to talk about how journalists write about citizens. The Kettering Foundation is a research organisation in the USA with a strong interest in work done by citizens, communities and journalists in a democracy.

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.

Enter the Eastern Cape. Holwerk said the Eastern Cape in particular is a rich place to pursue these questions about citizens and journalists that are current and real here. Holwerk said the conversations he has had with journalists from the Daily Dispatch and the Herald he could have had with few American journalists. He said because citizenship and democracy are still fairly new in South Africa, it gives these kinds of questions currency. He found in some South African newspapers community dialogues that bring citizens together to wrestle with issues and solutions.

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 was not Holwerk’s first visit to South Africa. Last year he moderated a panel on journalism and citizenship at the National Arts Festival, and in 2011 he was a speaker at the symposium on Ethical Reporting of Health Issues in Africa. In 2008 Marietjie Oelofsen, a PhD Fellow in the Mellon Media and Citizenship Project at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, went to the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio as a Fanning Fellow in Democracy and Media. At that time Holwerk was the editor of the Sacramento Bee and the foundation sent Oelofsen to Sacramento to speak to him about journalism and his work around citizenship. Holwerk joined the Foundation as director of communications and resident scholar in June 2009. Oelofsen went for another meeting and they started to talk about Holwerk visiting South African newsrooms and journalism schools.

 Before coming to the Kettering Foundation, Holwerk worked for more than 30 years as a journalist at newspapers in Kentucky, Minnesota and California. He worked as a copy editor, reporter, editorial page editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief. He has managed staffs that have won numerous national awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for editorial writing.

 Holwerk is a graduate of the University of Kentucky. He spends his spare time fishing, writing country music and perfecting his recipes for barbecued chicken and hot sauce.

Photograph by Annetjie van Wynegaard

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