Sunday, August 16, 2009

Town Halls and Civic Journalism

As news media across the country report on the "August revolt" at Democratic town hall meetings, many don't seem to take a critical look at how the meetings are being conducted, or to offer alternatives.   

In Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough (1998), Davis "Buzz" Merritt, one of the founders of the civic journalism movement, wrote that "[public/civic journalism] moves beyond the limited mission of telling the news to a broader mission of helping public life go well, and out of that imperative. When public life is going well, true deliberation occurs and leads to potential solutions."     

From that public perspective, we might ask what types of coverage could help public life go well and facilitate deliberation. Are just the stories of disruption and shouting getting most of the headlines?  Do these town hall meetings have ground rules?  Are there instances of town hall meeting with basic ground rules and facilitation?  What might be the role of the press?  What are the alternatives?  

First,'s Explainer answers the question, "do town halls have rules," with a resounding no.   Political town halls are generally informal gatherings where constituents can have their voice heard.  The process is up to the organizer.  Town hall meetings are the descendants of New England "town meetings."  Since the 1600s, town governments of New England have held highly regimented meetings for decision-making.   

For some instances of town hall meetings on health care reform that had  ground rules or different formats, see:
For more insight on consensus building alternatives, see:  
 Mary Beth Callie
 CCJIG chair, 2009-10
Regis University, Denver