Editors, Educators Agree on Outcomes but Not Goals

Article excerpt

Just over a decade ago, a movement called public journalism -- sometimes called civic journalism, community journalism, community connectedness, communitarian journalism and participatory journalism -- emerged. It was promoted as a way to reduce people's disconnection with public life, something its promoters concluded was related to the media's poor coverage of public issues. At the same time, it was expected to increase newspaper readership by increasing readers' interest in the news media.

Although the public journalism movement has expanded dramatically in the past decade, its growth has not been without controversy. Whereas some journalists and journalism educators say that public journalism actually is what journalists have been doing all along, others have charged that it actually undermines the foundations of traditional journalism and should be a cause for concern.

The first public journalism activity is said to have been a public meeting on community issues organized by a Georgia newspaper, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, following its 1988 series of articles on local problems. (1) However, what has been called the "first prominent manifestation" of public journalism (2) was The Wichita Eagle's Voter Project during the 1990 Kansas gubernatorial election. It began when the editor of The Wichita Eagle, Davis "Buzz" Merritt, decided that "something had to change in the triangle of politics, public and press that defines modern election campaigns." (3)

Although the movement emerged from professional journalists, some journalism educators, such as Jay Rosen at New York University, have attempted not only to define but also to refine it. Rosen said the idea behind "community connectedness" was "that journalists must play an active role in supporting civic involvement, improving discourse and debate and creating a climate in which the affairs of the community earn their claim on the citizen's time and attention." (4) Glasser and Craft (5) wrote that public journalism has two sets of principles. First, it "rejects conceptions of objectivity that require journalists to disengage from all aspects of community life" and, second, it "calls for a shift from a `journalism of information' to a `journalism of conversation.'" (6)

Anderson, Dardenne and Killenberg called news "a co-creation of journalists and the people of the community," (7) and Craig stated that the public journalism movement seeks to "foster new ties with the public, spur debate over community problems and solutions and energize citizens to participate in public life." (8)

A number of prominent journalists support public journalism. For example, David Broder said he welcomed the public journalism experiment "because, frankly, the nightmare of my life is that it will be written at some future point about my generation of political reporters that we covered everything, but we didn't notice that support for representative government and democracy was collapsing." (9) On the other hand, Rosemary Armao, then executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said that it was "crude, naive and dumb" and "wimpy." (10)

Media educators also have been divided about the movement. Anderson, Dardenne and Killenberg suggested that public journalism's appeal would be "at least as wide as public cynicism with present media practices is deep." (11) Dennis, however, wrote: "If public journalism is truly an effort to improve information and news reaching the public, it deserves the highest commendation. If, on the other hand, it pushes the media toward a quasi-governmental role, one more appropriate for the community organizer, people should know it." (12)

If public journalism helps solve the problem of decreasing readership and helps people connect with their communities, it may be the salvation of newspapers. On the other hand, if it reduces journalists' independence and objectivity, then it could undermine a free press. …