Does Making Journalism More Public Make a Difference? A Critical Review of Evaluative Research on Public Journalism

Article excerpt

A critical review of forty-seven evaluative studies on public journalism shows that its philosophy and newswork practices have had generally limited effects on the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of journalists and news audiences. These works tend to focus on a handful of showcase public-journalism news organizations and projects. Methodological shortcomings found in several of the studies are discussed. Suggestions for future research are offered.

The U.S. journalistic reform movement known as "public," "civic," or "citizen-based" journalism) has sparked a number of evaluative studies since it emerged in the late 1980s.2 The movement's ultimate goal is to help revitalize civic life in the United States. To achieve that, it would seemingly need to succeed at two broad objectives. First, journalists must be convinced to use public journalism's practices to repair the damage that traditional journalism has been accused of causing to the public's interest and participation in the civic life of their communities and the nation. Second, public journalism must make a difference among news audiences. Because of it, more "average citizens" should be convinced to think about and participate in civic affairs more often.

However, much of the "empirical evidence about whether civic journalism actually is achieving its objectives is fragmentary and impressionistic. "3 Success often is claimed on the basis of "`look what we did ... look how we did it" anecdotes. This study offers a fuller assessment of what is known and what more should be known about public journalism's capacity to modify the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of U.S. journalists and news audiences.

Public Journalism Research

Evaluative studies on public journalism were identified primarily from Communication Abstracts and the AEJMC convention paper databases To be included in the analysis, a study had to focus explicitly on public journalism's attitudinal or behavioral effects on journalists or news audiences. It had to use quantitative or qualitative social-scientific research methods, and to include data not already published. This excluded re-analyses, review articles, and anecdotal narratives.

We located forty-seven evaluative studies that fit the selection criteria. A quarter of them included national-sample surveys of newsmedia executives or journalists. Three-fifths looked at newspapers and five looked at television news departments. Nine focused on both print and broadcast news media, mostly as public-journalism project partners.

There was a tendency among these works to concentrate on a handful of early-adopter "public" news organizations. The Wichita Eagle (Kansas) or the Charlotte Observer (North Carolina), or both, were included in more than one-third of the thirty-nine studies that looked at specific news-media organizations. Fifteen percent featured the Wisconsin State Journal of Madison. The Journal also was a partner in the multiple-media "We the People/Wisconsin" project that was the sole or partial focus of four media-specific studies. "We the People" partner WISC-TV of Madison and KRON-TV of San Francisco were included in five studies each, making them the most researched public-journalism broadcasters.

As Table 1 shows, the majority of the studies focused solely on one of the following research concerns: journalists' attitudes and beliefs about public journalism, their "public" newswork behaviors, and public journalism's effects on news audiences. The continuum that this tripartite division suggests reflects the widely held assumption that journalists' favorable attitudes and beliefs about public journalism may influence their newswork behaviors, and that their newly "public" news-reporting practices may produce measurable attitudinal and behavioral effects on news audiences.6 Admittedly, the dynamic of causality likely is more complicated, if causation is even part of the equation. For our purposes, the distinction between journalistic attitudes, newswork behaviors, and audience effects provided a useful organizing heuristic. …