New Approach to Election Coverage Wins Fans

Article excerpt

DURING the 1994 elections, a sprinkling of newspapers across the country will follow the unconventional path the Charlotte Observer took two years ago.

The North Carolina newspaper launched "Your Vote in '92," an initiative that abandoned the horse-race approach to election coverage and let voters set the agenda on issues that they said mattered to them. Five hundred readers served on a committee to help the paper pinpoint citizens' concerns. Readers' questions were put to the candidates. When candidates refused to clarify where they stood on issues, the paper ran large white spaces next to their names. The candidates then decided they did, after all, have positions.

The Charlotte Observer is one of a growing number of newspapers in the United States trying a new approach to journalism. From Portland, Maine, to Boulder, Colo., papers are stepping out of their traditional roles as mere observers and encouraging citizens to connect more with their communities. It's a philosophy called "public journalism."

"We have two big problems," says Davis (Buzz) Merritt, editor of the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, and a public-journalism guru. "One is the deterioration of public life - people opting out of the process. The other is a loss of authority of journalists, particularly at newspapers. There's declining circulation, penetration, and interest in what we do."

"I think those two are closely tied together," Mr. Merritt says. "If we develop ways to re-engage people in public life, we'll do it through {journalism}; and, on the other hand, if people are less and less involved in public life, they have no need for journalists."

Merritt first started experimenting with public journalism after the 1988 elections, which he calls "the most frivolous, issueless campaign in the history of the country." Determined not to let politicians control coverage in 1990, the Wichita newspaper strove to involve readers in choosing issues they wanted candidates to address.

A favorable response from the public then prompted Merritt to start "The People Project," an initiative to get Wichita residents searching for solutions to crime, poor schools, and other issues. Readers were invited to write, fax, or phone in their problem-solving ideas. The newspaper also sponsored sessions where people could meet others trying to change things.

Public journalism takes many forms, says Jay Rosen, who coined the term. He is a New York University journalism professor and a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. …