How Public Journalism Set the Agenda for a Public Safety Complex

By Simmons, Haven | Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

How Public Journalism Set the Agenda for a Public Safety Complex


Simmons, Haven, Newspaper Research Journal


In 1997, The Pew Foundation for Public Journalism honored coverage of a proposed public safety complex by a medium-sized Knight-Ridder newspaper in Florida. The proposed multi-million dollar public safety complex including a city hall, fire and police stations was to be built around an existing municipal auditorium on city-owned waterfront property. This study focuses on the newspaper's most intense coverage of the controversial safety complex issue, which occurred for approximately four months, from the end of July to early December 1996, under the moniker Decision Downtown.

Public journalism has been called community journalism and civic journalism, among other things. It is unlikely all professional journalists agree on precisely what it is. At the very least, public journalism purportedly seeks to set an agenda for public discourse. In some cases, it conceivably endeavors to sway public opinion. The study of public journalism is compatible with the evolution of the agenda-setting model, which now posits that media sometime set the agenda for what people think, not just think about.

Former executive editor and editorial page editor of the New York Times, Max Frankel, claims that public journalism is a new ideology that obligates journalists to organize public opinion and action.(1) While critics concur with Frankel's concerns that this brand of journalism threatens the traditional journalistic norm of objectivity,(2) the more activist approach has prompted numerous public journalism projects and received accolades for involving the public in relevant issues.(3)

Fairness, objectivity and social responsibility were strongly recommended press norms nearly 50 years ago by the Commission on Freedom of the Press, and it was also suggested that media go beyond just reporting the day's events to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas.(4)

Marcus Brewer and Maxwell McCombs recently discovered that a Texas newspaper's public journalism crusade successfully set the agenda for greater spending on children's programs by local government. The public journalism strategy, according to the researchers, acknowledged the limitations of direct editorial persuasion and the significant agenda-setting effects of continuing news coverage.(5)

Michael Gurevitch and Jay Blumler speak of meaningful agenda-setting, the expectation that media should identify the important issues of the day and forces capable of resolving them.(6) It is also possible to study the agenda- setting effect of the media regardless of whether the agenda is intended or unintended.(7)

Agenda-setting's pioneer study of elections by McCombs and Donald Shaw nearly 30 years ago concerned the transfer of issue salience from the media agenda to the public agenda.(8) The evolution of the model, however, has inspired the question of how the media agenda, the public agenda and the policy agenda of elected officials collaboratively influence one another.(9)

Government officials and public information subsidies frequently contribute to the media agenda because of reliance on official news sources and the advent of government spokespersons.(10)

In her study of health policy development, Kim Walsh-Childers found media influences upon policymakers included alerting officials to the issue, placing it on the public agenda, providing framework for thinking about the issue and prompting legislation or spending.(11)

Researchers analyzed election coverage in the United States and Great Britain, concluding the media wield tremendous power in shaping the agendas of candidates and political parties.(12)

Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder discovered that media profiling of important issues can shift the outcome of elections.(13) In addition, special interest groups that raise money, lobby a cause and make political contributions are increasingly vital to the agenda-setting process.(14)

According to the literature, the merits of public journalism are subject to debate. …

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