Use of Visual Communication in Public Journalism

By Coleman, Renita | Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Use of Visual Communication in Public Journalism


Coleman, Renita, Newspaper Research Journal


A comparison of the design and photography of public journalism projects with non-public journalism shows there is a difference, but not a radical one.

Between 1990 and 1996, more than 400 media outlets in the U.S. had undertaken public journalism projects.(1) Much has been written about the philosophy behind public journalism, its goals, and techniques. Individual public journalism projects have been analyzed and compared against these goals and philosophies, and also compared to traditional journalism to see what, if any, difference exists.(2) However, no study has yet focused on the visual communication of public journalism in newspapers.

Public journalism practitioners and theoreticians argue that the content of stories generated through public journalism methods is significantly different from the content generated by traditional reporting methods. News designers are taught that the form of their designs must reflect the content of the stories rather than artistic preference or trends. This prompts the question: If the content of stories generated through public journalism methods is different, and design is driven by content, doesn't it follow that design for public journalism will be different than design for non-public journalism? This is a key question that visual communicators and public journalists must address if the final product is to truly integrate verbal and visual meaning.

The purpose of this research, the first of a two-phase study, is to explore how public journalism projects have been visually communicated in newspapers practicing this approach, and how they differ from the visual communication of non-public journalism.

Through content analysis, textual analysis and telephone interviews, this exploratory study examined the design and photography of projects at six newspapers; four practicing public journalism and two practicing non-public journalism to explore how public journalism projects were visually communicated in newspapers that practiced the genre, and whether the visual communication of public journalism differed from the visual communication of nonpublic journalism.

Literature review

Public journalism is a product of the 1990s -- its first well-documented experiment was in late 1989 in Columbus, Georgia.(3) Even a decade later, there are as many operational definitions of public journalism as there are media outlets that practice it. For a conceptual definition that speaks to the developing theory of public journalism Jay Rosen has said: "Journalism can and should play a part in strengthening citizenship, improving public debate and reviving public life."(4) Public or civic journalism is widely understood as an approach designed to address issues that readers say are important, rather than only those issues identified by experts. It seeks to promote a public conversation about those issues that will result in a collective working through of the problem to resolution. Among its goals are strengthening citizenship, improving the quality of public debate, and reviving public life. It proposes a more active role for the press than has traditionally been adopted.

Public journalism derives many of its philosophical foundations from the social responsibility theory of the press and agenda-setting theory. While some scholars of public journalism trace its roots as far back as Thomas Jefferson, John Locke and John Stuart Mill,(5) it seems unarguable that the development of the ideas that infuse public journalism were an outgrowth of the debates between John Dewey and Walter Lippmann over the proper role for the press in a democracy.(6) Dewey and other scholars helped lay the foundation for a gradual shift toward the emerging social responsibility theory of the press, which was akin to Dewey's proposal of the role of the press in helping build a more pluralist and tolerant society.(7) The evolution of the social responsibility theory culminated in the Commission on Freedom of the Press' report in 1947. …

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