Public Journalism and Non-Elite Actors and Sources. (Research in Brief)

By Lee, Seow Ting | Newspaper Research Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview
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Public Journalism and Non-Elite Actors and Sources. (Research in Brief)

Lee, Seow Ting, Newspaper Research Journal

Public journalism is grounded in its desire to strengthen public life. Through a news work norm of community-involvement, by listening and acting upon a community's collective concerns, public journalism activities aspire to deliver news that engages people in public life. (1)

It is evident that community involvement refers to a two-way process: A newspaper focuses its coverage on the community by identifying its problems, issues and stake in public policy. The paper then converses with citizens to mobilize the community as a whole to participate in problem-solving to realize its civic work.

As such, community involvement is manifest in several aspects of news work. Foremost among them are reporters' selecting sources that emphasize the average citizen and news that features the ordinary citizen as an active player in the news.

Massey (2) suggested community connections would be forged through bottom-up framing of news realities and community issues. He found that there was no evidence of greater news prominence for non-elites. Others reported similar results. (3)

Public journalism, by focusing on citizens, emphasizes the use of ordinary people both as news sources and as players in the news. Unlike previous studies, in this one a distinction is made between sources and actors.

A source, by having information attributed to him or her, is given a voice. An actor, on the other hand, may or may not possess a voice. For example, in a news story about a hit-and-run accident victim written from a police report, no information would be explicitly attributed to the victim in the form of a direct or indirect quote. In such a case, the source becomes a non-elite actor, but not a non-elite source.

This content analysis study evaluated the use of non-elite and elite actors and sources in two daily newspapers: the public journalism newspaper St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the traditional, non-public journalism The Washington Post. It sought to answer the question: Does the practice of public journalism inspire editors and reporters to use more non-elite sources and actors than elite ones?


The unit of analysis was the news item. Only local "spot" news and news blurbs or shorts on the front page and metro section were analyzed. Based on stratified random, four different constructed weeks, from June 15,1998, to June 15,1999, were used in the analysis of the two papers. (4)

For this study, these five operational definitions were used: non-elite source and actor, elite source and actor, and not applicable (5) In total, 766 stories from The Washington Post (416) and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (350) were analyzed. A coder reliability test on 65 stories ranged from +.84 to +.93. (6)

Results and Discussion

The Post-Dispatch used more non-elite sources (13 to 8) and actors (231 to 184) than The Washington Post. What is striking, however, was the significant disparity between the number of non-elite sources and non-elite actors found in the two newspapers. Overall, only 21 non-elite sources were used compared with 415 non-elite actors. In the Post-Dispatch, the ratio of non-elite actors was 1 to 18 compared to 1 to 23 in The Washington Post. Both newspapers were more predisposed toward non-elite actors than non-elite sources. In terms of non-elite sources versus elite sources, the differences between the papers also were statistically significant (chi square=8.81; p=.01).

The implication is that even though the Post-Dispatch demonstrated a stronger use of non-elite sources and actors compared to the traditional Washington Post, the results for non-elite sources, when examined in the overall context of non-elite sources and actors, are less extraordinary.

Although the public journalism paper used a higher proportion of non-elite sources (1 for ever 5.3 elites), the finding may not contradict what other researchers (6) have reported: Elite rather than non-elite sources dominate daily news in the public journalism newspaper.

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Public Journalism and Non-Elite Actors and Sources. (Research in Brief)


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