Examining the Effects of Public Journalism on Civil Society from 1994 to 2002: Organizational Factors, Project Features, Story Frames, and Citizen Engagement

By Nichols, Sandra L.; Friedland, Lewis A. et al. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Examining the Effects of Public Journalism on Civil Society from 1994 to 2002: Organizational Factors, Project Features, Story Frames, and Citizen Engagement


Nichols, Sandra L., Friedland, Lewis A., Rojas, Hernando, Cho, Jaeho, Shah, Dhavan V., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


After more than a decade of public journalism efforts, empirical knowledge of whether these efforts have met the movement's goals remains largely based on in-depth case studies. To address this shortcoming, this study analyzes 651 cases of public journalism conducted between 1994 to 2002. Hierarchical multiple regression analysis is used to consider the predictive power of organizational factors, project features, story frames, and efforts to engage citizens and assess public opinion on three civil society outcomes: improvements in citizenship, political processes, and volunteerism. Specific effects on civil society are discussed, study limitations are addressed, and insights for future research and practice are offered.

Public journalism began as a series of experiments in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and soon developed into what Schudson has called "the most impressive critique of journalistic practice inside journalism in a generation" and "the best organized social movement inside journalism in the history of the American press."1 Also known as civic journalism, the movement arose in response to a perceived crisis in the role of the press in constituting a public sphere in which citizens could understand and engage productively with the issues of the day. During the first decade, the movement generated an array of innovative practices in newsrooms and communities, as well as an extensive network of journalism practitioners and educators committed to reshaping professional and institutional norms.

The primary philosophical emphasis of public journalism, as manifest in the writings of its leading theorists and practitioners,2 is on the relationship between the practice of journalism and the democratic work of citizens in a self-governing republic, and suggests journalists are ideally suited to help constitute vital "publics" to deliberate complex issues and engage in collective problem-solving activities. Public journalism, thus, has set out to help members of the public come to see themselves as citizens, and hold them accountable for grappling with the full complexity of issues and become participants in civil society rather than mere spectators of it.

Still, after more than a decade of practice of public journalism, empirical knowledge of whether and how public journalism has met these goals remains largely based on in-depth case studies. Early literature focused on cases generally acknowledged as the seed-beds of the public journalism movement.3 Subsequent comparative research examined other best cases, focusing on changes in newsroom reporting and editing practices, community recognition of public journalism efforts, and shifts in community problem-solving and public deliberation.4 While researchers found positive evidence in each area, elements were not disaggregated and case studies were often idiosyncratic, making it difficult to measure impact or establish clear relationships among elements.

In their critical review of forty-seven evaluative studies of public journalism, Massey and Haas found that public journalism practices have had limited effects on the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of news audiences.5 They criticize existing research for focusing on "a handful of showcase public-journalism news organizations and projects."6 In doing so, they highlight the methodological shortcomings of many of the efforts to assess public journalism, and recommend that future research capture a wider array of experiments and trace the effects of these efforts on community life.

With prior research lacking a broad, systematic assessment of public journalism efforts, we set out to provide a holistic analysis of the movement, shedding light on participating organizations, practices, and effects. An inventory of the archives of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism (Pew Center) found 651 public journalism projects conducted from 1994 to 20027 Our research analyzes the inventory using hierarchical regression analysis to trace the effects of organizational factors, project features, story frames, and efforts to involve community members and assess public opinion on three civil society goals: (1) improving citizens' civic competencies, (2) influencing policymaking processes, and (3) increasing civic volunteerism. …

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