Civic Duties: Newspaper Journalists' Views on Public Journalism

By Voakes, Paul S. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Civic Duties: Newspaper Journalists' Views on Public Journalism


Voakes, Paul S., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


In a national survey of 1,037 newspaper journalists, this study found strong support for four practices associated with civic journalism. In order to minimize respondents' preconceptions, the terms "civic journalism"ar "public journalism"did not appear in the surved instrument. The study also found that journalists at smaller-sized papers, who accord importance to neighborhood news, who approve of top editors' and staff members' joining community organizations, and who feel their own paper is improving, are more likely to approve of civic journalism practices. The study seems to confirm preliminary findings from earlier research that a new conception of journalism's role in society may be emerging.

There seems to be a shared wisdom among observers of civic (or public) journalism that the most vociferous critics of this emerging movement are the journalists themselves.1 While public journalism ultimately depends on the "publics" it is attempting to engage, journalists' attitudes are obviously critical to the fate of this movement. Jay Rosen and Davis Merritt, the two principal founders and leading evangelists of civic journalism, have each stated that this new approach to covering communities can succeed only if journalists internalize its values and participate in its evolving definition.2 Anderson, Dardenne, and Killenberg add that this will require substantial rethinking of traditional journalistic values and the learning of new skills such as listening and mediating.3

How can journalists take on such responsibilities if they're opposed to the idea of civic journalism in the first place? Perhaps they're not. This study takes a systematic look at the assumption that most journalists reject the practice of civic journalism. These are the results of a 1996 survey of more than 1,000 newspaper journalists. The study's purpose is to offer a fully explicated definition of the concept of civic journalism, to gauge journalists' support for practices associated with this concept, and to explore possible antecedents of acceptance of these practices.

What Is Civic Journalism?

One reason for the contention over the merits of civic journalism is the absence of a universally accepted definition.4 In a published debate with Merritt, Paul McMasters rhetorically asked for guidance as to whether civic journalism is "a technique, a theory, a practice, or a philosophy, a new method or a new order, an elaboration on what already exists, or a radical revolution."5 The most appropriate response would be that civic journalism is some quantity of all of the above. Even Rosen has acknowledged that the term's definition is still in development.6 Fouhy and Schaffer, fortunately, have offered a simple working definition: It is a set of journalistic "initiatives which make a deliberate attempt to reach out to citizens, to listen to them, and to have citizens listen and talk to each other."7

"Initiatives," of course, could refer to intellectual or philosophical innovation or to a pragmatic plan of activity in conjunction with a short-term news project. Merritt and Rosen argue for the former understanding; in fact, Merritt claims that many of those who deride civic journalism are observing only its most superficial manifestations, without attempting to understand its philosophical roots.8 The two fundamental axioms of civic journalism (in Merritt's conception) are that journalism is inextricably bound up with the public life of a community, whether its practitioners acknowledge it or not, and whether its practitioners like it or not; and that journalists have an obligation to engage citizens with their communities.9 Rosen adds that because most American citizens have become disengaged from the public life (which includes political decision making), some institution or institutions must step forward to reconnect people to the public processes that can revitalize democracy. Civic journalists see journalism as an appropriate institution. …

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