Democracy and the News/The Two W's of Journalism: The Why and What of Public Affairs Reporting/The Roots of Civic Journalism: Darwin, Dewey, and Mead

By Witt, Leonard | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Democracy and the News/The Two W's of Journalism: The Why and What of Public Affairs Reporting/The Roots of Civic Journalism: Darwin, Dewey, and Mead


Witt, Leonard, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Gans, Herbert J. (2003). Democracy and the News. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, pp. 168.

Merritt, Davis and Maxwell McCombs (2004). The Two W's of Journalism: The Why and What of Public Affairs Reporting. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 156.

Perry, David K. (2003). The Roots of Civic Journalism: Darwin, Dewey, and Mead. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, pp. 151.

During my first two decades as a reporter and editor in half a dozen newsrooms, I can't remember one discussion or training session centered on the theory of why we practice journalism. Writing, diversity, management workshops, yes, but a heady discussion on, let's say, the role of journalism in democracy, never.

This does not mean we didn't consider our work crucial to democracy. As Herbert J. Cans points out in his book Democracy and the News, we just knew we were serving the "public's right to know."

Testing that assumption to see if we really were serving the public never entered the discussion. Maybe it seemed so apparent that it didn't need discussion. After all free societies have free presses; oppressed societies have Pravda and the worst tyrants imprison, kill, or cut the tongue out of anyone who tries to speak out freely. Therefore, working for the free press was working against tyranny and thus for democracy. End of discussion, now excuse me I have a deadline to meet.

Then in the 1990s along came public journalism. Suddenly journalists like Davis "Buzz" Merritt, then editor of the Wichita Eagle, were letting academics like Jay Rosen, a professor from New York City, stick their heads into newsrooms and start talking about the relationship between journalism and democracy. And we are not talking just about Pravda vs. the New York Times; we are talking about whose theory of public life do you most closely follow: Walter Lippmann's or John Dewey's?

Of course, that those types of questions might be asked in newsrooms was a sign that journalists were no longer ink-stained wretches. They are now college-educated professionals. However, from the point of view of University of Alabama journalism professor David K. Perry, they are not educated enough. He argues in The Roots of Civic Journalism: Darwin, Dewey, and Mead that their education reverberates from what one writer "called vulgar pragmatism, which rejects all theory and focuses on the facts and practicality."

Of course, anyone who has been in American newsrooms and worked with journalists would be hard pressed to argue with Perry's assessment. However, theory-based approaches aimed at current journalism reform have had effects. Public journalism grew out of a Deweyan theoretical view of democracy. Yes, public journalism took a pounding in the 1990s, but as Marty Linsky, in reviewing Rosen's book What Are Journalists For? wrote in the American Prospect:

Rosen, Merritt, and their fellow travelers ... did just what they were complaining about not being able to do anymore: namely, to have public deliberation about a difficult, provocative, important question. In that sense, they showed that democratic deliberation is not dead-just that in a complicated, busy, information-overloaded world, the challenge of stimulating constructive dialogue is hard work. It requires skills not often possessed by glib polemicists: openness to learning, strategic thinking, listening, humility, and patience.

I would argue the "openness to learning" is the hardest part for journalists. Maybe it is too late for journalists already in the newsrooms-but certainly not for our students. And that brings us to the Merritt and Maxwell McCombs book, The Two Ws of Journalism: The Why and What of Public Affairs Reporting. They say if you want change, wait a generation, thirty years. Don't expect change to happen like an injection. So that means that public journalism principles, which now date back to about 1988, might take another fifteen years to actually sink in. …

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