Public Journalism through the Lens: How Television Broadcasters Covered Campaign '96

Article excerpt

In an appraisal of public journalism's role in coverage of North Carolina's political campaigns, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer Editor Jennie Buckner wrote that the "Your Voice, Your Vote" initiative wasn't perfect but the newspaper-television partnership had inspired deeper coverage of issues that people really care about. "In the end, this was the most powerful lesson: We can do better political journalism. We can change--not just carp about the need for change" (Buckner, 1997, p. 68). Research substantiates that the Observer and other newspapers committed to public journalism did cover politics differently in the 1996 campaign (Blomquist & Zukin, 1997; Meyer & Potter, 2000; Pew, 1997). But can television broadcasters make the same claim? While much has been written about public journalism, the focus has been almost exclusively on print media's performance. This study examines television's role in public journalism during the 1996 campaign.

In unlikely alliances, some print and electronic media joined forces to improve their coverage of the 1996 political campaigns. Under the banners of "civic journalism" and "public journalism," they pooled resources to provide more in-depth reporting on issues of public concern and less horse-race coverage of campaigns and political strategies. Their effort was in response to frustration with previous campaign coverage, which many believed was transfixed by political gamesmanship rather than substantive debate over policy (Shepard, 1994). Public journalism is viewed almost evangelically by its advocates as a potent corrective not only to shallow journalism but to the "corrosive cynicism" pervading American society (Schaffer & Miller, 1995, p. 2). Its critics are just as adamant, contending public journalism is either good old-fashioned reporting masquerading as innovation or a dangerous departure into civic boosterism (Hoyt, 1995). Despite the criticisms, more than 400 public journalism projects have been launched across the country (Bloomquist & Zukin, 1997). "I think the movement is one of the most significant in American journalism in a long time," said Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "This is not a flash in the pan phenomenon. It's something that seems to be digging deeper roots into American journalism and ought to be examined very carefully" (Shepard, 1994, p. 30).

Several commentators have noted the dearth of scholarly attention to public journalism (Fee, 1997; Dennis, 1995, Rosen, 1991). For example, Everette Dennis stated in a 1995 column in Editor & Publisher, "Much, if not all, of what has been written is more the product of polemic calls to action and evangelical road shows than documentation or cogent assessment that comports with thoughtful histories of journalism" (Dennis, 1995, p. 48). Areas cited as fertile for investigation include research that can be generalized to a wide range of news media, research that investigates how civic journalism affects staff and news content, and research that assesses whether attitudinal change translates to sustained, substantive change (Fee, 1997).

The purpose of this study is to examine how public journalism shaped television news coverage of the 1996 campaign. To what extent did television news broadcasters commit to the principles of public journalism? Did television broadcasters espousing the principles of public journalism provide more issues coverage and less horse-race coverage in their evening newscasts than did traditional broadcast reports? How did television news coverage compare to that of their print media counterparts? In short, did television broadcasters which pledged to public journalism deliver their promised reform? The answers are central to understanding the influence of the public journalism movement. The positive effects ascribed to public journalism obviously can occur only to the extent that its principles are actually practiced. …


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