Public Journalism Project Falls Short of Stated Goals

Article excerpt

Advocates of public journalism widely agree that journalists should report on the issues about which citizens are most concerned and that journalists should do so from the perspectives of citizens rather than governmental actors and other experts. "The brass ring [of public journalism]," Charity argues, "is producing journalism that's unmistakably written from the citizen's point of view." (1) This requires, Merritt emphasizes, that journalists move beyond their current preoccupation with "government as the actor to which [they] need to be attentive [and citizens] as the acted on, who [they] might occasionally ask to comment but who otherwise have no role [to play]." (2) Journalists should, as Rosen concludes, "focus on citizens as actors within rather than spectators to [democratic processes]." (3) These and many other similar statements in the public journalism literature mirror Carey's often-cited argument that citizens "will begin to reawaken when they are addressed as ... conversational partner[s] and are encouraged to join the talk rather than sit passively as spectators before a discussion conducted by journalists and experts." (4)

To empirically investigate whether these ideals are honored in practice, several recent studies have compared the sourcing behavior of news organizations before and after their commitments to making public journalism their guiding journalistic philosophy, with a focus on the use of citizens and experts as sources. (5) The findings of these studies have been mixed. While one study found that citizens were elevated to numerical parity with experts as sources after a news organization implemented public journalism, (6) other studies found no sourcing differences (7) or that the number of citizens as sources relative to experts decreased after the implementation of public journalism. (8)

This study contributes to the literature on the sourcing behavior of news organizations committed to the ideals of public journalism. It discusses how one of the most widely acclaimed public journalism campaigns, the Akron Beacon Journal's race-relations initiative "A Question of Color," used the testimony of local residents and experts to illuminate various racially related problems confronting the city of Akron. This particular campaign is interesting from the perspective of how these sources are chosen. Most importantly, while the Beacon Journal cited many local residents and experts, it arguably could have put their testimony to better use than it did, both by the standards of public journalism and in terms of its own explicitly stated journalistic goals.

I first provide a brief overview of the "Question of Color" campaign and present the results of a quantitative content analysis of source dominance and prominence. Next, I consider in more detail how the "Question of Color" campaign used the testimony of local residents and experts to examine problems of racism and racial inequality through a qualitative textual analysis of central features of the campaign. Finally, I discuss the most important implications of this study for the theory and practice of public journalism.

The "Question of Color" Campaign

The Akron Beacon Journal launched a 10-month long public journalism campaign called "A Question of Color" in late February 1993. This campaign, which subsequently was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for public-service journalism, appeared in five installments. (9) The primary goal of the campaign was to examine various racially related problems of concern to Akron, a city with a long and torturous history of tension between white and black residents. In the article inaugurating the campaign, the Beacon Journal explained that it would explore "the impact [of race] on life in the Akron-Canton area. ...[H]ow blacks and whites think and feel about themselves and one another, how they' re different, how they're alike." (10) To that end, the Beacon Journal used several information gathering tools. …