This study compares coverage of the 2000 U.S. Senate race in Virginia by the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot to see if their divergent journalism philosophies made a difference in their news stories. The Virginian-Pilot is a well-known proponent of "public" or "civic" journalism (1), a relatively new and controversial approach to covering news, while the Times-Dispatch adheres to a traditional approach to journalism. Fall 2000 presented a unique opportunity to see how these representatives of different strains of journalism cover the same important, complex and high-profile event --the race for the U.S. Senate between Democratic incumbent Charles Robb and Republican challenger George Allen.
The Philosophical Basis for Civic Journalism
In the late 1980s, several editors, commentators and media critics began to argue that the ritualistic adherence to values embodied in the journalistic concept of "objectivity" has resulted in journalism that is largely reactive; driven by events; dominated by conflict, crisis and scandal; oriented toward political, social and economic elites; and increasingly distasteful and irrelevant to large numbers of the public.
These critics said such journalism is responsible for the decline in newspaper circulation over the past several decades and, more important for the apparent alienation of increasing numbers of the public from the American political system. Arthur Charity writes, for example, that veteran journalists "were troubled by the low quality of much of their own work [and] by evidence that the public they had intended to serve distrusted newspapers and increasingly didn't even read them." They also saw that the problems they had come to journalism to help solve still weren't being resolved or even being addressed very intelligently. (2)
The proposed solution is civic journalism, defined by Jay Rosen as:
an approach to the daily business of the craft that calls on journalists to
1) address people as citizens, potential participants in public affairs,
rather than victims or spectators; 2) help the political community act
upon, rather than just learn about, its problems; 3) improve the climate of
public discussion, rather than simply watch it deteriorate; and 4) help
make public life go well, so that it earns its claim on our attention. (3)
An intellectual basis for civic journalism is found in the work of Juergen Habermas (4) and John Dewey. (5) Habermas, a German scholar, theorizes the existence of a "public sphere," a metaphorical "space" in which free public discourse can take place. Communications media help develop and also expand this space, feeding democratic impulses and democratic institutions. Proponents of civic journalism argue that the news media have not supported this public sphere in recent years; rather, they have contributed to its degradation. Civic journalists argue that, if this slide is to be reversed, journalism must change its ways to provide the public with information that is more useful, more relevant to public problems, more encouraging of civil and productive discourse and more inclusive of diverse perspectives.
The underlying purpose of civic journalism, according to Glasser, (6) seems to be procedural--to promote democratic processes while not promoting any particular outcome, i.e., to be a fair-minded referee. It assumes a basic fairness, civility and adherence to certain values in the public that could come to the fore, if only journalism could set aside its fixation on crime, scandal, violence and conflict.
Newspapers of all sizes have practiced civic journalism. The Pew Center for Civic Journalism has recognized many of them with the Batten Awards. The Philadelphia Inquirer shared the Batten Award for "Citizen Voices '99," a year-long "civic dialogue" about the city's mayoral election. …