FOR A COUPLE of years, the term civic or public journalism has been a part of the buzz at meeting of editors and publishers.
These groups have warmly welcomed this effort, which urges local news media to take a more active role by encouraging greater public involvement with public problems and setting the public agenda, as well as leading public debate.
Some argue that public journalism is a radical departure from traditional journalistic practice that aims at impartial news coverage. This has reignited a 30-year-old debate about the ethic of objectivity.
Others say this is nothing new, that community-oriented public affairs reporting has traditionally encouraged local civic progress. Cheerleaders for public journalism include university professors, foundations, some newspaper groups and others. Critics, where they exist, are mostly editors and other journalists.
To date, the literature of public journalism is limited, with only a few articles and two recently published books. 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.
Rarely is there a forum where questions about the public journalism debate can be candidly and openly discussed. If there were such a forum that welcomed inquiry, as well as cheerleading, here are some of the questions one might raise:
* Is there an accepted definition for public journalism?
* If so, how does it differ from conventional journalistic practice?
* What changes does this portend for the role of the journalist?
* To what extent is public journalism informed by the history of the media and by journalistic trends in community coverage and public affairs reporting? For example, what of the link between early and doctrinaire journalistic exposes and editorial campaigns that led to an ethics movement?
* How does public journalism differ (if it does) from the Communitarian movement, which has yet to get much national publicity in spite of prominent advocates and foundation support?
* Why did the Public Agenda Foundation and other civic and philanthropic groups fail to enlist journalists as advocates for their cause, while those supporting public journalism have been more successful with similar rhetoric and objectives?
* Under the premises of public journalism, how does a journalist differ from a community organizer, an honored aspect of social work that also seeks to create strategic alliances in local communities for public purposes? …