IV. the Practice of Public Journalism

Communication Research Trends, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

IV. the Practice of Public Journalism


Davis "Buzz" Merritt, Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News Is Not Enough. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998 (2d ed.), 1995.

Arthur Charity. Doing Public Journalism. New York: Guilford Press, 1995.

Jan Schaffer and Edward D. Miller (eds.). Civic Journalism: Six Case Studies: A Joint Report by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Washington, DC: Pew Center for Civic Journalism, 1995.

Throughout the 1990s, the public journalism movement enacted its ideas in dozens of newsrooms in the U.S. Indeed, one of the more interesting and controversial aspects of the movement has been its constant interplay between educators and journalists, news organizations and private foundations, theory and professional routine. Apart from works theorizing the relationship of journalism and democracy, there are also works describing the reforms that have been introduced in the name of public journalism.

The most influential of these books has been Davis "Buzz" Merritt's autobiographical account (1998/1995) of his work as editor-in-chief of the Wichita Eagle. Merritt was one of the first journalists to look outside the profession for a philosophy to guide his experiments, developing his ideas in conversations with Jay Rosen and with David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation. Merritt's book describes his growing dissatisfaction with American politics and the performance of the press. He notes that from 1975, when he became editor, through the 1980s, the Eagle dramatically improved itself by all the measures that the profession uses to measure reputation. Yet circulation and readership continued to decline.

Merritt suspected that journalists' own professional practices were adding to the chaos of public life and discourse. News organizations were too caught up in daily deadlines. Journalists placed too great a premium on toughness and adversarialism. News stories too readily portrayed every issue as a contest of extremes. All the while, as politics fell apart, journalists acted detached, as though they were indifferent to the outcome of events.

The Eagle would produce two notable early experiments in public journalism. First, during the 1990 Kansas gubernatorial election, the Eagle downplayed traditional horse-race coverage and published issues boxes each Sunday that compelled candidates to respond to citizens' concerns. Second, hoping to do more than just change election coverage, the Eagle introduced its "People Project," subtitled "Salving It Ourselves"--an effort to make news coverage more relevant to readers. The newspaper conducted 192 two-hour interviews with citizens, focusing on their analysis of the political and social problems facing Wichita.

As such experiments multiplied across the country, they came to constitute a history of the movement: the Columbus (Georgia) Ledger-Enquirer's 1987 sponsorship of a six-hour public forum on the city's future; the Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer's 1992 use of citizen poll data to set the agenda for election coverage; the Madison (Wisconsin) State Journal's 1992 "We the People, Wisconsin" project, which used citizen "juries" to articulate a public agenda; the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal's 1993 "Coming Together'.' project, which led to a Pulitzer-Prize winning 1994 series on race and pledges by 22,000 residents to work for improved race relations; the Tallahassee (Florida) Democrat's 1994 public listening project, which began with detailed phone interviews with 828 randomly selected citizens; the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot's creation of a "Public Life Team" that declared that its mission was to "revitalize a democracy that has grown sick with disenchantment" and to "lead the community to discover itself and act on what it has learned" (Charity, 1995, p. …

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