Public Journalism Opponents and Advocates Not Easily Stereotyped
Corrigan, Don, St. Louis Journalism Review
The public journalism movement's never-ending road show makes a stop this October in Denver at the Society of Professional Journalists, (SPJ) annual convention.
Advocates of public journalism at the Denver SPJ convention will take up a panel proposition entitled: "Why Journalists Hate Public Journalism And Why Academics Love It."
Survey research by St. Louis Journalism Review/Webster University (SJR/WU) reveals that the academic community is hardly unanimous in its affection for public journalism, while practitioners are not all opposed to public journalism (See SJR, April 1997.)
SJR recently interviewed professors of journalism across the country and found that some of the most articulate critics of public journalism are in the academy.
Public journalism proponents argue that the new approach to journalism is not easily defined because it is "a work in progress." In describing the unique characteristics of public journalism, advocate Davis "Buzz" Merritt contends that it:
* Moves beyond the limited mission of "telling the news" to a broader mission of helping public life go well.
* Moves from detachment to being a fair-minded participant in public life. Its practitioners remember that they are citizens as well as journalists.
* Moves beyond only describing what "is going wrong" to also imagining what "going right" would be like.
* Moves from seeing people as consumers to seeing them as a public, as potential actors in arriving at democratic solutions to public problems.
"When I think of public journalism, I think of a bunch of editors and reporters holding hands together and singing, 'We Are The World,'" said Jay Brodell of Metropolitan State University in Denver. "The idea that a newspaper should be some kind of collaborator in community building is not journalism.
"The role of the press should be to stand back and observe as fairly as humanly possible what's going on in a community," explained Brodell.
The Denver professor said public journalism diminishes that function and instead turns the press into "a bunch of community cheerleaders."
There are a number of explanations for the misconception that professors are universally gaga over the public journalism movement. Among them:
* Jay Rosen, who is often credited as the intellect behind the movement, is a professor. Rosen chose the academic life after a short stint working in traditional journalism, an encounter which he found to be unsatisfactory.
* Journalism professors have flocked to write grant applications to foundations sponsoring public journalism projects. Successful grant applications make academic deans smile and pave the road to tenure for many faculty.
* One of the fastest-growing interest groups of the Association For Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) has been in the public journalism area. Panels on public journalism have proliferated at AEJMC conventions, and papers accepted for presentation have almost always been supportive of the movement.
"There's a hard core of journalism professors who are fully committed to public journalism," said Gerald Stone, who is director of journalism graduate studies at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. "They give papers, hold workshops and give classes on public journalism. I think they'll be doing this for some time to come.
"I don't think this movement has gotten the scrutiny and criticism that it should," continued Stone. "Quite frankly, I think this is because some academic heavyweights have gotten behind it, and some foundations are out there with them, and so a lot of professors are reticent to say too much against it. It deserves more scrutiny."
Stone said he was originally "quite impressed" with public journalism, but has become more of a skeptic as he has watched different projects unfold. He said he dislikes projects that involve a newspaper covering forums and town hall meetings that the newspaper has helped sponsor. …