Public Journalism Undermines Public Trust

By Klotzer, Charles L. | St. Louis Journalism Review, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Public Journalism Undermines Public Trust


Klotzer, Charles L., St. Louis Journalism Review


I must confess, I am a bit tired of hearing about public journalism and seeing ads extolling its virtues. Will it go away if we completely ignore it? Being funded to the tune of millions by various foundations, this is most unlikely.

Its proponents, such as Prof. Jay Rosen, have essays appearing not only in media publications, such as the Media Studies Journal, but also in non-media journals such as Tikkun, which caters heavily to a progressive Jewish readership.

In Tikkun, Rosen temptingly beckons the reader to jump aboard and join what he calls the "breakaway church" of journalism. The public would be iii served to follow this siren call.

Many of the examples cited by Rosen can indeed be adopted by any journalist of whatever persuasion. The threat of public journalism lies not in any specific project or campaign, but in bestowing upon journalism a new role that would invalidate journalism as a detached and critical observer.

Public journalism invites journalists to become actors, participants, instigators and torchbearers.

Who is then left to evaluate? When journalists become part of the show, it lowers their credibility to that of a house organ for special interests.

Advocates of public journalism urge journalists to jump into the fray by proposing alternative solutions to civic and social problems. This, they hope, will activate the public, reinvigorate democracy, and promote civic progress.

The Nieman Reports (Fall, 1999) cites Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff as an example - an extreme one we admit - where a reporter abandoned his traditional role to become a participant. "I was trying to influence the action of the players," he wrote of trying to persuade Lucianne Goldberg and Linda Tripp not to negotiate a book deal that would compromise the credibility of his sources. "As a reporter that's not my job. But I didn't realize something else. I was at this point too involved to avoid influencing the players of the story."

Unlike Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation, to whom "Watchdog journalism is the only function of journalism that justifies the freedom that journalists enjoy in this country," Rosen has a different perspective. Public journalists, he writes, "see journalism from a different angle (than traditional journalists); as democracy's cultivator, as well as chronicler." Rosen criticizes what he sees as a fixation by many members on their role as "watchdogs," protecting against misdeeds in government. …

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