8. The Public Journalism Effort

Some news organizations have decided that more must be done. They are trying to change the basic journalism culture, converting cynicism into civic exploration. The Wichita Eagle and Charlotte Observer have been on the cutting edge of this more systematic change, drawing diverse citizens into public discussions about community life. This new approach, called “public” or “civic” journalism, covers the news from the citizen up, not from the expert down. It takes ordinary people seriously, addressing some of the issues they think are important, instead of relying solely on experts and insiders to set the agenda. Because it permits diverse viewpoints to be heard and respected, regardless of their dramatic value, it seems to go a long way toward breaking down the strategy, negativity, and insider barriers that now distance audiences from the news.

At the Charlotte Observer in 1993, for example, editors learned of police concerns that a race riot was brewing. White families who lived around the downtown Freedom Park were unhappy because minority youths were drag racing and cruising in and out of the park at night, creating disturbances. When the park was closed because of the tension, black citizens were outraged, claiming that the park belonged to everyone and minority youths had nowhere else to go.

Many local news organizations would see this as a great story, full of controversy and drama. However, instead of inflaming the situation by deliberately seeking the most incendiary quotes from polarized sides, the newspaper tried something different. It had experimented with public journalism during the 1992 election, convening town hall meetings and roaming throughout the community to obtain citizens’ views. Using the same approach, Observerreporters sought thoughtful suggestions from all sides, including people in area neighborhoods, the youths whose behavior was under question, and the white families. A range of suggestions was published on the op-ed page, where these diverse views were presented with respect and authority. Citizens formed a commission to develop solutions for all sides: a small entry fee that would cut down on the cruising and an alternative site for drag racing. Although the situation hasn’t been completely resolved yet, a racial standoff was averted through civic discourse. The Charlotte Observer helped the community begin to work through its problems, instead of aggravating them with sensationalized coverage.

Many public journalism projects involve partnerships among news organizations that normally compete with each other. For example, in summer 1994, theCharlotte Observer teamed up with competitors WSOC-TV, the local ABC affiliate, and two local radio stations, WPEG and WBAV, on the project “Taking Back our Neighborhoods / Carolina Crime Solutions.” After using crime statistics to identify five neighborhoods that had been especially hard-hit, the news organizations held joint town hall meetings and produced special supplements and broadcasts, featuring residents’ proposed solutions and reporting “success stories” about citizens fighting crime. The effort prompted a burst of civic activity: about 500 people volunteered to help out in targeted neighborhoods, 18 law firms offered to file pro bono public nuisance suits to close down crack houses, and a local bank donated $50,000 to build a recreation center, according to Ed Fouhy, a former network news executive who now heads a center devoted to promoting civic journalism.(106)

A recent series in The Dallas Morning News entitled “The We Decade: Rebirth of Community,” focused on a “new spirit of civic revival… bubbling to the surface in communities scattered across the United States,” which is abetted in certain places by public journalism. Stories featured citizens taking community problems into their own hands and creating successful collaborations to attack problems of health, the environment, crime, and homelessness. The series, spearheaded by reporter Nancy Kruh, provided hotline numbers for citizens looking for help or hoping to get involved.

Editors and reporters from the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, at a recent seminar described how they have become “public journalists” by changing the culture of journalism in their newsroom:(107)

• Reporters look not just for sources at the opposite extremes of an issue but for moderate views in the middle.

• Coverage is framed in terms of people’s daily experiences, instead of treating people as incidental ornaments in stories about official politics.

• Reporters use people’s emotions to show how they arrive at their decisions, instead of just as “color” to show how people feel about the issue.

• Articles describe the values people bring to an issue, including the gray areas and complexities, rather than simply describing the conflict.

• Citizens’ knowledge is valued along with experts’ knowledge.

• In writing about who, what, why, when, and where, they also try to explain to citizens why they should care.

• Reporters try to explore how people resolve issues, suggesting that solutions are possible and that readers may have a role to play.

Public journalists believe that the news is more than a spectator sport. “There’s a difference between what the audience wants and what the public wants,” observes New York University professor Jay Rosen, who has been working with news organizations to develop a form of public journalism that focuses on serious public issues raised by citizens in their local communities. Treating people as an audience makes them passive voyeurs, random visitors seeking entertainment. Rosen further explains, “Treating people as citizens is asking them about the problems in their lives, the things that concern them for the future, and trying to structure your coverage around that. Inevitably there are going to be conflicts between the entertainment function of the media and the news function, but public journalism is about trying to get the news function right so it can compete better against entertainment and pleasure.”(108)

What news organizations don’t do—if they’re practicing good public journalism—is endorse specific solutions in their reporting. This would invalidate journalists’ ability to monitor the community’s public life. Nevertheless, public journalism is controversial among news professionals because some feel it weakens their hard-fought independence and objectivity. Ed Turner of CNN, Len Downie of The Washington Post, Max King of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and editors at The New York Times are among the most skeptical.

Ed Turner of CNN reacted negatively to a discussion about public journalism during the Program’s conference “Changing the News”: “I am not a historian. I am not a playwright. I am not a poet. I am not a psychiatrist. I can just barely manage to fill the newscasts that we have. And I am proud of that,” he said. “We are chroniclers of events. It is our responsibility, first and above all, to try to explain to our viewers what happened today, why it happened, and what maybe it will mean for tomorrow.”(109)

However, public journalism at its best improves the chronicling and enhances the watchdog role of the press. Many elements of public journalism are substantive improvements over current practice. In fact, the strategy, negativity, and tabloid formulas seem far more detrimental than public journalism to journalists’ ability to explain, in Ed Turner’s words, “what happened today, why it happened, and maybe what it will mean for tomorrow.”

Properly practiced, public journalism is simply good journalism without bad habits. “Have these [public] news outlets lost their objectivity? Is their agreement to try the techniques of civic journalism a thinly disguised form of community boosterism? No…. Their willingness to bring citizens into the process rather than keep them out is simply smart business as well as good journalism. They are finding that some of the ‘ancient’ and ‘sacred’ practices of journalism are simply habits best done without. Their core values—accuracy, seriousness, context, independence—remain. Giving the public a voice, they found, does not mean they lose theirs,” says Ed Fouhy.(110)

Practitioners of public journalism do not report yet any major increases in circulation or ratings, but they say they have developed a more loyal, more directly engaged audience, which is a real asset in the new niched marketplace. And they certainly have changed their role from discouraging public life to stirring it up.