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Policy in Perspective

Getting the Connections Right

Public Journalism and the Troubles in the Press

by Jay Rosen

Available Excerpts:

Preface

Chapter 1:  Democracy's Ordeal

Chapter 2:  Challenging the Culture of the Press

Chapter 4:  American Journalism Is In Trouble

Chapter 9:  A Challenge to the National Press

Chapter 10:  Getting the Connections Right

Preface

In 1970, the New York Times inaugurated its Op-Ed page. The idea was hardly new, (it had been tried in the 1920s) but it was out of favor at nearly all newspapers. With the success of the Times page, others soon followed suit; and today it is impossible to imagine political dialogue without the exchange of ideas on all the similar pages around the country.

More than an improved product, the result of the Times experiment was a tangible improvement in public life. The Op-Ed page added something to our daily capacity to make sense of the world, creating a new and highly visible forum where, with the help of able writers, we can work out our responses to public events. This too was journalism, but of a type we rarely contemplate. It does not report on events, or tell entertaining tales. The "journalism" involved in creating and maintaining the Op-Ed page does something different: it clears a space where the public can do its work.

That we need more of this kind of journalism--the kind that invites people to become a public--is the premise behind a small reform movement that has risen from the ranks of the American press. It is called "public journalism," or at times "civic journalism," and its aim is to experiment with the power of the daily press, just as the Times did to such impressive effect in 1970.

Public journalism calls on the press to help revive civic life and improve public dialogue-- and to fashion a coherent response to the deepening troubles in our civic climate, most of which implicate journalists. At a time of grave doubts about the future of the press and broad concern about the health of American democracy, those involved see this as the hour for creative experiment and piecemeal reform, for serious discussion about ultimate aims and possible ends, for innovations as bold and lasting as the arrival of the Op-Ed page. By changing what they do and how they approach their task, the journalists experimenting with public journalism have rediscovered the power of the democratic ideal as an organizing principle for their work. Self government, public deliberation, participatory democracy-- these familiar themes, if taken seriously, can re-charge the batteries of the press and show the way to much-needed reforms.

As many in the press have come to realize, this is a moment of truth in American newsrooms.[1] No one knows whether "journalism," as presently done, can survive the commercial pressures of an expanded media universe. At the same time, there is no telling where the floating discontent with politics and public life will lead. One thing is clear, however: there can be no safe haven for journalists, no point outside the current mess from which they can observe what happens without themselves contributing-- to the deepening problems, or to possible solutions.

Public journalism is thus a confrontation with a long-suppressed fact: the press is a participant in our national life. It suffers when public life deteriorates. And when the performance of the press deteriorates--as it has in recent years--then public life suffers, as well. This means there are limits to the stance of the observer in journalism; but the American press has no philosophy that takes over when those limits are reached. Public journalism provides one.

In the words of James W. Carey, perhaps our most accomplished press scholar: "Journalists need to start telling themselves a different story."[2] As reporters detached from the scene, or as "watchdogs" standing guard over it, they have an effective tale to tell: they give us useful information and a check on power. But they lack a story that would make real to them, and acceptable to us, their equally-important role as actors in the drama of public life, people with a civic identity as well as a professional facade, players (of a sort) in the political game, men and women with a reciprocal influence on public life.

Robert MacNeil, the long time host of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour on PBS, spoke this way in a 1995 speech: "We have to remember, as journalists, that we may be observers but we are not totally disinterested observers," MacNeil said. "We are not social engineers, but each one of us has a stake in the health of this democracy. Democracy and the social contract that makes it work are held together by a delicate web of trust, and all of us in journalism hold edges of the web. We are not just amused bystanders, watching the idiots screw it up[3]

Public journalism is grounded in Carey's call for a "different story" and MacNeil's conviction that journalists are "not just amused bystanders." Its primary claim is that the press can do more--much more than it has been doing--to engage people as citizens, to improve public discussion, to help communities solve problems, and to aid in the country's search for a workable public life. These assertions, which hardly sound like radical demands, nonetheless collide with conventional thinking in journalism. The result has been some provocative headlines in the trade press.[4] But so far the discussion has not moved beyond a superficial understanding of what the people who believe in this approach are doing and saying.

I am one of those people. Since 1990, I have been engaged in a campaign of persuasion, trying to get journalists to grapple with the ideas behind public journalism. At the same time I have collaborated with practitioners in an effort to clarify the term and discover what it means in practice. I have defended the emerging approach against the criticism it receives, some of it quite understandable. And I have come in for some criticism myself. Public journalism, then, is something I am attempting to bring about, in partnership with professionals in the field, along with others in the academic and foundation worlds.

The following essay is an introduction to what public journalism is about, and a statement of why it is needed. I believe the movement has something to say about the political moment and the predicament of the American press. In the pages that follow, I will explain what the message is. I will also reply to some of the common criticisms of public journalism, many of which stir up professional passions but fail to address its central claims.


1. See for example Ellen Hume, Tabloids, Talk Radio and the Future of News: Technology's Impact on Journalism (Washington DC: The Annenberg Washington Program, 1995, p. 13): "This is a moment of truth for the major news organizations;" Thomas Winship, former editor of the Boston Globe, quoted in Civic Catalyst (Washington: Pew Center for Civic Journalism) Oct. 1995, p. 6: "This is a watershed time for the [news] media, to say nothing for the spirit of the country;" Howard Kurtz, press critic of the Washington Post in Media Circus : The Trouble With America's Newspapers(New York: Times Books, 1993) p. 373: "The press is in deep, deep trouble."[return to text]

2 Carey's remarks are from the transcript of the Project on Public Life and the Press summer seminar at American Press Institute, Reston, VA, Aug. 12-15, 1995 (Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation, 1995), p. 5. See also James W. Carey, "The Press, Public Opinion and Public Discourse" in Theodore L. Glasser and Charles T. Salmon, eds., Public Opinion and the Communication of Consent (New York: The Guilford Press, 1995), pp. 373-402.[return to text]

3 Robert MacNeil, "Regaining Dignity," Media Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3, Summer 1995, pp. 110-111.[return to text]

4 On public or civic journalism generally see: John Bare, "Case Study-- Wichita and Charlotte: The Leap of a Passive Press to Activism," Media Studies Journal, Vol, 6, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 149-160; Jay Rosen, Community-Connectedness: Passwords for Public Journalism, (St. Petersburg: Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 1993); Jay Rosen and Davis Merritt, Public Journalism: Theory and Practice (Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation, 1994); Davis Merritt, "Public Journalism-- Defining a Democratic Art," Media Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3, Summer, 1995, p. 125-132; Davis Merritt, Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough, (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995); Arthur Charity, Doing Public Journalism, (New York: Guilford Press, 1995); Michael Hoyt, "Are You Now, of Will You Ever Be, a Civic Journalist?" Columbia Journalism Review, Sep./Oct. 1995, pp. 27-33. For specific cases see Civic Journalism: Six Case Studies (Washington: Pew Center for Civic Journalism, 1995). For a discussion of effects see Frank Denton and Esther Thorson, Civic Journalism: Does it Work? (Washington, DC: Pew Center for Civic Journalism, 1995.) For a scholarly account of the idea's origins, see Jay Rosen, "Making Things More Public: On the Political Responsibility of the Media Intellectual," Critical Studies in Mass Communication Vol. 11, No. 4, Dec. 1994, pp. 363-388. [return to text]

 

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