What Is Public Journalism? A Brief Description, by Jay Rosen
Public journalism (also called civic journalism) is more than one thing, and any quick definition of it risks a certain distortion. Nonetheless, some distinguishing features can be identified:
First, public journalism is an argument. The argument calls on journalists to: 1.) address people as citizens, potential participants in public affairs, rather than victims or spectators; 2.) help the political community act upon, rather than just learn about, its problems; 3.) improve the climate of public discussion, rather than simply watch it deteriorate; and 4.) help make public life go well, so that it earns its claim on our attention. If journalists can find a way to do these things, they may in time restore public confidence in the press, re-connect with an audience that has been drifting away, rekindle the idealism that brought many of them into the craft and contribute, in a more substantial fashion, to the health of American democracy, which is the reason we afford journalists their many privileges and protections.
Second, public journalism is an experiment. It is a way of doing journalism that corresponds to the argument. Well over 300 news organizations--daily newspapers, radio and television stations--have tried some form of public journalism. These initiatives vary widely. Some try to center public affairs reporting around the stated concerns of citizens, or they put a stronger emphasis on the search for solutions to public problems. Others are attempts to convene or cultivate public discussion at the local level, or they seek to connect citizens to public life as participants. A few simply alter the routines of standard news reporting by, for example, giving readers more information on how to get involved, or by focusing on key stakeholders rather than the loudest voices in a public debate.
Third, public journalism is a movement, a loose network of practicing journalists, former journalists who want to improve their craft, academics and researchers with ideas to lend and studies that might help, foundations and think tanks that give financial assistance and sanctuary to the movement, and other like-minded folk who seek to contribute to a rising spirit of reform. The movement began in earnest around 1993, although its origins reach back to disgust with the 1988 campaign and to various troubles in the press, including declining trust in the news media, a shrinking and fragmenting audience, a rising tide of cynicism and disaffection in public life, a dwindling sense of mission within newsrooms and a general sense that the craft has been misfiring in its attempts to engage people in the news of the day.
Fourth, public journalism is a debate, an often heated conversation within the press and with others outside it about the proper role of the press at a time of trouble-- in newsrooms and in American democracy. This debate has involved some of the biggest names in the journalism profession and many others throughout the craft who worry about such things as: drawing the press too deeply into politics and thus weakening its independence; granting a fickle audience too much power over the news; dumbing down the product in order to regain popularity; or manipulating the coverage of events in which news organizations are involved as sponsors or supporters. In reply, public journalists and their defenders have said: re-engaging people in public life is not the same thing as becoming a partisan interest or advocate for a cause; starting where citizens start doesn't mean ending where citizens end; it is possible to challenge the community and tell disturbing truths while still supporting a healthier public climate; and finally, the press is already an influential actor in politics and civic affairs, not a bystander, and it can learn to use its influence on behalf of a strengthened democracy.
Public journalism is still evolving. It is still being debated. What it will look like in the next century no one knows. But these four features--the argument, the experiment, the movement and the debate--cover most of what has happened so far under its heading. They are all discussed in detail in my book, What Are Journalists For? (Yale University Press, November, 1999)
Written August, 1999