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Home > Winter 2001

REVIEW: The Idea of Public Journalism

April 2001 Community College Journalist

Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2001

The Idea of Public Journalism
By Theodore L. Glasser
The Guilford Press, 1999
New York
229 pages

By Mike Morreau
Glendale College

In "The Idea of Public Journalism" editor Theodore L Glasser attempts to address the conundrum of just what a free press is worth if it fecklessly barters its goods in the marketplace without regard to serving what constitutional scholar Alexander Meiklejohn called the essential objective of the First Amendment: "a rich and valuable public debate."

We as journalists and teachers of would-be journalists have arrived in the midst of the monotonously touted information age without adequately answering the question "information for what?" To borrow from Carl Sagan, we have billions and billions of bits of information out there, but as a people we are no better informed than ever and in fact are less informed in a "news" sense than citizens of many other parts of the planet. We are also a society that has taken a diminishing role in the democratic process.

Meikleljohn saw as the mission and the promise of the press "to give every voting member of the body politic the fullest participation in the understanding of those problems which the citizens of a self-governing society must deal" and many of the writers in the first section of this volume express just such high-minded ideals for practitioners of the news craft. The second part of the book is given over to social critics who have less of a vested interest in journalism and are less sanguine about its current practice and its future.

The idea of public or civic journalism, perhaps dissected more often by those in the ivory tower than by publishers and editors, centers on what Glasser calls "cultivation of citizenship." In the view of Glasser and the academics/journalists he has assembled (originally in a symposium at Stanford University in 1996, which germinated into the present book), journalism has come up short in one of its potentially most important functions: in engaging readers in a conversation on how to become better citizens and in creating a better community through information leading to understanding and renewal.

Just what is "public journalism"? No one is sure. "Weíre still inventing it," says Glasser, director of the graduate program in journalism at Stanford. What is agreed upon, he says, by all who want to be in on that invention is that public life in general needs to improve and with it the commitment to participatory democracy ó and that the press has a role to play in reinvigorating public life.

Jay Rosen of New York University says public journalism is a "fivefold enterprise: an argument, an experiment, a movement, a debate, and a kind of adventure within the American press." The adventure, to the promoters of public journalism, is to redefine the relationship between news media and audiences. To create ó and this is extrapolating from the often dense prose of several writers in the book ó a dialogue between readers and news organs, to move away from newspapers, for example, as mere chroniclers of events, to illuminate those events for readers and to report in a context that increases the readerís ability to live and move effectively through his environment.

Thatís a tall order, and one that is a little fuzzy around the edges.

In the view of James W. Carey of Columbia University "public journalism claims as its first task the necessity of making public life possible and cultivating an ethic of citizenship rather than cults of information and markets."
The book comes closest to a definition of what public journalism might be in its analysis of two case studies: one conducted in Madison, Wis., the other in San Francisco. We the People/Wisconsin is a decade-long exercise in a form of public journalism in which the media focus on four reporting and community dialogue projects. The book examines a project directed to land use in the Madison area ó an important issue in an area where farmland is rapidly converting to other uses. In San Francisco in 1995, the major media outlets focused on the cityís mayoral campaign in a program called Voice of the Voter. Both media projects involved extensive reporting, community forums and, in the San Francisco case, candidate debates, polls, targeted neighborhood reporting, and citizen participation through e-mail, voice mail, and a hotline. In other words, the effort was to move beyond reporting the news to actively engaging the communities in dialogue.

Chaffee and Michael McDevitt, of the University of New Mexico, attempted statistically to measure the responses to both journalistic experiments. Without here going into the details of the measuring instruments used, they found greater public participation in both ballot measures relating to land use in Madison and the mayoral campaign in San Francisco by media users who participated in the experiments. In the San Francisco case, it was found that the likelihood of voting was enhanced by Voice of the Voter, especially among citizens who were new to the city, were non-white, and who werenít already active in community organizations. Journalism leading to greater public participation seems to be the goal of the exponents of public journalism.

Many of the contributors to this volume suggest that by simply viewing itself as a an "objective" disseminator of facts the press has abrogated civic responsibility and has turned the First Amendment mainly into an economic right to protect the interests of the corporations that control more and more of the organs of communications. The Rupert Murdochs have little interest in the protection of ideas or even in furthering democracy, but considerable interest in protecting themselves from lawsuits against the "product" they sell.

If Murdochization along with the all-entertainment-all-the-time trend in TV news represent the low points of the press, the writers in the book extol as some of journalismís finest hours the work of the muckrakers who exposed and thereby helped correct the inequities of labor practices of the early 1900s, the reporting on the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and Watergate. But even these cases arenít exactly what is meant by "public" or "civic" journalism in that they presupposed a hierarchy of journalist/experts spoonfeeding the public what it thinks the people should know. "Dialogue" is the key to proponents of public journalism. Just how to create that dialogue is the question.

Michael Schudson of the University of California, San Diego speaks of three general historical models for how journalism serves democracy in America:

  1. The market model, in which journalists serve the public best by providing whatever the pubic demands;
  2. The advocacy model, in which journalism serves the public by being an agency for the transmission of political party perspectives; and
  3. The trustee model, in which professional journalists provide news they believe citizens should have to be informed participants democracy.

What is needed in an ever-more corporatized press, Schudson says, is a fourth model, which goes beyond the market, the party, and the journalist, and invests power in the public as a participant.

It goes without saying that a sea change needs to occur to breathe life into the daily press. As John J. Pauly of St. Louis University says, and the bean counters at newspapers around the country know all to well, "the daily newspaper no longer holds any particular pride of place in American life."

Sadly, as any college teacher knows, students, alas even journalism students, are not generally regular newspaper readers. If would-be journalists donít read papers, what can we expect of the general public? Itís clearly time to rethink the relationship between the disseminators and receivers of news. Perhaps by more actively engaging the public in a dialogue, a pride of place may once more be established.

This book stimulates the discussion of how that dialogue might be framed.

* * * * *

Michael Moreau is an instructor of journalism and English at Glendale Community College. He was formerly with the Los Angeles Times and was editor of the book "John Fante and H.L. Mencken: An Intimate Correspondence."

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