Making the News a 2-Way Street

Public journalism aims to give people a voice in media coverage

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Is it time to make the news media more responsive to everyday people? Stung by diminishing public esteem and declining readership (especially among the young), more and more daily newspapers are embracing a new news concept, variously described as community journalism, public journalism, and community-assisted reporting.

“According to the gospel of public journalism, professional passivity is passé; activism is hot,” writes Alicia C. Shepard in American Journalism Review (Sept. 1994). “Detachment is out; participation is in. Experts are no longer the quote machines of choice; readers’ voices must be heard.” Proponents of public journalism argue that “objectivity” and “balance” have caused people to believe that papers are merely mouthpieces for spokespeople and spin doctors, and that the real stories that affect people’s lives rarely see print. The idea is to discover what the people really think, beyond the gripes that appear in letters to the editor.

Editors are trying a variety of new strategies to reconnect with readers. One of the most popular is the reader forum. A sort of town hall in print, it gives people a chance to gather together and discuss topics of local importance. To use a buzzword, the papers seek to engage their audience in a “conversation.” Readers feel they’re involved, rather than being simply news “consumers.” Editors get a better idea of what’s important in their communities.

Some are going further. Shepard reports that in 1992 the Charlotte Observer and other papers “abandoned horse-race election coverage, concentrating instead on the issues that mattered most to voters.” Several dailies organized candidate forums at which reporters asked questions sent in by readers. Perhaps one of the most activist efforts (not surprisingly, it came from a smaller paper) took place in 1991, when the Bremerton, Washington, Sun helped spearhead an effort to buy local open space to keep it out of the hands of developers. The required bond issue was defeated, but the Sun had revived the old idea that crusading newspapers can be a key part of the political process.

Indeed, many of public journalism’s critics say that’s all this “new” concept is. “This is radical?” asks Howard Schneider, a New York Newsday managing editor, in Shepard’s article. “It's the most traditional thing that any newspaper worth doing has ever done.”

Some critics claim, however, that public journalism can usurp or blunt citizen involvement. Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. argues that while a newspaper should dig into a local issue, “we don’t want our coverage to tell people how they should deal with it. That’s up to the voters and the Congress and the city council and the mayor.”

Other critics wonder whether public journalism will really bring about change. Writing in the journalism magazine Quill (May 1994), Tom Koch argues that town halls in print have to be more than a “Perot-style media show” or an opportunity for people to vent.

Koch recalls a 1993 U.S. News & World Report story responding to “the public’s concern about immigration, the fears that greedy foreigners were taking jobs.” Writes Koch: “Using electronic census data and other on-line sources, [writer Penny Loeb] tested the clichés and platitudes with back data to put together a story on immigrants in the United States these days.” The story found that popular wisdom about immigrants was simplistic and untrue.

Public journalism will be no improvement if the media are more interested in assuming an expression of sensitive concern than in really listening to people and then serving them in the role of public watchdog.