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American Journalism Review
Public Journalism: Balancing the Scales  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 1996

Public Journalism: Balancing the Scales   

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Related reading:
   » Books considered in this article

From the first page of his treatise on public journalism, veteran editor Buzz Merritt preaches revolution.

"This book is about change," he announces. "It is not about journalists doing a few things differently... It is fundamental, the adoption of a role beyond telling the news."

A soft-spoken son of the South who now edits a paper snug inside Middle America, the Wichita Eagle's Merritt might seem an unlikely insurrectionist. But these are fighting words.

And the fight is on.

Not since "advocacy journalism" has a new direction in news aroused such furor. Public journalism's call for "a broader mission of helping public life go well" has reformers drooling and traditionalists seething (see "The Gospel of Public Journalism," September 1994, and "Public Journalism: Stop the Shooting," December 1995).

When James Fallows threw a compliment to public journalists ("they are more right than wrong") in his recent book "Breaking the News," a fiery attack roared back from the very nerve center of mainstream journalism, the New York Times editorial page. There its editor, Howell Raines, branded Fallows "a fount of dangerous nonsense."

Reviewing a book by the divinely named Arthur Charity for Editor & Publisher, Hiley Ward compared public journalism to cults and religions, summoning all the trappings of guilt, confession, conversion, baptism and salvation.

So a holy war seems at hand, and the fireworks are irresistible. But public journalism is a serious, timely, well-intentioned effort to rejuvenate journalism and democracy. It deserves a more contemplative inspection.

In that spirit, this essay attempts to steer the debate toward a demilitarized zone and probe the underpinnings of this revolution-in-the-making.

"Public journalism does not apologize for having an agenda," writes Jay Rosen, the New York University professor who is the movement's intellectual architect.

"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... Its primary claim is that the press can do 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."

Why do this? Merritt makes the case starkly: "If people are not interested in public life, they have no need for journalists or journalism."

While recognizing that such initiatives "ought perhaps to rest with politicians or private citizens rather than the news media," Charity concludes: "The facts are that the politicians and private citizens are doing an inadequate job of it, and that newspapers, as one of the few American institutions that still address people from all demographic groups..are well- positioned to do better."

What strategies does public journalism embrace? Merritt lists them as follows:

* "It moves beyond the limited mission of 'telling the news' to a broader mission of helping public life go well...

* "It moves from detachment to being a fair-minded participant in public life...

* "It moves beyond only describing what is 'going wrong' to also imagining what 'going right' would be like...

* "It moves from seeing people as seeing them as a public, as potential actors in arriving at democratic solutions to public problems."

While Rosen and Merritt concentrate on the philosophic, Charity's book, "Doing Public Journalism," collects public journalism methods and examples from dozens of papers.

Common techniques include " 'public listening,' the art of keeping the newspaper grounded in the concerns of ordinary people"; sponsoring "deliberative forums" where agendas can be shaped; developing "well-defined, value-based" recommendations and crusading to keep them on the agenda; and pushing for results, by "prodding both citizens and government officials to act on the public's judgment, without stepping 'over the line' " into "bias, advocacy and subjectivity."

Among his examples: The Charlotte Observer focused attention on a high-crime neighborhood, drawing help and suggestions from across the city, and helping coordinate efforts to "bring the neighborhood back." The Cape Cod Times used a citizens panel to help set priorities for covering elections. The Wisconsin State Journal convened citizen "grand juries" to deliberate a property tax plan. The Bremerton Sun in Washington held 47 town meetings and developed "a plan of action" for preserving open space.

In summary, Charity writes, "public journalism..inevitably comes to center on two tests of news value: Does this piece of writing or reporting help build civic capital? And does it help move the public toward meaningful judgment and action?"

To begin assessing public journalism, let's start with some reservations.

Public journalism hinges on several articles of faith. First, that journalism and public life depend on each other. Second, that both are faring poorly. Third, that in the absence of any other curative force, the press must take the initiative for restoring both to health.

These articles are all energetically asserted but not fully debated or carefully proven.

To the point that journalism depends on a healthy public sphere, for example, you could counterargue that the human appetite for news is primal and eternal, beyond dependency on a particular kind of public life. Especially as we enter the Information Age, the demise of the news media seems unimaginable.

Although Rosen and Merritt offer a variety of surveys and social science assessments suggesting public life and journalism are in trouble, their evidence seems substantial but selective. The turbulent history of this country and its news business--from the Civil War to Vietnam, from the partisan press to yellow journalism--suggests that tension, contention and public agitation are anything but newcomers to our society.

Do they pose greater threats today than in the '60s (whether the 1760s, 1860s or 1960s)? Maybe. But the public journalists haven't demonstrated it.

Also troublesome is what sometimes comes across as a distorted view of journalists' belief in objectivity or impartiality.

Merritt writes, for example, that traditional journalists feel they "must maintain a pristine distance, a contrived indifference to outcomes, else the news product be contaminated." They "insist that they cannot care what happens, or at least must not be caught caring." How then, he reasons, "can people who profess to not care what happens be trusted to inform us?"

I see his point, but it strikes me as unfair. "Pristine" and "contrived" seem snide. The logic leaps too quickly to equate "distance" (whose heritage suggests a professional effort at fairness) with the sinister "indifference." They aren't the same. There's nothing inherently untrustworthy in caring passionately as people but trying to act dispassionately as professionals (like, say, judges or teachers).

In some ways, public journalism creates a caricature of the traditional press, attacks it as corrupt, promotes itself as a reform "movement" and dismisses critics as reactionaries. There is a whiff of self-righteousness here, and it alienates some potential allies.

These are serious reservations. But they must be weighed against public journalism's contributions and possibilities.

Clearly, public journalism is a thoughtful effort to jump-start a tired industry and to reassert social responsibility in increasingly mercenary times. It offers not just complaints but a positive program for change.

It's impossible to read Merritt's book without being moved by his earnest, almost anguished, disappointment at the failings of his profession. (Readers should know that I have known Merritt for over 20 years and worked for him for about a year during the 1970s.) His disenchantment with the aloofness, smugness and cynicism he sees in journalism is shared by many, including myself. Even public journalism's critics must worry about the media's quick-trigger willingness to humble anyone who ventures onto the public stage.

Rosen offers a brilliant critique of the media in a chapter called "American Journalism is in Trouble." He cites several "alarm bells that are ringing simultaneously":

* "Economic: It is not clear what journalism produces that has enough economic value to sustain serious practice...

* "Technological: Journalism holds an uncertain place in a reconfigured world where information will be everywhere...

* "Political: Public support is badly eroded because the press is implicated in a political system that doesn't work...

* "Occupational: Newsrooms need to become exciting and innovative places that are more democratic and more diverse...

* "Spiritual: We don't know what journalists are willing to be 'for,' so familiar are they with what they're 'against.' "

These conditions require action, the public journalists conclude, in particular an effort to demolish journalists' "devastating illusion of themselves as bystanders."

Public journalism, according to Merritt, "does not mean trying to determine outcomes, but it does mean accepting the obligation to help the process of public life determine the outcomes." As Charity puts it, "Journalism should advocate democracy without advocating particular solutions."

Both Rosen and Merritt carefully point out that, like any tool or philosophy, public journalism can be misapplied and abused. Market-minded managers can use it as an excuse for pandering; fluff and boosterism can squeeze out the controversial and unsettling.

But they assert, convincingly, that savvy journalists can sidestep these hazards.

"If journalists are smart enough and professional enough to define some razor-thin line of objectivity and adhere to it," Merritt writes, "we are also smart enough and professional enough to define a slightly different line without tumbling all the way into the abyss of inappropriate involvement."

Where, then, does the scale balance on public journalism?

What concerns me most is not its intended consequences (bettering democracy without surrendering the watchdog role) but a potential unintended consequence that goes largely unexamined. What are the implications of relinquishing the outsider status the press has had for two centuries?

At its core, public journalism assumes that government is broken and the press must fix it. But to do so will inevitably link press and government as collaborators in both the public arena and the public mind. At some point, press independence could be compromised.

Outsider status, once worn proudly, may seem uncomfortable and even inappropriate these days. It risks alienating journalists from their sources and communities. It makes them seem indifferent and compassionless. Yet the press' outsider role--serving as a beyond-the-government check in our fragile but magical system of checks and balances--may well be uniquely necessary to democracy.

Journalism may have contributed to public alienation from government, as Merritt and Rosen contend, but we cannot overlook the cumulative corrosive impact of the last 30 years of government duplicity and scandal.

Messy as it sometimes is, an outsider press may contribute something irreplaceable by providing an escape valve for citizens to vent their disenchantment. This role is nettlesome, obnoxious--and quite possibly essential to our way of life. Advocates of public journalism owe us a more studied view of whether their revolution will sacrifice it.

To the degree that it seeks to fix journalism, public journalism is a blessing. It offers many specific antidotes to what might be considered today's nonpublic journalism: involving citizens in the news agenda; divorcing coverage from officialdom and grounding it in people's lives; clearing away some of the snideness and smugness that have infiltrated the media. Surely we can achieve consensus that these are welcome reforms.

To the degree that public journalism seeks to fix government through journalism or, more grandly, to substitute journalism for government, I remain skeptical. That seems like public nonjournalism, and many other institutions are better suited to it. No other institution can inform, monitor and critique. There is no alternative outside check. The press shouldn't try to be another branch of government; it must be the trunk of an entirely different tree.

Finally, this needn't be a holy war. Why make public journalism a take-it-or-leave-it package?

In many ways, public journalism's hardest work has been done; it has broken down barriers to change. It has energized the news community and mustered momentum that shouldn't go to waste.

I don't know that public journalism will triumph as a "movement." Its supporters would do well to frame it less as the Reformation and more as lower-case reform, a set of interesting experiments.

But critics should respond with more than complacency or contempt. Public journalism arrives at a ripe moment, when the market mentality seems on the verge of stifling public service ideals. Its gathering momentum heartens all supporters of change. A powerful lever is within reach, for who knows what brief period, and journalists everywhere should be leaping to grab it.



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