Should Journalists Do Community Service?

The Philadelphia Inquirer should not have been embarrassed last May when the Wall Street Journal uncovered a scandal in a Philadelphia charity. Even Pulitzer magnets like the Inky sometimes miss big stories right under their noses. But this was no ordinary case of being scooped by out-of-town competition. The foundation that the Journal exposed as a scam had been the subject of a favorable profile in the Inquirer only two weeks earlier, and it turns out the same foundation had indirectly helped finance an Inquirer project. Worse still, the project was an experiment in public journalism, a controversial approach to newspapering criticized precisely for its potential to create ugly conflicts of interest.

Since its emergence several years ago, few topics have generated as much controversy in the media business as public journalism. Less a point-by-point program than an evolving philosophy, public journalism stresses solution-oriented reporting and seeks to make the news media a constructive force for civic improvement. Its advocates believe public journalism represents one way to help mend the nation's frayed social fabric; its critics say it compromises the media's objectivity, turns reporters into actors rather than observers, and thus jeopardizes their ability to provide a balanced chronicle of the news--which, at first blush, seems to be just what happened in Philadelphia.

In fact, the Inquirer may have been guilty of nothing so much as sloppiness. According to Inquirer editor Maxwell King, the reporter who covered the story simply didn't have the time to pursue all the leads. The initial article dutifully mentioned the foundation's connection to the newspaper: $35,000 from the foundation had indirectly financed the expenses of a consultant the Inquirer hired to help produce a special section on reviving Philadelphia's inner city. Since the editorial page ran the project, with no newsroom involvement whatsoever, King says it was not exactly public journalism, which is generally known as a program carried out on the news pages.

But the mere appearance that the Inquirer might have gone soft on an organization that had channeled it money was enough to rattle staff and management, and even validated King's own skittishness about public journalism: "I felt before this project and I feel now that anything undermining the independence of the news organization diminishes its ability to do its job." King sees some redeeming value in applying public journalism principles to the opinion pages, but he adds, "When they take it a step further and say news reporters and news editors should be involved, I think they're dead wrong."

The swelling ranks of public journalists around the country would do well to consider King's experience in Philadelphia. Public journalism holds out the promise of reinvigorating the news with community purpose. At a time when much of the public is alienated from the press and downright uncivil discourse fills the airwaves, any efforts to bring writers and readers closer together while promoting constructive community debate deserve some praise.

But there's a fine line between addressing community concerns and pandering to dominant local opinion, and an even finer one between encouraging the democratic process and becoming a stakeholder in particular outcomes. Public journalism's high-profile gurus have more cautious views of these issues than their critics usually credit, but in practice at least some public journalism initiatives threaten to subvert the very causes they claim to serve.


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A lthough it's impossible to pinpoint an exact date or birthplace of public journalism, most students of the movement trace its lineage back to the 1988 presidential election, when voter turnout hit a postwar low and the quality of political debate seemed to hit rock bottom too. Around the country, reporters and editors shared the public's frustration with the meaningless debate about national priorities they had witnessed. Most just drowned their sorrow in cynicism about elected officials, but a few began to wonder if they, too, weren't part of the problem. Weren't they, after all, responsible for putting the ten-second sound bites on the air? Weren't they the ones who let the spin doctors off the hook every day?

One of the scribes asking those questions was Davis Merritt, Jr. A veteran of the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau and Charlotte Observer, Merritt was running the Wichita Eagle in 1990. He had a governor's race to cover, and rather than gather his staff for the same strategy meeting he'd presided over time and again, he decided to return this election to the people. He commissioned a poll of the state's voters, then used the results to guide his coverage. He had his reporters press the candidates on these issues, and when they wouldn't respond, he said so in the paper. The candidates got the message, and by most accounts the race was characterized by vastly improved debate and voter engagement.

Colleagues around the country, many already incubating similar ideas, took notice. They too faced declining readership and were desperate to reengage the disinterested public. Following the lead set by the Eagle and a few others, these newspapers stressed the need to reach out to readers and focus stories on issues, not horse-race politics. They attempted to bring more voices into the coverage and even brought the candidates face-to-face with reader questions, if not the readers themselves.

Meanwhile, Merritt's path crossed Jay Rosen's. A well-known media critic at New York University, Rosen was a kindred spirit who shared Merritt's concern about the decline of political discourse and belief that the media's obsession with insider debates was part of the problem. Rosen also saw a connection between the media's failure to promote community problem-solving and the broader decline of civic engagement, or social capital, which was (and remains) the topic of much discussion in the academic community.

Collaborations ensued and a movement was born, with Rosen and Merritt emerging as its high priests. Today they have spread the public journalism gospel (as American Journalism Review aptly dubbed it) to dozens of local newspapers and have even trained their sights on the national media. Backed by both foundations and publishers who gleefully fund these experiments, the public journalism movement has gained a foothold in nearly every area of the country.


At first glance it's hard to see what the fuss is all about. At its most basic level, public journalism is nothing more than a way of reporting and framing stories. Rather than focusing exclusively on conflict and obsessing about detachment, public journalists attempt to write stories that provide solutions and, where appropriate, moral inspiration. Public journalists also go out of their way to include the voices of everyday people in their stories, particularly when it comes to political coverage, and to explore how the business of government affects the citizenry.

Old-timers gripe that this sounds a lot like good old-fashioned journalism, and they're right. But if this aspect of public journalism isn't really an innovation, it's no less important for that distinction. Too many journalists today are content to sit behind their computers, analyze poll numbers, call a few experts or well-known spokespersons, and bang out a story without ever hitting the beat. "We've forgotten that people are at the heart of our business," longtime political correspondent Haynes Johnson wrote in a recent issue of Nieman Reports. "We spend precious little time and effort at the old-fashioned art of simple door-knocking."

Public journalism, though, goes well beyond simply reframing stories, and it is here the tension begins to emerge. Public journalism explicitly encourages newspapers to become activists for more constructive community discussions. This includes everything from convening focus groups to sponsoring town-hall-style meetings--and then incorporating those activities into the newspaper itself. It's all part of the grand conversation, as public journalists see it: "Without an engaged and concerned public, even the most public-minded press cannot do its job," Rosen wrote in a paper published by the Kettering Foundation. The problem today, he says, is that the press "addresses a 'public' it does little to help create."

These ideas challenge some of the most fundamental tenets of American journalism--chief among them the position of the journalist as a detached observer disinterested in outcome and dedicated wholeheartedly to chronicling the truth. While nobody disputes the need to encourage productive community politics, the question remains whether newspapers serve that cause best by becoming activists or by remaining an impartial observer to whom all parties can turn for an account of how things are and the way things could be. Speaking for a group that includes such heavies as the Washington Post's Len Downie and the New York Times's Gene Roberts, Max Frankel recently articulated the traditional line in the New York Times Magazine: "Reporters, editors, and publishers have their hands full learning to tell it right. They should leave reform to reformers."

There's reason for the concern. Nobody cares if a newspaper sponsors a debate between candidates, any more than they might care about a newspaper sponsoring a county fair. But when the newspaper begins to convene working groups on community problems--groups that wield influence, if not actual power--how can the newspaper scrutinize what the group has to say? And when the newspaper joins forces with other local institutions, does it compromise its independence? The Philadelphia Inquirer's embarrassing episode could be a taste of things to come.

Editors should recognize that they need to create new walls to protect newspaper integrity, even as they break down the old ones between detachment and activism. Max King did that at the Inquirer, stipulating that future projects not involve funding from any local sources (profit or nonprofit) and maintaining an absolute ban on public journalism projects in the news pages. Those measures may seem extreme, but they are at least worth considering before newspapers begin working with outside institutions.


The more subtle danger inherent in public journalism is that it threatens to intensify the already troubling propensity to pander. Of the dozen or so public journalism practitioners I interviewed for this story, nearly every one invoked "consensus." One can debate whether the problem with American politics is too much political polarization or too little--this writer, at least, suspects the problem is more the latter--but even if the public journalists are correct that communities need to find more common ground, when did it become the newspaper's job to create it?

Historically, journalism's greatest contributions to politics have always come in the form of iconoclasm--editors and writers who took stands contrary to conventional wisdom, stretched the boundaries of debate with provocative reporting, and forced readers to think more broadly. The great art of journalism is not in restating what the public already thinks, but in getting the public to think differently. With its emphasis on consensus--not to mention its reliance on polls and focus groups to determine what issues to cover and now even what opinions to run on the editorial pages--public journalism champions a competing ideal.

Think about it for a second. What would have happened if the newspapers that pioneered civil rights coverage in the South had practiced public journalism? Would they have taken a more accommodating attitude toward the white establishment? Would they have searched for the "common ground" of separate but equal? "I grew up in the South," remembers Margaret Leonard, an editor who recently left the Tallahassee Democrat in part out of frustration with its public journalism experiments. "Most of the people I knew didn't want to hear about civil rights, but it was in the newspaper so they had to read it--and it changed our country."

Had those newspapers included African Americans in their discussion, in effect desegregating the source of community opinion, the result might not have been so biased. To its credit, public journalism preaches inclusiveness, and the idea is to give a voice to as many people as possible. The project in which the Democrat is involved, for instance, has made issues of race one of its primary concerns, and many public journalism projects have focused on rebuilding inner cities.

But for all of its talk about the public good, public journalism exists within a commercial context--and today that context is one of desperation to attract subscribers and advertisers. Although newspapers increasingly have monopolies over their respective markets, they rarely have monopolies over reader attention. Between television and other alternative media sources, newspapers have been waging a losing battle to stem a nationwide decline in readership. The desire to reverse this trend helps explain why the nation's two largest newspaper chains, Knight-Ridder and Gannett, have invested heavily in public journalism projects, funding all kinds of experiments and touting their virtues whenever possible.

The concern, then, is that armed with a mandate to promote consensus and give the readers what they want--and feeling the heat from companies like Gannett to improve marketing appeal--newspaper editors will abdicate their agenda-setting role in the name of public journalism. Already, papers as varied as the Boston Globe and Charlotte Observer have used polls and focus groups to determine what issues they will cover most heavily in campaign coverage. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has revamped its editorial page, doing away with unsigned editorials, playing down issues readers might find boring, and running more articles by members of the community. Dwayne Yancey, a metro editor at the Roanoke Times, reports that when the newspaper polled the readership, it found that voters didn't care about specific stances so much as character, and set out to cover what it called "Issues of the Heart." These changes may make the newspapers more readable in the short run, but do they really improve the quality of political discussion?

It's possible to practice public journalism and still maintain an institutional voice. Yancey, for instance, says that of course his paper--and any other respectable news institution, for that matter--wouldn't let public journalism stand in the way of covering important issues. Rosen and Merritt will be the first to tell you that public journalism does not mean pandering, and that any editor who thinks otherwise isn't really practicing public journalism. But with newsroom resources already strained, emphasis on one set of issues inevitably comes at the expense of others. And even if the Roanoke Times didn't sacrifice coverage of important issues to give the voters what they want, it's possible other papers will, no matter what the public journalism gospel says.


One reporter I know likens public journalism to "turning surgery over to the patient." (He works at a paper practicing it and asked not to be identified.) No doubt that comment exemplifies the arrogance and elitism public journalists see at the core of journalism's crisis. But it also contains some truth.

Attempts to bring more people into political life often suffer from the same problem: In their enthusiasm to expand the conversation, they overlook the legitimate role of political leadership. Newspapers infused with the spirit of public journalism could achieve the best of both worlds, providing a chronicle of events and promoting constructive problem-solving. But with so many other sources of information available on television, radio, and the Internet, print journalists should remember the qualities that make them distinctive: their reputation for reporting the news without bias, and their ability to present what needs to be said, not just what the community is saying.

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