Improving the teaching of public journalism.

Author:Haas, Tanni
Position::Report
 
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ABSTRACT

Drawing on the written accounts of a number of journalism instructors who have taught courses on public journalism, this article describes some of the most important instructional challenges encountered and discusses what instructors can do to address those challenges. Following an overview of the practice of public journalism, and how it differs from conventional, mainstream journalism, the article proceeds to examine three instructional challenges, namely students': (1) difficulties with identifying, gaining access to, and interacting with relevant sources of information; (2) misconceptions about individuals from less privileged social backgrounds than their own; and (3) lack of adequate background knowledge of particular localities to be reported on. The article concludes by summarizing what instructors of courses on public journalism can learn from these instructional challenges.

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There can be little doubt that the international journalistic reform movement known as "public" (or "civic") journalism has made and continues to make considerable inroads among journalism programs in the United States and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere. In the most comprehensive study to date, Dickson, Brandon, and Topping (2001) found that, while 12 percent of US journalism programs have specific courses devoted to public journalism, public journalism is a topic for discussion or is taught as a journalistic technique in 84 percent of programs (see the web site of the Public Journalism Network, , for continuously updated information on the teaching of public journalism in other countries around the world).

While no study of comparable scope has been undertaken during the past six years, there are many current examples of public journalism-inspired courses, even entire programs, at some of the most prestigious US journalism schools. The Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada launched in 2006 a master's degree program in Interactive Environmental Journalism. As part of this program, students are taught how to use new communication technologies to promote deliberation among citizens, experts, and government officials about given environmental problems. The University of Alabama launched in 2006 a unique partnership, known as the "Ayers Family Institute for Community Journalism," between its School of Communication and Information and the Anniston Star, a local newspaper committed to public journalism. As part of this partnership, master's degree students in journalism receive instruction in public journalism-inspired news reporting methods at the university while gaining practical newsroom experience at the paper. The University of Missouri's School of Journalism, with a $31 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, is currently in the process of establishing a journalism research and training institute aimed at bringing citizens, journalists, and journalism scholars together to discuss and experiment with ways to strengthen journalism's democratic role (see the web sites of the respective educational institutions for further details).

Drawing on the written accounts of a number of journalism instructors who have taught courses on public journalism, this article describes some of the most important instructional challenges encountered and discusses what instructors can do to address those challenges. It does so under the assumption that the continuing vitality and growth of the public journalism movement depends upon the education of journalists who are supportive of its ideals and are willing and capable of experimenting with its practices. Indeed, a consistent research finding in both the United States and elsewhere is that the news organizations most successful at sustaining their commitment to public journalism over time are those with a high level of support on the part of news management and "rank-and-file" journalists (see, for example, Friedland 2003; Romano 2001; Ruusunoksa 2006). Following an overview of the practice of public journalism, and how it differs from conventional, mainstream journalism, the article proceeds to examine three instructional challenges, namely students': (1) difficulties with identifying, gaining access to, and interacting with relevant sources of information; (2) misconceptions about individuals from less privileged social backgrounds than their own; and (3) lack of adequate background knowledge of particular localities to be reported on. The article concludes by summarizing what instructors of courses on public journalism can learn from these instructional challenges.

THE PRACTICE OF PUBLIC JOURNALISM

Central to public journalism is the underlying ideal that journalists should focus news reporting on problems of concern to citizens and that journalists should cover those problems from the perspectives of citizens rather than government officials, experts, and other elite actors (see, for example, Charity 1995; Merritt 1998; Rosen 1999). Thus, in contrast to conventional, mainstream journalism, with its predominant focus on elite concerns, public journalism is centrally focused on problems of concern to citizens. To that end, journalists commonly use various information-gathering tools, including large-scale telephone surveys, focus groups, and in-depth interviews with citizens. This does not imply, however, that journalists should rely solely on citizens for information on given problems. Rather, journalists should try to find a more equitable balance so that the views of elite actors illuminate, rather than dominate, those of citizens. And indeed, research shows that, while news organizations committed to public journalism continue to rely on elite actors for information, they feature more citizens as sources than do mainstream news organizations more generally (see, for example, Kennamer & South 2002; Lee 2001; Roush 2003).

While public journalism is centrally focused on identifying and reporting on problems of concern to citizens, it takes this particular focus one crucial step further, namely by insisting that all citizens should be offered equal opportunities to voice their concerns in public (see, for example, Compton 2000; Glasser & Craft 1998; Haas 2007). As a matter of practice, journalists do much to promote such participatory parity. Aside from...

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