Strengthening the practice of public journalism around the world: lessons from the US-based empirical research literature.

Author:Haas, Tanni
 
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ABSTRACT

While the US journalistic reform movement known as "public" (or "civic") journalism has made and continues to make considerable inroads among news organizations in various countries around the world, no empirical research has investigated how public journalism is being introduced into newsrooms and with what effects, and what impact, if any, the actual practice of public journalism has on citizens. Drawing on the US-based empirical research literature, this article discusses how news organizations can build the kind of broad-based newsroom support necessary to making public journalism their guiding journalistic philosophy and, by extension, an integral part of their routine news operations, and how news organizations can design their public journalism initiatives for maximum impact on citizens. It also considers the role of journalism educators in helping to prepare future generations of journalists committed to public journalism.

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There can be little doubt that the US journalistic reform movement known as "public" (or "civic") journalism has become a worldwide phenomenon. During the past decade, public journalism has made and continues to make considerable inroads among news organizations in various parts of the world, including Africa (Malawi, Senegal, Swaziland), the Asia/Pacific Rim (Australia, Japan, New Zealand), Europe (Finland, Spain, Sweden) and South America (Argentina, Columbia, Mexico) (see Haas 2006 for a recent overview). Moreover, news organizations in several other countries, including Chile, Ecuador, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, and Sri Lanka, are currently in the process of designing various public journalism initiatives (see the web site of the Public Journalism Network, http://www.pjnet.org, for continuously updated information about the global practice of public journalism).

Yet, despite the continuing proliferation of public journalism initiatives around the world, no empirical research has investigated how public journalism is being introduced into newsrooms and with what effects, and what impact, if any, the actual practice of public journalism has on citizens. Indeed, the scholarly literature consists almost exclusively of purely descriptive accounts of given public journalism initiatives. (1) As a result, news organizations can find little external guidance as to what works and does not work as they begin or continue their experiments with public journalism. Considering the vast differences in journalistic traditions, media systems, and political cultures of the countries where public journalism is practiced, public journalism should ideally be guided by empirical research indigenous to given countries. Nonetheless, in the absence of such native research, the second-best option might be to attend to the research that does exist, namely that carried out in the US.

This article offers a broad-based discussion of how the US-based empirical research literature could help inform the practice of public journalism around the world. After a relatively brief overview of the theory and practice of public journalism, it examines what research reveals about how to build the kind of broad-based newsroom support necessary to making public journalism the guiding journalistic philosophy and, by extension, an integral part of routine news operations, and how to design given public journalism initiatives for maximum impact on citizens. Following this discussion of how public journalism ought to be introduced and incorporated into newsroom operations, it turns to the role of journalism educators in helping to prepare future generations of journalists committed to public journalism. The article concludes by briefly summarizing the most important lessons to be derived from the US-based empirical research literature.

THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF PUBLIC JOURNALISM

Public journalism can be approached in any number of ways. Following Rosen's (1995: v) suggestion, I consider public journalism to represent simultaneously: (1) "an argument about where the press should be going," (2) "a set of practices that have been tried in real-life settings," and (3) "a movement of people and institutions concerned about the possibilities for reform" (emphasis added).

Central to public journalism is the underlying argument that journalism and democracy are intrinsically linked, if not mutually dependent. While advocates acknowledge that the practice of journalism depends upon certain democratic protections, most notably freedom from government intervention, they maintain that a genuine democracy depends upon a form of journalism that is committed to promoting active citizen participation in democratic processes (see, for example, Charity 1995; Merritt 1998; Rosen 1999). Conventional, mainstream journalism's lack of commitment to such citizen participation, advocates argue, has contributed to widespread withdrawal by citizens from democratic processes, as manifested by declining voter participation in political elections and, more generally, by declining civic participation in local community affairs. It also has contributed to declining public interest in, and perceived relevance of, journalistically-mediated political information, as evidenced by declining newspaper readership. Put differently, advocates perceive contemporary society as being riven by two widening, but not irreversible, gaps: between citizens and government and between news organizations and their audiences. To help alleviate, or at least reduce, those gaps, advocates argue that journalists should see their primary responsibility as one of stimulating increased civic commitment to, and active citizen participation in, democratic processes. As Glasser and Lee (2002: 203) put it, "Public journalism rests on the simple but apparently controversial premise that the purpose of the press is to promote and indeed improve, and not merely report on and complain about, the quality of public or civic life." Rosen (1998: 54) makes a similar point, arguing that journalists should "help form as well as inform the public" (emphasis added).

As a domain of journalistic practices, public journalism is best understood as a series of experiments that emerged within the mainstream news media in the US in the late 1980s and early 1990s and subsequently spread to hundreds of news organizations in the US and around the world. Since I have described these experiments in detail elsewhere (see Haas 2006), suffice is to say that the public journalism initiatives carried out till date fall within three broad categories: (1) election coverage, (2) special reporting projects, and (3) efforts to make public journalism an integral part of routine news operations. Briefly put, while news organizations have made considerable efforts to focus their election coverage on topics of concern to voters rather than on the campaign agendas of candidates for office, such as by elaborating on voters' opinions and where they differ from those of candidates, soliciting voter-generated questions to the candidates and publicizing candidates' responses, and facilitating actual social interaction between voters and candidates in the form of town-hall meetings, news organizations have engaged in a wide variety of special reporting projects on problems of concern to citizens, such as by covering those problems from the perspectives of citizens rather than government officials, experts, and other elite actors, elaborating on what citizens themselves can do to address given problems in practice, and helping to organize sites for citizen deliberation and problem-solving in the form of roundtable discussions, community forums, and local civic organizations. Moreover, a couple of dozen news organizations have taken steps to make public journalism an integral part of their routine information-gathering, news-reporting, and performance-evaluation practices, either by restructuring their newsrooms from conventional beat systems revolving around certain institutional sources of information to include multiple geographically-based or topic-based teams focused on specific neighborhoods or problems of concern to citizens, or, more commonly, by meeting up with groups of citizens on a regular basis to discuss which problems they would like to see covered, reporting on those problems, and subsequently inviting citizens to evaluate their coverage.

Public journalism is part of a more comprehensive, contemporary movement aimed at finding ways for journalists to engage citizens more actively in democratic processes. Other related journalistic notions include "communitarian journalism" (e.g., Christians, Ferre, & Fackler 1993), "conversational journalism" (e.g., Anderson, Dardenne, & Killenberg 1994), and "developmental journalism" (e.g., Shah 1996). Although public journalism is a relatively recent journalistic notion, its philosophical underpinnings can be traced back historically to the Progressive Era and, more precisely, to the 1920s debate between Lippmann (1922) and Dewey (1927) about the role and responsibility of journalism in a democratic society. Public journalism also has roots in the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press (1947) and, in particular, in Siebert, Peterson and Schramm's (1956) subsequent elaboration of the social responsibility theory of the press.

BUILDING NEWSROOM SUPPORT FOR PUBLIC JOURNALISM

Although public journalism has been practiced, and continues to be practiced, by hundreds of news organizations in the US, there is reason to believe that these news organizations have found it difficult to build the kind of broad-based newsroom support necessary to make...

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