By: M.L. Stein
Editorial writers explore the idea of newspapers reaching
beyond their traditional role of providing only news sp.
THE IDEA THAT newspapers should reach beyond their traditional role of providing news and information to become a catalyst for public awareness and action was explored at a meeting of editorial writers in Phoenix.
New York University professor Jay Rosen, one of the chief exponents of the new concept called “public journalism,” described it as the media trying to “strengthen the community’s capacity to recognize itself, converse well, and make choices.”
Some newspapers, including the Akron Beacon Journal, the Portland Oregonian, Columbia, S.C., State and the Spokane Spokesman-Review already have made moves in this direction, Rosen said at the 48th annual convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.
Rosen, an associate professor of journalism who is director of the Project on Public Life and the Press at NYU, noted that the Beacon Journal sought to create a new conversation in the city about race and the Spokesman-Review has eliminated editorial page editors as such in favor of “interactive editors,” who go into the community to find out what’s on people’s minds and get them to write about it for the paper.
“Citizens are frustrated with the political system,” Rosen said. “Public life is in an advanced state of decay and journalism must do something about it. And because public life is in trouble, journalism is in trouble.”
Rosen ticked off six “alarm bells” for the press in the areas of economics, technological change, politics, future staffing, spirituality and intellectual outlook.
His arguments on economics, technology and occupational changes in the field frequently have been examined, discussed and dissected in dozens of media conclaves.
In his political alarm, Rosen stated: “The bell went off loudly in the 1988 campaign, but the underlying problem is deeper . . . than things like voter turnout. Politics simply isn’t serving us well, and the press seems caught up in this failure. Journalists tend to think of themselves as the heroic antagonists to government power but more and more Americans see them as part of a faltering political class, replacing rather than representing the public.”
Spiritually, the panelist continued, there is a lack of “affirmative vision,” in the land, which should also be addressed by journalists.
The intellectual problem, Rosen said, does not require more intellectuals in the newsroom but a re-examination of the key concepts journalists use to explain and justify what they do.
The concepts aren’t working, Rosen said. “They aren’t helping to navigate the future. They don’t even describe the present.”
The term “information,” he contended, is a poor description of news and the job of journalists because it fails to explain the judgments essential to good journalism.
“When reporters and editors want to go beyond the the notion of providing information, they usually use words like context, interpretation and analysis,” he said. “I always say to them: ‘Fine, which context to you want to add, interpretation from what perspective, analysis based on what?’ “
He blamed the “heavy hand of objectivity” for the failure in communication.
Another panelist, Davis Merritt Jr., editor of the Wichita Eagle, agreed there is a public malaise and that journalists must assume a moral obligation to help public life and abandon the time-honored view that “it’s not our job.”
Merritt challenged the current notion that by merely “balancing” the story the reporter is successfully doing his or her job. He termed most balancing superficial, declaring, “There are a whole array of things we need to look at.”
Also knocked down by Merritt was the shibboleth that “conflict is the highest coin in the journalistic realm.”
Even though conflict brings immediate reward to the reader, it may not be the most important element in a story, he maintained.
Journalists, Merritt said, should regard readers ? and non-readers ? as a “public capable of action.” The press, he argued, has the capability of “re-engaging citizens in public life.”
This process, he suggested, should be achieved not only on the editorial pages but throughout the newspaper.
Public journalism is working well in Spokane, Spokesman-Review managing editor Chris Peck said.
The newspaper has launched several projects to encourage public involvement in community issues. In one, the “Pizza Papers,” readers volunteer to host neighborhood discussion groups on such matters as people’s feelings about local government, city-county consolidation, crime and freeway construction. Hosts receive $15 worth of pizza from the paper.
The interactive editors, Peck said, have been successful in stirring up comment and debate on various issues, including the question of whether the Spokesman-Review should publish the names of persons arrested for buying and using drugs and for prostitution. Dozens of readers called in their views on this subject over the newspaper’s audiotex line.
“The electronic media can’t do these things ? bring discussion into the community,” he asserted. “This is a very important role newspapers can play.”
Readers’ frustration with the power of government can be addressed by newspapers, which can create a “new civic trust,” said David Holwerk, editorial page editor of the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader.