By: M.L. Stein
St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor praises some forays into this
new style of newspapering but also raises some ethical questions
PUBLIC JOURNALISM MAY be the “hot, new secular religion,” but abandoning traditional reporting may pose serious ethical problems for newspapers, warns St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor William F. Woo.
In examining public journalism’s basic tenet that reporters and editors go beyond merely covering politics to playing a positive role in community affairs, Woo compared the shift to “the lamb lying down with the lions.”
“When the editor and the real estate broker, the banker and the elected official form a team, whose ethics, whose culture prevails?” Woo asked.
“Much of what is commonplace in business or politics, many of the social conventions that make the wheels of progress go around ? the fancy dinners and tickets to the luxury box ?are expressly forbidden by our codes of conduct and ethics,” he said.
Woo, the speaker at the 30th annual Riverside Press-Enterprise lecture at the University of California, had praise for some of the public journalism forays by various newspapers. He lauded the Charlotte Observer’s Citizens Agenda project and also had kind words for outreaches by newspapers in Dayton; Madison, Wis.; Portland, Maine; and Spokane, although he contended it’s too early to tell if their efforts will have permanent value. However, the idea of editors’ becoming the “master of ceremonies of the new democracy” fills him with some misgivings, Woo confided.
He acknowledged that the journalist’s creed of objectivity and detachment is sometimes carried to “bizarre lengths. Nevertheless, they are values with a long history and have become part of a moral philosophy and an important heritage,” he argued.
“Before we set them aside, before we declare them obsolete and rush to something else, we need to understand carefully what we are throwing out,” he went on. “We need a more persuasive argument.”
Woo challenged public journalism advocates who assure newspapers that the movement is compatible with objectivity and other traditional values.
“As a practical matter, can a paper objectively report on a burning community issue when the editor sits on the commission that is promoting a particular point of view on the matter?” he questioned.
The speaker speculated that readers seeing a vested interest in one issue will be more likely to believe that the newspaper has many vested interests.
Content also is likely to be affected by public journalism, Woo said, noting that some critics have worried that hard news will give way to concentration on community service and the industry’s relation to society.
Even public journalism’s commitment to citizen participation, which he conceded is admirable, should give pause to newspapers, Woo observed.
“I am concerned that that we are redefining the people we write for, from readers to voters or citizens,” he elaborated.
“I think about the possibility of developing an elitism in which the nonvoter, the nonparticipator, becomes not merely a second-class citizen but also a second-class reader,” he said.
Looking at the business side of newspapers, Woo posed another question: “What are the implications when profit-seeking newspapers . . . declare that they have become the electorate? What if IBM or the Yellow Pages or Bill Gates were to assert themselves as the convener of the community?”
Media shareholders might well wonder if corporate assets should be committed to public policies when advocacy goes beyond the editorial voice, Woo said.
“When candidates are associated with such policies, can these assets represent political contributions?” he wondered.
Another of the the Post-Dispatch editor’s fears was the question whether public journalism will result in news and editorial decisions being made in the newsroom or the “town hall meeting, within the deliberations of the editorial board or in the place the editor sups with the civic coalition, where life goes on, no matter whether circulation rises or falls, whether the community achieves capacity or not.”
Admitting that newspapers have been guilty of arrogance and narrow arbitrariness in defining news, Woo commented: “Damn right we should listen to the public. But should the consensus at the town meeting automatically become our agenda, not merely in editorial support but in the expenditure of resources that determine what other stories do not get covered?”
Actually, Woo maintained, newspapers have been listening to the public all along and were initiating community action well before the advent of public journalism.
The new movement, he allowed, has the potential to enhance the process, but it also carries the danger that newspapers will too easily dismiss traditions and values “we have held and respected for a long time.”
?(William F. Woo) [Photo]