Public Journalism Denounced p. 14

By: Tony Case Editors decry the practice that encourages bringing
the general public into the editorial process sp.

PROPONENTS OF THE controversial movement known as public journalism, which encourages newspeople to help solve society's problems rather than simply report on them and advocates including the general public in the editorial process, met a couple of impassioned detractors last month at the Associated Press Managing Editors convention.
"Too much of what's called public journalism appears to be what our promotion department does, only with a different kind of name and a fancy, evangelistic fervor," Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie said.
Describing the concept as gimmicky and packaged, Downie said his ideal of journalism, "whether you call it public or otherwise, is to provide citizens with as much as possible of the information they need to conduct their lives, private and public, and to hold accountable the increasing number of powerful people and institutions that hold sway in our lives."
And Philadelphia Daily News editorial page editor Richard Aregood said he doesn't believe newspapers are doing themselves any good in letting outsiders set their agendas.
"What in God's name are we thinking about?" he asked.
"We are abandoning a piece of our own jobs if what we are doing is asking people what we should do. Are we to draw up panels of our readers and ask them what they want and put them in the newspaper? We may as well go into the mirror business."
But the philosophy has been embraced by many prominent newspapers, including the Seattle Times, which regularly sponsors focus groups, conducts polls and invites public discourse within the paper's pages, and the Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio, which won a Pulitzer Prize for directing an ongoing community conversation on race relations.
The Project on Public Life and the Press at New York University, a self-described information source on public journalism, is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and operated by the Kettering Foundation in association with NYU and the American Press Institute.
The program and API host workshops for newspeople who are involved in or want to know more about public journalism initiatives. Participation is by invitation only.
Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism professor who directs the project, has been traveling the country to promote journalist-as-activist principles. In recent weeks, he's shown up at meetings of APME in Philadelphia, the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association in Spokane (see facing page) and the National Conference of Editorial Writers in Phoenix.
At APME, Rosen touted public journalism as an antidote to disconnected communities and the public's growing disgust with newspeople and politicians.
"The test for any serious philosophy of journalism today is what it proposes to do about the troubles that plague public life," he said.
The professor noted that a recent Times Mirror survey found 71% of Americans think the media get in way of the populace solving its problems.
"While journalists treasure their role as watchdog and critic, increasingly they are seen as insiders themselves, part of a discredited political class," he said.
Journalism practitioners and scholars fret over protecting the freedom of the press, but Rosen contended they should also be mindful of the citizenry's desire for freedom from the press ? "what people choose when they quit reading newspapers and take no serious interest in public affairs."
Cole Campbell, executive editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, said the public views the press as a citadel, designed to keep it out of the democratic process.
"Our obligation as journalists in a free society is to help our readers find out what is going on by reinvigorating traditional journalism and help them discover how they can take responsibility by devising new ways to listen and exploring community connections," he told APME editors.
"Conventional journalism too often emphasizes conflict and polarization rather than search for common ground. It exalts experts and public opinion over citizens and public judgment."
Aregood found it astonishing that talking to readers is being passed off as a "bold new trend in journalism," noting the Daily News has long run a daily guest column on its editorial pages.
"I don't know what the hell everyone's talking about because, basically, we're talking about something which good newspapers are already doing or we're talking about things no newspaper in its right mind should ever do," he said.
The editor doesn't see newspapers as a sort of moral compass. He suggests newspeople would do better to "simply look within ourselves and do the noblest thing newspapers can do, which is tell people the truth."
Downie, whose views on journalistic objectivity are widely known ? he reportedly doesn't vote or read editorials, even those in his own paper ? charges public journalism makes reporters and editors "actors on the political stage."
Journalists are put in the position of "forcing candidates to participate in a dialogue with voters," he said, "staging campaign events, deciding what the good of the citizenship is and force-feeding it to citizens and candidates, and encouraging citizens to vote."
His remedy for bringing together newspapers and the public and maintaining the vitality of the medium: a renewed emphasis on investigative reporting, context, clarity and interpretation. But he also recommends, as do adherents of public journalism, that news organizations report on solutions as well as the problems of the day.
Downie proposes that following this plan of action, rather than redefining journalism's mission, "will keep newspapers alive, keep them credible, keep them connected to the community, and help people perform their proper roles in the democracy."
? (" Too much of what's called public journalism appears to be what our promotion department does, only with a different kind of name and a fancy, evangelistic frevor.") [Caption]
?(-Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie) [Photo]


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here