New Approach to Election Coverage Wins Fans

DURING the 1994 elections, a sprinkling of newspapers across the country will follow the unconventional path the Charlotte Observer took two years ago.

The North Carolina newspaper launched ``Your Vote in '92,'' an initiative that abandoned the horse-race approach to election coverage and let voters set the agenda on issues that they said mattered to them. Five hundred readers served on a committee to help the paper pinpoint citizens' concerns. Readers' questions were put to the candidates. When candidates refused to clarify where they stood on issues, the paper ran large white spaces next to their names. The candidates then decided they did, after all, have positions.

The Charlotte Observer is one of a growing number of newspapers in the United States trying a new approach to journalism. From Portland, Maine, to Boulder, Colo., papers are stepping out of their traditional roles as mere observers and encouraging citizens to connect more with their communities. It's a philosophy called ``public journalism.''

``We have two big problems,'' says Davis (Buzz) Merritt, editor of the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, and a public-journalism guru. ``One is the deterioration of public life - people opting out of the process. The other is a loss of authority of journalists, particularly at newspapers. There's declining circulation, penetration, and interest in what we do.''

``I think those two are closely tied together,'' Mr. Merritt says. ``If we develop ways to re-engage people in public life, we'll do it through [journalism]; and, on the other hand, if people are less and less involved in public life, they have no need for journalists.''

Merritt first started experimenting with public journalism after the 1988 elections, which he calls ``the most frivolous, issueless campaign in the history of the country.'' Determined not to let politicians control coverage in 1990, the Wichita newspaper strove to involve readers in choosing issues they wanted candidates to address.

A favorable response from the public then prompted Merritt to start ``The People Project,'' an initiative to get Wichita residents searching for solutions to crime, poor schools, and other issues. Readers were invited to write, fax, or phone in their problem-solving ideas. The newspaper also sponsored sessions where people could meet others trying to change things.

Public journalism takes many forms, says Jay Rosen, who coined the term. He is a New York University journalism professor and a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University.

In Maine, for example, several newspapers helped sponsor study circles - small discussion groups that met to talk about education reform. The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City asked 475 central Oklahoma leaders to write essays about the state's future and suggest improvements, and published many of the responses. And at the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger Star in Norfolk, Va., government and political reporters reorganized themselves into a ``public-life team.'' Its mission is to cover politics in a way that will engage more people in civic affairs.

What benefits do newspapers reap from public journalism?

``The first question editors usually ask is: Does it increase readership?'' says Mr. Rosen, who is directing the Project on Public Life and the Press, a two-year program that works with journalists interested in the movement. ``That's not what it's about.'' Instead, he says, journalists have found a deeper sense of mission, and newspapers have seen their credibility improve. That, many hope, will eventually attract more readers.

Public journalism is ``one method for serving readers that is exciting, effective, and has some real meaning in terms of core journalistic value...,'' says Steven Smith, assistant to the vice presidents/news at Knight-Ridder newspapers. ``There's a lot of interest in this around the company,'' he says, adding that 15 Knight-Ridder papers will be involved in different public-journalism initiatives over the next three years.

Newspapers aren't the only medium dabbling in public journalism. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., and National Public Radio have teamed up with newspapers and some television stations in at least five cities. They will provide citizen-driven election coverage during the '94 campaigns. In a separate effort, NPR, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism in Washington, D.C., and Knight-Ridder papers are launching projects focused on citizenship and on helping to solve community problems.

Public journalism is not without its critics. ``There are elements ... that generate controversy, because some people equate it with advocacy journalism,'' Mr. Smith says. ``What it does advocate is that it's appropriate for papers to encourage and help readers become involved in the fabric of the community. It does not advocate particular points of view.''

``We've got to believe that our role is not just telling the news but helping things go better - without saying how they ought to go better,'' Merritt says.

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