Journalists as advocates

One of the founders of 'civic journalism' examines its success atbringing readers a more empowering view of the world.

For seven years, reporters, editors, producers, news directors, and anchors around the nation have been divided by a new philosophy called public or civic journalism. At first hearing, it seems like an esoteric debate to non-journalists. But it is not.

Why? Because every citizen who cares about current events locally, nationally, and internationally is heavily dependent on newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.

So whether a particular newsroom does or does not practice public journalism matters to most members of that newsroom's audience, whether they know it or not.

Now comes Jay Rosen, the philosopher king of the public journalism movement, with a book that adores his child, but concedes the child is imperfect.

Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, started worrying during the 1980s that the daily portrait presented by reporters and editors was harming rather than helping community togetherness. He, along with a few newsroom philosophers in places such as Wichita, Kan., and Charlotte, N.C., began asking questions: "What should journalism bring back from a public square that seems disordered, ill functioning, too empty at times, far from what citizens require? What should the press be making with its tell, and how can it help make democracy work?"

What a foreign concept in most newsrooms, where the hard-bitten journalist inhabitants usually thrive on exposing conflict rather than helping the search for goodwill among neighbors. Rosen decided he would settle for nothing less than restyling the work of journalists "so that it supported a healthier public climate."

He opens with an admission that the journalism of conflict and destruction is not working. Readers and viewers feel hopeless rather than empowered to work for change. Many civic-minded audience members view journalists as insensitive, sensationalistic, and downright destructive.

After positing his theory, Rosen explains how it can work in practice. His lead example focuses on The Virginian-Pilot, a daily newspaper in Norfolk. He calls what happened in that newsroom an "intellectual journey." The result: More Norfolk-area residents started talking to each other about how to improve day-to-day life in neighborhoods, public schools, workplaces. The Norfolk media - print and to a lesser extent broadcast - helped bring together individuals at forums who probably never would have met otherwise. The discussions that ensued sometimes became the basis of stories published or broadcast for nonparticipants to think about.

More significant, the discussions sometimes guided tunnel-vision journalists into seeing solutions where they previously saw only problems.

How the critics groaned and screamed! Convening panels of audience members to define the most pressing issues in an upcoming mayoral race, then using their list of issues to guide campaign coverage? Absurd! Practitioners of public journalism are surrendering their vaunted objectivity to pander to their audience, the critics said.

Rosen explains how and why the opposition to his movement took root at some of the most influential media outlets, including The New York Times and Washington Post. Rather than making light of the opposition, Rosen welcomes it, engaging his critics by offering thoughtful replies instead of knee-jerk defensiveness.

For a career academic, Rosen writes with surprising verve. Most previous books about the pros and cons of the public journalism movement have been aimed primarily at journalists themselves. Rosen's book is different.

*Steve Weinberg teaches journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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