Journalists need to debate public journalism – a letter to the CAJ list

First published: December 16, 2004

Rather than complain about the state of journalism, I would like to suggest Canadian journalists take a serious look at public journalism as part of the solution. Scholarly studies of media and public opinion clearly show we have very little influence.

Beginning with Walter Lippmann’s seminal work Public Opinion in 1922, he successfully framed the role of journalists and journalism as having a huge influence on citizens, their thoughts about politics, and public life. He also created a doctrine of journalism that sets in motion a separation between the public and the press, which over decades would evolve into a significant chasm that has yet to be successfully bridged.

While further studies show, news media can exercise an agenda-setting role, our influence is nowhere near what we think it is or it should be. Advocates of public journalism see it as a solution to the dienfranchisement of citizen and the decline in political life.

Prof. Jay Rosen, of the Columbia School of Journalism, is one of the godfathers of this movement in the United States.

On one hand, the industry is facing declining readership and economic pressures; and, on the other, the public is reacting to the news with indifference as community ties are fraying. Simultaneously, a feeling of disenfranchisement with institutions and government is rising, leaving the public with a feeling of disgust, hopelessness, and a diminished sense of importance of these critical elements of society. Public journalism urges journalists to meet its public responsibilities by reinvigorating the public’s trust and re-asserting its special privileges granted under the First Amendment (in our case it is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), that being freedom of the press. Yet, Rosen argue the public views politics and public affairs as something journalists own rather than a “playground of insiders or political professionals”. In order for democracy to be strengthened, journalism must become one of the actors in public life, encouraging civic participation through its coverage of politics, aiming at enhancing public discussion and debate. This effectively moves it out of the traditional observers role into a more active realm by forming new structures. He concludes that for the press to work, people must be involved in their communities, be interested in political discourse and be active participants. The choice is between acting like a hunting dog, flushing out the ills of society with little regard for the final result; and, a role where the press educates, engages and empowers the audience in an effort to find solutions to the problems and issues the community faces. This means a new contract for public life where citizens and journalists share a common goal. This leaves journalists in unfamiliar territory, no longer neutral or objective, as tradition would have it. Rosen tries to avoid critics by saying it is not public relations nor is public journalism degenerating into self-promotion or civic boosterism.

Is this a viable solution for journalists? Let the conversation begin.

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