Doing well by doing good

by Phil Meyer

Some journalists are embracing a new philosophy of their craft called “public journalism” or “civic journalism.” It holds that journalists need to rid themselves of their traditional detachment and start caring about what happens in their communities. In its most ambitious form, it would use the media to replicate on a large scale the talk in a New England town meeting, where people are not only interested in expressing their opinions but also in finding out what their neighbors think. This notion turns a newspaper or broadcast station into more of a facilitator than just a neutral communicator.

To evaluate the effectiveness of public journalism in an election campaign, Deborah Potter of The Poynter Institute for Media Studies and I looked at 20 markets in the summer and fall of 1996. We included some markets because we knew the newspapers and broadcast stations were trying very hard to practice public journalism, and we included others because they preferred a more traditional approach. We looked for measurable effects that could be attributed to public journalism.

And we found some. After we adjusted for differences in education and other factors, political knowledge was higher in the markets that were practicing public journalism. We found that there was indeed a difference in the content of newspapers that said they were practicing public journalism—they tended to have more stories that explained issues, and they had fewer stories on horse-race polls. In the markets that practiced public journalism the most, there was higher trust in newspapers. And it will take more research to confirm this, but it looks as though trust in government was a little higher in the public journalism markets, which could be a sign that there’s a firmer sense of community.

Critics of public journalism say it sacrifices the media’s objectivity. I, however, prefer to distinguish between objectivity as defined by content—giving all sides of an issue equal weight—and objectivity of method. By objectivity of method I mean using aspects of the scientific method so that a reporter’s work is replicable. Ideally, another investigator could follow a reporter’s tracks, look at the same evidence and come to the same conclusion. That could save public journalism from falling down the slippery slope of advocacy.

The ultimate test of public journalism’s survival will be whether it affects the bottom line. This is another reason that traditional journalists are suspicious of it. They say it’s just another way for newspapers to make money. But the theory behind public journalism is that the two goals—maintaining profits and connecting citizens—are linked. I think that’s great. What I have always loved about the newspaper business is that it’s a chance to do well while doing good. And the trick is to keep those two sides—service to the community and profitability—in harmony. It’s no challenge to make money in the near term by short-changing the readers in your community. The hard thing is to make money and serve the community.

Media shouldn’t set the agenda

by Thad Beyle

My criticism of public journalism and the Your Voice, Your Vote project is not so much what they did, but what they could have done better.

I think the journalists believed that public confidence in both the government and the media would increase if they told people what they said they wanted to hear—if they raised the issues that the politicians didn’t want to raise. I can see how there might be some logic there. But I think, in the end, they didn’t pay enough attention to the nature of politics.

The Your Voice, Your Vote project polled voters to find out what they felt the most important issues were. To make good use of polls, they need to be thoroughly analyzed. But there was a little bit of an antiseptic quality to the analysis of the Your Voice, Your Vote poll. The journalists simply developed a list of the issues most important to “voters in North Carolina,” but they didn’t look at which issues were most important to which types of North Carolinians. For example, the Your Voice, Your Vote analysis reported, “A lot of people think we ought to cut taxes.” But they didn’t say which types of people or which types of taxes.

There are many North Carolinas—there’s a black North Carolina, there’s a women’s North Carolina, there’s a white male North Carolina. And based on the Your Voice, Your Vote poll data, you can find evidence of the gender gap, the racial gap, the education gap, the income gap. When politicians and campaign managers look at polls, that’s what they’re looking for. They look at what the most important issues are, but they also look at how the issues cut with different types of people.

The Your Voice, Your Vote project seemed to neglect much of what politics is all about—working toward coalitions, seeing what motivates voters, and getting voters out to vote. It overlooked the process of politics. So I think there was actually a drop in coverage of the politics during the 1996 election. It left out the dynamics of democracy to a certain extent.

Also, in doing this project, I think the journalists put themselves into the political fray more openly than they have in the past. And their tactics were similar to the politicians’. Look at what campaigns and candidates and parties do: They try to set up a platform of some kind (and most of them now use a poll to do it). Then, throughout the campaign, they try to get people to fight on their turf, where they feel strongest. They’re thinking, “If you fight on my turf, then I can win this.” And to a certain extent, that’s what Your Voice, Your Vote did. It set up the turf for the media so they could say, “Here’s where you should fight the battle.”

I think public journalism is trying to respond to voters who are really raising a question about representative democracy. They’re saying that these politicians aren’t representing us, that they’re not representing the issues. I think we need to get at that question through politics, not through the media. The media fulfill an important role in the democratic system, but they should not be directing campaigns.