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By today’s standards, there was nothing particularly unusual about news coverage of the 1988 presidential race. Dozens of campaign reporters followed the candidates across the country, documenting moments of staged drama like Michael Dukakis’s ill-fated appearance atop a military tank; news magazines produced exclusive features detailing the candidates’ childhoods, medical histories, and personalities (while giving short shrift to their issue stances); and anchors regularly led their broadcasts with updates on the “race” for the White House, putting “titillation above education,” candidate Bob Dole lamented, and obsessing over journalism’s latest shiny toy: public opinion polls. “Simply put,’’ Peter D. Hart, a pollster, told the New York Times in 1988, “polls have become the crutch of the media.’’
While ubiquitous today, sensational tabloid fodder and nonstop “horse race” coverage were still quite new to American politics in 1988. An analysis by Harvard professor Thomas E. Patterson found that only 45 percent of news coverage in 1960 focused on campaign strategy and success (the “game schema”), compared to 50 percent that focused on policy and leadership (the “policy schema”). But over time, this commitment to substantive election coverage eroded under the weight of commercial pressures and the convenience of public opinion polling, and by 1992, the balance had been lost: During that year’s presidential campaign, the game schema received more than 80 percent of campaign coverage, Patterson found, while the policy schema received just 10 percent.
Alarmed by this trend — and experiencing a “wave of disgust at the trivialities of their own ‘race horse’ coverage,” according to the New York Times — a group of editors in the 1990s began pushing their newsrooms to adopt a more civic-minded approach to reporting. As David K. Perry describes in The Roots of Civic Journalism, the Wichita Eagle in Kansas surveyed readers before the 1990 governor’s race to determine what issues deserved the most rigorous coverage. In Florida, the Tallahassee Democrat organized a series of community dialogue meetings at the state capitol building and added a “public agenda page” to the print newspaper. And nationally, PBS hosted the National Issues Convention, a gathering that brought together more than 400 citizens from around the country to discuss national issues.
Seeking to build momentum around this movement, the reform-minded editors spearheading these projects began attaching a name to their work — “public” or “civic” journalism — and soon adopted a more far-reaching mission that reimagined journalism’s role not only in political coverage, but also in community life at large. “Public journalism is a set of values about the craft that recognizes and acts upon the interdependence between journalism and democracy,” Davis Merritt, editor of the Wichita Star, explained to NPR. “It values the concerns of citizens over the needs of the media and political actors, and conceives of citizens as stakeholders in the democratic process rather than as merely victims, spectators or inevitable adversaries.”
Ed Fouhy, founding executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, described the movement as “a fundamental change in the way we do our business,” while media scholar Jay Rosen, an early champion of these reforms, wrote that “public journalism tries to place the journalist within the political community as a responsible member with a full stake in public life.” In his book What Are Journalists For?, Rosen explained the movement’s rationale:
Journalism would do well to develop an approach that can (1) address people as citizens, potential participants in public affairs, rather than victims or spectators, (2) help the political community act upon, rather than just learn about, its problems, (3) improve the climate of public discussion, rather than simply watch it deteriorate, and (4) help make public life go well, so that it earns its claim on our attention. If they can find a way to do these things, journalists may in time restore public confidence in the press, reconnect with an audience that has been drifting away, rekindle the idealism that brought many of them into the craft, and contribute, in a more substantial way, to the health and future prospects of American democracy.
Rosen and other public journalism advocates believed that this new relationship between journalists and citizens would strengthen democracy and promote participation in civic life. But even as the movement gained traction in the early 1990s, many journalists remained fiercely resistant to the idea that news organizations should set aside traditional journalistic values such as independence and “objectivity” to become more active participants in community life. Some critics warned that “community boosterism” would hurt the credibility of the press (“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,” said Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie), while others argued that giving citizens a more participatory role in journalism amounted to a dereliction of duty. “What in God’s name are we thinking about?” Philadelphia Daily News editorial page editor Richard Aregood asked incredulously in 1994. “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.”
Despite the early success of public journalism at the Virginian-Pilot, the Wichita Eagle, the Wisconsin State Journal, and dozens of other outlets, a survey of Associated Press managing editors in 1997 found that only 7 percent of respondents strongly agreed that civic journalism was “an important way for many news organizations to reconnect with their alienated communities.” The movement continued to lose steam in the early 2000s as digital-era disruption stole the industry’s attention, and by 2003, when the Pew Center for Civic Journalism folded, the momentum for far-reaching reform had fizzled.
However, that was then, before the collapse of print advertising revenue, before the rise of social media, before “fake news,” and before Donald Trump. Today, as the news business grapples with political and economic upheaval, the principles of public journalism can now be seen resurfacing under new names like “solutions journalism” and “engaged journalism,” creating what reform advocates see as an opportunity for progress. “Engaged journalism is a much evolved descendant” of public journalism, “born into a radically changed landscape,” Geneva Overholser wrote in 2016. “Newsrooms that had been averse to change [are now] desperately looking for answers.”
The prospects for engaged journalism continued to improve following the election, when journalists at the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and other major media outlets all acknowledged the need to spend more time listening to the public and responding to their concerns. But what remains to be seen is whether this renewed appetite for change can reverse a decades-long trend of growing public mistrust; whether it can pierce the internet’s filter bubbles and bridge a bifurcated media landscape; and whether, in doing so, it can somehow achieve one of the news business’s most elusive goals: reaching millennials.
This article is an excerpt from Reimagining Journalism in a Post-Truth World: How Late-Night Comedians, Internet Trolls, and Savvy Reporters Are Transforming News, forthcoming from Praeger in January 2018. The next installment of this series will examine legacy media’s struggles to reach millennial news audiences and weigh in on what it means for journalism’s future.