Civic Journalism

Journalists disagree on how to connect with public

By Heidi White
Alumni News Staff

If the traditional ways of presenting the news are in trouble, some journalists say public journalism may be a step toward a solution.

Davis Merritt, editor of the Wichita Eagle, said both public life and journalism were in trouble, and the two were connected. He said people were withdrawn, cynical and increasingly unwilling to become involved.

Journalism is in trouble in almost all areas, he said, including credibility, authority, circulation and penetration.

Merritt was part of a three-member panel that discussed public journalism in a democratic society. The panel was part of an Oct. 18-19 conference on religion, politics and civic virtue sponsored by the UNL College of Arts and Sciences.

Other panel members were Michael Finney, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald, and Carol Schrader, former anchorwoman at KETV, Omaha.

Finney said public journalism was a call for the media to take the lead in helping communities identify problems. But, he said, the media should not try to find the solutions to those problems.

Merritt, an advocate of public journalism, said journalists should express their ideas and opinions on issues affecting their communities.

He said opponents of public journalism called it dangerous and risky. They have accused it of requiring unethical involvement in public affairs and creating conflict of interest.

While agreeing with those dangers, Merritt said he thought public journalism was a risk the newspaper and the community should be willing to take.

“Journalism and how we do our journalism has an effect on public life,” he said.

“If people aren’t interested in public life and all they care about is what is in their immediate reach, then they have no need for journalism or journalists.”

Merritt said conflict over ideas was the starting point in a democracy. Too often journalists stop at that point and don’t help the community move toward resolving the issue, he said.

He said an adversarial relationship had been prevalent in reporting since the Watergate era. Instead, he suggested skepticism should be the driving force behind journalists’ work.

The way journalists frame issues is also important, Merritt said. Most people are ambivalent about issues; the media should help them understand the issues so they are able to make decisions, he said.

Finney agreed the way reporters framed stories was critical.

“I don’t think objectivity is possible,” he said.

Instead of objectivity, Finney said reporters should strive for a manifest fairness by focusing on the important issues of the story, not simply trying to present all the sides.

He said a byproduct of public journalism should be a sense of community, a sense of involvement in the community, a certain amount of generosity of spirit and a respect for people’s ideas.

But journalists must maintain their critical point of view, he said.

The problem with public journalism, Finney said, was trying to keep journalists out of the problem-solving, where they do not belong.

Carol Schrader said she thought most journalists were frustrated because they recognized a need for public discussion.

However, she doesn’t think journalists should bear all the blame for public cynicism, she said.

Schrader said political advertising and conservative talk radio hosts frequently set community agendas based on ideology instead of on people’s needs.

One result of that is public discontent, she said.

She said she wanted to find a way for newspapers, television and radio stations to find out what people wanted and needed.

Merritt agreed with Schrader that journalists could not stand on the sidelines.

“I cannot believe that the role of the journalists ultimately has to be sitting up here detached, watching the end of the world, that our only job is to make sure to get the time right, the date right and the participants right,” he said

John Bender, assistant professor of news-editorial, said, “Davis Merritt’s idea of public journalism has deep roots in the history of the American press.”

Bender said the most highly regarded journalists played active roles in promoting their communities, identifying problems and urging solutions.

Joseph Pulitzer made the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a successful newspaper by crusading against municipal corruption and demanding civic improvements, such as parks and better streets, he said.

“Pulitzer helped his readers see how the political system could work for them,” Bender said. He is a member of the interdisciplinary group of faculty members who organized the October conference.

“Great journalism has never just dished out facts. It has also helped readers, listeners and viewers feel a sense of connection to the larger world.”