If the 1998 elections represented the maturation of “public journalism,” then pre-election news coverage should have reflected more astutely the concerns and motivations of voters rather than the spin of professional image-makers and pundits. In North Carolina, where I work, coverage of the major races (U.S. Senate, congressional and state legislative seats) did not include a single news story that provided insight about what would become the major factors that voters would cite in explaining why they cast their ballots as they did.

Some key results of our state’s election—incumbent Republican U.S. Senator
Assessing Public Journalism
Edited by Edmund B. Lambeth, Philip E. Meyer and Esther Thorson
University of Missouri Press. 284 Pages. $22.50.
D.M. “Lauch” Faircloth being defeated and Democrats taking control of the state House of Representatives—were portrayed after the election as surprises in the state’s major newspapers. Despite the state’s larger newspapers and television stations forming a “public journalism” coalition for coverage of elections, no clear illumination of the voters’ mood or their concerns emerged.

In fact, after four elections cycles: (1992, 1994, 1996 and 1998) of the expanding “public journalism” trend—developed out of a recognition by many newspaper editors that they lacked a grasp of their readers’ concerns—news during this election cycle was dominated by, what else, Monica Lewinsky. Journalists from Capitol Hill to the county courthouse saw that issue as a focal point in the 1998 elections. But as the election results showed, the Lewinsky matter was not the driving force for voters. The “surprise” journalists expressed in the results showed, despite the “public journalism” effort, that news organizations had failed to garner a clearer understanding of what was on the minds of the electorate.

In “Assessing Public Journalism,” Meyer explains as well as I’ve heard it explained why this disconnect still exists. “The effects of public journalism are likely to be slow and incremental,” Meyer writes. “The costs, on the other hand, are visible and immediate.”

The book offers a thorough look at the growth of the public journalism movement. It provides various views about it and assessments of it, but out of these opinions arrives at no clear conclusion as to its success or value. More than two-thirds of this book is comprised of academic analyses, whereas chapters written by Lambeth and Meyer—with sections by Davis “Buzz” Merritt, Rick Thames, Jennie Buckner and Michael Gartner—give journalists what they need, a hands-on look at experiences and consequences of trying “public journalism.”

John Bare, Director of Evaluation for the Knight Foundation, seeks to gauge how the “beliefs” of reporters and editors who engage in public journalism change. “Instead of following the ideological fault lines separating fans and critics, public journalism research should employ scientific measures to assess public journalism and its potential impact,” Bare writes. “In examining newspapers, researchers should measure the impact of public journalism in three ways. One, public journalism can manifest itself in editorial content. Two, public journalism can change the practices and behaviors newspaper staff members use to gather and report news. Three, public journalism can affect the attitude and beliefs of the reporters and editors.”

When such measures are applied, some of the results turn out to be inconsequential. For example, an examination of the number of staff-generated stories compared with wire service stories used by The Wichita Eagle, the first newspaper to embrace the public journalism label, doesn’t tell us much about what actually changed at the paper. Since the late 1970’s, The Eagle, the largest newspaper in the state, has sought to be a primary source of news when it comes to political coverage. In the pre-public journalism time of 1986, 95.4 percent of its political news stories were produced by staff reporting. A jump in 1994 to 100 percent seems insignificant.

While the book offers a forum to those who practice public journalism, criticize it and look for ways to improve it, what is noticeably missing is an exploration of what might be its central issue, the one that probably has more to do with public journalism’s success or failure. To what extent has an emphasis on public journalism replaced or taken away from other elements of election, government and civic affairs coverage?

Davis “Buzz” Merritt, the former Editor of The Wichita Eagle and one of public journalism’s chief evangelists, writes that the customary practice of journalistic detachment “encourages us to ignore or demean outside criticism which in turn means that we lose the potential benefit of outside help and advice.” However, Merritt, as well as other editors, recognized before the “public journalism” label became trendy that involving “outsiders” in the reporting can be crucial in producing solid coverage on civic affairs.

The Kansas City Star employed such outside help, using experts in architecture and design, when it investigated the tragic collapse of a hotel balcony. Those articles were awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for local spot news reporting for its thorough coverage of the Hyatt Regency Hotel disaster. In 1982 The Eagle worked with a college professor, community leaders and key executives in the local real estate business in Wichita to investigate inequities in local residential property taxation. The stories resulted in a change in the state constitution and passage of other state laws. These individuals who worked with the paper were not simply sources for stories, but were directly engaged in developing the coverage for the series.

Today these efforts would likely be called “public journalism.” But these two examples, a few of many that can be found in newspapers around the nation for decades, are at their core simply good reporting. They represent what the best newspapers can do when they look in different ways at their communities and are able to identify fresh issues and perspectives that need exploration.

While this book tries to measure public journalism’s impact, it does not dig deeply enough into the emergent broader trends in how journalists are covering civic affairs and public institutions in general. “Depleted Capitals,” the recent examination of news coverage of state governments from the Pew Charitable Trust’s “Project for Excellence in Journalism,” revealed that most state capital press corps (27) are smaller now than in the mid-1980’s, nine are the same size and 14 are larger. This diminished attention paid to state government arrives at precisely the time when dramatic changes in Washington are shifting many key decisions—from utility regulation (telephone and electricity most notably) to aid for the less fortunate, affirmative action and environmental protection—to the states.

“Assessing Public Journalism” does a good job at looking narrowly at this new reporting trend. But when it fails to explore these other related reporting issues in depth, the book becomes less than a comprehensive examination of the current coverage of civic affairs. It might have been more informative for journalists if the book had documented to what extent “public journalism” has supplemented basic civic coverage or replaced it and what has resulted out of each strategy.

Seth Effron, a 1992 Nieman Fellow, is Founding Editor of “the insider,” a state government news service in North Carolina. In its pre-public journalism days, Effron worked for The Wichita Eagle. The McClatchy Company, which owns The News & Observer of Raleigh, a newspaper that practices public journalism, also owns “the insider,” which is operated as a completely separate publication.

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