(Editor's Note: Prof. Jennifer Abbott presented her paper, "The Lessons of Yesterday’s Public Journalism for Tomorrow’s Citizen-Engaged Journalism," at the National Communication Association convention in Philadelphia in November 2016. As public journalism from the early 1990s already is becoming history, not current events, The Intelligencer asked Dr. Abbott to tell us more about why she is researching this topic, what it means and why it's important.)
By Jennifer Abbott
How might the news media help readers deliberate important public issues? How can journalists encourage citizens to work through a tough issue by bringing diverse perspectives together, developing mutual understanding, weighing tradeoffs, and making collective choices about how to best address the problem?
I asked these questions a few years ago after being trained in deliberation facilitation by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio. I learned how to arrange and moderate face-to-face conversations in my community about problems like drug addiction. As a scholar and teacher of rhetoric with a background in communication studies, such oral engagements felt familiar, albeit difficult.
I wondered, however, how the news media might aid such deliberations in their local regions. I had studied and taught about journalism and mass media for several years, but always in terms of their general influence and power to shape readers’ understanding of reality. Now I was curious about how they might citizens approach public issues more deliberatively and productively. The question seemed timely since the digital age had enabled news consumers to publicly interact with and comment upon topics covered by news organizations.
When I began this project, I was already somewhat familiar with public journalism, the field of practice and study that began in the late 1980s. Public journalists sought to produce news reporting that empowered citizens to identify, deliberatively engage, and improve important public issues. Given its relevance to the questions I was asking, I thought public journalism would be a good starting point to relearn how journalists had attempted to engage readers, and what scholars had concluded about their efforts.
I found in the public journalism scholarly literature that while no consensus existed about what constituted public journalism, scholars repeatedly associated it with a clear mission and four reporting strategies. Public journalists sought to enable citizens to ameliorate public life. To this end, they covered important public issues, chosen by or with citizens. They tried to include citizens’ voices in the news, such as by turning more often to non-elite sources. Public journalists also enabled and encouraged the public to deliberate and possibly solve civic problems, and, finally, they motivated the public to get involved with the issues.
By the early 2000s, however, scholars largely turned their attention away from public journalism and toward newer forms of digital journalism that also attempted to involve citizens. I wondered how these newer forms similarly or differently engaged citizens compared to public journalism. I asked how their journalistic practices and assumptions about citizens might compare or contrast. And what can we learn from public journalism to inform and improve the future of citizen-engaged journalism?
With support from the Kettering Foundation, I set off to find some answers. I initially collected recent scholarship on four current versions of citizen-engaged journalism—participatory journalism, citizen journalism, network journalism, and community journalism—and I compared and contrasted the findings with the scholarship on public journalism. The resulting paper, however, was overly lengthy, and two of the literatures were more interesting than the others. So I cut out network journalism and community journalism and focused only on participatory journalism and citizen journalism.
I discovered three things as I compared scholarship about these two more current versions of journalism with public journalism. First, and this won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the research, the literatures lack consistency in how they define and differentiate types of journalism. So I created basic definitions based on what I read. I defined participatory journalism as occurring when citizens contribute to professional journalists’ news production, such as by providing eyewitness imagery and observations, commenting on or liking a story, or even co-writing and editing stories. Citizen journalism refers to news produced by people untrained in journalism without the help of professional journalists, such as through blogs, websites, and social media posts.
My second discovery regarded the mission and goals of journalism. I found that although participatory and citizen journalisms share some aspects of public journalism, such as encouraging citizen interactivity and involvement in public life, they don’t necessarily share public journalism’s mission to improve public life by helping citizens identify, engage, and improve important civic issues. In contrast, the newer forms of journalism tend to seek to inform the audience or to create interactivity among users. Thus, the fulfillment of public journalism’s mission through these newer forms of journalism seems more the result of chance, luck, or exception than a necessary entailment of the practices themselves. I think that difference in mission or goal is important, as I’ll explain below.
My third discovery concerned scholars’ assumptions about citizens. Proponents and scholars of public journalism often made their assumptions about citizens explicit: they assumed citizens were willing to solve, and capable of solving, public problems. Consequently, they brought citizens into their work. Scholars of the newer forms of journalism rarely stated their assumptions about citizens explicitly, but they were implied in their findings and discussions. They assumed citizens are willing to actively participate in public life, but they offered conflicting assumptions about citizens’ capability to contribute to or produce journalism that aids public life.
On one hand, scholars implied that citizens are capable of aiding and, in some cases, even producing journalism that benefits public life. Particularly in the scholarship on participatory journalism, scholars assumed that ordinary citizens can effectively assist professional journalists’ creation of the news. They celebrated citizens’ collaboration with trained journalists and lamented professional reporters’ unwillingness to give more control of the news production process to such capable citizens. They called on professionals to shift their role from informing to engaging citizens in order to increasingly bring citizens’ contributions into their work.
On the other hand, scholars of the newer forms of journalism also implied that citizens are less capable than professional journalists of producing news and commentary that adequately serve public life. Though this assumption can be found in some of the research on participatory journalism, it most strikingly appeared in the scholarship on citizen journalism. When citizens worked on their own, scholars questioned their ability to produce news that achieved the quality or impact of news reported by trained journalists. Scholars advised professional journalists to remain closely involved in news production so as to guide citizens’ contributions and moderate their discussions.
I think these findings prompt several questions for scholars interested in the future of citizen-engaged journalism. Are citizens today capable of contributing to the news in ways that benefit the public’s welfare? I’m not always sure they are, especially with the circulation of fake news and politically motivated reporting. Yet I think public journalism showed us that this capability can exist if journalists nurture and facilitate it. Such an investment, however, assumes a news organization is devoted to empowering citizens to identify, deliberatively engage, and improve important public issues. That investment raises another question, prompted by my findings, about mission. Should journalists—trained or untrained—who work in digital contexts more purposefully adopt public journalism’s mission to improve public life? I think they should in order to help make citizen involvement with the media more purposeful, more deliberative, and more impactful on public life. The mission or goal would, ideally, drive more productive reporting practices and activities.
Of course, all of this means journalism scholars may need to find and study where citizens’ news efforts are already encouraging deliberative and productive civic engagement even when they alter the definition or production of news. By discovering the merits of such alterations, and not just lamenting their drawbacks, scholars might encourage professional journalists to expand and adapt their practices in the name of nurturing citizen involvement and improving public life.
Frankly, I’m continuing to think through these implications of my findings as I consider the feedback I gained at the National Communication Association national convention and from a journal reviewers as I work to revise and resubmit this essay for publication. After I make revisions, I plan to return to a case study I’ve written, but need to significantly revise, about two community newspapers that adapted the practices of public journalism for the 21st century. I’m also interested in keeping up with current collaborative efforts happening between people involved with journalism and with deliberation, such as through the Kettering Foundation and through the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) and Journalism That Matters. I think the fields of journalism and deliberation have much to gain and learn from each other as we move forward in thinking about how the news media might help readers deliberate important public issues.