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The School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina is delighted to announce the winner of the 2017 Ronald T. and Gayla D. Farrar Award in Media and Civil Rights History: R. Joseph Parrott, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. Professor Parrott wins the Farrar Award for his article published in the July–September 2015 issue of Race & Class: “A Luta Continua: Radical Filmmaking, Pan-African Liberation and Communal Empowerment.” This award recognizes the best journal article or chapter in an edited book on the historical relationship between media and civil rights published during the previous two years.
The contest judges, a national panel of three historians with expertise in civil rights and media history, selected Dr. Parrott’s article as the award winner from the largest field of submissions in the Farrar Award’s five competitions. In commenting on the award-winning study, the judges wrote:
“With a probing examination of activist filmmaking and transnational anti-imperialism efforts, this insightful, imaginative, deeply researched, and richly engrossing article compels us to rethink the temporal and spatial boundaries of the Black Freedom Struggle. Mining a range of compelling archival sources, including oral interviews and FBI reports, Parrott is to be commended for drawing renewed critical attention to (Robert) Van Lierop’s film and its profound impact among African American activists, journalists, and intellectuals.”
Dr. Parrott delivered the Farrar Award Lecture at the Media and Civil Rights History Symposium sponsored by the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina on Saturday, April 1.
Parrott completed his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, having held graduate fellowships with International Security Studies at Yale University, the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium at the University of Chicago. His dissertation, “Struggle for Solidarity: The New Left, African Decolonization, and the End of the Cold War Consensus,” is a broad transnational history that considers Portuguese decolonization in Africa as a noteworthy component in transforming western engagement with the global south. Parrott’s work cuts across intellectual, diplomatic, and socio-political history to illuminate how questions of race and empire drove the policy choices of U.S. leaders, African nationalists, and Portuguese officials, as well as the agenda of a wider western Left.
The Farrar Award judges were Drs. Patricia Sullivan (University of South Carolina), Phillip Jeter (Winston-Salem State University), and Bobby Donaldson (University of South Carolina).
Honoring University of South Carolina Professor Emeritus Ronald Farrar and his late wife, Gayla Dennis Farrar, this award recognizes the best journal article or chapter in an edited collection on the historical relationship between the media and civil rights. Ronald Farrar joined the faculty of what was then the College of Journalism and Mass Communications in 1986. He served as the College’s interim dean from July 1999 until his retirement in 2001. During his time at the College, Farrar served as director of graduate studies, helped develop the school's mass communications doctorate program and was instrumental in the development of Newsplex, a training center to define and demonstrate best practices for the future of journalism and strategic communication. He is a noted journalism history scholar and has published multiple textbooks about journalism, media history and media law. Gayla Farrar was an instructor of English at Arkansas State University and the University of Missouri. A scholarship is named in her honor at the University of Mississippi. She also devoted her time to helping journalism students at the University of South Carolina, including many international students. (Source: University of South Carolina press release)
By Erika Pribanic-Smith, University of Texas-Arlington
When AJHA met in Salt Lake City in October 1993, organizers chose a local woman with far-reaching impact as the recipient of the organization’s first Distinguished Contributions to Journalism History Award.
Elma “Pem” Gardner Farnsworth received the award at a reception sponsored by Deseret News and KSL television/radio for her work toward developing the technology to broadcast television.
Time Magazine named her husband Philo T. Farnsworth the “Father of Television.” Don Godfrey and Alf Pratte wrote in Journalism History (Summer 1994) that historians had overlooked Pem’s involvement, even though Philo himself had stated, “My wife and I started this TV.” Godfrey and Pratte’s essay outlines Pem’s contributions.
A Utah native, Pem got engaged to Philo on her 18th birthday. From then on, she devoted her life to supporting Philo’s work, including keeping the log books of Philo’s experiments and spot welding tube elements. A photograph of Pem and her brother—who worked as a glass blower in Philo’s lab—was among the first images of humans to be televised.
Godfrey and Pratte’s essay notes that Pem always was humble about her contributions, generally diverting attention to her husband’s genius. Co-organizer of the Salt Lake City conference, Pratte said that when he and his Brigham Young University colleague Jack Nelson invited Pem to be honored, she was “hesitant and scared to speak before such a large and prestigious group.” Nonetheless, she attended, and AJHA members gave her a standing ovation.
Attendees of the convention remember the event fondly. Julie Williams said she found the award presentation meaningful in that AJHA gave Pem the credit she deserved. David Copeland said he continues to use some of Pem’s remarks in his media history classes.
“She talked about meeting Philo and dancing to jazz,” Copeland said. “She was a delightful person.”
Leonard Teel recalled that Pem gave AJHA heartfelt thanks, mostly because the organization remembered her husband. Copeland noted that part of her talk centered on her decades-long fight to get Philo recognition for his work; Philo had died in 1971.
“Even in 1993, she had not given up and believed he had been robbed of much,” Copeland said.
Godfrey and Pratte’s Journalism History essay explains that the large electronics corporation RCA fought the Farnsworths’ claims to television’s invention. Ultimately, the Farnsworths won their patent case against RCA, but RCA “won the public recognition battle”—a victory Pem still was working to reverse at the time AJHA honored her.
Pem’s obituary in the April 26, 2006, issue of the Salt Lake Tribune indicates that she continued fighting to obtain credit for her husband until her death.
Godfrey, who gave the opening remarks and introduction at the 1993 AJHA award reception, penned a biography of Philo that the University of Utah Press re-published in paperback last year.
Others interested in conducting research on the Farnsworths’ work will find a substantial collection at the University of Utah, where Pem donated her husband’s papers.
AJHA will return to Salt Lake City next year for its 37th annual convention. However, the Awards Committee currently is accepting nominations for this year’s Distinguished Service Award, to be presented at the 36th annual convention in Little Rock. For details, see ajha.wildapricot.org/distinguished-service
The 2017 AEJMC History Division Book Award, honoring the best journalism and mass communication history book published in 2016, has been won by Robert G. Parkinson for The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press). Parkinson is an assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, where he teaches courses in colonial America, the American Revolution and Founding, American slavery, and Native American history.
A panel of three distinguished media historians chose The Common Cause from a field of 26 entries. The judges praised Parkinson’s “impressive archival and primary source work that led to a fundamental revision of two historiographical streams: the history of the American Revolution and the history of journalism.” The Common Cause argues that patriot leaders united the thirteen colonies by defining the British as the enemies of American freedom, using narratives about resistant slaves, hostile Indians, and German mercenaries that would imbed ideas of racial difference into the ideology of the new nation.
Parkinson, who will receive a plaque and a cash prize, has been invited to speak about his work during the History Division business meeting on Friday, August 11 (7:00 - 8:30 p.m.) at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication convention in Chicago.
(Editor’s Note: Dr. Victor Pickard presented the paper, “Communication’s Forgotten Narratives: The Lost History of Charles Siepmann and Critical Policy Research,” at the National Communication Association convention in November 2016 in Philadelphia. The Intelligencer asked Prof. Pickard to tell us more about how and why he’s been researching Charles Siepmann, including why it’s important and interesting to the field.)
By Victor Pickard
University of Pennsylvania (Annenberg School for Communication)
The intellectual history of communication research has much to recover, especially from its critical traditions that have been marginalized within standard historiographies. These include Marxist political economy, critical cultural studies, and social democratic policy research. Elevating these traditions’ histories is inherently a political project since narratives about the field often reflect tacit assumptions about the parameters of legitimate scholarship and discursive boundaries. Dominant historical narratives typically emphasize certain sub-fields and research traditions while de-emphasizing others, suggesting deeper tensions and larger erasures in the communication field’s history. One such neglected thread that I focus on in my research is embodied by a reformist policy scholar who is all but forgotten in communication research: Charles Siepmann.
A BBC programming director in the 1930s and the author of the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial “Blue Book” report in the 1940s, Charles Siepmann figures prominently in my recent book America’s Battle for Media Democracy. My ongoing research, however, goes beyond focusing on his role as a leading media reformer to begin recovering his legacy—and also his disappearance—in the academic field of communication. For over the past decade I have been tracking down Siepmann’s surviving students and acquaintances, and searching for archival and textual traces of his teaching, research, and activism. For someone who was so prolific and visible, his omission from the academic historical record is glaring.
Siepmann fled to the academy at a critical moment in the 1940s when the field of communication was first forming. After fleeing an increasingly toxic Washington, D.C., as anti-communist hysteria began to take hold, Seipmann joined New York University in 1946 to become the founding director of arguably the first American doctorate-granting communication program. For over two decades, he mentored dozens of media scholars and practitioners and authored a number of influential books. His scholarship typically engaged with key policy problems and he often spoke out publicly on issues related to media reform. For his entire time in the academy and afterwards until his death in the mid-1980s, he was a prominent public intellectual who intervened in key policy debates across three countries. In addition to remaining engaged with British media policy debates long after he left the BCC in the late 1930s, his policy activism extended to Canada, where in 1949 he led a comprehensive survey of Canadian broadcasting for the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences (the “Massey Commission”).
However, most of his efforts were focused on American media policy, where for over three decades he fought tirelessly to establish public-interest broadcasting. While advocating for a more socially responsible commercial media system, he also pushed for nonprofit educational programming. For example, he advised the National Educational Television Center (NET) during its struggle to define an American vision for educational/public broadcasting. He also was a key adviser on educational broadcasting for the Ford Foundation, which played an instrumental role in establishing American public broadcasting in the late 1960s. Carrying BBC-inspired social democratic visions, he valued a structurally diverse media system, a “mixed system” involving public interest protections, subsidies, and active community engagement, while allowing both commercial and noncommercial models of media production to flourish. Most important, Siepmann’s social democratic orientation recognized that media are not just business commodities but also public services, and such critical services and infrastructures shouldn’t be left entirely to the market’s mercy.
Despite this engagement, Siepmann goes almost entirely unmentioned in communication’s historiography. Why has he been forgotten? I suggest in my research—and I plan to further develop this argument in a future book project—that such absences reflect ideological orientations in the field that are rarely examined. Historically, much of the communication field has been characterized by a liberal consensus that, to varying degrees, embraces pluralism and tolerance toward a diverse range of theoretical frameworks and methodologies. This ecumenical approach has yielded many benefits and overall the field has been richer for it, even encouraging communication departments to occasionally hire radical scholars. This orientation has led toward diversifying students and faculty in terms of race, gender, and sexuality, with a greater emphasis on globalizing communication research. But these positive developments notwithstanding, the field’s liberal pluralist center has been too often complacent toward—and thus indirectly complicit in—core structural problems such as inequality and racism that require more activist-oriented types of research. In general, an implicit defense—or quiet acquiescence—vis-à-vis status quo power relationships, especially as they pertain to accommodating a commercial media system, has persisted throughout the communication field’s history.
Many factors contribute to this de-politicization. The field’s early social science influences tend to privilege the predictive and descriptive over the prescriptive and normative. Furthermore, tendencies in the field to acknowledge only limited media effects, valorize active audiences, and celebrate the affordances of new technologies may also disfavor more critical and structural analyses. And in some cases, the field’s direction has been steered by more overtly ideological forces. Indeed, radical traditions that intervene against structural inequities have often been pushed to the discursive margins, especially during the Cold War era when various kinds of red-baiting and surveillance were common. National security imperatives and corporate influences during the field’s early days also left a mark. Although the Frankfurt School’s influence usually receives at least a nod in the received origin narratives, critical scholars such as C. Wright Mills, Dallas Smythe, and Charles Siepmann are not central characters in such historical dramas, while Wilbur Schramm, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Robert Merton are granted this special status.
To be sure, critical sub-fields have persisted and even flourished at times, and even most mainstream approaches have at least implicitly embraced normative commitments toward positive social change. Moreover, a diversity of tactics, whether activist or academic, are required to confront today’s myriad problems, and advocating for field that’s rigidly defined by political agendas is counter-productive. Nonetheless, given our contemporary moment, more engaged research is needed, which requires a broader political imaginary and a commitment to social justice. To ignore the historical decisions and conflicts that helped shape the communication field as it now exists is to render it impossible to have an informed debate about the field’s future possibilities.
Forgotten activist scholars like Charles Siepmann may help open up alternative trajectories. His insights are as vital now for digital media—including debates about the future of journalism, public media, and even the internet—as they were 50 years ago for broadcasting. If anything, Donald Trump’s ascendance in the US, the Brexit decision in the UK, and the rise of far-right parties around the world suggest a failure of core institutions and democracy-sustaining processes, including media and information systems. The problems facing democratic societies today—the collapse of journalism, worsening inequality, structural racism and xenophobia—demand that scholars fully engage with political struggles. This will require recovering and mainstreaming critical scholarship that aims to not merely study and describe the world, but to also change it.
By Gerry Lanosga
For many years I have had a fascination with journalism prizes, but my interest in them started out in a very narrow way. Initially, I was simply seeking a means of documenting the extent of investigative reporting in American journalism during the first half of the twentieth century. I found what I was looking for in the little-examined administrative records of the Pulitzer Prizes, which contained details not only about prize winners but about thousands of non-winning entries going all the way back to 1917.(1)
In that limited approach, I was following the lead of others who have used prizes in a strictly instrumental fashion. Before long, however, I began thinking about prizes on their own terms, with a history of their own that could offer a unique vantage point to study journalism’s professional culture. As my research expanded beyond the Pulitzers, I came to realize that journalism prizes don’t exist in a closed system. Rather, they are susceptible to external influences and likewise can make an impact beyond the journalistic professional sphere.(2)
That is certainly the case with the Maria Moors Cabot prizes, the subject of my research-in-progress presentation at the AJHA conference in St. Petersburg last year. The Cabot prizes were launched in 1939 by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, home of the Pulitzer Prizes. Named in honor of the diplomat John Moors Cabot’s late mother, the prizes were the first international awards for journalism, established with the official aim of recognizing journalism that “advances public understanding and sympathy among the peoples of any two countries in the Western Hemisphere.”
The first Cabot prizes were given to two South American newspapers, whose leaders were feted during a weeklong celebration in New York. The official story of the awards was told in grand speeches with lofty rhetoric about international friendship, mutual aid, and journalism as a tool of public education. But behind the press releases and speech transcripts there is an intriguing origin story of a top journalistic institution that worked closely and secretly with the U.S. State Department on the prizes at a time when the United States was wary of developing security threats south of its borders. The prizes were shaped in important ways by top foreign policy officials, and in turn they played an important role in promoting American journalistic and political norms in Latin America.
This compelling back story emerges from the letters of Columbia’s first journalism dean, Carl Ackerman, a prominent but somewhat-neglected figure in early twentieth century journalism history.(3) The official school files at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, as well as Ackerman’s personal papers at the Library of Congress, contain correspondence that details an extensive collaboration between the dean and various diplomatic officials over the course of more than two decades of Cabot prizes.
At the time of the prize founding, John Moors Cabot was assigned to the American legation in the Netherlands, but he would go on to serve as ambassador to four Latin American nations and also as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs. Cabot came up with the idea of the prizes and recruited his father, industrialist and philanthropist Godfrey Cabot, to help endow them.
Cabot, of course, figures prominently in the correspondence files, but Ackerman also had numerous and detailed contacts with other State Department officials, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull, various under-secretaries, and ambassadors to a number of Latin American countries. While Cabot and Ackerman’s early letters suggest a reluctance for the program to become “semi-official,” it is clear from the overall record that the State Department played more than a casual role in the prizes. Correspondence reveals Ackerman met with Department brass throughout 1937 and 1938 seeking advice and sub rosa endorsement of the prize idea. He called Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle an advocate for “final approval” of the prizes. Once the competition was established, he routinely communicated with “friends” in the Department about the choices for prize winners. He also sought guidance from top journalists of the day, at least some of whom were also closely connected with State Department officials.
U.S. foreign policy toward at the time was becoming increasingly preoccupied with German and Italian penetration in Latin America, as well as the beginnings of Russian activity in the hemisphere. Ackerman was eager to provide backing for a defense of democracy and American journalistic values. He even described the prizes as a “journalistic Good Neighbor program,” embracing the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s official policy toward Latin America. At the same time, this alignment with government officials and policy was not for public consumption. For instance, Ackerman wrote to Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler in 1938, “From the beginning of my conversations with the Cabots and with Latin American journalists I have emphasized that this is an educational project – not the byproduct of any governmental enterprise. Therefore, my present intention is not to make any reference to the private action of Dr. Cabot in obtaining the “okay” of the State Department.” Naturally, Ackerman’s own back-channel communications with the Department were also kept under cloak of secrecy.
The Cabot prizes present a fascinating case that sheds light on journalistic acquiescence in the government’s post-World War I project of spreading American political ideals. Margaret Blanchard has demonstrated how the press joined hands with the government in “exporting the First Amendment.”(4) My study uncovers a similar effort to promote American journalistic principles that also helped support U.S. geopolitical priorities in the face of increasing totalitarian influence in Latin America.
(1) Lanosga, Gerry. “New views of investigative reporting in the twentieth century,” American Journalism 31, no. 4 (2014): 490-506.
(2) Lanosga, Gerry. “The power of the prize: How an emerging prize culture helped shape journalistic practice and professionalism, 1917-1960.” Journalism 16, no. 7 (2015): 953-967.
(3) A recent study examines how Ackerman secretly worked with foreign policy officials during World War I. See McCune, Meghan Menard and John Maxwell Hamilton. “‘My object is to be of service to you’: Carl Ackerman and the Wilson administration during WWI.” Intelligence and National Security, online first publication, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02684527.2017.1294643.
(4) Blanchard, Margaret A. Exporting the First Amendment: The Press-Governance Crusade of 1945-1952. White Plains, N.Y.: Longman Inc (1986).
David Sloan reports that the 10th edition of his The Media in America textbook was published in February. It includes several new items that AJHA members wrote. Erika Pribanic-Smith (University of Texas-Arlington) and Rob Rabe (Marshall University) wrote historiographical essays for the chapters, and Erin Coyle (LSU), Tracy Lucht (Iowa State), and Ford Risley (Penn State) wrote one-page features. AJHA members also serve as authors of most of the book’s 25 chapters.
By Dave Vergobbi
The 2016 presidential election was the seventh one I’ve taught through here at the University of Utah, and this one has impacted my courses unlike any previous election. What I’ve found is that journalism history has never been more central to educating not just students, but citizens. Because when the democratic process and democracy itself becomes the constant touchstone of a course, the Fourth Estate’s historical checking value provides students purpose, context, meaning, and application for those courses outside the classroom. Journalism history provides students a way to understand how and why the ideal of democracy is supposed to work.
A recent media law class session on newsgathering exemplifies my point. Students were polarized on the Freedom of Information Act. The only thing they seemed to agree upon was that it wasn’t needed, and why was I bothering them about it. The larger group argued that the government is in charge of government information and if the government doesn’t want to release the information then it knows best; that’s why we put those people in charge. Appalled, the smaller group argued for full transparency, exemptions be damned. History proffered the common ground for resolution and understanding.
We discussed the long 11-year battle to pass the FOIA, and how two historically adversarial institutions, sharing a common frustration over lack of access to administrative agency records, became highly unlikely confederates to wage and win that battle. I shared how the pre-FOIA press had to rely on agency handouts that favorably summarized detailed information when the reporters wanted to see the original documents. Students were more surprised to realize that Congress itself—The Federal Government—could not get information out of the federal administrative agencies, which consistently refused requests from Congressional investigators. The two institutions finally came together in 1955 thanks to Representative John Moss from California, chairman of a House subcommittee on government information and an access-to-information bulldog. After 11 years of hearings, debate and deal-making the bill passed and, even though every administrative agency asked President Lyndon Johnson to veto it, Johnson made it law in 1966. And the students yawned.
But when my students understood the democratic motives that drove Congress and, especially, the press, the discussion shifted. We started with the United States ratifying the First Amendment in 1791, when James Madison reasoned in the National Gazette on December 19 that “[w]hatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, [such] as…a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people, is…favorable to liberty.” Also, how Madison maintained his view in an 1822 letter concerning “Public Instruction” to William Barry that emphasized citizen access to government information as the basis of self-governance. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both,” Madison wrote, “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
I passed on a quote from a 1960 report of the House Committee on Government Operations right in the middle of the FOIA battle that said, “Secrecy—the first refuge of incompetents—must be at a bare minimum in a democratic society, for a fully informed public is the basis of self-government,” then showed the students how the report channeled John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s influential 1720 “Cato Letter No. 15.”
I reminded students of how our friend from early in the semester, Thomas Emerson, connected past to present in “Colonial Intentions and Current Realities of the First Amendment” (1977) when he clarified that a key democratic function of the press was as purveyor of critical information. “The public, as sovereign, must have all information available to instruct its servants, the government,” Emerson wrote. “[T]here can be no holding back of information; otherwise, ultimate decision-making by the people, to whom the function is committed, becomes impossible.”
With these and other historical arguments, students started to see and discuss how the democratic self-governing process depends upon an informed citizenry, which in turn depends on the free press — Herbert Altschull’s Democratic Assumption. They began to see and discuss how the news media use open record laws and their First Amendment guarantee to bare the secrets of government and inform the people, and why they have to inform the people. That 40-minute visitation with journalism history showed students how and why news media earn their constitutional protection by providing citizens a marketplace for discussing diverse, often conflicting ideas; a voice for public opinion; surveillance of the political scene and politician performance; and a public watchdog or checking value that uncovers governmental misbehavior, corruption and abuses of power.
This discussion did have an impact. I didn’t get to all the issues and points I wanted to make that day, but it has been one of the semester’s most rewarding and successful class sessions. My bet is that you’ve had similar experiences in your courses this year.
However incorporated in whatever class, journalism history provides students purpose, context, meaning, and application for our courses outside the classroom. Journalism history is more relevant than ever because it produces informed, engaged citizens. Go make that argument to your chair, dean, RTP board, provost, vice president and president. To assist you in that argument, I’ll be emailing you the AJHA Board of Directors’ draft of guidelines “that identify important considerations historians can use to provide context for evaluating their work.” Please look for it and provide the board input and suggestions. Thank you, and enjoy your spring.
Provincial Newspapers: Lessons from History
to be held at the Journalism Department,
Liverpool John Moores University on September 8, 2017.
Closing date for proposals: 1 June 2017
Papers are invited for a one-day conference on the theme of provincial, regional and local newspapers. The conference is being jointly organized by media historians from Coventry University and Liverpool John Moores University at a time when newsprint journalism has moved from the intensive care ward and obituaries are being pondered and some written. Yet local and regional journalism has been challenged before and emerged altered if not unscathed. This event will bring industry representatives and academics together to take a retrospective look at the current conundrum faced by the regional local newspaper industry in an effort to extrapolate lessons for the future.
We welcome paper proposals from all eras and nationalities, shedding new light on longstanding or recent media historical topics. We anticipate sessions of 90 minutes (20 minutes per paper plus 30 minutes of questions /discussion). It is expected that suitable papers will be developed into chapters for an edited volume on this subject for Routledge.
Themes to explore might include (but are not limited to):
The event is organized by Dr. Guy Hodgson, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at LJMU, and Dr. Rachel Matthews, Principal Lecturer in Journalism, Coventry University. In order to encourage a wide range of papers, there will be no conference fee and lunch will be provided.
Please include an abstract of no more than 300 words and a cover sheet with a brief biographical note, your institutional affiliation (where relevant) and your contact details (including your email address). Abstracts should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>
Closing date for proposals: 1 June 2017.
You will be notified of the acceptance of your paper by 15 June 2017.
More details can be found at: https://historyoftheprovincialpress.wordpress.com.
(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.
NPHFI Tenth Annual Conference, Newcastle University, UK, 10-11 November 2017
Fake news is a term that has become familiar in late 2016 and early 2017, not least because of international political developments. But is it necessarily a new phenomenon? The control, presentation and manipulation of news has played a key role in the, sometimes tumultuous, history of Anglo-Irish relations. And a similarly important role in the assertion and subversion of power in colonial, totalitarian and radical societies throughout history worldwide.
To what extent does fake news, and its close relative propaganda, represent active falsification of information and the dissemination of misinformation, as opposed to the reporting of mistakes or errors due to confusion? What are the implications of the accusation of fake news for a report or news outlet? How does historical perspective change the evaluation of whether something is fake news? The Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland (NPHFI) seeks to investigate this phenomenon and its historical application in the print media at its tenth annual conference. Papers are invited that interrogate and/or challenge these questions from a range of disciplinary perspectives. The focus of papers should be on print media.
Topics that may be addressed include, but are not, limited to:
Papers may address any historical period, up to and including the present day, and any geographical region.
To submit a proposal please email an abstract of no more than 250 words to the NPHFI secretary, Dr James O’Donnell, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Abstracts must contain a clear title and present clearly the main thesis/ argument proposed. Each abstract must also include name(s), affiliation, institutional address and email address(es) of the author(s).
Deadline for submission of abstracts: 31 May 2017
The Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland seeks to achieve gender balance on its conference panels and welcomes proposals from researchers of all career stages working in academia, media, and in professional organizations.
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