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Public Journalism and the Problem of Objectivity

By Philip Meyer

One measure of the discomfort that journalists feel over the concept of public journalism is the great variety of names given it, e.g. civic journalism, citizen journalism, community journalism, or communitarian journalism. It's as though all who try some version of it want to distance themselves from the questionable practices of the others. At the core of these efforts, however, lies an interesting and potentially useful new idea -- even though it may be an idea that is in serious danger of being captured by people whom many of us would regard as the bad guys.

Part of the blame for the confusion must go to the early promoters of public journalism who have steadfastly refused to give it a definition or anything more than a vague theoretical structure. Because it is an idea in development, they say, a definition would needlessly limit it. Maybe so. But one consequence is that debating public journalism is like arguing over a Rorschach test. Each sees in it the manifestation of his or her fondest hopes or worst fears.

Anyone prepared to defend it, therefore, should be very specific about what is being defended. The public journalism in which I am interested in participating has the following defining elements:

  1. A desire to rebuild a community's sense of itself. This amounts to a long-delayed realization by newspapers that they and the cause of their problems are parts of a single system. As John Gardner told a seminal meeting of Knight-Ridder editorial writers in 1989, "Newspaper readership is unlikely to turn upward as long as the sense of community continues downward ... their fate is linked."
  2. A longer attention span. Instead of flitting from event to event, a news medium should stay with a problem or issue -- even at the risk of redundancy -- until it has focused community attention on all its aspects and citizens can deliberate rationally about it.
  3. A willingness to go deeply into explaining the systems that direct our lives. Event-focused reporting is not just narrow in time, it is shallow in depth. It does not help the audience see beyond the surface and into the underlying sources of the community's problems.
  4. More attention to the rational middle ground of issues and less attention to extremes. In teaching statistical concepts to reporters, I notice how irresistibly they are drawn to the tails of the normal distribution. They sense news in those bizarre extremes. But in democratic decision making, most of the people, and their actions, are found in the middle.
  5. A preference for substance over tactics in covering political argument. With his The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White inspired a genre of political writing that treats an election as a sporting event. Every move is evaluated, not for its effect on the community, but for its tactical value to the political player. The motivation of politicians is a thing worth knowing, but it is far from the only thing.
  6. A desire to foster deliberation. Expressing your views is a good thing. Making an earnest attempt to understand someone else's views is equally important. Helping and encouraging members of a community to make that earnest attempt at reciprocal understanding is a key aspect of the public journalism we need.

Each of these six goals is consistent with the traditional notion of the journalist as a free society's watchdog. Their purpose is to focus the watchdog's effort in a time of information overload. This focus, not the underlying function, is the new element. It is needed because of the transition from a society where information was scarce to one where it is in surplus. The new scarce good is public attention. Focusing the light of public attention on any one problem long enough to spark discourse leading to a solution is the object of public journalism. Therefore, a generic term for the various strains of public journalism might be "focus journalism" or "discourse journalism."

Information overload has affected more than the mass media. It is has led to a narrowing of individual concerns that has pushed libertarian individualism -- the tradition that created the constitutional role of journalists -- beyond anything envisioned by its founding thinkers. Information technology has allowed citizens to cocoon themselves into states of high specialization and concern for their own needs and rights to the exclusion of the communities of which they are a part. The first to notice this were moral philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas in Germany and Robert Bellah in the USA. But now social scientists are documenting it with data. Sociologist Amitai Etzioni and political scientists Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama have all written seminal books arguing that our economic, social and political well-being are endangered by the loss of community associated with radical and unrestrained individualism. Critics of public journalism claim that it is merely a profit-maximizing strategy for newspapers, and they challenge management to show that it is changing the bottom line. But this is not a bottom-line issue. Public journalism, properly done, is an immediate net cost to the news media that practice it. They put out the money and the effort, and all they get in return is the possible distant salvation of the communities that support them. Etzioni, in his The Spirit of Community, argues as a liberal seeking to conserve liberal values. Over-emphasis on one of those values, unrestrained individualism, he says, threatens the rest.

It is that tension between core values and their current application that is the source of the controversy among journalists over public journalism. Our professional values come from the same enlightenment sources that gave us libertarian individualism. In the second half of this century, journalism has been tugged at by two competing sets of values, libertarian theory on the one hand, and social responsibility theory on the other. The latter was popularized by Robert M. Hutchins and his commission which published A Free and Responsible Press in 1947. Most of us have preferred the libertarian theory.

The reason lies in the historic power of the press and the community's response to it. The power of a free press, as John Milton noticed from the very beginning, is immense. As a result, everybody wants a piece of it. Not everybody can own a printing press, but everybody can try to gain some influence over those who do. The variety of methods is well known: advertiser pressure, establishing a personal relationship with the editor or publisher, litigation or the threat of litigation, and the public relations industry.

The latter is especially irritating to we news people. Which of us has not felt some twinge of resentment upon noticing some flack who dresses better than we and drives a nicer car and earns that living by selling influence that he or she claims to wield over us? The possibility that the influence is real only makes it worse. It's created by identifying our soft spots, our need to get news into the paper or on the air cheaply and easily and therefore supplying the handouts or the pseudo-events that make such economies possible.

To counter these threats to our independence, we have created social, moral, and ideological barriers that define news people as a race apart, distant, detached, and uninfluenced by anything but a dogged desire to discover and impart the truth regardless of its consequences. That stance fits nicely with enlightenment individualism. Social responsibility theory in the 1950s and public journalism today are perceived as threats to that independence.

Moral philosophers have a word for this stance: nonconsequentialism. It refers to Immanuel Kant's notion that a good rule is more important than its consequences. Thus we prefer to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may; give light and the people will find their own way. Our rule is find the facts and get them out. Period.

Such unbending absolutism has a side benefit that is important to our business. An absolutist can make decisions quickly. A moral dilemma arises, you pull out the appropriate rule, apply it, and the problem is gone. You go back to getting out that day's paper or broadcast. Other ethical systems require a lot of weighing and judging. We don't have time to run a cost-benefit analysis on every decision.

This good fit of individual libertarian theory with the ability to do our jobs efficiently and fairly has made us justifiably fond of the theory and its philosophical underpinnings. It kept our predecessors from embracing social responsibility theory when the Hutchins Commission first advanced it, and it is making many of us suspicious of public journalism. And the suspicion is justified.

Because of the absence of a well-formed theory of public journalism or even a definition, it can easily become camouflage for all the myriad special interests that want to get a piece of the power of the media. The Chamber of Commerce wants to tear up a park to build a convention center? Support it in the name of public journalism. You don't know what issues to cover in the coming election? Let the readers, while under the spell of the most vocal interest groups, vote on it in a poll commissioned in the name of public journalism. Is reporting on the local crime problem bad for retail business? Suppress it in the name of public journalism.

All of this is theory. I do not have direct personal knowledge of any news organization that is doing any of these things and calling it public journalism. I do know, however, that as new ideas diffuse throughout our business, they tend to get cheaper and cruder in application -- like the USA Today weather map. That map was a wonderfully creative improvement on traditional weather reporting, and the editors decided to let it run the full width of the page. But the aspect ratio of a true map of the USA gives it too much depth. To save space, the artist tilted the map so that it would fit in less vertical space. To alert readers to this distortion, the tilt was emphasized by the addition of a three-dimensional edge at the bottom. Now weather pages in newspapers throughout the world are illustrated by imitators who never got the point. They show small maps, normal aspect ratios -- and the USA Today three-dimensional edge.

Public journalism will also have imitators who never get the point. Adding to the certainty of this proposition is the cruel fact that corruptions of public journalism are a lot cheaper than the real thing. Yielding to pressure to be a community booster is easy and cheap. Gathering and presenting the facts that stimulate public deliberation is difficult and expensive.

How expensive? Let me count two of the ways.

  1. You can't do public journalism without a certain amount of public opinion research. I am not referring to the traditional kind of polling that keeps score in a political campaign or that provides an informal referendum on a specific issue. Such polls are sometimes worth doing, but they are as likely to discourage deliberation as encourage it. If a pre-election poll is presented as implying that the voters have decided and the campaign is over, it can discourage further deliberation. Paradoxically, frequent polls can help by arousing interest, calling attention to the volatility of voter preferences, and diminishing the importance of any single poll. Issue polls can help the deliberation process if they concentrate on subsets of the population. Too many news media hit a topic with a poll once and then retire from the scene as if the majority preference had settled everything and no more needed to be said. In fact, the majority probably has not thought about the issue very much, and the top-of-the-head reaction collected in a poll can be quite different from what would result from serious thought and deliberation. The best political leaders use such polls not to let the public tell it what to do but to determine the starting point for bringing the public up to speed in understanding the issue. Another public journalism application of issue polls is to help persons of different views understand one another, to enable the public to practice what philosopher Habermas calls "discourse ethics," i.e. a genuine willingness to work to understand what and how one's opponents are thinking. (Habermas is the source of some of Daniel Yankelovich's ideas in Coming to Public Judgment. Yankelovich in turn inspired W. Davis Merritt when he wrote Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough.) Some of the first applications of Precision Journalism in the 1960s were polls that highlighted the diversity within new political movements that traditional reporting viewed as monolithic, e.g. the civil rights movement and the youthful anti-war protests. Such polls helped citizens with different experiences and interests understand one another. So true public journalism requires multiple polls rather than one-shot polls or no polls at all. It also makes use of focus groups to generate ideas and associations of ideas for things to ask about that might not have occurred to editors and reporters thinking alone in their cubicles. Polls and focus groups cost money.
  2. You can't do public journalism without a commitment to reporting at a depth that gets to structural explanations for the things that happen in community. Public deliberation needs a common core of facts to deliberate about. Such reporting takes some very specialized skills. Several years ago, Peter M. Senge wrote an article in Sloan Management Review arguing that business organizations should abandon top-down directives for a process of continuous learning in which the people in the field share perceptions and learn from each other. He was talking about leadership in business organizations, and his article was called "The Leader's New Work: Building Learning Organizations." But the same kind of a case can be made for community survival, or even for society's survival. Our communities need to become deliberating, learning communities, and our media can help them do so by showing citizens how to see beyond the surface events and into the underlying causes of their problems. They need to see, in Senge's words, "new possibilities for shaping the future." To see these possibilities, he said, we need to view reality at three different levels of abstraction:
    1. Events
    2. Patterns
    3. Structures

Most news coverage is about events because events are cheap and easy to cover. Television's preference for bloody images is not due to cynical manipulation of primitive tastes so much as the fact that it doesn't take a lot in the way of money or brains to chase an ambulance and shoot what it arrives at. Newspapers like stenographic coverage of public meetings because it is a cheap and relatively mindless way to fill up white space. Such coverage does not bother to relate one event to another. Each day is an information-tight compartment unrelated to all the other days.

At Senge's second level of abstracting information, perceiving patterns, a little more skill is called for. In the 1970s, the Philadelphia Inquirer pioneered in creating a trends desk. Changes across time or across physical distance create patterns that we can perceive and act on to head off trouble or grasp opportunities.

The third level is the hardest to discover and to communicate: the underlying systemic structure that causes the events that form the patterns. If the reporters who can do that were paid more, there would be more of them. Jim Steele and Don Barlett pulled it off with the Philadelphia Inquirer's blockbuster America: What Went Wrong? Steve Doig of The Miami Herald did it when he found the direct association between corrupt building inspection and damage from Hurricane Andrew.

This new breed of reporters is capable of supplying us with the public journalism we need and the solution to its objectivity problem. This solution requires changing the definition of objectivity a little bit, but that's okay. The old one was never very good anyway.

Objectivity, as defined by the knee-jerk, absolutist school of media ethics, means standing so far from the community that you see all events and all viewpoints as equally distant and important -- or unimportant. It is implemented by giving equal weight to all viewpoints and assertions --or, if not, all an interesting variety within a socially acceptable spectrum. The result is a laying out of facts in a sterile, noncommittal manner, and then standing back to "let the reader decide" which view is true.

This, in effect, is objectivity of result, defining objectivity not by the way we go about our business of gathering and interpreting the news, but by what we put in the paper. It can be measured out: so many lines for this group, so many for that. In an effort to be fair, we sprinkle our resources to produce as even an effect as we can.

Critics of objectivity get a lot to chew on when that is the definition. And one form of reaction is to declare that objectivity is impossible. No matter how delicately we sprinkle, we'll never get it right. Might as well be honest about it, these critics say, listen to our subjective inner voices, and write and report from a clearly stated point of view. Some journalists who think that way will surely seize on public journalism as an excuse to do it.

And even the advocates of public journalism, Davis Merritt in particular, admit that it is a hazard. When you start caring about how public debate goes, even if you don't prefer a particular outcome, you start making subjective decisions about what to focus on and when. Journalistic passivity is abandoned. One solution is to draw a line somewhere on the slippery slope, be subjective up to that point, and then stop.

There is a better solution, and it is already being adopted by reporters who use data-intense methods. Investigative reporters like Barlett and Steele in Philadelphia and Steve Doig in Miami practice objectivity of method, not objectivity of result. Barlett and Steele are mad as hell about the way things are going in America, and their writing shows it. A piece of Doig's roof was torn off by Andrew, and he wasn't happy about that. But both reporting projects followed the objective scientific standard of replicability. They informed their investigations with theories about the underlying causes of events. They developed operational tests of those theories. And they documented the steps in executing their tests with a paper trail that any other investigator could find and follow and come out with the same results.

This is scientific method applied to the practice of journalism. One of its beauties is that it requires no departure at all from the enlightenment philosophy that gave us our stance of prickly individualism. The political philosophers of the eighteenth century derived their ideas from the development of scientific method. Free expression should be encouraged, John Milton argued, because new things are learned every day, and an idea that seems false now might be proved true tomorrow. And even a false idea could contain a kernel of truth that, exposed to light, would grow and prevail.

Scientific method was developed to protect human investigators from the unconscious tricks of self-deception that afflict us all. Its procedures of peer review, replicability, and falsifiable hypotheses protect journalists as well, including those who practice public journalism.

That's why there is a potential connection between computer-assisted investigative reporting and public journalism. To get at the structural analyses that will fuel public deliberation, we need data-rich investigation. And to manage large bodies of data, we need not only computers but a disciplined method that allows us to ask a question of the data in a way that we will not be fooled by answer.

With such a capability, we can help our communities find the structural leverage points that lead to opportunity or disaster. For example, ordinary reporting is not very good at focusing on situations where there is a long time lag between a policy and its consequences. Dade County, through both corruption and weakening of regulations, started diluting its hurricane protection standards in the 1960s. The consequences were not perceived until Andrew hit in 1994. Even then, the connection might not have been made without Steve Doig's computer and his ability to discover statistical relationships.

The proper goal of public journalism is to create a learning community, one that discusses issues, not just on the basis of emotion but on facts about how things work. Abandoning the traditional stance of journalistic objectivity to practice public journalism need not be a bad thing if we can substitute objectivity of journalistic method. It's a better standard anyway, and it can keep us honest.

Without such discipline, public journalism could take us down the same roads being explored by in academe by philosphers of the post-modern persuasion. They, too, are tired of objectivity. Truth, they argue, is "socially constructed." Whether a proposition is objectivley true is less important than whether it deserves to be true. They will make allowances for the need for objectivity in the hard sciences like physics and chemistry but disallow it in the soft sciences like economics or sociology. The quest for truth has become that politicized.

The parallel between post-modern philosophy and existing and potential developments in journalism is worth following. Journalists and academics are both pledged to discover and impart the truth. Both take their missions from the same eighteenth century enlightenment philosophy. And both are motivated to use the light of truth to help the oppressed and the downtrodden.

In academic philosophy, this desire to apply knowledge in a constructive way has led some to reject empirical investigation in favor of something called "critical theory." Based loosely on Karl Marx's Critique of Political Economy and Freud's notion of the unconscious, it was elaborated by a series of German thinkers from the 1920s to the present. Its premise is that the way we think about the world and our individual places in it is the result of domination and coercion by the powerful status quo. When extreme advocates of various causes -- radical feminists, for example -- adopt this way of thinking, the truth of a proposition becomes less important than its usefulness in framing a new and presumably liberating ideology. You can see the parallel with advocacy journalists who don't mind coloring the facts or even making them up to arrive at what they perceive as a "higher truth."

One of the potential problems for public journalism is that some of its philosophical roots are in this same easily-perverted field of critical theory. Habermas argues for an "emancipatory mode" of knowledge as opposed to traditional scientific knowledge, and the way to get to it, he says is through public discourse that overcomes the barriers of culture, language, social class and geography. The result will be a kind of truth that is different and in some ways better than the truth arrived at by more objective methods. He does not himself argue that the "emancipatory" mode should replace rather than supplement the scientific mode, but he has enthusiastic followers who do.

In the media business, we suffer from the same pressures, even though we may be only dimly aware of their philosophical origins. The fact that a good idea is going to be seized and run into the ground by people with narrow interests should not freeze us into a position of unacceptance of the idea. We can satisfy our macho desire for cold facts by noting that some of the ideas that came from the philosophers behind public journalism have been verified by empirical social scientists using methods that would be quite familiar to a good investigative journalist. The importance of reciprocal trust and understanding that Habermas stresses in his 1983 Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action was emprically and convincingly verified in terms of political and economic value by Robert Putnam in Making Democracy Work (1994).

The concept of a new kind of knowledge can be helpful if it supplements rather than displaces the scientific tradition. The notion of public journalism has the potential for adding value to the work we do as investigative reporters if it does not displace our quest for empirical fact but instead supplements and informs that quest. There is indeed more than one way of knowing. And the objectively verifiable knowledge produced by investigative journalists will never be of much use unless the public attends to it and arrives, through extended discourse and deliberation, at the kind of gut-level awareness that Habermas calls "emancipatory."

Therefore, let us not reject public journalism. Investigative reporting and editing can save it from its potential abusers by applying to it the discipline of method. And the focus provided by public journalism can keep the fruits of investigative reporting and editing from being lost in the fuzzy buzz of information overload. Public journalism and investigative journalism need one another, and if we recognize that we have a chance of preserving our cherished First Amendment traditions and responsibilities.

Philip Meyer is a Knight Professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This article is based on a talk given to the IRE conference on computer assisted reporting in Cleveland in September 1995.