Research on public journalism at Chapel Hill

Because public journalism had never been clearly defined, not even by its inventors, the first step in the research process was to discover what it was. We set the following goals:

1. Define public journalism in terms of the culture of the newsrooms claiming to practice it.

2. Define public journlism in terms of the manifest differences it makes in media content.

3. Discover the effects, if any, on the attitudes and knowledge of citizens in the communities whose media practice public journalism.

4. Find the effects, if any, on the civic participation of those citizens.

5. Learn how public journalism might be made more effective.

Our research program, with funding from the Knight Chair, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and The Pew Center for Civic Journalism, has followed this plan, and a body of knowledge about the10-year-old movement is begining to emerge. Highlights in rough chronological order:

1993: Phil Meyer analyzed public journalism in the national elections of 1992 for a chapter in Michael Nelson, Ed., The Elections of 1992, Congressional Quarterly, 1993. It was titled "The Media Reformation: Giving the Agenda Back to the People" and cited the work of several of his students.

1995: Carol Dykers completed her dissertation, "Making Journalism Public: a Case Study of Change at the Wichita Eagle."

1995: John Bare's dissertation, Toward a Definition of Public Journalism, was the first successful attempt to give the abstract concept of public journalism an empirical definition. Through survey research in three newsrooms, Bare identified basic differences in values that set the staff members at the Wichita Eagle, the birthplace of public journalism, apart from their peers at more traditional newspapers. The Wichita staffers felt more connected to their community and a greater desire to use the power of the newspaper to help citizens work out solutions to common problems.

1995: Some of the reflexive opposition to public journalism came from investigative reporters who cherish the values of fact-finding and objectivity. Phil Meyer traveled to an IRE meeting in Cleveland to argue that public journalism increases the need for sound investigative work. His talk is "Public Journalism and the Problem of Objectivity."

1996: Ken Blake, using data collected by Phil Meyer and Deborah Potter in the Florida primary (with major financial support from The Poynter Institute), developed measurement instruments that could be used to define public journalism by the content it produces. His dissertation, Exploring Operational Measures of Citizen-based Journalism: A Pilot Study (1997), laid the groundwork for the next step.

1997: The connection between public journalism and differences in content in election coverage was finally documented by Meyer and Potter in a paper presented to a National Press Club seminar in March. Now public journalism can be defined, not only by what is in the heads of journalists, but by what they put in the paper. A fuller version was presented to the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in Chicago and is scheduled for publication by Chatham House as a chapter in a book on polls in the 1996 national election campaign edited by political scientists Paul Lavrakas and Michael Traugott.

1997: Frank Fee, a member of our first class of Freedom Forum Fellows, documented the Raleigh News & Observer portion of ASNE's "Project Reconnect." His results were reported at AEJMC. and are the basis for his dissertation, scheduled for completion in fall 1999. The project, funded by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, put the newsroom in closer touch with the suburb of Garner. Fee's report to News & Observer readers is available online.

1997: Meyer and Ph.D. alumnus David Arant of the University of Memphis did a replication of Meyer's 1982 study of newspaper ethics for the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It showed that the ethical sensitivity of newspaper staffers is not, despite views to the contrary, declining. It also indicated that acceptance of the values of public journalism does not lead to a corresponding decline in traditional journalistic values. The former study was presented to the Society of Professional Journalists in Denver and published in the fall 1997 issue of Nieman Reports. The latter was presented to the American Association for Public Opinion Research (St. Louis, 1998) and published in The Journal of Mass Media Ethics (13:4, 1998).

1998: Assessing Public Journalism, edited by Edmund Lambeth, Philip Meyer, and Esther Thorson, was published in June by University of Missouri Press. Meyer's chapter is called, "If It Works, How Will We Know?" The chapter proposes ways of defining and assessing the effectiveness of public journalism. Two of Meyer's students, John Bare and Carol Dykers, also have chapters in the book based on their dissertations.

1998: Jurgen Henn's M.A. thesis (also an AEJMC paper), "Sisyphus or Synergy," explored the effect of newspaper-TV collaboration on citizen election knowledge and participation, using the Meyer-Potter data.

1998: The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics (3:4, 1998) published "The Effect of Pre-Election Polls on Issue Knowledge in the U.S. Presidential Election of 1996" by Meyer and Potter. This paper, first presented at the World Association for Public Opinion Research meeting in Edinburgh in September 1997, suggests that one of the assumptions made by public journalists -- that horse-race polls distract voters from learning about issues -- may be in error and even counter-productive. The paper shows that people most knowledgable about candidate poll standings also know more about issues -- even when education and attention paid to the campaign are held constant. Independent verification of this thesis comes from three studies by Xinshu Zhao of the UNC-CH faculty and Glen Bleske, our Ph.D. alumnus now at Chico State University, reported in the same issue of the Harvard journal.

1998: A connection between what public journalists put in the paper and on the air and what citizens know and think was finally made with the help of two UNC-CH political scientists. Marco R.Steenburgen and Timothy Vercellotti joined with Meyer and Potter in presenting "Media Signals and Political Learning: Traditional v. Civic Journalism" at the St. Louis AAPOR meeting. Horse-race polls appear to be effective in drawing attention to the campaign among the growing body of citizens who are not habitual newspaper readers. Conversely, those newspapers that eschew polls for more detailed issue coverage tend to lose the attention of that low readership group, and it ends up, paradoxically, learning less about issues.

1998: Three student papers, from a spring seminar made possible by Knight Chair funding, were presented at the August meeting of AEJMC:

Eric Rhodenbaugh, a first-year doctoral student, wrote "Missing the Link," which uses persuasion theory to argue that where public journalism efforts have had an effect on citizen interest and understanding it is largely because of the effort's mere existence, and not because of any particular kind of content. Readers and viewers know that a special effort is being made on their behalf and this alone motivates them to learn more.

David Loomis, also a first-year doctoral student, tested the theory that public journalism is a ruse by cost-conscious publishers for doing cheaper journalism. He found instead that the papers doing public journalism went to greater expense by using a higher proportion of staff-written stories in their election coverage.

Andrea Verykoukis, a second-year master's student, used computer content analysis to find that public journalism newspapers had a more "inspirational" tone in their stories through more frequent use of such words as "virtue," "patriotism," "honesty," "courage," "wisdom," and the like. This result provides support for Buzz Merritt's claim that public journalism is a basic cultural shift for working journalists.

2000: Ph.D. student Scott Maier and Deborah Potter wrote "Public journalism through the television lens: How TV broadcasters covered Campaign '96" for the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. (In press).

2000: Meyer and Potter’s "Hidden Value: Polls and Public Journalism," a summary of their work on the 1996 campaign, suggests a missing link in the causal chain from media intent to community spirit. It was published in Election Polls, the News Media, and Democracy, edited by Paul J. Lavrakas and Michael W. Traugott.

2000: The missing link is found by Ph.D. student David Loomis and Meyer, reported in "Opinion Without Polls: Finding a Link Between Corporate Culture and Public Journalism," International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Autumn, 2000.

2000: Meyer summarized his and his students’ work for the benefit of professionals in "Evaluating the Toolbox," American Journalism Review, March 2000.

2000: Molly Putman examined coverage of the 1998 campaign by the newspapers in the Meyer-Potter 1996 sample for her undergraduate honors thesis and found that the commitment to public journalism, where it was evidenced in 1996, tended to persist two years later.

2002: Meyer reported to the Batten Symposium (Chapel Hill, April 22) on efforts to link the social responsiblity aspects of public/civic journalism to the profitability of newspapers. See the Quality Project.