Public Journalism: When Civic Engagement and Journalism Marry

This blog post covers public journalism and debates whether it’s corroding or helping the profession of journalism.

What is public journalism, you ask? It can be best defined as a brand of politically engaged journalism. Journalism that looks in depth at possible solutions to problems. Journalism that includes the voice of the people.  Journalism that aims to save the world!


In the Media Issues chapter “Public Journalism,” Richard Hendrickson outlines both sides of this debate about the linkage of civic engagement and journalism. Those who support the linkage argue that fostering discussion and encouraging engagement are essential pillars of journalism and that there is no such thing as complete objectivity. Critics of public journalism say that it blurs the lines between journalism and promotion and creates agendas that distract from the actual news content. I think a healthy balance can be achieved as long as the journalist does not gain tunnel vision and focuses on exploring relevant community issues from all possible angles.

I ran into this advocacy issue in creating my Master’s Project website titled “Eating Tuscaloosa.” In profiling local restaurants and organizations that I personally advocated, I had to be careful in presenting each of these places in a way that was informative rather than promotional. Similarly, I am currently writing a story about the food truck culture in Birmingham and the resistance they are facing from the city government as well as local businesses and restaurants. As a food truck lover, I have to keep making sure I am getting a wide range of experts, voices and opinions from all sides to include in my story in order to fairly and accurately explain the issue to the public.

For these reasons, I found Serena Carpenter’s “News Quality Differences in Online Newspapers and Citizen Journalist Sites” and Mike Ananny and Daniel Kreiss’ “A New Contract for the Press” model relevant and helpful to me as a journalist in this tumultuous digital age.  The results of Carpenter’s study reveal that while citizen journalists tend to produce highly local content that is relevant to specific communities of readers, professional journalists can hold their own with high numbers of sources and multiple viewpoints. Therefore, quality journalists are able to effectively use their communication skillset and tools to take news delivery to the next level.

However, as the “Crude Comments and Concern” study reveals, public journalism can have adverse effects or what is now known as “the nasty effect.” In “Reader Comments Reduce Credibility of Online Stories,” Dominique Brossard and Dietriniqam A. Scheufele break down the study that reveals the strong negative effect rude comments can have on other readers’ perception of a news story. I definitely agree that the “comment” section of articles turns into many readers angrily shouting misspelled expletives from their soapboxes with no clear reason or relevancy. In an ideal world, journalists would constantly create healthy discussion forums instead of providing a space where comments quickly unravel and turn into unnecessary personal attacks. However, Brossard and Scheufele point out that  “this phenomenon will only gain momentum as we move deeper into a world of smart TVs and mobile devices where any type of content is immediately embedded in a constant stream of social context and commentary.” It is here where the critics of public journalism have the best argument, which is that this model distracts readers from the raw facts and central message.

Ultimately, new publications need readers for survival and a decent chunk of these readers may be the Internet junkies sitting in their basements typing expletive after expletive. Despite “the nasty effect,” the comment sections still can lead to positive sharing of opinion and should remain in existence to let readers know that they are a part of a valued audience. Journalists can moderate comments if they are overly crude and encourage readers to give their feedback in a healthy, productive way while accepting the fact that there will always be angry readers who value their own opinion over public advancement.

In conclusion, I think Richard Hendrickson sums up public journalism best when he says it is a “communications tool that can help out-of-touch big-city journalists achieve the level of community connection enjoyed by their small-town and weekly counterparts” (p. 67). Dialogue is a unique feature of the new journalism age and if journalists do not take full advantage of interactivity and the importance of public opinion they could easily fade away like old newspaper print.