The Charlotte Observer has been
breaking that rule by practicing what has come to be called "public
journalism." The journalism establishment has reacted as Mrs. Post might
have upon seeing a dinner companion spear a gherkin with a butter knife.
Take, for example, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. In
a column, reprinted alongside this one, he denounces us as purveyors of the
"insidious, dangerous idea" of public journalism, which, he asserts,
involves kowtowing to readers, evading our editorial responsibility and
inserting opinion into news coverage. He decries our journalism as (if I
may condense his bombast) a sinister, arrogant, elitist, self-serving
attempt to orchestrate the public agenda for the sake of profit.
He admits he hasn't read any of our public journalism work.
so alarms Mr. Yardley? Judging from his column, not anything we're actually
doing here at The Observer.
Mr. Yardley isn't alone in his
horror. The New York Times has used every opinion venue to denounce
public journalism: editorial, op-ed page, Sunday magazine.
this sinister thing called "public journalism"?
First, a disclaimer.
Labels often are imprecise. The label "Baptist," for example, applies to
both Jerry Falwell and Martin Luther King Jr. The label "public journalism"
covers a lot of territory.
At The Observer, public journalism
is simply this. When writing about public life, we have a goal: to provide
readers the information they need to function as citizens. We expect
politicians to address issues they consider important; but we also expect
them to address issues the public considers important. We want to keep
people informed about opportunities to become involved in public life -- an
important service, we think, in our fragmented society. We try to confine
advocacy to the editorial page. On both opinion and news pages, we value
In a recent interview published in The
Washingtonian, David Broder of the Washington Post described one
problem we're trying to address. In politics, he said, journalists often
become so intent on reporting what goes on inside campaigns that they
forget the campaigns belong "not to the candidates or their consultants or
their pollsters, but to the public. We're now correcting that by putting
voters back at the center of the process. The more of that we do, the
The Observer began its efforts to put voters at the
center in 1992, in a project developed in partnership with the Poynter
Institute, a center for journalism training based in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The first step involved surveying people to learn what issues they
considered most important in the '92 elections for president, governor and
The results were not surprising -- the economy and
taxes, crime and drugs, health care, education and the environment.
Next came interviews with many poll respondents to help us develop
questions that focused on what they wanted to know.
We did not go
through that process because we think ordinary citizens ask better
questions than journalists. We've found they sometimes ask different
questions -- questions that many journalists regard as "softball," even
though they elicit basic information that helps voters understand how
elections may affect them.
Many candidates bypass those basics,
focusing instead on hotter topics they hope will sway voters. And in
reportage centered on personalities, insider politics, hot-button issues
and who's ahead, many newspapers neglect these basic issues, too.
critics contend our approach amounts to letting readers edit the newspaper.
It doesn't. We report what we think readers need to know, as well as what
they want to know. We're not about to abdicate that responsibility.
feel we're capable of being informed by polls without being slaves to them.
Ignorance about citizen concerns is not bliss; it's simply ignorance.
Our reader-focused reporting does not seem revolutionary to me. It is
reformist, reminding us that it is the people's interests journalists
traditionally have sought to serve.
The Observer's '92 project
has inspired many similar efforts across the country. This year we went a
step further. With 15 newspaper and broadcast partners, we created a
statewide project called "Your Voice, Your Vote." As in our '92 project, it
began with surveys -- one for the spring primary and another for the
general election -- to find out what issues North Carolinians considered
most important in races for governor and U.S. senator.
results were not surprising: crime and drugs, taxes and spending, affording
health care, financial security, families and values, and education.
We developed questions on those issues and invited all 13 candidates
for senator and governor to sit for three-hour-long interviews before both
the primary and general election. All but one accepted.
The result: 12
in-depth articles and graphics explaining the issues and where candidates
stand. Each newspaper contributed stories, available for use by the others.
Why partner? There's little chance each media organization could have
accomplished this on its own. For one thing, it's unlikely all the
candidates would have found time for such in-depth interviews with every
The joint "Your Voice, Your Vote" project is just part
of our overall election coverage. In addition, The Observer reports
on the campaigns (on the stump and on television), fund-raising, candidate
profiles and a variety of issues: foreign policy, the deficit, corporate
As chronic violators of Mrs. Post's dictum, we expect
criticism. But I have been astonished by the stark ignorance of much of the
criticism of public journalism. I am particularly astonished by the number
of journalists who seem offended by the suggestion that they might learn
something valuable by listening to citizens.
I have reached a
troubling conclusion: that some members of the journalism establishment are
so alarmed by anything called "public journalism" that they presume anyone
associated with it is guilty of corrupting the craft -- no proof necessary.
That was the prevailing ethic of the Grand Inquisition. It seems to be
the ethic of a large part of the American journalism establishment, too.