The media industry has unique qualities that distinguish it from other industries. One is its privileged legal position under the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press, making the media exempt from government restraints and oversight as compared with other businesses. “Why is the press exempt from restraints and restrictions that fall on others?” asks philosophy professor and media critic Judith Lichtenberg. She answers: “Because we believe that the information journalists provide contributes to the search for truth, to democratic citizenship, and to the solution of social problems.” The industry’s unique legal position carries with it the special responsibility, Lichtenberg and others believe, to give American citizens the information they need to cast informed votes at elections and perform other civic functions in a democratic society.
Many critics have expressed dissatisfaction with how the mass media industry has lived up to such responsibility. Media coverage of political elections has been criticized for focusing on campaign tactics and personal foibles of political candidates rather than substantive issues. Newspapers and television news media programs have been criticized for simply covering the latest murder or sensational crime story rather than substantively investigating the causes of and solutions to crime. Public opinion polls have shown many Americans dissatisfied with news coverage, with complaints ranging from biased reporting to too much of an emphasis on bad news. As a result, writes media critic and author Jay Rosen, “the public today is less and less engaged—in politics and in journalism. The loss of readers and viewers is one result, but the deeper loss is to citizens themselves. People don’t see what they care about reflected in the polarized debates and predictable maneuverings of the political class. So they withdraw.” One solution to these problems is public journalism.
In public or civic journalism, the media industry makes a more conscious effort to actively engage the public in covering stories of community concern and to search for and promote solutions to social problems. The civic journalism movement has been helped in part by philanthropic organizations such as the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which between 1993 and 2003 helped fund 120 projects run by newspapers and broadcast stations around the country. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the Charlotte Observer, partnering with one television and two radio stations, sought to go beyond simply reporting about crimes, arrests, and trials. Reporters canvassed high-crime neighborhoods and talked with residents to create a series of stories about the causes of crime and neighborhood solutions in its two-year “Taking Back Our Neighborhoods Project.” A “community coordinator” who worked for the Charlotte Observer (but who was not a reporter) organized neighborhood advisory panels and meetings. In addition to the stories, the newspaper published a “needs” list suggested by Charlotte residents (with items such as baseball gloves to a new recreation center) and a telephone number for volunteers. The project was credited with attracting thousands of dollars in donations and hundreds of citizen volunteers; crime dropped in many of those neighborhoods. The Charlotte story is a good example of how civic journalism has been positive for both the media and for the public, argues Jan Schaffer, former executive director of the Pew Center. “Eight years later, people in those neighborhoods still credit that project with incredible transformations. . . . The paper did not tell people what to do. It just gave a menu of options and people took it from there.”
However, the civic journalism movement has come under criticism by some members of the media, who maintain that the public good that the media provides to a community comes solely from its role as an impartial reporter of news. Jane R. Eisner, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, argues that trying to stimulate public debates and community activism is not journalism’s purpose. She says, “Our central mission is to report the news, to set priorities, to analyze but not to shape or direct events or outcomes. Subsume or diminish this central mission, and we become like any other player in society, like any other politician, interest group, do-gooder, thief. I am not willing to relinquish this unique role.” Max Frankel, former New York Times editor, has expressed the concern that civic journalism projects such as Charlotte’s may drain resources for basic news gathering. He claims that media companies might even avoid coverage of social ills and controversial subjects to avoid alienating their customers. “The best reason for rejecting public journalism, perhaps, is that its rhetoric makes excellent cover for pandering . . . [and] to steer clear of hard-hitting reporting on subjects that the reader is reluctant to hear about.”
The debate over the civic journalism movement is fundamentally one over the future direction of America’s media and its role in society. It is one of many debates that are examined in Opposing Viewpoints: Mass Media. In this volume journalists, media critics, and others provide clashing views on a variety of topics in the following chapters: Is Bias in the Media a Serious Problem? Is Concentration of Media Ownership a Serious Problem? How Do the Media Affect Society? How Will the Media Be Affected by the Internet? The viewpoints highlight the important place the mass media industry continues to occupy in American society and examine the responsibilities of those employed in the industry.