Cynicism and the faltering public will What should we be doing?

By Jay Rosen
New York University

Originally published in The IRE Journal --Issue Nov.-Dec. 1995. Reprinted with permission by Investigative Reporters and Editors. Copyright 1995. All rights reserved.

What is to be done? That, I believe, is the discussion we should be having.

What is to be done, when, according to the Times Mirror Center, 71 percent of Americans believe the press now "gets in the way" of society solving its problems?

What is to be done, to take a different question, of this year, only 45 percent of

Americans said they read yesterday's newspaper, down 13 percent from one year ago?

Or when Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, taking note of the disconnect between journalists and the public, describes the news business, his own business, as an "incestuous profession," which has grown increasingly "self-absorbed," "remote," and "arrogant." Shall we call Kurtz a maverick, a perennial malcontent? We could, but his book was voted by readers of American Journalism Review--his peers--the best work of press criticism for that year.

Let's broaden the picture: What is to be done when people lack the time, the motivation or the inclination to participate in public life: or when, owing to their own fear or their own cynicism, they withdraw into private enclaves and shut out the world--including the world of the news?

What is to be done when, trying to reach these people, the media spawns its own mutant forms of "news" and news-related programming, most of which abandon even the pretense if civility, makes not even a pass at serious discussion, tries for no minimum of public service?

To conclude my list, what is to be done when journalists see no alternative but to lower their own standards in order to compete with the worst of what's out there?

So, investigative reporters and editors, with this whole depressing scene before us, I ask you: what is to be done?

Now let me rephrase my question, switching from the passive to the active voice: What should we be doing? We who care about a journalism that is done in the public interest: What should be we be doing about such problems as:

  • America's declining capacity--or faltering will--to solve public problems;
  • the related and astounding decline in public confidence in all institutions, including the press;
  • the continuing flight from journalism itself as readers and viewers disappear and fail to regenerate;
  • the insularity of the journalism profession, which sticks to its routines even though its members feel increasingly out of touch;
  • the atomization and privatization of American life, which isolates all of us from our common business;
  • the degradation of news by a tabloid culture and its manic race to the bottom;
  • The loss of purpose and the collapse of standards among news professionals who used to do better by their audiences;
  • and, to add one more to the list, the confusion and even depression that hangs over many American newsrooms as journalists contemplate their professional future with dread.
Is this too bleak a picture? Some will say it is. But how many of you feel confident that ten years from now, you will still be asked to do a journalism that is really worth doing? I have my doubts, and so, I believe, do most of you.

We hear often that a free person is essential to a healthy democracy, but for some reason the reverse is rarely stated. So let me state it: On the health of our democracy, the prospects for a free press depend. This is true at the national level; it is true of the local community. So when I ask: What should journalists be doing about our troubled public life once they realize, as they must, that as journalists they are implicated in these troubles?

That, it seems to me, is the question that ought to be on the table, and if I have any influence over our discussion I intend to place it on the table. For it seems to me that the debate over public journalism, our subject here, has gotten considerably off track.

We are arguing about advocacy journalism, when we should be talking about democracy and journalism. We seize on the most fruitless clich imaginable--objectivity--when we should be talking about things like public judgment and civic capacity. We debate whether readers should drive the agenda when we should be discussing what makes a reader into a citizen. We talk about what's good for journalism, what journalism is and is not, when the real issue is what communities, regions and the republic as a whole need in order to solve their problems.

Public journalism puts life first. This, if anything, is what's radical about it. The men and women who are inventing this approach are convinced that if public life falls apart, a lot more suffering and injuries will be seen in the land; or rather, it will increase without being seen. Among the casualties will be journalism itself.

By "public life" we do not mean the life an elected official leads, although politics is a big part of it. Public life is everything that pulls people out of their private worlds and puts them in touch with common concerns--everything from nightlife, to bowling leagues, to union meetings, to town hall debates. It is also the habits of the mind and heart that permit people to understand each other, discuss their views, and get along despite their differences. Public life is public conversation, in the degree that we endeavor to have it. It is also political life, although "politics" is here defined as public problem-solving.

What public journalism is fundamentally about is using the power of the press to re-engage people in public life, in the belief that a disengaged, complacent or cynical people cannot make use of what journalists have to offer. So journalists have to offer them more: not only the information needed to become informed, but also some understanding of how it leads to action: not only the familiar "Two sides that dominate public debate," but a many-sided deliberation that has room for all citizens: not only a critique of public institutions but an invigoration of public spaces, which need to function well if institutions are to function at all.

Let me put this difference a little more sharply: Traditional journalism believes that people need to be informed so they can participate effectively. In public journalism, we think the reverse is often true: Information is what we have--we live in a sea of information--while democracy is what we need. Journalists traditionally see themselves as informing a public that is assumed to be "out there." Public journalism is about forming as much as informing a public, for the assumption that the public exists always and for all time is, in fact, a complacent one.

These, at least, are some of the ideas behind public journalism. But the movement is more than ideas. It is also a set of practices. They cove a wide range of initiatives, from a new model for election coverage that gives first priority to a deliberate dialogue among citizens, to crime coverage that focuses on helping troubled neighborhoods take action against crime; from experiments in devising a public agenda through genuine civic dialogue, to experiments changing the culture of the newsroom to make it more democratic and deliberative; from attempts to motivate people to work together across racial lines to efforts at charting a long-term vision for the community on which citizens, leaders, experts and even journalists can agree.

Those who are pushing this movement forward don't know exactly what they're doing. I'm afraid I have to insist on that point. We're making it up as we go along. We proceed by experiment and reflection, and it's hard to say at this stage whether any of the experiments are really working. In fact, we're not even sure how success should be judged, although that's a problem we must soon solve. Also, there is no assumption among anyone involved that the answer has been found to what ails the news business, or American democracy.

Measured against the scale of the problem--the disintegration of public life--our best efforts do seem pitifully small, even inconsequential at times. I suspect that in five to ten years, most of what now passes for public journalism will seem crude, naive, or just plain dumb. Let me add here that no one in public journalism believes that the press should itself be responsible for solving public problems, that it can substitute for wise government, sound leadership, or thoughtful citizens.

On the contrary, our assumption is that the press cannot go it alone. "Fortress journalism," protected against all entanglements, fighting for truth and justice without need for civic cooperation, or an energized public, a journalism that doesn't need anyone or anything except the First Amendment and the resources will come from...well, from somewhere, this image of the press as standing somehow outside the community it allegedly serves is, in my view, a devastating illusion that offers its proponents nothing but a slow slide into impotence and irrelevance. I urge you to relinquish it, if ever it held a place in your thoughts.

Before you leap to inform me that a more engaged press runs the risk of losing its independence, or damaging its credibility, before you remind me that getting involved in problem-solving is dangerous when people disagree on the problem as well as the solution, before you put forward the simple but compelling idea that journalists report things, they don't do things: before you agree with Max Frankel of the New York Times, who said in a recent column about public journalism that the press should "leave reforms to the reformers," let me caution you about two things.

First, the tradition of journalism that you and this organization so proudly and rightly uphold began earlier in this century with the muckrakers, who, as any historian can tell you, were political reformers as much as they were journalists. They had a certain vision of how politics should go, and they tried to put that vision into practice. They were part of a movement called the Progressive movement, and they and their colleagues had a profound effect on American politics, which was their goal.

Second, your colleagues who are experimenting with public journalism agree about the nature of the risks involved as do I. They believe, as you do, that credibility is all they own. They are asking what is perhaps a rude but painfully relevant question: what makes you think you have credibility now? After all, the challenge is not to remain where no institution, least of all the press, seems to be addressing people's deepest concerns.

Is public journalism risky? Yes, because it is experimental. But the real risks must be measured against the equally real dangers of standing by while public life erodes and public trust evaporates. That's why I began with the question: What is to be done?

Let me close with some possible answers to that question for reporters and editors working within the investigative tradition--which is the richest and most important tradition in American journalism.

My first suggestion is a general one: Why shouldn't investigating journalism be as concerned with political possibility as it is now with failure and corruption? What might such a journalism possibly look like? Surely there could be an IRE task force working on that problem--which is a challenge to the imagination of all serious journalists.

Let's imagine, then, that such journalism might focus on possible solutions to real problems, obtainable futures for real communities, imagined coalitions among real actors, institutions that are really needed, but haven't yet emerged. How do you investigate a politics that doesn't exist but needs to exist and potentially could exist? How do you give communities something to shoot for, politically? That, it seems to me, is an exciting question that ought to interest some of the better minds in this group.

Second, why not investigate what allows some communities or metro regions to work together and solve their common problems while other regions drift without direction, wallow in division, or simply ignore problems until it is too late? What accounts, in other words, for differences in performance, not among governments, but among polities?

Third, why not develop a way to monitor the health of a region's civic climate? Imagine an index of leading civic indicators that would tell a community how well it is doing on such measures as citizen participation, cooperative problem-solving, coalition-building, inclusiveness, setting a common agenda, planning for the future, etc.? The National Civic League is currently experimenting with such an index, but the project is essentially a journalistic one and should be pursued by journalists.

Fourth, an idea that's been around for a while but needs to be taken seriously. Imagine a page in the newspaper like the page in the sports section where all the box scores and league standings are kept. But this page is all about the performance of major institutions--how they are doing by various measures of responsiveness, efficiency, effectiveness, etc. Developing the right measures would be difficult, of course, but here again a group of IRE editors and reporters could attack the problem and pass on the results to everyone else.

For example, suppose you asked of every big office and institution in the area--private and public, city and suburbs--how long does it take them to answer the phone with a live person who actually knows something? The phone company, the councilwoman's office, the bank, the high school, even the newspaper. The premise would be: If you can't answer your phones, you can't do much else for the public. "Can you answer your phones?" is a question that connects with people's experience of frustration with institutions. A gimmick you say? Maybe answering the phones isn't the right measure. But surely there are other measure, born of people's experience, that might be usefully developed as daily benchmarks of public performance.

Fifth, suppose as journalists and journalism professors we were concerned about the performance of media companies in serving the communities where they have newspapers or broadcast properties. Would it be possible--would it be wise--to find measures that would permit a community to know whether it was being well-served by the media companies that own the local news outlets?

Perhaps you don't like these suggestions. That's okay: I'm confident that you and your colleagues could improve upon them. But I hope you accept the urgency of my question: What is to be done? What should journalists be doing about our troubled public life once they realize, as they must, that as journalists they are implicated in it?

Some of you may believe that this problem is not your problem, but someone else's. That is mistaken. For at a certain point in the unravelling of community life, the life of the community no longer matters to people. And then, neither will journalism. At a certain point in the decay of our political life, politics becomes the dubious property of a remote political class, which unfortunately will include the serious press. "The public's right to know" will then become the journalist's lonely battle-cry; the public's will to know will be nowhere in evidence. Restoring the will to know is what public journalism is ultimately about. It is work you are urged to join.

Jay Rosen is associate professor of journalism at New York University and director of the Project on Public Life and the Press. NYU 10 Washington Place, New York, NY 10003, tel. (212) 998-7965, fax (212) 388-0359.
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