Module JG340

Public Journalism

Module author

Tanni Haas

City University of New York

Learning objectives

After studying this module, you will be able to:

  • Define and explain public journalism;
  • Explain the reasons for this concept;
  • Give an overview of the historic development of public journalism, including key persons who established this genre;
  • Reflect this genre critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract Public Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that public journalism is important zu know

Public journalism, commonly known as civic journalism, is the idea of transforming journalism into a mechanism that is part of a country's democratic process. This means that the media both provides the public with information and ignites them to join the political conversation. The movement eliminates the notion that a journalist's audience is a spectator, and treats readers as active participants. In this philosophy, audiences are encouraged and implored to engage in political discourse. Although this type of journalism has a relatively small following, the idea has become a practice among several prominent journalists. 

Basic concepts of public journalism

Below are the basic concepts of public journalism:

  • Address readers and audiences as active participants and not spectators of the news.
  • Assist the audience to form a community and give a response to problems and issues.
  • Improve public discussion by providing an outlet for citizens to voice their concerns.
  • Improve public life by drawing attention to issues and drawing attention to the way the public feels about a particular problem.
  • Be honest and unbiased about issues and politics, so citizens may make informed decisions.

Characteristics of public journalism

Public journalism is different to regular journalism because it doesn't treat the audience as a spectator. Many public journalism projects may involve providing or promoting places of discussions such as a town meeting to discuss an issue. While traditional journalism aims to present unbiased facts, public journalism does more. It not only wants the audience to absorb information, the concept also seeks that citizens use the information provided to affect democracy. The heart of journalism is truth; however, the heart of public journalism is to affect public discourse. Public journalism denounces the practice of telling readers what to think but engages them in the conversation. Finally, most public journalism pieces are presented in the opinion sections of papers rather than traditional news. 

Key figures of public journalism

There have been several prominent figures that helped develop the concept of public journalism. For one, David Matthew, the president of the Kettering Foundation and an avid supporter of this type of journalism, affirms that journalists have a responsibility in a democratic country to help citizens make informed decisions. Jay Rose has also greatly impacted public journalism with his popular blog PressThink that gave rise to the concept. Today, he is a journalism professor at New York University. W. Daviz Merritt Jr. is a pioneer of this journalistic philosophy and developed the idea because he believed the public had lost trust in traditional journalism practices. He published a book on public journalism in 1995 to help spread the concept and was an editor at The Wichita Eagle for several years. Finally, media critic James W. Carey has taught journalism students at Columbia University about the connection between journalism and civic duty. He affirms that public journalism is an essential part of democracy.

Examples of public journalism

There have been several examples of public journalism. For instance, the Citizen Voices Project in 1999 was one newspaper's attempt to facilitate public debate in Philadelphia by incorporating the audience. The newspaper published several essays from the public, which commented on social issue articles published by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Although the paper didn't have a vast impact on voter turnout, it provided journalists with a new method of presenting political issues and giving the public a voice. Another example of public journalism was done in 1999 by The Front Porch Forum in Seattle. The forum partnered with The Seattle Times, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and KUOW-FM radio to encourage civic participation and voice the concerns of local citizens. For about six years, the forum covered stories that affected local Seattle residents and encouraged readers to vote. One recent example of this method of journalism was an article published in Rolling Stones magazine in 2009 called "The Great American Bubble Machine" by Matt Taibbi that detailed the corruption of Goldman Sachs since the Great Depression and urged the public to hold politicians accountable for facilitating this corruption.

Relevance of public journalism

Public journalism is becoming more and more relevant in today's digital world because so many more people have access to voice their concerns. Technology has revolutionized the way the public is presented the news, and there are far more outlets to comment on political issues. Today, people don't have to listen to the news like detached spectators; instead, they may become active participants and join the conversation. This has been done in the digital world by permitting commenting boards below articles where concerned citizens can voice their thoughts on a particular issue. Others may choose to start blogs, and join the political debate. Finally, allowing this sort of dialogue facilitates a new age of democracy where the concerns of citizens can be heard and addressed.