Proactive Neutrality

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “civic” or “public” journalism as championed by Jay Rosen and Buzz Merritt in the mid-90s (and as set forth in Rosen’s essential book, What Are Journalists For?).  At the time, Rosen was doing a Knight Fellowship at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and Merritt was editor of my hometown paper, the Wichita Eagle-Beacon.  I see great consonance between the idea of a more civically engaged journalism and what we and publications like Voice of San Diego are attempting to do.  I ran across a summary of Rosen’s ideas again today in a volume called Political Journalism, edited by Kuhn and Neveu (pp. 214-15).  As I wrote to some friends last night:

What we’re really talking about is reviving the public journalism (buzz merit called it “civic journalism”) movement that got cut off by the appearance of the commercial internet in the mid 90s.  In describing the journalistic approach he was championing,  Rosen used the term, “proactive neutrality.”

 It’s an interesting, if somewhat Pollyanna-ish argument.  But maybe their really is a silver lining in the implosion of the newspaper model.

 During the golden age of newspapers between the end of the war and the bursting of the bubble, papers became judged largely on two standards.  The first was exhaustiveness; after all, the resources really were there to print all the news that was fit.  The second was objectivity and accuracy.  As what had been kind of a grubby trade professionalized, coverage went from being biased to being so objective as to be mistakable for stenography.   Sure, good journalism was getting done that is not getting done now, but soooo much of the stuff in the papers was redundant and not terribly relevant to the civic life of the reader.

 Lots of people bemoan how groups like ours are just so tiny, that we can’t possibly replace the papers.  But what if we turn that bug into a feature by saying, “since we can’t cover everything, we have to cover what’s important.  And to know what’s important, we really have to engage with our public.”  Journalism never was an end in itself, anyway.  What’s being lost more than anything else is the connection between the polity and their government that good journalism provides.  Yes, that means accountability journalism, but it also means explanatory journalism and commentary that is meant to stir debate.  As Rosen says in his book, it’s not just that newspaper readers are disappearing; it’s that the public is disintegrating.  By wrapping resources and f2f interaction around our journalism, we begin to arrest that disintegration.  Because we can’t do everything, we listen to the public and make some judgments about what’s most important (based partially but not entirely on that feedback).  And that in itself is a public service


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