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Can Public Radio Journalism Be Re-Invented?

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


If NPR could start over again, what sort of journalism should it do? Should it be different from what now exists? If so, how?

That's precisely the opportunity handed to one of NPR's member stations, KUT in Austin, Texas. KUT wants to begin local news coverage. That's a dramatic change for the station. KUT has well-established reputation for broadcasting NPR newsmagazines, along with live and recorded local music. It's already number one in its market, in part because of its support for the local music scene.

But how does a public radio station serve its local audience? Will its reputation be enhanced or diminished by local news? How different or similar should it be from the commercial mainstream? What kinds of stories should it concentrate on? And what kinds of stories should it avoid?

That was the discussion in Austin last week as a group of invited guests met with the station staff to discuss issues of fairness and balance, independence and integrity, cultural understanding of a diverse audience and how best to serve the Austin community.

The discussions were invigorating and the results will be known soon once the station launches its news department sometime this fall.

Davis "Buzz" Merritt on "Public Journalism"

One of the participants was Davis "Buzz" Merritt, professor of journalism at Kansas University in Wichita. Merritt was, for many years, the editor of the Wichita Eagle and for the past ten years one of the advocates for what's known as "public journalism".

"Public journalism" is one of those catch phrases that we hear from time to time. It sounds vaguely like what public radio does, or tries to do and may achieve occasionally without knowing it. There is a sense inside public radio that we already "do" public journalism…that it's something that newspapers are concerned about to reconnect with their diminishing readership.

So when "Buzz" Merritt came to Austin, it was a chance to hear first hand what public journalism is all about. Here are some of his thoughts as he presented them to us:

For about ten years - and particularly the past four since giving up the editorship of The Eagle - I have devoted most of my time and energy to this ongoing experiment called public journalism. And, periodically during those years, I have been asked to define public journalism in a sentence or two.

(Such requests most often come from reporters, some of whom seem to believe that anything - from creation to cold fusion physics - ought to be reducible to one or two simple sentences.)

Often my response went like this: first, you give me a one-sentence, all-inclusive definition of investigative journalism - or for that matter, journalism itself.

But that only confused them, so for the last couple of years I've been working off and on to come up with something - no matter how unsatisfactory to me - that passes for a definition. Part of that process has been to give that assignment to my graduate seminar in journalism and democracy at KU.

Last spring's group came as close as anyone to a useful definition, and I pass it along to you today, though with the caveat that it is still a work in progress. It goes like this:

"Public journalism is a set of values about the craft that recognizes and acts upon the interdependence between journalism and democracy. It values the concerns of citizens over the needs of the media and political actors, and conceives of citizens as stakeholders in the democratic process rather than as merely victims, spectators or inevitable adversaries. As inherent participants in the process, we should do our work in ways that aid in the resolution of public problems by fostering broad citizen engagement..."

Those three sentences do incorporate many of the principles of public journalism, and those principles are what I want to spend a little time on today.

All of this, like public journalism itself, is a work in progress, and necessarily will continue to be. That's particularly true with the grand experiment that is being launched with this seminar.

The term experiment implies learning, and that's one of the first principles we need to consider. Traditional newsrooms are not learning environments; they are habituating environments. Recruits come into them and are told: here's how we do it; this is what success looks like; do what we do and all will be well. The KUT newsroom needs to be different…

In that light, there's something I'm compelled to say. The…interim report on this project says, "We intend to bring…the kind of context and perspective on issues of our local community that listeners have come to expect from NPR on national and global events."

With all due deference to NPR - which is clearly the best broadcast news operation anywhere - that's not good enough. If you do this right, you will have NPR aspiring to meet your standards.

I say that based upon some of the following principles, which, if understood and acted upon, will create something entirely new - and I believe better - for journalism.

There's not enough time to deal with them in detail in this session, but I offer these in short-form as a basis for later discussion as you develop your philosophy of news coverage.

In no particular order, some suggestions:

· If it won't matter to most people after tomorrow, it's probably not worth our time today. There are plenty of outlets for what traditionally passes as news; you have a greater mission.

· If you catch yourself writing - or even thinking about - a sentence that contains the words "both sides of the issue," or anything like that, stop right there and think some more. If bipolar conflict is the primary narrative device in a story, we haven't done it right.

· Frame stories around the idea of how people can become engaged in what is going on. If people can't be engaged, you probably don't need to do the story.

· Always bear in mind that conflict has a purpose - a fact often lost in the heat of conflict. That purpose is resolution. Conflict alone only tells half the story. That isn't to say that conflict should or can be avoided; after all, conflict over ideas is the plasma of democracy. But, like plasma for the body, it has no value on its own; its only value is when it is fulfilling its natural role.

· There are people and institutions that have a vested interest in non-resolution; in the perpetuation of conflict. Try not to rely upon them as sources, particularly in framing issues.

· Our aim is to improve, not simply inform, the conversation about issues. That means, among other things, honoring (and reporting on) true deliberation whenever we can find it.

· Garrison Keillor said the other night, "I really don't know how I feel about ambivalence." We do. We think it's great. Do not write off as uninformed, ignorant or disinterested people who do not have a firm opinion about an issue. That's most of us on most issues. Ambivalence is where resolution of issues most often arises.

· We know from Daniel Yankelovich's work (Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World), -- how the public comes to judgment. We know that it's a three-step process of consciousness raising, working through and finally, judgment. Recognize that different listeners will be in different places along that spectrum and frame stories to help them reach the next step, wherever they are at the time.

· Use experts properly. That is, use them to help listeners understand the facts of an issue. But do not let experts frame the issue - that's your job as a journalist - or say what should happen. As experts, they have very firm and not necessarily helpful opinions.

· As professionals, always be journalistically objective but never detached. There's a difference.

· Journalism and democracy are wholly interdependent; neither can exist without the other. Remember, then, that journalism that advances democracy also advances journalism. And that indifference to or detachment from the success of democracy threatens journalism.

· And finally, talk constantly about your guiding principles - among yourselves, of course, because that's where the learning comes in. But also talk about them on the air. Make clear what values you are operating under and why you do what you do. That's one reason it's called "public journalism" - we are public about our values.


Overall, it's cogent and appealing. KUT - and NPR - already share and practice many of the values so eloquently expressed by Buzz Merritt.

One issue that I find troubling is the unstated premise to advocacy that might be permissible by public journalism. Would public journalism increase public radio's vulnerability to accusations of bias? Would it be a way some might use public radio for their own (and not the listeners') interests? How would public radio know when it has crossed that line into advocacy? Would it be all that terrible if it did? Most importantly, could public journalism be an improvement over the journalism we now hear on NPR?

KUT will be wrestling with those issues over the next few months. But if the tone of the discussions last week is any indication, I think they'll figure it out.

Thanks, Buzz.

Listeners can contact me at ombudsman@npr.org.

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman