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Public journalism

Public journalism advocates spent two days in Columbia, Missouri, sharing experiences and discussing problems related to journalism, community and philanthropy. It was a forum where practitioners and scholars of journalism got together one more time. It also was an international forum because many participants were from outside of the U.S. One big name that is Lee Hills connected them. Discussions mostly focused on ideas of Public or Civic journalism.

As practitioners explained, the idea of public journalism is simple like everyday everywhere you are surveying everything or covering ourselves. Panelists emphasized several rules of public journalism:

· Reflect community fully

· It works without office. Go and talk to people

· Don’t ask editors to go out, just do it

I have heard those rules when I took internship at the Columbia Missourian in during the summer, 2000. However, it was interesting to hear them again from the mouth of famous journalists.

The notion that journalism does not have to be watchdog confuses me. I think, here is a conflict of public journalism with traditional journalism. Even one panelist said that if you are covering your beat good, it is opposite to public journalism. Philosophically and physically, one reporter can not be everywhere and cover everything. In this sense, public journalism seems more abstract to me. On the other hand, this is an appropriate theory for local media to base on. As far as concern national media, investigative reporting has become already a bridge between public journalism and traditional journalism.

Not only practitioners are divided in using of the public journalism theory in their work but also academic institutions and scholars are divided in teaching of that particular theory. For instance, as one professor said the Chappell Hills University, North Carolina does not teach public journalism. In Missouri School of Journalism, some professors teach public journalism and some do not. Although Dr. John Merrill is not an advocate of public journalism, he recommended his students to read some books on the issue during the Philosophy of Journalism class in 2000.

Despite discrepancies between practitioners and scholars, the theory of public journalism has developed since the forties. Especially in recent years, globalism is shaping public journalism spreading it all over the world. I, first, learned the term “Public journalism” from Flemming Seiersen, a professor of the Danish School of Journalism in September, 1996. He taught reporting class for working journalists at that time. Then two years later, American journalist Leah Kohlenberg who was a Knight fellow in Mongolia talked about Public journalism at mid-career training courses organized by the Press Institute of Mongolia for journalists.

For us, journalists who studied and experienced only Soviet-communist theory during the totalitarian regime for a long time, it was a totally new thing. During a few years of Democracy, we have experienced freedom of the press and started to talk about social responsibility of the press. There comes another theory which is public journalism.

As a training coordinator of the Press Institute of Mongolia, I decided at that time to teach public journalism ideas at every course conducted by our organization. I made this decision not because it was new for us. I thought, it would help Mongolian journalists to make quick move from the old type of journalism to the new type of journalism. Working four years to train working journalists, I found it is very difficult to change the minds of people. The teachers at the Press Institute tried many methods to enlighten cynical journalists: organizing short term courses on various topics of journalism with foreign and local teachers, inviting them to the discussions and sending them abroad. Still we did not see bright results at first time. We knew it would take time.

However, when we organized six months journalism course for young college graduates and taught reporting courses based on Public journalism idea, it worked. They started to use many ordinary sources and get story ideas related to public’s willingness unlike old-minded journalists who still mostly rely on only official sources making biases in their stories. In this sense, public journalism idea is helping journalists in transition period from one society to another.

One thing, I did not appreciate in public journalism, is joining and serving of journalists other non-journalistic organizations. If you are a member of a particular organization, how can your paper write about that organization? Therefore, I fully support the question raised by Pr. Fostick “How publishers donate money to a theater and then read reviews on the page six?” Here raises a question: Is it ethical? The answer was not sufficient. The panelist implied that such guidelines are old because they started during the Vietnam War.

We should concern two kinds of journalism ethics to answer the above-mentioned question: media ethics and journalist’s ethics. There are guidelines for reporters not to be involved in other activities outside newsroom, but publishers are on the PTA, church or other boards. If reporters get involved in activities of other organizations, it raises question related to journalist’s ethics. Decision could be found easily: turn the story idea to another reporter. Decisions can be a personal. However, if publishers get involved in activities of other organizations, it will raise question if whole newspaper can cover a certain subject. It will be media ethics dilemma and it will demand collective decision. Public journalism requires be equal to community. If a newspaper ignores a certain subject or organization to cover, could it be discrimination? How should work in this case the best rule of public journalism to be honest?


April 23, 2001