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Buzz Merritt: News Media Must Regain Vigor, Courage

This interview with Davis “Buzz” Merritt, a founder of the public journalism movement, is the first in a series of Leonard Witt IM Interviews I plan to do over the next year under the heading Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust. It is part of a bigger project I am in the midst of starting.

There’s the Dan Rather mess, but I am more concerned about the continuing decline in the public’s confidence in the news media as reflected in the “State of the News Media 2004” report saying,

Public attitudes about the press have been declining for nearly 20 years. Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.

And there is a new Gallup Poll, which says “the news media’s credibility has declined significantly, with just 44 percent of Americans expressing confidence in the media’s ability to report news stories accurately and fairly.” These findings demand that something be done.

I hope my little part will be in helping the press, academia and the public search together for ways to create positive change. The emphasis is on “positive change.” It’s too easy to beat up on the news media, it is much harder to find ways to improve the news media.

An IM interview with Buzz Merritt is the prefect starting point because for some 16 years he has been advocating for news media change and recently wrote a book with Maxwell McCombs entitled “The Two W’s of Journalism: The Why and What of Public Affairs Reporting.” So let’s find out what he was thinking back in 1988 when he helped start the public or civic journalism movement and what he is thinking today.

Leonard Witt: Hi Buzz, I really wanted to start out by asking how you got that nickname, but these are serious times. So instead tell us, after 16 years of advocating for change among journalists, what are the positive results?
Buzz Merritt: I believe that some (indeterminate) number of journalists are thinking a bit differently about the relationship of journalism and democracy. There are several ongoing institutes and projects on the subject and a lot of university courses related to that subject. And, after 16 years, you can still ask a relevant question about the ideas.

Witt: What do you mean: you can still ask a relevant question about the ideas?
Merritt: I mean that you–and people like you–still have it on their minds and it’s still an ongoing experiment in journalism. Lots of people decided very quickly that it would be just another short-lived phenomenon–the equivalent of everybody’s 15 minutes of fame; that once the shouting died down, everything would revert to form. That’s not the case. Those of us involved early in the process recognized that all we could do was plant seeds–or maybe spread viruses. Either way, they are still alive.

Witt: Interesting. You said in your book change takes a generation, 30 years. You have been at it 16 years. How would you define success for public journalism and how close are we to reaching it?
Merritt: In the most basic sense, we are nowhere near “success” because the full measure of that lies in whether our society solves its most fundamental problems; whether our cities get better; whether democracy fulfills its promise. Public journalism cannot–and should not–do all of that, of course; but it can play its role. If the way we do journalism gets in the way of those things–and a fair percentage of people, myself included, believe that is the case–then it can also at least get out of the way and, beyond that, help enable the process of civic improvement. Another way of thinking about it is that public journalism will be a success when it loses its name–becomes simply the way journalism is done. I think what I said in the book is that public journalism is generational change, as opposed to something taught or learned immediately, as by injection.

Witt: I noticed you rarely use the words public journalism in your new book. What was that about?
Merritt: It was about not re-igniting old and mostly useless arguments over a label and misperceptions…and also about what I said above: losing its name.

Witt: Let’s go back to the earlier question. Were you saying journalism impedes helping society solve its most fundamental problems? That’s a pretty damning statement. Tell us more.
Merritt: It really goes back to the roots of the idea of public journalism: that we have an obligation to do more than render important issues as bipolar conflict between extreme viewpoints, our reflexive method. A fundamental problem cannot be solved until people understand not only their stake in the issue but also the stakes of others all across the spectrum. In a democracy, resolution almost always comes in some middle ground and too much of our political journalism fails to illuminate the middle ground, so people do not see or appreciate the possibilities of resolution and stay out of the process. We also have an obligation to help our institutions, our political process, our groups of people, develop the deliberative skills necessary to resolve disputes and problems.

Witt: How must journalism change to help us do that? Can it change to help us do that?
Merritt: At the operational level, journalists need several things: They need a clear understanding and appreciation for the interdependence of journalism and democracy. I don’t mean simply a notion about the First Amendment, but a true grasp of the dynamic that dictates neither can be successful without the other.

Journalists need to understand the difference between professional objectivity–a requirement–and detachment–a detriment to good journalism. And, increasingly, we need to be concerned about the level of professionalism, which is closely tied to sufficient staffing, salary, etc.

Witt: After reading your new book and Herbert Gans “Democracy and the News,” both of you are talking about a major retooling of how journalists think. Do you believe that actually might happen, and how do you get journalists to change how they think and perceive their place in the world?
Merritt: I believe that it can happen, but whether or not it will depends upon a great many people and institutions. Universities, for instance, need to include in their journalism programs more than cursory, First-Amendment-related study of journalism and democracy. That’s why Max and I wrote the latest book.

Newspaper companies need to understand that they will never regain either their former prestige or financial success unless they are once again seen as useful and essential to the success of the cities and states in which they operate. You can change journalists–or any other professionals–only when the reward system in which they operate demands such change. If the people who train and employ journalists understand the stakes, they will simply redefine what journalism is and how it acts.

Witt: Do you think journalists and the news industry that supports them are ready and willing to change?
Not yet, insofar as the news industry is concerned, but getting close. The crunch of diminishing readership (and survey ratings such as the one you mentioned) and resultant profit reductions has led too many companies to panic and reduce their level of journalism. This is a vicious spiral that apparently isn’t yet painful enough to force companies to look for fundamental new approaches. But it will be. I suspect that as the spiral continues, more and more journalists will be open to a different approach. Obviously business as usual isn’t working for either journalists or companies. Because of the distressing way in which they will arrive at the point of ready to change, they will surely then be willing.

Witt: What if they don’t change?
Merritt: Then I earnestly fear for our democratic traditions. The posture that traditional journalism is in–both journalists and the companies who employ them–makes it vulnerable to even more insidious manipulation by people and institutions pursuing their own short-sighted, undemocratic ends. If journalism does not regain its vigor and courage, it cannot restore its standing with a substantial majority of citizens and the bad guys will truly be in charge. And nobody will even realize it has happened.

Witt: Buzz, that’s a perfect ending to a perfect start to my new series on Restoring the Trust. Thanks it has been great.

Editor’s Note: If you have a chance, click on the comments below and read the take on citizens vs. consumers from Dan Suwyn, managing editor at the Savannah Morning News.

Tim Porter has an excellent response at his weblog First Draft.

2 Responses to “Buzz Merritt: News Media Must Regain Vigor, Courage”

  1. Dan Suwyn Says:

    Thoughts about Mr. Merritt’s interview:

    Journalism was the essential craft of the era of enlightened democracy – a time when the pressing questions were about self-determination, our responsibilities as citizens and our relationship with a higher being. Journalism was a path to understanding and a check on the new powers of individuals and governments.

    Unfortunately, we are no longer in that era.

    We are in the era of economic relevance – where the pressing question is about what value individuals contribute and where morality is determined more by the rules of the marketplace than by theology (even within most organized religions).

    Instead of citizens, we are now consumers. Our relationship with government is based on a consumer model now. In too many cases, our personal relationships are based on that model as well.

    The problem news organizations have is that we are built to speak to people as citizens, but people now see themselves as consumers. When we try to meet them as consumers, we lose our way as journalists – “targeted” sections, demographic-driven quotas for front pages, partisan newscasts, deals linking content and advertising. The list of sins is long.

    So here’s a way to approach our readers as citizens within the restraints of our era of economic relevance.

    Economic relevance breaks things into two categories – commodity and craft. It is helpful to think about what we offer readers in those two categories. Our commodity is information. Our craft is journalism.

    Information – everything from obituaries and calendars to stocks, property transfers and TV listings – has value at a microlevel. Information is what people expect from their newspaper. You increase your base value by increasing the breadth of data/information you have. This is answering the basic consumer question – is this product useful?

    As space has tightened in U.S. newspapers, information has been cut, thus eroding the core value of the product to the consumer.

    Journalism – the context, stories, analysis and investigations – is what determines consumer loyalty and lasting value. Watchdog journalism, stories of success, solutions-driven reporting – these answer the second key consumer question, does this product/company care about me?

    Public journalism is about answering the second question, but it has happened at a time when newspapers are increasingly failing to answer the first. We make people pay for obituaries, weddings, birth announcements and we’re gutting other essential information from the paper.

    Newsrooms need to see the value in all the raw information they collect, find what other information they can gather efficiently and concentrate on how to deliver to consumers.

    That information will lead to better journalism – more context, more understanding of patterns, better access to people. And then it will be up to us to show people how they are both consumers and citizens.

    In the era of economic relevance, information pays for journalism.

  2. Yohtaro Hamada Says:

    I am a reporter of Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, based in Tokyo.

    I just would like to say hi to Len and Buzz, both of whom I interviewed back in 2002, when I was a Fulbright scholar in Minnesota.

    In fact, I interviewed many of those journalists and scholars who have participated in public journalism movement. I just would like to let all of them know that I am still alive and still trying to practice public journalism.

    Our paper is a huge organiziation with a circluation of 8 million. Mainstream reporters in our newsroom are busy gaining access to the powerful figures in central government and ruling parties.

    Yes, I have to do some of that. In fact for a year, I covered the prime minister’s office resided by Mr. Koizumi, a good friend of GWB.

    That was a valuable experience because I now understand better how “conventioal” political reporters think and act, which in many cases run counter to the philosophy of public journalism. They tend to treat readers just spectators of political fireworks by trying to be “entertaining”.

    Recently, Japan is trying to decentralize and give more power to local governments where people could decide what they need and how much they pay for that. It is reaction to the fact that, in as long as history of modern Japan, political power has been concentrated in the central government. I believe it is a serious movement of democracy. And for news media, it is a wonderful opportunity to reinvent itself and be “useful” for our readers who have potential to participate in public sphere when power and responsiblity are given back. I think that ideas of public journalism could be very useful and relevant when our society is trying to change, possibly in very fundamental ways.

    I dare say public journalism has taken a root in our newsroom. But I am still here to spread viruses. And it is a good time to do so.