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Public Journalism Summit Discussion

Summary of the Discussion at the Public Journalism Summit

January 24-25, 2003 at Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia

Journalists and educators from four continents gathered on a brisk January morning near Atlanta to create a new organization to support journalists’ efforts to engage citizens in efforts to improve both news coverage and public life in their communities.

Seven and a half hours later, after a lively discussion, the just-named Public Journalism Network had adopted a charter, appointed officers and sketched out some plans for the coming year.

The meeting was held January 24-25, 2003, at the Kennesaw State University Center, hosted by Kennesaw’s Robert D. Fowler Chair in Communication, Leonard Witt.

During the discussion, participants struggled to reconcile differing views about subjects ranging from what kind of organization they wanted to create, for whom and with what name, to loftier issues such as the nature and purpose of democracy and the role of the journalist in a democratic society.

Fairly early in the discussion, participants decided it would be best to develop a one-page charter using the preamble that had been written for a much lengthier draft charter that included a mission statement, many specifics about the composition of the organization and a list of activities.

The following is a summary of the discussion, organized around the questions that provoked the most prolonged discussion.

Question: What is the nature and purpose of democracy?

The preamble to the proposed charter for the group began with the sentence: “We the undersigned believe in a notion that is still as radical as it is recent in human history: that people are fit to rule themselves.”

The assumption that we all believed in citizens’ capacity for self-government was the largest elephant in the room, and it made for some of the most engaging discussion of the day.

Everyone was “for democracy,” of course, just as there isn’t a politician alive who isn’t “for education.” But people had differing views about whom democracy serves and the essential role of the citizen. The tensions resulted in these fault lines:

  • Is the citizen’s job to inform the government — to, in essence, create a more perfect public opinion for government officials to act on? Or…
  • Is the citizenry capable of self-government?

Some people, particularly those from other countries, saw the latter as a recipe for anarchy. However, others, especially those from the United States, saw it as fundamental to our understanding of democracy, public life, and, therefore, public journalism.

Other versions of that statement were offered, and rejected. Efforts to change that sentence to a more neutral statement on civil society, or simply saying that readers voices are good, were rejected as well.

At one point, moderator Cole Campbell asked every person to write a new version, then share it with the group. They responded with the following when Cole asked them to complete the sentence “The heart of democracy lies in …”:

  • …giving citizens a voice OR a clear voice in society.
  • …giving citizens the voice and tools to strengthen civil society OR to strengthen public life OR to ensure that democracy.
  • …giving citizens a voice and opportunities to participate in civil society.
  • …giving citizens a forum and tools to make decisions.
  • …giving citizens a way to have an impact in democratic governance of the public sphere.
  • …enabling citizens to control issues that affect their livelihood.
  • …citizens taking responsibility for public life while respecting individual freedom.
  • …citizens who are informed and empowered to decide the direction of their lives.
  • …in building and strengthening civil society.

Others parsed the sentence in slightly different ways:

  • The voice of every citizen is the heart of democracy.
  • Democracy’s heart lives in citizens empowered to participate in civil society.
  • Democracy thrives only when citizens’ voices can be heard.
  • Democracy lives through its citizens, in their associations, their communities, and in the public life that is the soul of self-government.
  • Civil society prospers only when the people exercise those skills that strengthen and sustain public life.
  • The heart of a democratic press is to provide the public with information they need to participate in public life, be part of their society’s governance and be an effective agent of change when necessary.
  • Public journalism values inclusion of citizen voices and opportunities for participation as core elements of democracy.

During the discussion, some suggested that we regard the charter as an evolving document, to be put out for other journalists, educators and citizens to consider and critique, and for the members to regularly reevaluate. One participant stressed the importance of experimentation in public journalism and encouraged us to carry that into our work.

Some participants also cautioned that public journalism can and has been used for decidedly undemocratic purposes. One said that, in South Korea, public journalism was pushed by government officials who saw it as a way to dampen coverage critical of the government.

Question: Should we say our focus is public journalism? Or civic journalism?

This question was resolved in the process of picking the final name for the group: Public Journalism Network.

Some expressed concern that the name “public journalism” has been too tainted by the controversies of the past to be effective in the future.

Others suggested that the term “civic journalism” has been attached to more work done over more time, and is included in the name of the Civic Journalism Interest Group of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Some offered observations about which brings up more listings when using Internet search engines, and which is more commonly used in archived materials both in print and online.

One participant suggested that “public life” refers to the constitution of a public, which ties back to the idea of self-governance. He said “civic life,” by contrast, refers to a real civil society and associational life. It is less directly linked to the notion of democracy.

Question: Should we be a public society or a professional society?

Initially, some people expressed concern that membership would be limited to journalists and journalism educators, and they argued for allowing citizens to join as well. However, most changed their view after the following comments were offered:

  • Our focus is on the work of journalists, and on the importance of citizens informing that work. For that reason, it would be most appropriate to be an association of people whose work is in the field of journalism.
  • Even though they would not be members, we could and would invite citizens into our conversations.
  • If membership were open to everyone, we would run the risk of having interest groups or vendors usurp the original purpose of the group. As a professional group, we would retain control over the kinds of citizens who would participate.

Question: In what ways will we identify ourselves as global or international?

Participants from outside the United States, in particular, were concerned that we indicate in our name that we are an organization eager to have members from many countries. They also suggested that the word “global” is more appropriate than “international,” because they view the latter term as signifying “between nations” and we are not representing our national governments in any way.

In the end, we decided not to include either word in the name of our organization, although some participants from outside North America expressed regret about that.

Other significant points:

  • It will be important for us to articulate a philosophy for journalism, not just public journalism.
  • We should be strive for a membership that is a good mix of working journalists and journalism educators.

Respectfully submitted,
Tom Warhover and Cheryl Gibbs