The press has a crucial role to play in cultivating deliberation. When we think and talk about public affairs, we initially acquire most of our information from newspapers and television. Letters-to-the-editor pages, radio call-in programs, and television talk shows are forums for public deliberation. At their best, the national media can prevent our local conversations from becoming insular or uninformed. Nothing else can connect our small-scale discussions into what Benjamin Page calls one "deliberative national public."
Journalists often see their own job as providing information to citizens. But not all facts are equally helpful in promoting democratic deliberation. To dwell on information of the wrong kind can even be damaging. For example, when journalists mostly provide facts about the tactics and fortunes of political insiders, they make citizens seem insignificant. Likewise, information about who is likely to win the next election is of no use to citizens who are trying to decide who ought to win. Too often, these predictions turn into self-fulfilling prophecies that reduce the importance of actual votes.
Facts about "public opinion" can be equally harmful. Surveys often ask a random sample of Americans to answer preformulated questions without first reflecting, discussing, or acquiring background information. The aggregated results are then presented as constraints within which politicians and the public must operate. We are told, for example, that a given policy is "unrealistic," because 65 percent of the public opposes it. Public opinion thus confronts citizens as an alien force, even though it is supposed to be something that they create.
Finally, many news stories "explain" officials' behavior by analyzing the political benefits that are likely to flow from their decisions. The implication that politicians act out of naked self-interest is often plausible-but also unverifiable and largely irrelevant. Motives are always difficult to assess, and in any case the important question is not why a politician votes in a particular way, but whether this position is right. Journalists are taught to keep their values out of their writing. But to limit the explanation of politicians' actions to self-interest is itself a moral judgment. It denies the legitimacy or relevance of any principled reasons that actors give for their decisions, and therefore makes deliberation seem pointless.
Fortunately, during the last few years, a new movement, called public or civic journalism, has begun to transform American newspapers, at least beyond the Capital Beltway. This label has been adopted by a loose coalition of reform-minded journalists with diverse ideals and projects. But a common theme unites many of their experiments: the cultivation of public deliberation.
Public journalists resist stories about the political "horse race" in favor of articles about issues. They also cover the public deliberations that occur in civil society, that is, within voluntary associations, neighborhood and civic groups, religious denominations, and universities. In covering these discussions, public journalists do not define "news" merely as moments of sharp disagreement, charges and countercharges, resignations and lawsuits. They also count routine exchanges of ideas as newsworthy.
Finally (and most controversially), public journalists instigate deliberation by convening citizens to talk about public affairs. For instance, during several recent elections, the Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer and the local ABC-television affiliate recruited people to serve on "citizens' panels" that collaborate with journalists to devise questions for candidates to answer. The politicians' responses were published in the newspaper. If a candidate refused to participate, a blank space was left by his name. Reporters from the business, health, education, and religion beats covered topics that the citizens' panel considered relevant to the election. Members of the panel met directly with candidates, and some of their deliberations were televised locally.
Such experiments cross traditional boundaries between objective reporting and activism. But North Carolina's public journalists have never forced candidates to take any particular position on issues. Instead, they have compelled politicians to engage in a dialogue with citizens. Thus public journalists have promoted a particular democratic process, and not a political outcome. Furthermore, it's worth remembering that conventional news stories about campaign tactics and polls are not truly neutral and detached, for they also affect public engagement. The effects of public journalism appear to be better: readers become demonstrably more active in community organizations and more interested in public affairs.
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Last Modified: 08/26/04
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