Beyond the Facts: Public Journalism and Deliberative Democracy

By S. J. Min

As part of the Kettering Foundation’s ongoing research, our staff and allied organizations gather for monthly Dayton Days research sessions to reflect on the ideas guiding our work and to share new insights. Conceptual thinkers from outside the foundation join us to talk about their work and provoke our thinking. 

In September 2020, we invited S. J. Min, associate professor of communication studies at Pace University, to share his work on the intertwined futures of democracy and journalism. We asked, Beyond informing the citizenry, what can journalism do to facilitate public deliberation and strengthen our civic life? These are Min’s thoughts on that question and reflections on the conversation that followed. 

Given the contemporary importance and sheer amount of discussion taking place in mediated spaces, journalism and media are one institution through which the ideals of deliberative democracy can be better realized. Although often marked by entrenched tribalism, news organizations nonetheless are an institution in which people of diverse backgrounds can find common ground because many living in a community depend on the same local news for their informational and community needs. Bringing people together and providing a place for public conversation represent a very important, yet often overlooked, mission of journalism. 

Along with the rapid rise of deliberative democracy in the 1990s, a movement known as public journalism attempted to advance such a mission. Public journalists tried to bring journalism closer to the people journalism purports to serve by providing more citizen-oriented coverage and holding community deliberative forums. But the movement eventually faded away. It caused controversy for violating the time-honored traditions of journalistic objectivity and neutrality; it suffered from the lack of a viable business model. And with the proliferation of new media technologies such as blogging and social media, it gave way to freewheeling citizen journalism in which citizens, not journalists, sit in the driver’s seat and produce and disseminate news products freely.

But public journalism wasn’t a failure after all. It pushed the boundaries of what journalism is and should be. And decades later, its spirit is resurrected in the form of such movements as engaged journalism, solutions journalism, and constructive journalism. There are differences among these new journalistic reform movements, but they all share the principles that journalism should be more than providing facts and journalists should value collaborative relationship with the audience they serve, a goal public journalism wanted to achieve.

Now is an opportune time to revisit the ideals of public journalism. Years of participatory fervor resulted in even stronger partisan divides and “participation fatigue.” The digital public sphere, where most participatory politics have been realized for the past years, is increasingly contaminated by fake news, extremism, and hate speech. Hence, there is a call to appreciate civilized discussion and genuine in-person interactions that may forge deeper human connections. As public journalism did more than a quarter century ago, today’s journalism should serve as a fair-minded convenor of public life and as a facilitator of public conversation to bring people closer and bridge divides. 

But a renewed public journalism today needs to take on an additional mission. Beyond being a fair-minded facilitator of public life, it needs to become a committed speaker, a passionate participant itself in public deliberation processes. Faced with such agonizing issues as racism and police brutality, journalism has a responsibility to step out of the comfortable confines of fact-giving and become a provider of wisdom and perspective. As the Hutchins Commission on the Freedom of the Press argued as early as 1947, news reports can be “factually correct but substantially untrue” as coverage of minorities, for example, often lacks context and is superficial. The renewed mission of public journalism requires reexamination and nuanced understanding of journalistic objectivity and neutrality—how journalism’s scientific method, unbiasedness, and discipline of verification may go along with its positive obligation to elevate underrepresented people and issues in the public sphere. 

That journalism should play the dual roles of a fair-minded convenor facilitating people to speak and a passionate speaker itself providing perspective sounds like a paradoxical, difficult task. In fact, the public journalism movement failed in such a balancing act. But these two duties are not necessarily incompatible. Being fair-minded in journalism is not simply being disinterested and maintaining detached neutrality but can be regarded as what some scholars called “passionate impartiality” that supports the fundamental values of democracy and the human conditions. And if “reason-giving” is a core act of deliberation, then journalism in a larger deliberative system can be warranted in acting as one such participant, a reasoning institution that provides justifications and rationales to the public sphere while keeping with its familiar unbiased and facilitative roles in news work.  

Deliberative democrats who care about the link between journalism and democracy will have to ponder the renewed sense of public journalism today. Where do they start, then, in this toxic atmosphere of distrust, polarization, and extremism? Deliberative democrats and nonpartisan entities promoting democracy may become trusted brokers between the community and news organizations. Many citizens are interested in how their communities are covered but are often distrustful of news media; public-minded news organizations lack necessary resources and skills to approach community members. Organizations such as the Kettering Foundation may improve the relationship between local communities and newsrooms by brokering conversations between the two. That’s a good start for a deliberative public journalism.