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The Fourth Estate in the Digital Age:
Formulating a new role for journalists based in theories of civic discourse
AEJMC Conference Presentation
Communication Theory and Methodology Division
San Antonio, TX
St. John Fisher College
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Ideas drawn from theories of cyber-democracy, or use of the
Internet's interactive nature to foster political discourse, can be
used to define new ways in which online journalists can become
facilitators of that discourse. Cyber-democratic theories, sometimes
criticized for being too idealized, are connected with a realistic
set of practices that online journalists can engage in, such as
putting institutional credibility behind citizen voices, providing
places for citizens to interact with each other and civic officials,
and using interactive devices to present public affairs information
serving the surveillance function. This online discourse model helps
to define a new role for journalists in covering public affairs
differently and restoring some of the luster to the tarnished role of
the Fourth Estate.
A poll sponsored by ABC News and the Washington Post in late
2003 reported that 49 percent of the respondents in a national survey
of 1,200 adults were dissatisfied with the U.S. political process. In
another poll a month earlier, sponsored by Cable News Network and USA
Today, half the respondents said the U.S. political system needed
either a complete overhaul [17 percent] or major reforms [33
percent]. More than half of the respondents in another survey from
around the same time rated the media's overall performance as only
fair [43 percent] or poor [12 percent] (Public Opinion Online, 2003).
This evidence supports the view that traditional political
communication and its relation to self-governance and civic
engagement have become dysfunctional, such as the appraisals offered
by Gans (2003), Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001), and Fallows (1996),
who titled his critique "Breaking the news: how the media undermine democracy."
This happens against a backdrop of a dramatic change in the
journalistic environment with Internet emerging as a news source
(Stempel and Hargrove, 2004). Interactivity is what separates the
Internet from traditional media; it also can be used as a tool to
create shared constructions of meaning, which is crucial to public
deliberation. As Singer succinctly put it, "The Web offers both
citizens and journalists new options related to information,
discourse and decision-making. ... Journalists who see their role as
crucial to democracy have an opportunity to expand that role in a
meaningful way" (2003).
But journalists who assume that engagement will naturally flow
from online presentation fall into the same trap of
techno-determinism that plagues so-called cyber-utopians -- an
if-you-build-it-interactively-they-will-come assumption. The goal of
this research is to move beyond mere presumptions of this nature and
derive a theoretical basis that predicts and explains how online
journalism's interactive nature can have greater efficacy and value
in creating a place for public sphere discourse than traditional
print and broadcast approaches. This will be accomplished through
melding traditional theories of journalism, democracy and political
communication with emerging theories of online communication,
especially its application to political discourse.
An integrative theory such as this follows suggestions of
earlier research toward advancing the field. For example, Singer and
Thiel (2002) found that theory and methods had followed very
traditional orientations during the first 10 years of research into
online journalism, which made sense for scholars approaching a new
phenomenon. But they concluded that taking scholarship to a higher
level would require synthesis of new theories in multidisciplinary
ways. Similarly, Boczkowski (1999) has sought to merge theories of
computer mediated communication (CMC) and journalism.
The purpose of this research to paraphrase the quote from
Singer above is to define and describe how expanding journalists'
role in democracy in a meaningful way can be developed, using a
multidisciplinary approach to provide evidence of how the
capabilities of the interactive online environment can create
conditions for more effective civic discourse. This incorporates some
of the more positive aspects of cyber-democratic theory, while
avoiding technological determinism in favor of a measured, realistic
and practical approach rooted in facilitating online discourse within
the context of the online news site. The result is a new, integrated
theory of how interactive journalism can mitigate limitations that
hamstring more time-worn theories of political communication and
citizen engagement to explain how journalists might better fulfill
their eroded Fourth Estate role.
Online journalism and interactivity
As the Internet diffused through U.S. society in the mid- to
late 1990s, newspapers rapidly adopted it as a presentation platform.
By now most U.S. dailies have some sort of Web edition; Greer and
Mensing (2004) put the number at 1,279 in 2003. But making best use
of the unique characteristics of the online environment -- and truly
incorporating its interactive power to fulfill some of journalism's
important normative roles -- is another matter entirely. For online
newspapers to perform most successfully they must manage audience
engagement with the news content, and the real issue for online
journalism is adapting the role of journalists and the practice of
the craft to incorporate this concept. But the large body of work
into online formats shows newspapers have been slow to adapt to the
opportunities that online presentation lays before them. This is
despite the urgings of leaders in the field such as former Gannett
Corp. editor Bob Giles (2000), who called Web news a "fundamentally
different culture built on interactivity."
What and where: investigating site characteristics
Gubman and Greer (1997) conducted a content analysis of some
of the earliest newspapers to go online and reported that the
structure and characteristics of the sites were mostly shallow -- not
many links or layers and were dominated by print-style writing and
made little use of interactivity. Kamerer and Bressers (1998)
investigated whether online journalism was growing in sophistication.
Using longitudinal content analysis from two time periods six months
apart, they determined that papers were becoming more sophisticated,
moving from simple repurposing of content to greater degrees of
interactivity, which they saw as beneficial.
But other researchers concluded this shift was not happening in
meaningful ways. Tankard and Ban (1998) used a content analysis and
survey of editors responsible for online editions to discover that
features such as immediacy, interactive stories (hyperstories), and
user control of content were not widely adopted. "It appears that
many online newspapers are simply using the online site to mirror or
reproduce the content of the print newspaper," they wrote. Another
content analysis of newspaper sites revealed little use of
interactive tools or options in online papers (Schultz, 1999). As Web
technology advanced, so did online newspapers' use of it, according
to DiBean and Garrison (2000), who did a longitudinal study of use of
technological devices in 1998 and 1999. However, they reported, most
of the interactive options were consumer oriented, such as searchable
ads, rather than being oriented toward news or storytelling.
Who and how: investigating audience reactions
On the audience side, an early study of online activity
determined that time spent with online media did not cut into use of
traditional media (Bromley & Bowles, 1995). This study also reported
that connectedness and interactivity held promise for building and
ascertaining public opinion on community topics. Mings (1997) did a
quasi-experimental study from a uses and gratifications approach to
see what uses people would make of online media, and determined that
the gratifications sought from print products would carry over into
online news. But Hsiang and Lasorsa (1999) investigated users'
perceptions of online papers and concluded that users saw online and
traditional media as complementary. Their prescriptive conclusion was
that online papers should build on this by using the online edition
to provide benefits, such as interactivity, unavailable in print versions.
As online readership became more common and news sites became
more sophisticated, audience research advanced as well. Sundar (1999)
evaluated audience perceptions of news content, and determined that
similar factors were used to evaluate print and online content.
However, Tewksbury and Althaus (2000) investigated another difference
of online news that it lacks certain "cues" such as headline size
and page placement that print readers are familiar with and
concluded that the reduced cuing inherent in online presentation can
adversely affect the surveillance function regarding important
political news. This means people may learn only what they want to,
not what they need to, because when papers do not indicate importance
readers substitute their own interests in deciding what to read. In
another look at how audiences evaluate stories online, Sundar and
Nass (2001) in an experiment showed that an online user's perception
of story source affected perception of story quality; specifically,
when users thought other users had selected a story for inclusion on
the site, they rated the story higher.
Even as journalists were wading slowly into interactive
presentations, theories of "cyber-democracy" were developing on a
somewhat parallel but separate track that said the Internet's ability
to close gaps of time and distance with electronic connectivity would
have the power to make institutional journalism at least
anachronistic, and perhaps even unnecessary (Morris, 1999). These
ideas emerged from the concept that the Internet can break down the
barriers of physical distance and message "reach" that limit access
to information dissemination, retrieval and exchange. Communication
could be much more fluid and interactive in cyberspace, regardless of
whether two individuals were in the same room, the same town or even
on the same continent. At the same time, everyone could have access
to a virtually unlimited information bank, literally at their
fingertips, indexed and organized with hypertext links. These
conditions, the thinking went, would offer a new paradigm for
self-governance that would address the breakdown of the traditional
U.S. political communication system. (London, 1995).
One of these paradigms was based on a populist or
direct-democracy model, in which political interaction as exemplified
by ancient Athens or colonial New England would take place in
cyberspace. The difference was that direct democracy in those
idealized settings faced limits imposed by physical location of
meeting sites and distance separating the participants. The Internet
could make such limits irrelevant, thereby altering the scope and
scale over which such democracy could be implemented; everyone who
could link up could participate in the decision-making.
The other model was based on deliberative democracy akin to
the public sphere discourse suggested by German philosopher Jurgen
Habermas. The "cyber-salon" would provide a virtual setting to
replace the physical one in which participants could engage in
deliberative discourse according to clearly specified rules of
engagement to produce well-reasoned outcomes -- again, with the
benefit that anyone, anywhere could participate.
The electronic plebiscite
The concept of an electronic democracy analogous to ancient
Athens was promoted by no less than Vice President Al Gore, who made
the comparison in remarks at a conference covered by the Economist
magazine (June 17, 1995; quoted in Gaynor, 1996). Delli Carpini and
Keeler said the Internet's "ability to provide information to a
citizen and permit him or her to act on that information ... is a
radically new feature of the information environment" (2003, p. 148).
One observer called the Internet "a powerful technology for
grassroots democracy" and said that "by facilitating discussion and
collective action by citizens [the Internet could] strengthen
democracy" (Klein, as quoted in R. Davis, 1999) while another
observer said that "Today's telecommunications technology may make it
possible for our political system to return to the roots of Western
democracy as was first practiced in the city-states of ancient
Greece. Tomorrow's telecommunications technology almost certainly
will" (Grossman, 1995, p. 33). He added: "The electronic republic
cannot be as intimate or as deliberative as the face-to-face
discussions and showing of hands in the ancient Athenians' open-air
assemblies. But it is likely to extend government decision making
from the few in the center of power to the many on the outside who
want to participate" (Grossman, 1995, p. 49). Political consultant
Dick Morris was even more optimistic in his assessment of Internet
direct democracy, predicting that the Internet would "lead to a
system of de facto government by referendum. The town meeting style
of government will become a national reality" (D. Morris, 1999, p. 28).
But electronic plebiscites were just one democratic
transformation envisioned by Internet enthusiasts. Another was
creation of electronic forums in which deliberative democracy could
flourish. Even those who were not convinced that Internet-facilitated
direct democracy was either feasible or desirable found this position tenable.
London succinctly summarized the differences between the
populist or plebiscite model, which he called "teledemocracy," and a
more deliberative approach. In his view, teledemocracy was closely
aligned with the traditional liberal democratic model in that it was
designed to aggregate individual preferences and provide a
marketplace of ideas upon which decisions rest. Or, as another pair
of analysts explained it, "Plebiscitary democracy
is not democratic
deliberation but simple head counting" (Hill & Hughes, 1998). London
pointed out that proponents of deliberative democracy "are skeptical
of this view. ... the purpose of democratic deliberation is to
resolve or even transcend the conflict, not aggregate a myriad of
pre-established interests" (London, 1995). Rheingold (1994) supposed
a similar role for online interaction, noting that "The technology
that makes virtual communities possible has the potential to bring
enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost --
intellectual leverage, social leverage, commercial leverage, and most
important, political leverage. But the technology will not in itself
fulfill that potential; this latent technical power must be used
intelligently and deliberately by an informed population."
Gaynor (1996) and Dahlberg (2001) both invoked Habermasian
principles for effective deliberative discourse, and argued that
Internet forums provide a fruitful place for them to take root. "The
dispensal of traditional hierarchies which occurs on the Internet
appears to make possible the type of categories necessary for
Habermas' 'ideal speech situation' to occur" (Gaynor, 1996). This was
largely because issues of individual status, social rank and even
race offered fewer barriers in the realm of virtual communication. He
further noted that "Virtual communities created on-line can serve as
alternatives to or reinforcements of actual physical communities in
their functions as public spheres. By utilizing the transcendence and
speed of electronic technology these communities can also spur
political action by citizens, especially on the grassroots level"
This approach was partially shared by Dahlberg, who reviewed a
set of six normative conditions for public sphere discourse -- such
as autonomy from state and economic power, exchange, critique of
validity claims, and discursive inclusion and equality -- and
concluded that while online discourse "replicates the basic structure
of rational-critical debate and in various ways approximates the
requirements of the public sphere, it nevertheless falls short of
truly replicating the public sphere model" (Dahlberg, 2001).
Critique of the cyber-democratic model
Dahlberg was not the only one to see a dark cloud around the silver
lining of the cyber-utopians' visions. Barber (1997) noted that
technology and new communication tools cannot correct every defect in
a political communication system, and in fact are contrary to some of
the characteristics of effective democracy. Computers are fast and
binary; democratic reasoning is slow and nuanced. Deciding what type
of contribution technology should make to democracy is a crucial
prerequisite for implementing it; the technology cannot be left to
develop on its own. Wilhelm (2000) made a similar argument: that
technology does not automatically support effective operation of a
public sphere. "The primary defect of this overly optimistic
viewpoint is that it ignores the threats posed by the discontinuities
between the dizzying rhythm of information and communication
transmission and the deliberative pace of discussion within the
public sphere" (Wilhelm, 2000, p. 54). Echoing some of the other
critiques, he argued that: (a) deliberation is more than the
aggregation of preferences; (b) access to information is not the same
as mobilization; and (c) the Internet creates the potential for
disempowered people or groups to be further marginalized. Removing
barriers is a necessary but not sufficient condition to building
political dialogue; in his view editing and filtering of the
information and facilitation of discourse were required as well.
Wilhelm called for "structures and policies that promote real
progress in greater democratic deliberation, not platitudes about the
illusion of progress because of the 'gee whiz' qualities of new
technology." (p. 9)
Although one defining characteristic of the Internet -- to quote a
famous New Yorker magazine cartoon -- is that "nobody knows you're a
dog," disembodied computer mediated communication does not
automatically lead to more polite, reasoned discourse; in fact, lack
of physical contact between was seen by some as degrading the quality
of discourse rather than improving it (Buchstein, 1997; Barber 1997).
Bimber (1998) argued that new ways of passing information back and
forth do not automatically enhance the quality of that information.
He concluded that neither the populist nor deliberative models would
be likely to emerge, and instead predicted political communication on
the Internet would tend toward reinforcement of the narrow-interest,
fragmented power structure besetting the traditional liberal
democratic model. Hill and Hughes (1998), Norris (2002), and Kamarck
(2002) all reached similar conclusions: that the Internet supplements
existing political discourse rather than providing a new paradigm.
Oblak explored the relationship of interactivity and participation,
especially with regard to the direct democracy model, and concluded
that what are promoted as participatory platforms often end up as
just information-sharing spaces not unlike classical mass media. "To
provide deliberative and recursive communication between citizens and
government is a much more difficult engagement than simple provision
of information" (Oblak 2003). This view is congruent with
Yankelovich's (1991) conclusion that merely inundating voters with
information is not enough to encourage what he called effective
These researchers thus demonstrated that online communication
does not automatically equate to interactivity, and although access
to information comes more easily on the Internet, acquisition of it
fills about the same role as getting it from traditional mass media.
In a case-study of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Davis, Elin
and Reeker (2004) concluded that existing political institutions used
the Internet as a new medium or channel, but did not make dramatic
impact on political life. Levine (2003) similarly reported that voter
information sites and candidates' campaign sites serve a potentially
useful informational role -- but offer no guarantees people will find
and use that information.
According to Winner (2003) "The ideal of democratic discourse
as seen in the ancient polis, seen in the New England town meeting
and celebrated in the writings of John Dewey and Jurgen Habermas
are not characteristic of participation on the Internet." A quote
from Gaynor (1996) summarizes the situation even more succinctly:
"The prospect of a virtual society in which members have equal voice
and access remains dim."
Significance of structure
A common thread among these critiques of the cyberutopian view is
that it is essentially technological determinism. Just because the
network makes certain actions and interactions possible, critics say,
does not make them inevitable. "The removal of obstacles to the free
flow of ideas is a necessary but insufficient condition to achieving
a deliberative dialogue" (Wilhelm, 2000, p. 42). But the
cyber-utopians, in a way, were on to something. Barber acknowledged
the prospects for technological interaction to help improve
democratic performance, but quickly added that "there are forms of
control and intervention, like editing, facilitation and education,
that are necessary to democratic utilization of the Net and amount to
positive or legitimate forms of gatekeeping" (1997, p. 210). Coleman
(1999) proposed similar mechanisms, including virtual public spaces
under the sponsorship or auspices of neutral organizations, reliable
on-line information upon which discussions could be based,
educational material to help guide citizens in their deliberation and
a link between the governed and the governors.
Cyber-utopians posited that because the Internet breaks down
barriers of distance and access to information, and allows
individuals to interact in new, more fluid ways it would bring about
the existence of an electronic agora and/or virtual cyber-salon.
Critics of these views pointed out that although Internet-based
interactions can allow online deliberation to take place, such
behavior will not materialize on its own. But they also argued that
it could, given managed structures designed to facilitate such
interaction. Online journalism can help to provide such facilitation
A role for journalists
The threads of theory and research traced out so far can be fused
logically to develop a new, integrated theory of online discourse
with journalistic facilitation. Research into online journalism
demonstrates that audience interaction with the information is the
crucial concept. The works by Sundar, by Mings, and by Hsiang and
Lasorsa cited earlier can be interpreted as meaning that people will
look to online newspapers for the same types of information that they
would seek in a traditional newspaper. But what meanings they
construct or attach to it depend on both form and content, as
Sundar's later work with Nass indicated, as did that of Tewksbury and
Althaus. The large body of work into online formats shows newspapers
have been slow to adapt to the opportunities online presentation sets
before them. Meanwhile, cyber-democracy, whether of the "electronic
town meeting" variety or the public-sphere cyber-salon, does not
present itself as a feasible alternative, either. To the degree that
online interaction can support democratic discourse, it is best
fostered by facilitation, research such as Dahlberg's indicates.
But who should the facilitators be, and where are they to be
found? Anyone can post a Web page with his or her political views,
invite and even moderate discussion. But what credibility will they
have with respect to the community at large? With respect to
political discourse, this is where a new role and function for
journalists could emerge, using the interactive power of new models
of online journalism.
The "missing link" in the traditional model of journalism and
democracy is citizen engagement, what Gans (2003) speaks of as
"disempowerment." The missing links in cyber-democratic discourse are
structure and facilitation. But the power and promise of online
journalism come from interactivity, tapping into an audience that is
already actively engaged in construction of meaning in the messages
and doing some of the gatekeeping for itself. Their participation in
the process already provides a certain structure and base of common
knowledge based on surveillance of the environment through exposure
to the news site.
If facilitation of discourse (provision of forums and tools
for engagement, and establishing rules and norms) is what it takes to
have effective on-line civic discourse, then doing just that among an
already "captive" and engaged audience is an approach online
journalists can use to reclaim their eroded Fourth Estate role in
ways that are not possible under traditional
source-message-channel-receiver models of mass communication. As
Gurevitch and Blumler put it, "more serious forms of political
discourse and coverage could strike neglected chords and find an
audience ready and willing to attend them" (1990, p. 287).
What that requires, however, is a willingness of journalists
to reformulate their approach to political journalism. Proponents of
change say it is a step they should be willing to take. "If
journalism-steered-by-news-values converts so readily into
news-management-for-politicians, something will have to be done from
within to put this right," according to Gurevitch and Blumler. They
continue: "Again a need to rethink the journalistic role arises. Too
often the alternative to the conventional journalistic role of
'gatekeeper' has been posited as one of 'advocate'
possibilities exist and should be explored, including the role of
'democratic midwife' " (1990, p. 286). Online and off, journalists
already can and do fulfill important roles regarding surveillance and
social cohesion/construction of common knowledge. Combining these
with facilitated discourse can add up to a more powerful impact on
public opinion and a more powerful process for reconnecting the
public with public life than any of the three alone.
Two crucial features separate this approach from notions of
basic cyber-democracy. One is the framing and backgrounding of basic
information provided by the news coverage. As Kovach and Rosenstiel
describe it: "As citizens encounter an ever-greater flow of data they
have more need not less for identifiable sources dedicated to
verifying that information, highlighting what is important to know
and filtering out what is not
The role of the press in this new age
becomes working to answer the question 'where is the good stuff'?
Verification and synthesis become the backbone of the new gatekeeper
role of the journalist, that of the 'sensemaker'" (2001, p. 48).
The other factor is that the involvement of the paper, a
community institution, gives the information exchanged and expressed
there a certain traffic level and institutional credibility that
makes the interaction more meaningful in a deliberative sense than
would be accorded, for example, to bloggers who are doing the same
thing -- but who may or may not be working with accurate, credible
information and whose work may or may not even be noticed by any sort
of larger public, much less institutional decision makers. This is
not meant to be disparaging of all those who work outside the
institutional media settings, many of whom do extensive and high
quality work, as documented by Gillmor (2004). But rather, as
Christian Science Monitor editor Tom Regan pointed out in online
journalism's formative days: "As the number of news sites on the
Internet grows, people will continue to fall back on trusted sources"
(Regan 1997). By bringing online public discourse under the tent of
the newspaper's institutional credibility, journalists can reclaim
the Fourth Estate role that has been eroded away by public cynicism
about politics, "the process" and the media's place within it.
In a piece of research done in the wake of the 2000 presidential
election, Singer extensively quoted one of her survey respondents who
stated the case eloquently:
"This medium is about the empowerment of our community, to facilitate
interaction with interesting or meaningful people, to house 'forums'
in which users can exchange ideas and information, to focus on the
local angles, to give people a voice
Newspapers have always been
the bridge between newsmakers and readers. With interactive Internet
applications, we have a way to enhance that role and make that bridge
a two-way thoroughfare. This is good for the newspaper, good for the
online service and good for the users. We're muddling through the
continuing chaos of [the 2000] election in which roughly half the
voting public is going to feel disenfranchised, no matter what the
outcome. This is a good time to be in the 'enfranchisement'
business." (Singer 2003)
Online papers as a venue for cyber-democratic engagement
But how should this "enfranchisement business" be conducted? What
specific prescriptions should online papers use to help enhance
A logical starting point is to recognize the role of the paper as an
institutional actor within the political communication system.
Schudson suggests this starts with seeking out "a plausible political
mission for news institutions" that "starts with realistic models of
democracy in a contemporary setting, rather than simplistic ideals of
democratic behavior" (1983, p. 3). Davis offers a similar view,
describing how the Internet offers vast opportunity for citizen
involvement in policy processes (the standard cyber-democratic
approach). But he weighs that against the need for structure in
providing for the process to operate effectively. "Structure will be
provided by the very players who offer structure to news and
information dissemination off line" including the media (R. Davis,
1999, p. 39). Cohen, in seeking to describe how deliberative
democracy could realistically develop, emphasized the same
institutional imperative. "The ideal deliberative procedure provides
a model for institutions, a model they should mirror so far as
[to] make deliberation possible" (Cohen 1997, p. 79). He
elaborated on the concept, saying: "At the heart of the
institutionalization of the deliberative process is the existence of
arenas in which citizens can propose issues for the political agenda
and participate in debate about those issues
The problem is to
figure out how such arenas might be organized" (p. 85). One way to
answer that question is to say that online papers should put their
institutional credibility behind citizen voices and provide coverage
that that may combine institutional and citizen voices.
Another aspect of the new role online journalists could adopt
extends from the recognition that simply supplying information is not
enough. This limitation may be directly related to the complexity and
fragmentation of contemporary society. "If the job of the press is to
inform the public, and the public has become too fragmented for
information to be useful, then the role of the journalist has to be
restated not necessarily changed, mind you, but elaborated.
'Informing the public' is too limited, too narrow.
can create publics, but journalists can ask themselves the following
question: How do we align our practices with the ways that citizens
form publics so that there are more publics and a stronger public
life?" (Mathews, 1996, p. 39).
Similar themes have been addressed by Gans, who made
suggestions for journalistic practices with the "ultimate aim of
enhancing the citizens' role in the country's politics" (2003, p.
91). These included making news out of what people consider the
important issues and shifting from top-down, official-source-oriented
news to focus on proposed or ongoing opportunities for public
participation. Gans noted that this would go beyond traditional
approaches to a new model he called "participatory journalism."
Another reform suggestion from a former public
journalism-editor-turned-educator called for development of "a public
knowledge model, in which citizens, experts and journalists
collaboratively pool their intelligence" (Campbell, 2004). This fits
with Sundar and Nass's (2001) findings that users rated stories more
highly if other users had selected them for inclusion. Taken
together, these ideas reinforce the notion that a new role for online
journalists ought to include helping citizens interact with officials
in politics and government, but also providing ways for citizens to
interact with each other.
Providing information is not a sufficient condition for creating the
conditions under which discourse can flourish, but it still is a
necessary one. Indeed, developing a common base of knowledge is seen
as a key component of effective deliberation (Fishkin 2000). Or as
another set of researchers described it, "Emphasizing that the
audience is an active player in the communication process provides
both reassurance and opportunity for journalists.
everyone can and does learn something from the news media.
Journalists have a responsibility to recognize and augment the
capacity of the audience to learn politically relevant information"
(Neuman, Just & Crigler, 1992, p. 120). So another part of the model
includes providing surveillance-style information about government
and political officials and institutions. But adding the capabilities
of the online environment offer previously unavailable approaches
that have the potential to transform political communication (Graber,
McQuail & Norris, 1998), so this concept should include providing
surveillance information in interactive ways such as hyperstories and
links to augment traditional, linear story-telling approaches.
Online newspapers' discourse model
These theoretical bases summarized in the passages
emphasized above -- allow for construction of a set of model
practices that online journalists can undertake to create conditions
for fostering public discourse and civic engagement. They take the
form of employing particular interactive devices that online
journalism research says are feasible and realistic, yet offer the
types of engagement postulated by theories of cyber-democracy
augmented by using the institutional umbrella of the online paper to
provide structure and facilitation. The model consists of:
1. Putting institutional credibility behind citizen voices. This
includes devices such as citizen blogs, posting of letters to the
editor on the Web site (and its corollary, accepting them via e-mail)
and online polls on public affairs issues.
2. Joining institutional and citizen voices. This might include, for
example, using citizen input (e.g. from message boards and blogs) in
stories and editorials and offering "talk back" opportunities on
stories, editorials or letters.
3. Providing places for citizen interaction with officials, including
chats and e-mail links to candidates, officials and institutions.
4. Providing spaces for citizen interaction on public affairs issues,
such as message boards about public affairs as part of the online
news site itself as well as links to sites such as "e.thePeople"
(http://www.e-thepeople.org), which bills itself as "a public forum
for a new democracy conversation."
5. Using the power of the Web to present public affairs information
serving the surveillance function in ways that go beyond what is
possible in print. These include layering or hyperstory formulation
of stories on civic issues or elections; interactive presentations
about issues of public importance (e.g. candidate quizzes, and
"games" where users can make hypothetical decisions about budgets,
government programs, campaigns, etc.); and links from the online
newspaper to government sites with other citizen resources; electoral
information such as candidates' campaign sites; and third-party
information/ advocacy sites, e.g. Factcheck.org, Vote-Smart.org, and
Such a model helps to integrate the online news environment
more effectively and productively into the
information-interaction-impact model of public opinion development
described by Yankelovich (1991) and overcome some of the systemic
constraints on effective operation of the political communication,
such as the ones described by McLeod, Kosicki and McLeod (1994). It
also incorporates some of the more valuable parts of deliberative
democracy and cyber-democracy as a theoretical basis for why these
practices could be effective, while avoiding the technological
determinism that plagues the latter in favor of a measured, realistic
and practical approach.
The practices described in this model are fairly close to the roles
and goals of public journalism, which seeks to frame and structure
news coverage in ways that create an active, engaged audience and
leverage that interest into community action. In a way, the model can
be viewed as an argument that taking the practices of public
journalism online can help to overcome conditions that have limited
it in traditional media venues. Public journalism's effectiveness is
limited at least in part by the inertia created by the one-way nature
of traditional media; in contrast, the interactive nature of the
online arena provides more fertile ground for engagement to develop
through public discourse.
Using interactive tools also helps to address the criticism
that public journalism takes reporters and editors too far from their
traditional role as observers and chroniclers to turn them into
promoters and advocates. In the online environment, audiences can
take more responsibility for organizing themselves using the tools of
interactivity. Journalists still must do more than provide
"shovelware" news coverage. But the roles of "facilitator" and
"sense-maker" may be more palatable within in the field than the
advocacy role often associated with public journalism. The natures of
their respective media mean online journalists are better positioned
logistically to help this happen than their print counterparts, and
the online discourse model proposed here provides a kind of roadmap
for them to get there.
At heart, the model's main function is to create the
conditions under which discourse may develop. Is that enough of a
reform? Cohen argued that creating such conditions was a crucial
element in development of a deliberative model in an institutional
setting. "A theory of deliberative democracy aims to give substance
to this formal ideal by characterizing the conditions that should
obtain if the social order is to be manifestly regulated by
deliberative forms of collective choice" (Cohen, 1997, p. 73). Using
the metaphor of a mirror, he later noted that "the ideal deliberative
procedure provides a model for institutions, a model they should
mirror, so far as possible
the key point about the institutional
reflection is that it should make deliberation possible" (p.
79). Sirianni and Friedland (undated) offer a similar approach,
saying that deliberative democracy hinges on "expanding the
opportunities of citizens themselves to deliberate." Fishkin
addresses the same issue, noting that "The fact that our present,
quiescent, disengaged public has not bothered to think enough about
politics to have public opinions (rather than political preferences)
worthy of the name does not mean that it might not arrive at more
informed and more deliberative opinions under conditions designed to
truly engage it" (1991, p. 58). Luskin and Fishkin (2002) noted that
even drawing a relatively small number of participants into a
deliberative process can make those who participate into "better
citizens," as their article title put it.
Having journalists adopt and employ an online discourse model
will not be a panacea for dysfunctions of the American political
system. The ideas suggested here follow and in certain ways build
upon past critiques and suggestions for press reforms. The debates
between Lippmann and Dewey over the role of the press in democracy in
the 1920s, the ideas of the Hutchins Commission in the 1940s, and the
public journalism movement in the 1990s all proceeded along the same
basic track, saying that journalists needed to approach their way of
doing business in different ways to contribute more effectively to
democracy. But what is significantly different here is incorporation
of technology to facilitate the reforms, without resorting to the
kind of technological determinism that says discourse and engagement
will automatically emerge simply because the Internet allows
interactive communication irrespective of certain barriers of time,
distance and information availability.
Rather, the model goes to the heart of a question posed by Schudson
about defining a plausible "political mission" for news institutions
(1982, p. 2). He emphasized the role of institutions in crystallizing
opinion and providing a basis for political action, and suggested the
media should "imaginatively respond to the realities of contemporary
Helping citizens toward 'adequate understanding' [of
political issues] has long been and still should be a leading aim of
the news media" (p. 12-13).
The online discourse model proposed here suggests specific
tactics for creating the conditions under which discourse may emerge.
The technological determinist (or cyber-utopian) might reply: "so
does the network." The key difference is that the online discourse
model starts with the network's capabilities but then employs human
artifacts notably rules of engagement and institutional credibility
and connections to channel the power of the technology for human
ends, i.e., more effective self-governance through improved civic
discourse. But at the same time it does not ignore the ideas that
underlie theories of cyber-democracy. Rather, the model seeks to
integrate promising aspects of the cyber-democratic approach but at
the same time to place them in a realistic and practical framework
that can provide a new set of normative practices for journalists.
"The new technology of the Internet makes it possible to build a
publicly held and publicly controlled space of local civic
communication," according to Friedland (2004). He further suggested
the philosophies of collaboration between journalists and with
citizens that drove the original public journalism movement offer a
guidepost for how these spaces may develop. In such a situation,
"Citizens will have a process and a place to develop their own
reporting and problem solving (and take responsibility for sustaining
it. News media will have the opportunity to partner with citizens and
tap into voices they may not have been hearing." The online discourse
model supplies a template for making such collaboration a reality.
A model such as this, no matter how well grounded in theory, will be
most valuable if it can be validated in practice. Ideas for
validation that could be the subject of future research include case
studies and/or content analyses of online papers that employ the
devices outlined within the model, to assess their effectiveness in
promulgating discourse; surveys of journalists about adoption of the
new roles outlined within the model; and surveys of online news
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