.PT14/Toward a "Philosophy of Framing":
Narrative Strategy and Public Journalism
Working version: please do not cite without author's permission
Communications Department Arts
City University of New York
695 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10021
Toward a "Philosophy of Framing":
Narrative Strategy and Public Journalism
.IP4/This essay examines the importance for public journalism of narrative
approaches to newswriting. Too often, public journalism is equated with
literally convening of public forums. This turn to the public .MDIT/is
.MDNM/important, but public journalism is not found "in" the public. A case
study of a story about a scientists' report that the world faces grave
ecological crisis is used to suggest that the heart of public journalism lies in
forging new narrative frameworks, based in a larger, more compassionate vision
of civic life. Once public journalism recognizes its essential narrative
character, it can draw upon other rhetorical resources, such as explanatory
journalism, interpretive journalism and some conventions of objectivity. This
move can enable public journalism expand its scope beyond local affairs and help
it answer critics who contend it is guilty of advocacy and making the news.
Further research could: (1) relate this expanded vision of journalism to
widespread claims that journalism is not capable of comprehensive vision, (2)
examine the ways in which journalism currently claims to be "public" and ways in
which the public as reader is invoked and represented in newswriting.
.IP0/Toward a "Philosophy of Framing":
Narrative Strategy and Public Journalism
.IP4/This essay examines the importance for public journalism of narrative
approaches to newswriting. The convening of public forums is not the essence of
public journalism. This turn to the public .MDIT/is .MDNM/important, but more
because it enables a new narrative focus--a larger, more compassionate vision of
civic life. By recognizing its narrative character, public journalism can draw
on explanatory journalism, interpretive journalism and conventions of
objectivity to expand its scope and answer its critics.
Toward a "Philosophy of Framing":
Narrative Strategy and Public Journalism
The well-established current of media criticism that focuses on the cultural
and narrative qualities of journalism is an important--and to a significant
extent under-appreciated--resource for public journalism. This essay endeavors
to clarify that importance.
Broad trends in media criticism have supported a view of journalism as part
of a web of cultural story- telling that dynamically maintains the boundaries,
definitions and values of social life. These views, which often draw upon work
in history, literature, anthropology and other fields, encourages an
interpretation of "reality" as inherent in symbolic activity, described
variously as "text," "ritual," "symbolic action," "drama," or "discourse." It is
not absurd, in the light of this research, to say that the world is made out of
meaning, more than it is made out of matter.
To interpret journalism, this work often uses explicit terms of
story-telling, narrative, myth and rhetoric (e.g. Barkin, 1984; Bird and
Dardenne, 1988; Bennett and Edelman, 1985; Campbell, 1991; Carey, 1989; Darnton,
1975; Eason, 1981; Fisher 1985; Knight and Dean, 1982; La Baschin, 1986; Lule,
1991; Schudson, 1982; Smith, 1979; Sperry, 1976). But the understanding
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 2
of news as narrative has equally been deepened by foundational work in the study
of the politics of journalism (e.g. Bagdikian, 1990; Bennett, 1988; Epstein,
1975; Fishman, 1988; Gans, 1980; Hackett, 1984; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Parenti,
1993; Schudson, 1983; Sigal, 1973, 1987; Tuchman, 1978). Studies focusing on
politics, political economy and ideology frequently end in an acute analysis
news as a particular kind of story-telling. For instance, Tuchman's analysis of
objectivity as a "strategic ritual" (1972), designed to protect journalists from
responsibility and criticism, equally reveals objectivity to be a rhetorical
strategy, a matter of suppressing the reporter's presence, attributing
information, "balancing" controversial views and eschewing explicit
interpretation. Patterson's (1993) study of the connection between primary
campaign reforms and news coverage also displays this implicit link between
politics and narrative. When he describes broad interpepretive frameworks that
organize news coverage, he treats them as psychological categories--
"schemas"--which are "cognitive structure[s]," "a mental framework the
individual constructs from past experiences that helps make sense of a new
situation" (p. 56). But these schemas figure ultimately as narrative frameworks
for political coverage. For instance, a chief scheme or scenario is politics as
a "strategic game" (p. 57), in which candidates' positions are treated as "mere
tokens in the stuggle for the presidency" (p. 69), and public understanding is
impoverished. Patterson arguably illuminates the narratives and themes of
political news even more Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 3
acutely than he does the pschological constructs of journalists' minds.
In all then, the cultural and critical perspectives have provided a rather
rich body of understanding of overall conventions, frameworks, and rhetorical
strategies of news. Newspaper narrative emphasizes individual actors over
institutional and social forces (personalization), seeks conflict
(dramatization), eliminates context (fragmentation) and emphasizes the
resiliency of the status quo (normalization) (Bennett, 1988; Hunt, 1974).
Characteristic "plots" or themes include "little guy" versus big government,
appearance versus reality, efficiency versus inefficiency (Jamieson & Campbell,
1988)--themes that draw upon the journalistic interest in clearly etched,
bi-polar conflict. This mode of story-telling lends itself to overall accents of
melodrama (Schudson, 1983). Journalistic story-telling also brings "a nostalgia
for the small town, a belief in liberal corporate capitalism, an optimism that
legitimate political reform can improve society, and a loyalty to a two- party
system. . . . , little sympathy for the antigovernment right and little
understanding of the anticapitalist left" (Gans 1980, as summarized by Schudson
1983, p. 116). The narrative approach to coverage varies, depending on the
"sphere" of cultural value within which the subject falls Hallin (1986). Stories
within the "sphere of consensus"--undebatable social goods such as electoral
democracy and reformism--are recounted in celebratory tones. Political debate
between the major parties falls into the "sphere of legitimate controversy,"
which is Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 4
treated with objectivity and "balance." Views of marginalized political parties
or from viewpoints deemed morally deviant--the "sphere of deviance"--earn
journalistic silence, sneering or rigorous investigation.
Among media critics then the recognition that the "neutral information" that
jounalists report must be deployed in some sort of story, some sort of
narrative, is solidly entrenched. In the end, all news is understood as a
rhetorical or narrative construction. However, journalists, have scarcely
allowed themselves to be touched by these insights. They have largely declared
themselves innocent of narrative. They simply provide information.
The public journalism movement has brought important new perspectives this
situation. It emerges from a critique of underlying journalistic narratives, and
implicitly, and for the first time, a recognition within the institution of
journalism of journalism's fundamental nature as narrative. A growing
consciousness--popular as well as scholarly--supports this viewpoint as it notes
the limits of journalistic narrative as compared to the needs of an enlightened
public. The nature of journalistic coverage, particularly the predominance of
the "horse-race" scenario and "sound-bite" dramas over "issues coverage" has
itself become a news story (Glaberson, 1994b) and an increasing object of
criticism (e.g. Patterson, 1993; Hershey, 1989; Rosen, n.d.). This has been a
noteworthy development, especially considering that journalism's busy attempts
to render invisible the processes by which it selects and presents information
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 5
is a major rhetorical feature of its "objectivity". Public discussion of media
has importantly moved beyond the traditional concern about "bias" and "slant,"
which invokes a theory of language as passively labelling external reality and
the idea that journalism could simply deliver the facts "straight."
Increasingly, public and scholarly discussion recognizes the underlying
scenarios, the narrative style, of press coverage, particularly the coverage of
political campaigns. And to this extent there has been a shift toward
post-structuralist views of language, discourse, rhetoric and social ritual as
profoundly shaping human social and cultural experience, accompanied by the
acknowledgment that all reporting inevitably serves some viewpoints and
perspectives and not others.
It is possible, however, that practitioners of public journalism themselves
are not as clear on this as they might be. Much discussion of the project
centers so strongly on the creation of new public forums that this activity in
itself comes to seem the essence of public journalism. One result is that public
journalism seems to fall open to criticism as manipulation of or intervention in
the news. It should be clearly understood, however, that it is not intended here
to criticize the turn toward the concerns, ideas and viewpoints of community
members that are a keynote of public journalism at this point in its
development. Nor is it intended to support those claims that public journalism
become advocacy or itself makes the news it reports (Harwood, 1995; Eisner,
1994; Howe, 1994). The point rather is that those public convocations are
valuable (and they are indeed valuable) for the Narrative Strategies
for Public Journalism 6
journalistic narrative they enable, rather than as practical social acts in
Public journalism might organize itself around new narratives without in
every case involving special efforts to organize or probe the thoughts of the
local community. If this is so, and the present essay will argue that it is, it
is helpful to clarify that the true site of public journalism may not lie
somewhere "in" the public. To think so could mark a return to journalism's
simplistic empiricism that sees truth as defined inherently in the world and
outside the conventions of interpretation and narration that present it.
Laudable as it is, public journalism's focus on the public carries a danger of
limiting the full application and possibilities of public journalism. Public
journalism could inhere in a journalist's own viewpoint, narrative and
rhetorical strategies and sources, and could even employ accepted conventions of
"objective reporting." Explaining the background and dimensions of this idea may
also help answer public journalism's critics and suggest directions for further
research and persuasion as public journalism (which should be a redundancy)
defines itself against journalistic narratives that in significant ways dismiss
and undervalue the public.
The public journalism movement does begin in a clear sense of the problems
with fundamental journalistic narrative frameworks, such as, again, the
"horse-race" emphasis on "winners and losers" and the cynical view of politics
as the maneuverings for image Narrative Strategies for Public
and power cut off from any conception of actual social or political life. And it
is clear throughout discussion of public journalism that it is crucially a way
of telling stories--"a different tone and attitude." Rosen (n.d.) has clearly
defined the rhetorical/narrative dimensions of public journalism. In an
unpublished speech, "Public Journalism as a Democratic Art," he points out that
any story inevitably entails some choice of narrative framework: "facts can't
tell you how they want to be framed" (p. 9). Part of the project of public
journalism, he adds, is to establish "a philosophy of framing" (p. 10), and he
fleshes out the picture with a further discussion of the importance of a variety
of rhetorical issues, such as, who is permitted to speak? how they are defined?
what "master narrative" shapes the account? Finally, he acutely notes how absent
is any self-consciousness about these matters among journalists.
As clear as the narrative emphasis in public journalism seems thus to be, it
nonetheless becomes obscured in the importance of literally consulting the
public. Definitions of public journalism frequently slide away from recognition
of journalism's fundamental existence as narrative or story-telling and public
journalism's proper forms of journalistic narrative. For instance, the
definition of public journalism in a "Fact Sheet" from the Project on Public
Life and the Press does link narrative strategy and community involvement. It
calls public journalism an
unfolding philosophy ... among print journalists trying to connect
with their communities in a different way, often by encouraging civic
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 8
participation or by grounding political coverage in the imperatives of
public discussion and debate. In some experiments, newspapers have
stepped out of a strict observer's role into the democratic process,
helping to repair, support and shape the civic culture that draws people
into public life.
A particular narrative focus is implied in the idea of "grounding political
coverage in the imperatives of public discussion and debate," but the idea could
be lost in notions of connection with the community and stepping beyond "the
strict observer's role."
Harwood and Mermin (1995) discuss public journalism as a matter of "Tapping
the Hidden Layers of Civic Life." They list "five distinct layers of civic
spaces," such as municipal meetings, neighorhood groups, barber shops, chance
encounters, and private conversations. They urge journalists to probe these and
discover which "are thriving, . . . missing, or disconnected, and how citizens
interact with these civic spaces." Only one sentence is given to narrative
method. But attention to meetings and barbershops and people button-holed on the
street has hardly eluded mainstream journalists. The real question is what
questions they ask, what stories they pursue, and what systems and assumptions
of value inform those stories.
As the definition of public journalism is refracted through the viewpoints
of mainstream journalists, even this minor presence for its narrative
foundations disappears. Thus a New York Times article defines public journalism
as a matter of "provoking people to get involved in public issues" (Glaberson,
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 9
1994, p. D6). A survey of the movement in American Journalism Review makes
public journalism completely a matter of practical linkages with the public:
"The goal of public journalism--a.k.a. civic journalism, public
service journalism or community-assisted reporting--is to 'reconnect'
citizens with their newspapers, their communities and the political
process, with newspapers playing a role not unlike that of a community
organizer. According to the gospel of public journalism, professional
passivity is passe; activism is hot. Detachment is out; participation is
in. Experts are no longer the quote-machines of choice; readers'
voices must be heard" (Shepard, 1994, p. 29).
The active ceommunity involvement acknowledged in the Project Fact Sheet also
begins to set off alarm bells in the journalistic mind imbued with ideals of
detachment and impartiality. Thus, in another discussion of the movement, we
read that "under public journalism, mainstream newspapers would move from the
traditional role of observer/reporter to bridge builder/convener to
advocate/newsmaker" (Glaser, 1994, p. B9).
To be sure, these unsympathetic definitions do not do justice to the
actuality of public journalism's interest in public participation. Rosen and
Davis Merritt Jr., the newspaper editor most linked to public journalism, have
made clear that the public journalist's commitment is not to advocacy of
particular solutions but to fostering and facilitating public deliberation
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 10
But the tendency of journalistic epistemology to see actuality as defined
externally "in" the world can vitiate even attempts to explain public journalism
sympathetically. Starobin's (1995) article adapted from a discussion paper
commission by the Project on Public Life and the Press, illustrates the danger.
He commendably tackles the problem in which public journalism originates--the
problem of the cynical themes of contemporary journalistic narratives of
political life. And this brings to the cover of Columbia Journalism Review
38-point type dramatically dubbing contemporary journalists "A Generation of
Vipers," a title that seems to promise corrosive self- criticism and a
possibility of significant reform. The cover statement declares that "the
current of casual disdain running through today's journalism is rooted in a deep
and abiding cynicism, a reflexive suspicion of face-value explanations, an
inclination to ascribe ignoble motives . . . ." Whence this cynicism? If public
journalism too easily resides "in" the literal public, the cynicism opposed to
it is situated all too easily "in" the psyches of journalists. Journalists'
cynicism is presented as a direct response to their "cumulative experience" of
such events as "Vietnam, Watergate, and the savings-and-loan scandal" (p. 28),
their news beats and steady exposure to the hollowness of political life. With
journalistic cynicism treated as, not the theme of a particular way of telling
news stories, but a kind of battle fatigue, it is not surprising that for some
cases Starobin recommends psychotherapy, hardly a practical or likely solution
to journalism's failure to serve the public.
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 11
Centering cynicism in the personalities of individual journalists' negates
a large body of research that has shown how journalistic representation emerges
from institutional rituals and routines-- sourcing patterns, ideological
pressures and economic interests, all expressed ultimately in narrative
frameworks (see, e.g. Bagdikian, 1990; Bennett, 1988; Carey, 1989; Darnton,
1975; Epstein, 1975; Fishman, 1988; Gans, 1980; Hackett, 1984; Herman & Chomsky,
1988; MacDougall, 1988a, 1988b; Parenti, 1993; Reese, 1990; Schudson, 1983;
Sigal, 1973, 1987; Tuchman, 1978). These constraints are obdurate enough, but
they clearly negate claims that journalism takes shape from the individual
proclivities of journalists. If institutional pressure demanded it, a far less
cynical and more socially responsible journalism could be produced in short
order, notwithstanding reporter's occupational neuroses.
A brief case study may help illuminate how public journalism's center of
gravity lies in its narrative approach, not within civic space or the
Along with many other papers, the Harrisburg, Pa. Patriot-News, on Nov.
19, 1992, published a science story, whose subject, it is not an exaggeration to
say, was the end of the world (Lenton, 1992). In fact, the "kicker" above the
headline declared the story to be about nothing less than "SAVING HUMANITY."
"Scientists urge world leaders to do something quickly," read the main head. The
story was pegged to a report, "World Narrative Strategies for Public
Scientists' Warning to Humanity," signed by "1,575 of the world's leading
The story opens with a bold, editorialized and unattributed statement and a
series of images, sketching a grim picture of severe environmental crisis:
Time is running out.
Ozone depletion threatens humanity with cancer- causing ultra-violet
Heavy demands on the world's surface waters have resulted in serious
water shortages in 80 countries, affecting 40 percent of the world's
Pollutants and over-fishing are threatening the oceans.
Food production in many parts of the world is declining because of
soil degradation; and rain forests will disappear by the end of the next
century if the rate at which they are being cleared is not checked.
'Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course,' [the
For anyone who is familiar with the conventions of newswriting, the opening of
the story is noteworthy. The lack of attribution makes the list of crises stand
forth starkly; the distancing effect of journalistic objectivity is
significantly reduced. The lead might-- with due allowance for the journalistic
context--be called a kind of anguished cry, as urgent a call to action as a
mainstream journalist can issue. But it is not as if the reporter is simply
exercising his prejudices. The statement of crisis could hardly have
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 13
come from more "credible" sources: the 1,575 signatories included 101 Nobel
laureates and "senior officers from prestigious scientific academies in Europe,
Asia, Africa, Latin America and North America."
The subject was grave, the sources powerfully authoritative, yet the
15-inch story appeared on page A5 (albeit at the top of page A5). The present
point is not an outraged declaration that the story was "underplayed" or
"buried." It is rather to outline fundamental difficulties in journalistic
narrative's ability to dealing with ultimate crisis. Notwithstanding the
reporter's clear personal passion, the story of "saving humanity" gets processed
and packaged in ways that undermine the evident gravity and solidity of the
story itself. This narrative difficulty occurs in more than the story's
placement. The remainder of the story explains that the scientists ask "world
leaders" to take "five steps to help preserve humanity." In standard
journalistic fashion the steps are presented in a bulleted list:
Exert more control over environmentally damaging activities in
the industrialized nations to restore and protect the integrity of the
earth's life-support systems.
Better management of resources crucial to human welfare.
Improve social and economic conditions in the developing world
and expand access to effective, voluntary birth control to stabilize
Reduce and eventually eliminate poverty.
Guarantee sexual equality, including a Narrative Strategies
for Public Journalism 14
woman's reproductive rights.
Undergraduate students who discuss this story typically describe themselves as
puzzled, dubious or undisturbed by it. They frequently note the incongruity of
the saving of humanity being recounted in a type of list that usually offers
tips on fighting acne. For many of these readers too the logic of connection
between these measures and the environment is not clear. They ask, for example,
how poverty affects the environment. And they wonder how these "steps," which
the rhetorical condensation and presentation in a list implies are clear-cut and
easy, can be achieved. How for instance is it possible simply to "reduce and
eventually eliminate poverty."
The story would not appreciably gain in impact through such immediate
journalistic rhetorical resources as front-page play, "running a photo," "giving
it more space," or even "doing a series." Even these expedients pale in relation
to the scope of the crisis the scientists describe. The problem we encounter
here has to do with the narrative thrust, the expressive capabilities of
journalism. The problem is a danger that the end of the world--"saving
humanity"-- can be just another news story. As journalism, at least according to
current fundamental narrative conventions, the journalistic account would be
condensed, summarized, presented "straight" and factually. Journalism faces a
profound difficulty in registering importance in the deeper sweep of social
experience, and the problem extends to public journalism as presently conceived.
Current public journalism projects frequently and Narrative
Strategies for Public Journalism 15
understandably emphasize "solutions," an entirely appropriate approach to many
public problems and a key aspect of moving beyond cynicism and the "game"
scenario of public life. Mainstream journalism too characteristically limits its
purview precisely to "reform" and "solutions." Frequently, for instance, news
reports of natural disaster so stress human measures prevent calamities that
they sometimes seem to imply that acts of God could be prevented. If the crisis
described by the world scientists in Lenton's story were to be defined as an
important, ongoing story, the move would ential a narrative perspective almost
entirely foreign to the discourse of journalism--the tragic vision. Such
coverage would have to entertain seriously all that stands in the way of these
"steps" and the sort of vision that Mark Twain developed (but as a creative
writer, not a journalist)--of humankind as, possibly, a vast, doomed mistake.
Starkly outlining this possibility is not meant to endorse it or deem it final,
but to suggest that public deliberation might have to begin in exceedingly grim
recognitions, and fostering such recognitions through reporting implies a
significant revision of some fundamental journalistic story-telling frameworks:
a revision that, again, goes beyond what is provided by the public in itself.
The public forums on which public journalism currently centers would indeed be
crucial to help frame this problem with appropriate gravity, but they could not
exhaust its limits. Curiously, in this case, the global proportions of the
crisis almost beggars the idea of that regionally defined, deliberative body,
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 16
The story suggests the need for an extension of the public journalist's
idea of seeing governance "go well" to seeing life on this planet, and in this
nation and this city "go well." The journalistic voice would have to move beyond
the convention of normalization--a focus on "the system" with assurances that it
works--to register significant public fears, dangers and difficulties. The
journalistic imagination would have to gaze beyond fragmented news events to
larger perspectives. The following would have to become good journalistic
questions or story angles: "Are we drifting toward a severe, global
envionmental-social catastrophe?" "Is the United States undergoing a steady
economic decline?" "What larger economic forces bear on the economic
difficulties of our region?" "Must the poor be 'always with us'?" Are there any
political or economic alternatives that would make for broader prosperity and
well-being? How do other countries handle health care and with what results?"
These questions are intended to suggest a shift in journalistic narrative
perspective. The opening of the narrative frame that is being urged here can
certainly be significantly fed by, for instance, asking citizens about their own
fears and hopes regarding the environment. But, at the center, moderating and
marshalling public discussion, must be the journalistic imagination, an
underlying narrative vision, that defines general social good as "a story." If
in one sense this seems a utopian notion of journalistic story "angles," let us
consider that they are not clearly outside journalistic scope. They are "good"
questions; people would likely agree they are important. In their
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 17
gravity, they are not without interest, and there is no reason they could not be
made into "compelling" reading. All are complex but not overly or utterly
technical. Authoritative sources exist who could address them. (And journalistic
style has rhetorical resources to make complexities come to life; the problem
has been that it is used in limited frameworks.)
These questions, moreover, emerge from something we can logically call
"public journalism." They move from a center of identification with the public.
They see news events from the viewpoint of a citizen, a person, a human being,
who is thoughtful, concerned, ethical.
We could have a lively side debate about whether the public is "really"
like this. (Significantly, it is practitioners of the mass media themselves who
invoke a mindless public, the evidence for the mindlessness being that the
public likes mass media!) This is not the place to pursue this debate. We can
briefly note that the public is not all that impressed with mass media,
newspaper or journalists, and add, moreover, that choosing a narrative
framework-- whether cynically offering amusements or invoking intelligence and
compassion--is not a passive act. These stances cultivate what they imply and
ethical responsibility attaches to the choice.
The more immediate point, again, is to provide a fuller understanding of
the narrative and imaginative dimensions of public journalism. Curiously,
mainstream journalism itself has been providing more room for a more present
journalistic voice. Interpretive reporting Narrative Strategies for
Public Journalism 18
increasingly characterizes news reporting (Rosenstiel, 1993). Currently,
interpretive journalism--consider the work of Maureen Dowd--is likelier to
increase cynicism than compassion and concern. Still, current forms of
journalistic rhetoric do open a space that could be used by journalists to frame
a public perspective on contemporary issues, at times independent of actual
convening and polling of the public.
What is being called for here is essentially the "context" and
"perspective" that news is chronically indicted for omitting. Thus a resource to
be exploited in developing public journalis is the explanatory journalism
advocated by the Commission on Freedom of the Press (1947), which anticipated
public journalism in its call for news reporting that projects "the opinions and
attitudes of the groups in society to one another," and "a method of presenting
and clarifying the goals and values of the society" (p. 20). The Hutchins
Commission framed the importance of what we now call public journalism within
"the present world crisis" (p. vi), which, as the scientists' report described
above suggests, now adds ecological catastrophe to the gloomy possibilities in
humankind's possession of the means of self-destruction. Gans (1979) notes that
journalists are hampered in providing a more socially and publicly responsible
journalism by the absence of "widespread public demand for greater popular
representation in the economy and the polity" (p. 334). The public journalism
movement, with its heightened public awareness of the limitations of
conventional journalistic practice and the problems facing American newspapers,
may provide something Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 19
equivalent to that demand.
The Commission called for news to become "a truthful, comprehensive and
intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning"
(1947, p. 20), a matter of reporting not just "the fact truthfully," but "the
truth about the fact" (p. 22). The Commission was not explicit about the
reportorial and writing techniques by which these aims would be achieved.
"Multiperspectival" (Gans, 1979) journalism and "explanatory" journalism
(Parisi, 1994) have been described as narrative frameworks that dovetail with
discussions of public journalism. The narrative approach implied in these terms
emphasizes historical, sociological, economic, and psychological contexts for
news, as appropriate to specific stories; offering more coverage of substance
rather than strategy; explicitly reporting on varying social viewpoints and
perspectives (e.g. "how the world looks to Black Muslims; how health care is
handled in Japan" [Parisi, 1994, p. 7]); more explicit description of the
ideology of "expert" sources; and more coverage of political positions outside
the two major parties. Parisi sums up:
Implicit in these practices is a fundamental shift in the
consciousness implicit in journalistic representation from Baudelaire's
'kaleidoscopic consciousness' [Benjamin, 1968, p. 177] to a concerned,
compassionate vision that seeks larger tendencies in reported events, the
questions that might occur to a concerned and intelligent citizen. The
kaleidoscopic vision can (and daily does), for instance, report business
after business laying off workers or closing, and leaves Narrative
Strategies for Public Journalism 20
the matter at that. The latter approach turns from those reports to
ask: What is happening to the economic fortunes of the U.S.? Where will
this lead and leave us? What does it mean to workers, youth,
minorities, as well as business owners?
Again, this is a narrative perspective that could be pursued by journalists
independent of literal public forums, and in any event must be clarified to
organize and focus public deliberation. Just as facts do not provide a framework
for themselves, the public does not immediately have terms for its own concerns
and many of these in any case would come from the mainstream media agendas and
Even if it gave more place to the concerned voice of the journalist as
citizen or public representative, public journalism need not leave behind many
conventions of objective journalism. It is objectivity's pretensions to
uncomplicated truth- telling that to be abandoned, not necessarily its
rhetorical forms. Journalism remains centrally the consultation of sources. What
public journalism suggests, in a way, is different questions and different
sources. MacDougall's description of his reporting (1988a, 1988b) describes a
kind of precursor of public journalism. He described how, working for papers
deeply allied corporate interests (the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street
Journal) stories that moved from strong conceptions of general public welfare.
For example, MacDougall wrote long pieces on the wastefulness of mass marketing,
growing global economic inequality, threats of deforestation. He was able to do
this by understanding the conventions of Narrative Strategies for Public
objectivity and finding sources who espoused these views, "balancing" them with
opposing views, avoiding shrillness and explicit editorializing.
MacDougall's revelations engendered indignant reactions from journalists
professing shock that he had an agenda (see Reese, 1990). But contemporary
journalists are coming to recognize that values necessarily inform journalistic
story-telling. If they are not the public's, whose are they?
Public journalism thus entails "owning" the fact that reporting is not
stenography of the real but an active construction of social life and public
consciousness. This is an important and fundamental step in moving past
journalism's naive and now outmoded faith in the solidity of fact toward an
understanding of the importance of journalism's fundamental narrative status. In
fact, we might ask public journalism to take up a "higher
objectivity"--objective writing that acknowledges objectivity's essentially
rhetorical status, takes responsibility for the social values embodied in the
techniques of "objective reporting" and actively chooses to center such
reporting in ideas of public good. The journalist can become a kind of public
moderator, who still attributes opinions from authoritative sources, but uses
these sources to frame larger, social aspects of the news; who still "gets" not
only "both sides" but a much wider range of perspectives; who still suppresses
his or her own interpretive presence but in the name of a compassionate,
citizenly concern for social welfare.
In the case of national politics, this approach might mean that in the
current debate over the Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 22
Republican "Contract With America," public journalists would examine the larger
social value of government and public works rather than simply accepting the
framework that "government is too big" and reporting the fight over contract
provisions. This would entail expanding sources beyond political actors to those
who work within public contexts or think about the public interest (often
academics) as well as exploring the frequent finding that in polls the public
supports a variety of governmental initiatives even as it votes many Democrats
out of office. This story focus would clearly steer itself by consistent
consultation of the public but begins in, and is framed by, a larger
journalistic vision of social reality. Public journalism might grow more
strongly by accepting this acknowledgement as central to is coverage of news
beyond the community problems that now are the typical focus.
The focus on publicly oriented narrative sketched here raises a variety of
possiblities for further research.
It would benefit research--and any realistic objective of seeing journalism
better serve the polity--to examine more closely the resistance to change in
journalistic practice. Certainly, critical studies of the ways journalistic
objectivity functions to uphold the status quo suggest some powerful constraints
on the possibility that journalism can genuinely support the public interest. At
the same time a space has clearly opened for change in journalistic
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 23
narrative approach. But how wide is it?
Lippman (1922) asserts that news can only represent an "objective clear
signal," an "aspect that has obtruded itself" (p. 216). Patterson (1993), though
he has helped to articulate ways that current narrative patterns render
political life hollow, nonetheless himself simply rules out the possibility of
change in the journalistic style and looks for reform in chantes to the timing
of primary campaigns. Park (1940) contended that news is poorly equipped to
explain larger significance. Other scholars (e.g. Galtung and Ruge, 1965; Breed,
1956; Hall, 1973) are in various ways equally sceptical about the possibility of
depth and social richness in the news narrative. That the public journalism
movement exists at all points to some degree of openness, and ethical claims for
communitarian ethics in journalism have also grown more articulate and urgent
(cf. Christians et al, 1993). Still, research on public journalism needs to
examine its own broader imagination of journalistic narrative in the light of
the powerful presence of fragmented, dramatic news narratives, with all their
apparent economic and ideological "benefits."
Also in need of further clarification is the fundamental question of the
ways in which journalistic narrative already embodies and invokes the public.
Mainstream journalists often dismiss public journalism with the contention that
journalism is already fully "public." Shepard (1994) quotes high editors of The
Washington Post, Newsday and The New York Times to the effect that the public
journalism may be "using smoke and mirrors to hype what's been going on for
decades." Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 24
Conventional journalism should and does, according to Howard Schneider, a
Newsday managing editor, "spotlight a problem, solicit reader feedback and
aggressively follow the story until it's resolved" (p. 33). Starting with
Pulitzer at least, conspicuous campaigning on behalf of the public interest has
mixed closely with the growth of the modern newspaper (Swanberg, 1967). In many
ways, ideas of public service are woven into journalistic discourse and social
institutions. Consider, to begin with, the utterly routine journalistic act of
rewriting press releases to eliminate the private purposes of businesses and
organizations in the name of a broader conception of public need and interest.
Journalists commonly define their role as "watchdogs of the public interest";
public service is recognized in the form of an annual Pulitzer Prize;
journalists regularly define their work in terms of the "public's right to
know." And journalists (and journalism educators) defend daily news
coverage--including even cynical accounts of political life--as evaluation of
the performance of public officials offered to the public for their own
deliberation and further political action.
This self-estimate need not be accepted at face value; indeed, describing
substantial distortions of public interest and understanding has been the chief
burden of media criticism of the last 25 years. Press releases may get rewritten
but news remains heavily dependent on public relations (Turow, 1989; Shoemaker
and Reese, 1991). And journalist's service to the public has failed to win
public credibility and approval, as measured by polls of public esteem. But
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 25
the journalists' claims to public service are strong enough in their own
discourse that media historians and rhetorical critics could valuably illuminate
the varying relationships between news and the public. How are his techniques
related to public journalism, and how more generally in journalism history has
the public been evoked and constructed? How has the news narrative related
itself to public discussion and the process of public deliberation and
Research into these questions might also look more closely at ways in which
the reader/member of the public is invoked in news writing. Scholars might
develop further distinctions like the one Steele (1990) makes between a
newspaper reader invoked as producer by Dana's Sun versus a reader constructed
as consumer by Pulitzer's World. Though much of the distinction as applied by
Steele has to do with the handling of advertising and print mechanization, not
narrative method, she also links Dana's "producer outlook" with "the Sun's
expanded use of the human interest story" (p. 594) "Dana believed his audience
was interested in more than stories of vice and crime." They would in fact
"enjoy a discourse upon the architecture of the tombs of the Pharaohs as much as
it liked a description of the Tombs of Centre Street." News narratives could be
analyzed much more closely in light of the nature of the curiosity, span of
interests, and moral universe of the reader they call upon. The concept of
"sensationalism," for instance, which remains central to the practice of
journalism and rhetorically constructs the public as astonished spectators
deserves closer examination in this light.
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 26
More broadly, this line of possible research points to a increased
relevance for rhetorical criticism and close attention to the language of
particular news stories. This is a line in which much good work has already been
done (e.g. Lule, 1991; Darnton, 1975; Bell, 1991), but analysis frequently
focuses on failures of the journalistic narrative, particularly to provide
context and perspective (Bjork, 1986; Carragee, 1990), rather than actual and
possible textual strategies. Current projects in public journalism also merit
close textual/narrative study as they endeavor to write from a genuine and
deeply felt concern for community welfare when the standard terms of praise for
journalistic writing are "compelling," "rivetting," "scintillating,"
"gripping"--terms that suggest unthinking excitement. Research might, in short
and in a variety of ways, focus more closely on effective narrative strategies
for journalists who seek richer forms for the daily unfolding story of public
Narrative Strategies for Public Journalism 27
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