A JOURNALISM LESS ORDINARY?
The Inspirational Tone of Public Journalism
School of Journalism & Mass Communication
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Howell Hall, CB #3365
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3365
tel: 919.962.1204; fax: 919.962.0620
email: [log in to unmask]
Presented to the Civic Journalism Interest Group
of the AEJMC Convention
Baltimore, Maryland, August 5 - 8, 1998 INTRODUCTION
Proponents of public journalism see the practice as one possible remedy to the
ever-widening gulf between journalists and the communities they serve. It is
intended to be more responsive to citizens' real information needs and to focus
less on agendas put forward by experts, officials and candidates. During
campaigns, public journalists aim to focus more on the issues and less on the
race. Unlike traditional newspapers, public journalism newspapers generally
place less emphasis on horse race polls and campaign strategies. Public
journalism practitioners also seek to include citizens in the creation of their
public agendas, sometimes commissioning opinion polls and using the results to
determine the issues they cover.
Aside from these procedural differences, the theoretical basis of public
journalism is different. Though some critics charge that newspapers practicing
public journalism seek only to reinvigorate their bottom lines, it is clear that
public journalists also believe in reinvigorating their communities.
Traditional journalists generally subscribe to the notion that they are simply
observers in their communities, not actors in public life. One of the founders
of the public journalism movement, Davis "Buzz" Merritt, has said that public
journalism is a fundamentally different way of understanding the job of the
press and its role in a democratic society. He has suggested that it is "about
engaging people in the community and . . . about how you view stories and the
lens you view stories through" (D. Merritt, personal communication, April 2,
If public journalism is truly a culture change as Merritt has suggested, then
there should be more than just procedural differences between it and traditional
journalism. If they view their relationship to their communities and even their
reporting differently, public journalists should write and edit with a different
tone than that of journalists who adhere to a traditional style. A natural
experiment occurred when the resolve of several newspapers to practice public
journalism during the 1996 national elections was matched by other newspapers'
intention to stick with traditional journalism in their coverage. The contrast
between traditional and public coverage of the same election offered the
opportunity to examine not only the obvious differences but also the differences
in tone between the two models of journalism.
Most previous research on public journalism has been aimed at evaluating its
procedural differences, the things its practitioners did to improve public
knowledge like focusing on issues rather than tactics during political races.
But the goals of public journalism are much broader and longer-range than that.
Buzz Merritt (1998) wrote that he was inspired to rethink his professional
obligations by the 1988 presidential election, an event that, for him, marked a
low point in public life and in journalism. Imagining a new philosophy of
campaign coverage, Merritt realized there had been more than just issues missing
from journalism's response to elections. He noted that "journalists are almost
congenitally uncomfortable talking about values," and that this aversion set
journalists apart from the very people for whom they toiled every day (p. 95).
The people whose trust we seek invariably, if somewhat
unconsciously, filter every idea they hear through their own value
systems, forming an immediate bias as to the idea's validity: Is the
idea in harmony with my personal experience and observations? Is it
agreeable, or offensive, to my personal beliefs? Does it fit my
moral framework? (p. 95).
Journalists' inability and unwillingness to incorporate values into their work
was harming their own credibility, Merritt believed, and their intractability on
the issue of values would guarantee that people would continue to turn away from
the media and from public life. "Journalists need to develop the skill and
vocabulary for dealing with values as they impinge on public issues," he
asserted (p. 96).
In addition to allowing values into their reporting, Merritt saw that
journalists needed to reconsider their own role in democracy. Though they were
comfortable believing that they were not participants in public life, in other
words detached, Merritt urged journalists to accept the reality that they are
participants in public life. Defining the idea of journalists as "fair-minded
participants," he pointed out that it is part of journalism's duty to ensure
that public life goes well. Merritt said that journalists could participate
without deciding outcomes, that they could bring their knowledge of the rules of
the game D the values of the community D "and the ability and willingness to
provide relevant information and a place for that information to be discussed
and turned into democratic consent" (p. 97). Merritt concluded, "The tradition
that says journalists should not deal in the realm of values creates yet another
disconnect between us (and our product) and citizens at large" (p. 97).
Scholar Jay Rosen has also written about public journalism's potential for
reconciling the press and the public, which he calls "community connectedness"
and which, for him, has a "prominent moral component" (1993a, 9). Like Merritt,
he was deeply dismayed by the 1988 presidential campaign and media coverage of
it. Rosen later recalled, "Public journalism really began with this moment,
with this feeling of being implicated in the disintegration of politics" (1995,
p. 21). Again like Merritt, Rosen felt journalists had taken their prized
objectivity too far, much to the detriment of their own profession and their
communities. "In fact," he wrote, "it is not an exaggeration to say that
journalism is the last refuge of objectivity as an epistemology. Nobody else
takes this notion seriously anymore" (1993b, 49). Objectivity, the central
tenet of journalism was failing the profession and democracy Rosen contended,
because "as a theory of how to arrive at the truth [it] is bankrupt
intellectually" (p. 51). He argued that objectivity alienated journalists from
the country's intellectual life and bred cynicism in their coverage of public
discourse. This, of course, alienated the public from their press and their
Rosen joined Buzz Merritt and others who saw that journalism was uniquely able
to help reverse the disintegration of civic life. But objectivity, Rosen
argued, "is a very bad, unworkable philosophy for that task of re-engaging
citizens in politics and public life" (p. 53). He suggested that journalists
and scholars find "a stronger public philosophy" to replace objectivity. If
journalists could "find a way of seeing democracy as something we do, or better
yet, something we must create, re-invent, re-imagine, then they'll be on their
way" to public journalism (p. 53). Rosen listed several aspects of civic
participation, like whether the nation's political system actually works or
whether people are engaged in public life, and asserted that journalists could
not remain agnostic on those topics. "As they begin to realize that they cannot
afford to be neutral on these questions, they will perhaps struggle toward their
own philosophy, one that can replace objectivity with something stronger, and,
if I can put it this way, more inspiring" (p. 53).
In addition to serving the community, Rosen saw that public journalism, a more
inspiring way of plying the craft, was a possible solution to a "spiritual
crisis" afflicting journalists, their "lack of any affirmative vision" to work
toward (1994, 5). He argued: "Helping the community understand itself, converse
well, and solve its problems reconnects journalists to the idealism that brings
most people into the profession. . . . For journalists, there's a spiritual
power in that" (p. 13). Public journalists, as Rosen imagined it, could not
only see or imagine "the missing but needed connections" in their communities,
they could also see the community's "dwindling resource of hope" (p. 11).
Rosen's hope for public journalism is that it does something to restore that
dwindling resource, to bring that well-connected community into being.
Rosen and Merritt founded the public journalism movement, but they were
certainly not the first to see that Americans have increasingly felt that the
things that mattered most to them were not reflected in public life. In the
early 1980s, Robert N. Bellah and a team of sociologists from the University of
California, Berkeley conducted an extensive series of field interviews to
examine American character. The result of their research was 1985's Habits of
the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. At the very beginning
We found [people] eager to discuss the right way to live, what
to teach our children, and what our public and private
responsibilities should be, but also a little dismayed by these
subjects. These are important matters to those whom we talked, and
yet concern about moral question is often relegated to the realm of
private anxiety, as if it would be awkward or embarrassing to make it
(Bellah et al. 1986, vi).
That some journalists did not pick up on this zeitgeist until several years
later, and that many still have not, is not surprising given the cloak of
objectivity the profession has worn for so long. Bellah and his colleagues
pointed out that, ultimately, age-old traditions "help us to know that it does
make a difference who we are and how we treat one another." Damning with faint
praise they continued, "Even the mass media, with their tendency to homogenize
feelings and sensations, cannot entirely avoid transmitting such qualitative
distinctions, in however muted a form" (p. 282). Public journalism's potential,
for Merritt and Rosen, is that it could integrate these "habits of the heart"
into journalistic practice, improving both the profession and the community,
however it is defined.
Working from the theoretical framework established by Rosen and Merritt, this
paper seeks to establish that there are differences in tone between newspapers
practicing public and traditional journalism. Specifically, this paper
hypothesizes that the tone of public journalism content reflects the moral or
inspirational component that the movement's founders deemed so important, a tone
that would not be prominent in more traditional newspapers. The study is based
on staff-written content collected during the 1996 national election campaigns
from twenty newspapers across the U.S.
For measurements of a newspaper's intent to practice traditional or public
journalism in the 1996 campaign, this paper uses an index created by Philip
Meyer and Deborah Potter from the results of a mail survey they conducted of
journalists at the twenty sample newspapers around the country. (See Meyer
and Potter 1997.) The newspapers were ranked according to their intent to their
intent to practice public journalism, measured on a scale of one to three with
three being the most likely to practice public, rather than traditional,
To establish differences in tone, the content analysis portion of this paper
relies on computerized content analysis. Available since the 1960s,
computerized text analysis has been used primarily by psychologists,
sociologists and linguists (see Krippendorff 1980; Duchastel and Armony 1996;
Gottschalk, Stein, and Shapiro 1997; Roberts 1997). Computer text analysis has
also been used for literary concept analysis (Laffal 1995; Ellis and Dick 1996).
It has not been used very much by mass communication scholars studying newspaper
This study was based on analysis performed by DICTION 4.0, computer text
analysis software developed by Prof. Roderick Hart for his study of presidential
verbal style (Hart 1984, 14). The program searches computer-readable text using
31 dictionaries, 5 master variables built from the constituent dictionaries, and
four calculated variables (Hart 1997). Though some doubt the usefulness of
computer analysis for detecting subtle variations like tone, Hart argued that
the program is particularly suitable for the task. "Even though DICTION
initially 'destroys' a verbal passage" by breaking it into its crude components
"it reproduces context post hoc by ferreting out relationships among language
variables" (in print). Scores from the "inspiration" dictionary included in
DICTION were used in this study. The definition of this dictionary is:
Inspiration: Includes abstract virtues deserving of universal
respect. Most of the terms are nouns isolating desirable moral
qualities (faith, honesty, self-sacrifice, virtue) and attractive
personal qualities (courage, dedication, wisdom, mercy). Social and
political ideals are also included (patriotism, success, education,
justice) (Hart 1997, 47).
A total of 692 staff-written stories covering the presidential or U.S. Senate
campaigns were analyzed. The stories were taken from each newspaper on the same
randomly selected 10 days in the seven-week period preceding the election. Each
story was analyzed by DICTION in 500-word segments, with shorter stories
receiving scores extrapolated to the 500-word norm. The scores were aggregated
by market and the newspapers ranked by their mean inspiration score. The
500-segments were also aggregated at the story level, with the stories then
ranked by the mean of their inspirational content.
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
The newspapers ranked in order of their intent to practice public journalism in
their 1996 election coverage and their scores on the three-point Meyer-Potter
index are shown in Table 1.
Table 2 shows each newspaper's rank and mean inspiration score. DICTION
analyzed each newspaper's stories in 500-word segments; the scores were then
aggregated by newspaper. Here the scores are standardized to each newspaper's
mean proportion of inspirational words per 1,000 words.
Table 1: Newspapers ranked by Intent to Practice Public Journalism
Rank Newspaper Meyer-Potter Intent Score
1 Charlotte Observer 3.00
2 Norfolk Virginian-Pilot 2.89
3 Portland Oregonian 2.72
4 Portland, ME Press Herald 2.71
5 Wichita Eagle 2.70
6 Minneapolis Star Tribune 2.67
7 Boston Globe 2.64
8 Rockford Register Star 2.62
9 Raleigh News & Observer 2.51
10 Columbia The State 2.37
11 Chicago Sun-Times 2.31
12 Des Moines Register 2.18
13 Richmond Times-Dispatch 2.14
14 Atlanta Constitution 2.03
15 Austin American-Statesman 1.93
16 Birmingham News 1.79
17 New Orleans Times Picayune 1.71
18 Houston Chronicle 1.44
19 Little Rock Democrat Gazette 1.20
20 Grand Rapids Press 1.00
Table 2: Newspapers ranked by Inspiration Scores from DICTION 4.0
Rank Newspaper Mean Number of Inspiration
Words Per Thousand
1 Charlotte Observer 9.71
2 Portland Oregonian 9.10
3 Norfolk Virginian-Pilot 8.66
4 Wichita Eagle 7.48
5 Minneapolis Star Tribune 7.43
6 Austin American-Statesman 6.61
7 Atlanta Constitution 6.36
8 Little Rock Democrat Gazette 6.28
9 Richmond Times-Dispatch 6.08
10 Portland, ME Press Herald 5.84
11 Rockford Register Star 5.54
12 Chicago Sun-Times 5.40
13 Houston Chronicle 5.03
14 Boston Globe 4.97
15 Birmingham News 4.80
16 Raleigh News & Observer 4.40
17 Columbia The State 4.35
18 Des Moines Register 4.21
19 Grand Rapids Press 4.04
20 New Orleans Times Picayune 3.76
There was a strong and significant correlation between a newspaper's intent to
practice public journalism and the amount of inspirational content in their
staff-written campaign coverage (r=.56, p=.01). Figure 1 illustrates that
inspirational content tends to accelerate with intent to practice public
journalism. It shows that intent explains nearly a third of the variance in
Figure 1 also indicates that there is actually a curvilinear relationship
between newspapers' intent and the inspirational tone of their content. The
effect on inspirational content gets stronger as the intent to practice public
Figure 1: Inspirational Content by Meyer-Potter Index of Intent
When the effect of an independent variable is not uniform across all its
values, Tukey (1977) suggests re-expressing it to take any systematic change
into account. Experimenting with his "ladder of re-expression" shows that
cubing the intent variable captures much of the accelerating effect seen in
Figure 1. The re-expression also raises increases the explanatory power of the
intent variable (Figure 2). It now accounts for more than forty percent of the
variance in inspirational content. It is still clear that the effect of intent
on inspirational content accelerates at the higher end of the Meyer-Potter
intent index. The Charlotte Observer had the strongest intention to practice
public journalism and it had the most inspirational content. This certainly
supports the notion that public journalism reflects what Buzz Merritt called
"the value of values" more strongly than does traditional journalism.
Figure 2: Inspirational Content by Re-expression of Intent Index
The 500-word segments analyzed by Diction were also aggregated to the story
level, yielding a mean inspiration score for each article. Those scores were
then standardized to a per 1,000 words proportion. The stories had also been
categorized according to type, classified as spot news, feature or background,
opinion, or graphic. Of the ten most inspirational stories five were opinion
pieces, three were feature or background stories, and two were spot news. An
independent t-test showed no significant difference between the inspirational
tone of news and opinion pieces (t=-.984, p=.325). When features and spot news
stories were combined, there was still no significant difference between the
mean of their inspirational content and that of the remaining categories
Story scores, the number of inspirational words per 1,000 words, ranged from
zero in 113 stories to fifty in one story. Of the 692 stories analyzed, the
most inspirational one appeared in the Little Rock Democrat Gazette, a newspaper
that was not very high in intent to practice public journalism and middling in
inspirational content. The Charlotte Observer, the newspaper with the highest
level of inspirational content, had two of the fifteen most inspiring stories,
and the Oregonian contained one story in the top ten. Three stories from
Norfolk's Virginian Pilot were included in the ten most inspirational stories,
all of them feature or background pieces. Wichita's newspaper, the Eagle, was
fourth in terms of inspirational content; its most inspirational story ranked
58th. Minneapolis, the fifth most inspirational newspaper, had two stories in
the top 25.
The most inspirational story (sixth overall) from the most inspirational
newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, follows. It is a signed opinion piece by one
the newspaper's editors.
The character issue cuts both ways in American politics
Bob Dole is right: Character, morality and ethics weigh heavily
But not always in his favor.
By: JERRY SHINN, Associate Editor
As opinion polls continue to show President Clinton
leading Bob Dole by a
wide margin, a lot of Dole supporters are wondering why the
issue isn't having more of an impact. If Dole keeps talking
about it, maybe
over time it will.
If it doesn't, does that mean voters no longer care
about character -
about morality or ethics or trust? I don't think so.
Ethical issues in politics aren't limited to campaign
finance abuses, or
to the kind of traditional back-scratching and exchanges
of money and
personal favors that have long been commonplace at every level
political life. That can get pretty sleazy, but except when it
important policy decisions contrary to the public interest, it's
ultimate test of political ethics.
Morality doesn't begin and end with sex. Sexual morality
is a subject
about which many politicians, probably including Bob Dole,
reluctant to throw stones. It's important, of course, but
question of moral fitness for public office is broader than that.
Short of criminal behavior, the more important
moral and ethical
questions about politicians should focus on the policies they
support. From that perspective, the real impact of the
may not be exactly what Dole has in mind.
For example, the agenda of the Republican congressional
which Dole was a part, included increasing costs or reducing
services to the most vulnerable people in this society -
poor, the elderly on fixed or severely limited incomes - not to
programs solvent, or to balance the budget, but at least
partly to offset
tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Does that not raise
the morality of that leadership and that agenda?
There ought to be moral questions about any proposal to
cut taxes in a
government that has been running deficits of $100 billion or
more for many
years; that has no truly credible plan, based on conservative
to balance its budget, ever; and currently taxes its people at
modest levels compared to many other developed nations.
What about the morality of a wealthy nation, with what
some call the
world's finest health-care system, doing so little about the
thousands of its citizens who don't have access to that system,
or can have
access only at risk of being wiped out financially?
Issues of environmental policy and stewardship of natural
fraught with moral and religious implications. There are
arguments on more than one side of many environmental issues,
but surely it
is immoral to let environmental policy be determined by
financial and other
And isn't it unethical to invite, as the Republican
representatives of industries that pollute to write the
regulations under which they would operate?
What about the morality of protecting people's right
to own assault
Or the morality of abandoning the commitment to level
playing field for traditional victims of racial, gender and
other kinds of
The list could go on. The point is, these are all
moral issues, or
issues with moral or ethical dimensions. It is immoral to
sell out, for
political or financial gain, what ought to be the
birthright of our
children and of future generations of Americans: a solvent
clean air and water, access to health care, equality of
opportunity in a
decent society that cares for its oldest and its youngest.
I know Clinton has given people, even a lot of people who
to support him on most issues, reasons to distrust him. But
who can trust
the man with the 15 percent tax cut plan? Dole says, over and
his word is his bond and he'll keep his promises. But saying
make it so, and the major promise of his campaign is one he
Most Americans know that.
Look, if it were really possible to cut everyone's
taxes 15 percent,
balance the budget, protect middle-class entitlements and the
net, increase defense spending and pour more billions into a
defense system, Bill Clinton - never shy about stealing
Republican ideas -
would be proposing an even bigger tax cut. He wouldn't need the
military and missile defense money.
With his economic plan, Dole shed his reputation as a
conservative and no-nonsense public official, built over a
distinguished service. Now every time he says trust me, I'll
promise, his credibility slips another notch.
Dole is right when he says character, morality, ethics and
to matter in this campaign, but he's wrong if he thinks all
cut only in his favor.
The least inspirational newspaper was the New Orleans Times Picayune. Six of
the newspaper's 32 stories contained no inspirational words at all. One of the
least inspirational stories from the least inspirational newspaper follows. It
is a spot news story.
Landrieu booed in appearance on Southern stage
By ED ANDERSON Capital bureau
BATON ROUGE -- Students who booed Senate candidate Mary
Landrieu during an appearance at Southern University made it clear
Friday that a racial rift in the state Democratic Party has not
Landrieu, who is white, was alternately booed or given only
polite applause even when she was touted as part of the Democratic
Party team by Vice President Al Gore during his speech at the
historically black university.
The reception was a response to Landrieu's refusal last
year to support U.S. Rep. Cleo Fields in his bid to become the
state's first African-American governor since Reconstruction. Fields
accused Landrieu of running ads suggesting a black candidate couldn't
win. Fields edged her out of the runoff before losing in a landslide
to Mike Foster.
Landrieu recently offered an apology without mentioning
Fields by name and only vaguely referring to her refusal to support
Fields endorsed Landrieu this week but it didn't seem to
have much impact on Southern students.
The boos began when Southern University Chancellor Marvin
Yates introduced Landrieu as the state's next U.S. senator.
"Unless you want to clap for the other candidate,"
Republican Woody Jenkins, "why don't you give her a big hand?" Yates
said. The crowd warmed up only slightly at the plea.
Fields, on the other hand, drew loud applause when he came
to the microphone to introduce the other public officials on the
dais. Fields, a Southern University graduate, and Landrieu were
seated at opposite ends of the platform.
After the event, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., told reporters he
was not surprised at the chilly reception given Landrieu.
"This is Cleo's school," he said. "They thought that Cleo
had not endorsed. They have not heard that message yet. This is
something that has to be worked. We have work to do."
Fields said he was not aware of the crowd's hostility to
Landrieu. "I was so into the rally and what Gore had to say, I didn't
pay attention to it," he said.
Fields has said his priority is working as an adviser to
the Clinton-Gore campaign in reaching out to young voters.
Landrieu also downplayed the reception. She said she and
Fields are expected to campaign together in the coming weeks and
might canvass neighborhoods together. Breaux said Fields will support
Landrieu in some direct mail campaign literature.
Landrieu said word of Fields' announcement backing her "is
getting out; we are working on it. I am happy with Cleo's support.
Cleo Fields' endorsement will be helpful to our campaign. We've got
our work to do."
Landrieu said Democrats will be united behind her by Election Day.
The relationship between inspirational content and public journalism found in
these data reinforce the belief that public journalism is fundamentally
different from traditional journalism. In this campaign newspapers practicing
public journalism did not simply decrease their use of
horse-race polls, they actually employed a tone that reflects "abstract
virtues," "desirable moral qualities," and "social and political ideals" (Hart
1997, 47). The fact that the public journalism newspapers relied more heavily
on this vocabulary than their traditional counterparts is in keeping with the
aspirations of the movement's founders, Jay Rosen and Buzz Merritt. This study
shows that the difference in tone between public journalism and traditional
journalism is real and may indeed be signify the cultural change Merritt and
Rosen envisioned after passing through the valley of the 1988 campaign.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
Though this study established a tonal difference between traditional and public
journalism, no link was found between the inspirational tone used more by public
journalists and any increases in knowledge or trust among the citizens reading
their newspapers. Although such effects are sometimes difficult to find, this
is an important question because it goes to the very heart of public journalism.
Some critics contend that public journalism is about producing newspapers that
make people feel good as part of the ultimate quest to improve circulation.
Public journalists don't deny that improving circulation is part of their goal,
but they believe it will come as a happy by-product of the improved
newspaper-community relationship. If inspirational tone is an important facet
of public journalism, it should yield some effect in those who consume it.
Teasing out this effect D whether it is increased civic participation or
increased trust in media or government D may become easier as public journalism
becomes more routine for those who practice it and as the efforts they have made
begin to convince readers that the newspaper is "a fair-minded participant" in
the community. REFERENCES
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 Philip Meyer is the Knight Chair in Journalism at the School of Journalism
and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Deborah
Potter is an associate at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
 I am indebted to Prof. Mark West, of the University of North Carolina,
Asheville, for suggesting this software to me.