Good News for Democracy

The late magazine writer Janet Malcolm once began an essay with the following sentence: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

The quote created quite a stir within the news business when it appeared in the New Yorker in 1989. Without re-visiting the details of a long-forgotten debate, suffice to say that Malcom viewed journalism as a self-serving craft that required a duplicitous attitude and a con artist’s ability to dissimulate.

Judging by the number of opinion polls registering low levels of public trust in the news media, many Americans today would probably agree with Malcolm, but the authors of News for US: Citizen-Centered Journalism take a different view. They see journalism not just as a craft, but as a “service to a democratic people.”

The authors, Paula Lynn Ellis, Paul Voakes, and Lori Bergen, trace the roots of what they describe as “relational journalism” to the “public journalism” movement that emerged in the early 1990s when editors, reporters and broadcasters worked directly with community members to set the agenda for news gatherers and to explore new ways of reporting on policy issues.

Ellis was a bureau editor (and later a vice president) at Knight-Ridder, one of the largest media companies that embraced public journalism. Voakes, a former editorial writer for the San Jose Mercury News, is professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where Bergin serves as dean of the College of Media, Communication and Information.

News for US is dedicated to the late David Holwerk, a former editorial page editor who ended his career as director of communication at the Kettering Foundation. Reflecting insights developed during Kettering learning exchanges (and the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, Jürgen Habermas, and John Dewey), the authors view democracy as more than the sum of its institutional parts.

“Democracy is much more than a system of governance, contested elections and faceless institutions,” they write. “It is a way of life, a culture, shaped and strengthened by everyday actions of people. It relies on a shared vision of the common good and the norms and practices that support it. What then can journalists do to nurture a healthy and inclusive culture of democracy?”

Their answer is relational journalism, an emerging approach that “places the interests of the public at the center of all it does…” The book describes a variety of contemporary examples, a list that includes, for profit and nonprofit news organizations, online publications, journalism cooperatives and media-supported community engagement projects. Relational journalism, they write, has five common principles.

  1. Journalism is an essential democratic practice
  2. Journalists and citizens are collaborators
  3. Journalists facilitate the work of citizens
  4. Relational journalism upends time-honored traditions
  5. Journalism must find new paths to financial sustainability

Published in May by CognellaNews for US is available in both paperback and e-book formats.

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