“Long live true journalism!”
That’s how my daughter, Beth, ended a note congratulating me on retirement as executive editor of The Seattle Times. That was in 2008. In the years since I’ve spent much of my time exploring “What is True Journalism?” Or, more precisely, “What is the true nature, the highest and best expression of journalism for the 21st century?”
Working with Journalism That Matters and the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, I’ve come to believe journalism needs a new philosophy and ethical framework based on the idea of public trust through public engagement. Let’s call it Engaged Journalism.
First, let’s be clear about what we mean by “Engaged Journalism.” It is about how journalists and the public connect with each other, and how that connection affects journalism and public trust.
Journalism has little purpose if it is not trusted by the public it is meant to serve, so public engagement and public trust are inseparable in the networked world of digital journalism. Engaged journalists are starting to ask, “How can we help people trust each other?”
In addition to representing the public interest, engaged journalism involves the public as true partners, enabling journalism to become complete, more accurate, more trusted, and more meaningful.
The late Steve Buttry, one of the first newspaper editors to advocate what he called “community engagement,” described it as news organizations making a priority to listen, join, lead, and enable conversation to elevate journalism. He said, “Engagement is an approach that can and must serve and improve our journalism. It may have some marketing benefit, but the purpose is better journalism.”
Jennifer Brandel, CEO of Hearken, says, “Engagement happens when members of the public are responsive to newsrooms, and newsrooms are in turn responsive to members of the public.” Hearken works with newsrooms to develop engagement as a process rather than a practice. “It’s a feedback loop,” says Brandel.
Andrew DeVigal, endowed chair in Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement at the Agora Journalism Center, distinguishes between engagement that is transactional and engagement that is relational. Transactional engagement typically works to benefit more meaningfully in one direction, while relational engagement is reciprocal.
“Engagement is a continuum, and the public should always be at the center of that work,” DeVigal says. “The question we often forget to ask ourselves is: How can we motivate more journalists (and journalism students) to put the community at the center of their work, be better listeners, and understand more precisely the needs of the public? Until we can think of the public not just as ‘audiences’ and ‘consumers,’ but also as experts and partners in the communities we aim to serve, we shouldn’t expect to receive the public's complete trust.”
Public trust is at the heart of engagement. The American public’s confidence in journalists to be fair, accurate and unbiased has been in consistent decline for decades, as has public confidence in most institutions in our nation. I believe that the way we do journalism, especially the relentless negativity and shortage of authentic community connection, contributes to the erosion of trust.
Public confidence in journalism and democracy are linked, and I believe we are at a point where both journalism and democracy are at risk. Their survival will require action, imagination and courage on the part of journalists and the public to promote the shared pursuit of truth and the common good.