George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Public journalism and deliberative democracy: exploring the role of narrative

May 5, 2018

Written by Dr. George Dwyer, Affiliate Research Faculty, S-CAR

Several dozen faculty and students from across the region joined S-CAR and the Center for the Study of Narrative for the day-long conference exploring the narrative possibilities of public journalism and deliberative democracy. The conference was also live-streamed on Facebook.

Public journalism and deliberative democracy are two ongoing and related citizen-based projects – both launched in the early 1990s – that have generated scholarly considerations, innovative experiments, and practical applications convergent with the practice of conflict analysis and resolution. S-CAR scholars, including Professors Richard Rubenstein, Solon Simmons, and Arthur Romano, contributed to the day’s discussion, introducing the role of narrative as a core concern of both public journalism and deliberative democracy. Significant areas of overlap were identified and discussed as they relate to civic engagement, community problem solving, and civility.

Dr. Sara Cobb, Director of the Center, opened the conference by situating S-CAR and CNCR as appropriate hosts and insightful contributors to this discussion on civic conflict, civil society, and the health of the public sphere. Noting that “narrative is implicated not only in the production of conflict, but in its evolution or transformation as well,” Dr. Cobb reminded attendees of the overlapping concerns and points of intersection that narrative approaches to conflict share with both public journalism and deliberative democracy.

Recently appointed as an affiliate research scholar at S-CAR, Dr. George Dwyer helped organize the conference, drawing on his 2015 doctoral thesis on deliberative democracy and public journalism.

Public journalism, known in variant forms as civic journalism and citizen-centered journalism, represents a wide range of collaborative journalism practices (and experiments) aimed at promoting the democratic health of the community. Deliberative democracy, much like public journalism, represents an attempt to encourage public participation in civic decision making. The conference explored the overlap between the two, while input from conflict and legal scholars introduced important structural and narrative concerns.

The first session opened with a panel discussion focused on public journalism. Linda Steiner, Ph.D., professor of journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and Margot Susca, Ph.D., who runs the graduate program on digital storytelling at American University’s School of Communication, offered presentations on the history and future hopes for the project. S-CAR Assistant Professor Dr. Arthur Romano and Affiliate Research Scholar Dr. George Dwyer joined the panel as discussants.

Professor Steiner was quick to point out that the originators of public journalism “drew primarily on Habermas’ notion of the public sphere, and so they drew on literatures about journalism as actually having a role in enriching the public sphere.”

Hence, it’s connection with deliberative democracy.

 “At the heart of public journalism was listening to citizens, and not merely pundits, experts, elites, and certainly not political consultants…public journalists addressed citizens as members of a deliberative public.” Dr. Steiner observed that public journalism, as a reform movement, sought to “retain the watch dog role, abandon some of the attack dog role, and add a guide dog role.”

By 1998 more than 60% of U.S. daily newspapers had experimented at least once with some form of public journalism. Today there is still far flung interest and activity, but a debate now hovers over whether public journalism has been sidetracked, gone underground, or is quietly being reinvented. Those considerations added needed historical texture and even some poignancy to the discussion. Jan Schaffer, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist and former head of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, still sees powerful possibilities, but also an urgent need to re-examine traditional conflict frames and narrative habits.

“I would suggest that where journalism is falling down right now, and where citizen journalism, civic journalism tried …was that we’re too focused on covering external conflict, as opposed to internal. We focus on conflict between people, and that is the narrative of most of our stories. The real story tends to be our conflict in values.”

Dr. Margot Susca questioned the current state of civics education in the U.S., suggesting that by addressing deficiencies in this area, we might effectively raise consciousness about the structural limitations of traditional media. As for current and worrying trends in media consolidation and corporate media ownership, Dr. Susca noted that the possibilities of technology-enabled news reporting are relatively cheap and abundant, “so I tell my students ‘let’s think about stories we can tell there. Let’s look at ProPublica.’”

S-CAR’s Dr. Arthur Romano, drawing on his own on-the-ground experience with the polarized communities surrounding Ferguson, Missouri, cautioned that coaxing productive community conversations “requires some ability to connect across those lines of difference, to see and understand the life-world of those people and what is happening on a daily level and the struggles and political issues that they’re dealing with.”

When a question from the audience suggested that public journalism “didn’t really get embedded and take off,” Jan Schaffer demurred, asking participants to consider “what civic journalism achieved and how it arrived at solutions in explanatory journalism.” Adding, “Is that failure?”

Citing a large-scale research study by Pew Center for Civic Journalism, Professor Schaffer said analysts found that “civic journalism increased public deliberation, focused on problem solving, increased volunteerism, changed public policy, and in many cases built either reporting or storytelling capacity. 96% of the stories they studied used an explanatory versus a conflict frame. They call that one of civic journalisms most important achievements.”

The morning’s second panel focused on deliberative democracy, and featured a compelling discussion on the implications – for both journalism and democracy – of voter ignorance. Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason’s Scalia School of Law presented compelling evidence documenting deficiencies in voter knowledge as gleaned from his book Democracy and Political Ignorance.

Citing enhanced access to political information and rising IQ scores, Professor Somin argued that the cause of voter ignorance cannot be blamed primarily on the media or the so-called ‘stupidity’ of voters. “So, the problem is not that people are stupid or that information isn’t available, it’s that people are not using their very real intelligence, for the most part, to acquire the information that is out there or to make effective use of it.”

“And for most people, this is actually entirely rational and understandable behavior. If your only incentive to acquire political information is to make a better decision in an election, then it turns out that’s not much of an incentive at all, because the chance that your vote, no matter how well informed, will swing the outcome of an election, that chance is extraordinarily low”

S-CAR discussants, Professors Richard Rubenstein and Solon Simmons, as well as Jan Schaffer, occasionally took issue with Somin’s theory of ‘foot voting’ as seemingly at odds with conflict resolution and community stability. Somin parried by impishly citing personal experience, and  pointing attendees toward his upcoming publication on the subject of voting by foot.

S-CAR’s Solon Simmons, a scholar of media studies, expressed the view that interest in new approaches to citizen story-telling in the public sphere is currently “resurging.” and cited “a new Masters concentration in media narrative and public discourse” at George Mason University.

Following the morning panels, conference attendees were served lunch (courtesy of Sodexo), and treated to a keynote presentation by Carolyn Lukensmeyer, a leading figure in deliberative democracy practice who serves today as the Executive Director of the Institute for Civil Discourse.

Dr. Lukensmeyer’s insights were too numerous to describe here, but well worth looking over, so we have posted her slide deck here, as well as a full transcript here.

A World Café was convened for the afternoon session. Hosted by Dr. Cobb, with able assistance from S-CAR Research Assistant Sarah Spencer, this café style gathering featured a more focused and personal discussion of points covered in the morning conference panels. We’ll report further on the results of those discussions in a future article.

Remarking on the keen level of present interest in media and conflict, Richard Rubenstein, S-CAR University Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs, reminded the gathering that media in the public sphere has been an active concern of the School since its earliest days:

“We actually at this school started thinking about and worrying about the role of the press in connection with social conflict, and the way the press covered violent conflicts in particular as long ago as 1990 when we held our first conference on this. And this conference is a very welcome return to that center of attention for us. I hope it’s going to continue.”


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