Public journalism in the newsroom: Constraints on content and journalist role conceptions at five award-winning newspapers

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communications


Pamela Shoemaker


Journalist, Newspapers, Public journalism, Role conceptions, Award-winning

Subject Categories

Communication | Journalism Studies | Mass Communication | Social and Behavioral Sciences


This study examines the practice of public journalism at five newspapers that won awards or honorable mentions in the inaugural 1996 James K. Batten Awards for Excellence in Civic Journalism. The newspapers are The Charlotte Observer , the Wisconsin State Journal, The Kansas City Star , the (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Argus Leader and The Dallas Morning News . Through a content analysis of each of the five projects, mail surveys completed by 344 journalists at the five newspapers and in-depth interviews with 15 of the journalists most involved in the projects, the study explores whether the projects represent a true shift from traditional journalistic practice and whether a new public journalism role conception is emerging in the five newsrooms.

The content analysis explores the projects along five dimensions of traditional practice that have been critiqued by public journalists: conflict-ridden reporting, reliance on prominent sources, episodic reporting, adversarial reporting and allegiance to strict objectivity routines. It concludes that although the projects have success in minimizing adversarial and conflict-ridden reporting, they have trouble breaking through the journalistic constraints on content described by theorists such as Gans (1979), Tuchman (1973, 1977, 1978), Sigal (1973), Gitlin (1980) and others. Despite public journalism's heavy emphasis on tapping a variety of citizen voices, for example, only the Charlotte project gives equal time to non-prominent and prominent sources. Through the use of what Meyer (1995) calls a data-rich "objectivity of journalist method," the Charlotte project and to some extent the Kansas City one move beyond surface-level, episodic reporting, but the other projects largely do not. Editors, not reporters, break some traditional objectivity rules, raising some ethical concerns. But the content falls well within the hegemonic boundary described by Gitlin and well short of the kind of multi perspectival journalism envisioned by Gans.

The survey and in-depth interviews finds that journalists see public journalism values as distinct from traditional news values, but a unified public journalism role conception emerges only in Charlotte. Nonetheless, reporters are more positive than negative toward the public journalism movement, saying it provides them with more time and resources to do their traditional jobs with greater thoroughness.


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