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OBJECTIVITY IS A PAPER’S HIGHEST DUTY

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Across the country, journalists wrestle with the impact Civic Journalism, also known as Public Journalism, is having on their work.

Not since the 1960s, when Tom Wolfe and others brought life to New Journalism, have the values of once-respected objectivity taken such a beating.Thirty and more years ago New Journalism's rallying cry was that bloodless objectivity obscured the truth of the forest because it overly focused on the factualities of the trees. New Journalism relied on intuition and the subjectivity of the writer to bring out higher truths subverted by fastidious objectivity.

Civic Journalism doesn't deliver its message in the same terms, but at heart there is a resemblance between the two. Civic Journalism says the country is in crisis, that people are alienated from governmental and other institutions, and consequently are overwhelmed by a sense of help-less-ness.

Conventional journalism worsens matters by its emphasis on the negative. Even when it performs well, it remains too remote from the real concerns of the people it claims to serve.

To overcome inherent deficiencies in the professional coda that journalists should be disinterested observers in order to be the fair-minded reporters, Civic Journalism proposes involvement by news-papers and their staffs in community issues, with an emphasis on bringing people together, finding out their concerns, to solve community problems. Furthermore, Civic Journalism seeks to dedicate the resources of the craft to help implement solutions, including the personal participation of staffers in formulating remedies that the newspaper will then write about and promote.

To most people not in the news business that probably reads like a reasonable prescription for journalists to adopt. To those in the craft, Civic Journalism's good intentions obscure a host of land mines implicit in its philosophy.

What is troublesome about Civic Journalism is not its summons for reporters and editors to focus on important community issues, and thereby, either implicitly or explicitly, purposing action to solve problems.

Indeed, to do so is the soul of journalism adjectivally unadorned. Civic Journalism accurately spotlights current deficiencies of newspapers. Beyond that, however, Civic Journalism presents problems of its own.

One is that journalism sustains civic alienation because it reports the shortcomings in a community. Second, that journalism possesses the cure for widespread frustration with things as they are if it would only get more involved.

Getting involved means becoming active participants in the public processes that good journalism is obliged to report on. This is where Civic resembles New Journalism. But instead of discovering truth in the subjectivity of the writer, as the New Journalism dictates, Civic Journalism finds its higher truth in a community consensus.

The danger of this remedy is that newspapers are already inclined to reflect establishmentarian viewpoints.

Civic Journalism makes a tacit assumption that only a community's problems require scrutiny. It does not accord proposed solutions the same attention, because the institution that is supposed to report critically, the press, is co-opted by becoming part of the process. Just as troubling is the demolition of the defined line that stipulates that the most useful journalism will be produced by people who don't have an axe to grind.

While total objectivity is an ideal that is rarely attained or attainable, it remains practical to be functionally objective. A newspaper function as a community monitor is undermined when it agrees to leave its observer's seat in the audience and climb onto the stage.

Civic Journalism is right when it proclaims too many community issues remain obscured because newspapers don't devote the in-depth attention to them. The remedy is to practice a more vigorous, investigative, explicating, comprehensive journalism.

A newspaper, to retain credibility, should not become an organ of propaganda, even on behalf of a popular "good" cause. A newspaper performs its highest duty by being a fair-minded observer and (on its editorial pages) a bold commentator on community issues. That should mean seeing its world whole, with both positives and negatives, and telling the truth about them to the best of its abilities.