Journalist Davis "Buzz" Merritt, Senior Editor of the Wichita Eagle, and his colleague, Jay Rosen, a New York University professor, had already been developing their ideas about better integrating journalism into public life for some time when they finally came up with the name "public journalism." But that was probably the easiest challenge they confronted in trying to change journalistic attitudes.
"If Jay and I knew we were starting 'a movement' we might have gone about this quite differently," Merritt explains. "We thought that it was possible to engage a profession like journalism in a useful conversation about change. We found out it wasn't. There is a total unwillingness on the part of many, many people in journalism...They say, 'We just don't need to change. I've had a number of people say, 'There's nothing wrong with journalism today.' Well, I wonder where these people live."
Merritt will deliver the 1997 Silha Lecture at 12:15 p.m., Tuesday, November 4, at the Humphrey Center's Cowles Auditorium on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities Campus. In his lecture, "Disconnecting from Detachment" Merritt will explore the inextricable connection between journalism and democracy threatened by journalistic detachment. Sponsored by the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, the lecture and reception following are free and open to the public.
In the ensuing debate there has even been disagreement over the concept's proper name. Some call it public journalism, others use the term "civic journalism."
"I call it public journalism," Merritt says. "I heard it when Jay Rosen and I made it up, and that was about '92. We had been talking about this idea for some time and realized that we needed to give it a name, even though we didn't want to give it a name. But we needed to have something to call it. And because it's as much about journalism as it is about public life, we decided to call it public journalism."
The senior editor of the Wichita Eagle in Wichita (KA), where he has been for 22 years, Merritt, 61, is also a consultant to Knight-Ridder Newspapers on public/civic journalism. After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, he began his journalism career at The Charlotte Observer (NC) where he spent 12 years in several reporting and editing positions, before moving to Washington, D.C., as the newspaper's Washington correspondent. Merritt also worked for The Boca Raton News (FL) and Knight-Ridder newspapers, then joined the Wichita Eagle in 1975. He is also a Morehead Scholar and a member of the Kappa Tau Alpha honorary society.
Included among his numerous awards for local government writing is the 1997 Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism for his article "Public Journalism and Public Life." He is the co-author of Public Journalism: Theory and Practice, now in its second edition, and author of Public Journalism and the Public: Why Telling the Truth Is Not Enough, also in its second edition.
In his Silha lecture on journalistic detachment, Merritt will discuss six arguments for "an ethic of journalistic purposefulness." Those include:
- Detachment is not the fount of journalism's credibility.
- There's way too much truth out there.
- An announced bias is just as good as no bias at all.
- Detachment presents impossible human and moral dilemmas.
- Self interest demands a disconnection from detachment.
- Walter Lippman doesn't work here anymore.