The theory of the interlocking public

The splintering of mass media audiences and the migration of information consumers to tens of thousands of niche web sites is further evidence that everyone is interested, and expert, in something.

The diversity and magnitude of the public, in fact, is its strength. A mix of publics is usually much wiser than a public comprised of just the elite or one segment of special interest.

The wisdom of decision-making by an interlocking public is embedded in the notion that government “by the people” means citizens have the duty to keep themselves informed.

Moreover, says historian Paul Starr in “The Creation of the Media, Political Origins of Modern Communication,” government played a central role in equipping citizens with news and information as well as the tools, the ability to read and write, so they could consume it.

Early Congresses passed laws making education and literacy priorities that required the establishment of public schools. Women, who could then not vote, were included in part so they could educate their children. Education also emphasized “useful knowledge,” which included current events.

The distribution of news, meanwhile, needed a way to keep up with citizen pioneers as they moved westward from population centers on the East Coast, and Congress addressed the problem when it created the Post Office. Rejecting the European model in which every local post office was required to generate enough revenue to pay for itself, it was decided that in the U.S., every county seat should have a post office and that the mailing of newspapers and books should be subsidized with lower postal rates.

Starr notes that by 1830, the Post Office was delivering one-fourth of all newspapers and 2 million more newspapers than letters. A century later, Congress allowed commercial broadcasters to use the public airwaves to distribute their programming, a part of which was news and information.

This vision of governance is central to the notion that journalism should also be pluralistic. Collectively, it serves a broad and diverse audience that is both complex and dynamic but whose individual members must be able to sort out the truth in order to make personal decisions about their lives and collective decisions about government and society.

Journalism helps the interlocking public make decisions about the truth.

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and former API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel who previously co-chaired the committee.