News producers, individuals and groups who produce noteworthy information, intervene in the public sphere in order to inform, promote, alert, and denounce. They do so as experts, commentators, members of the public, whistleblowers, activists, citizens, journalists, citizen journalists, publicists, or lobbyists. All communicate through a variety of channels, although they may or may not claim to be producing news of public interest, intentionally or incidentally. The variety of "public" news and the diversity of people producing it demand a discussion about how "public interest news" can be defined. Some recent developments, such as self-publication and social media, shed new light on an old question: who and what defines public interest news, how should it be defined and by whose authority?
While positing that not every piece of information that is public constitutes information produced in the “public interest”, this preconference focuses on two types of questions:
(1) Who are the producers of public interest news?
Public interest news is a notion that is associated with mass media and journalists. It stands at the heart of what some have described as the moral imperative of professional journalists: "to tell the truth in the interest of the public" (Jacquette 2009, p. 214). Other voices and actors, however, also claim to be participating in the production of public interest news. Public relations and communication professionals, often subject to accusations of propaganda and manipulation (Bernays, 1928; Ewen, 1996; Roper, 2005) still place the public interest at the core of their professional ethics code (Parsons, 2010).
Groups of activists take part in the news making processes and invoke public interest to define themselves as alternatives to mainstream media (Atton, 2002; Cardon & Granjon, 2010; Blondeau, 2007). Whistleblowers explain their breaching of secrecy by the public interest nature of their revelations (Chateauraynaud & Torny, 1999 ; Lascoumes, 2010).
This pre-conference will therefore seek to identify these actors who claim to produce news in the public interest. How do they position themselves in relation to each other and to this idea of "news in the public interest"? For example, what part of their identity is related to news in the public interest? What credibility do they claim to have in relation with public interest? How do they justify their news production in the public interest? How do they describe their newsmaking activities and how do they promote them? Do they make use of the phrase "information in the public interest" to describe what they do and if so, how?
(2) How do they define information in the public interest?
The goal of this preconference is therefore not to posit an a priori definition of news in the public interest, but rather to confront the various definitions produced and defended by the actors themselves, by those who claim to produce such news.
For instance, we can find traces of such definitional work of the public interest in the discourses produced by some professional groups: journalist unions lay claim to it (Le Cam, 2009, p.165), the emerging population of "public interest journalists" pursue it (Owens, 2013), and PR professional groups put public interest at the core of their best practices (Grunig et al., 1992). All these discourses bear traces of various definitions. This preconference therefore aims to shed light on those definitions, to retrace how they have evolved, and to highlight potential tensions — that could reveal, for example, contradictions between underlying value scales (normative expectations) associated with different conceptualizations of the public interest.
More broadly, this preconference will also seek to pry open the black box of current thinking which inevitably permeates the present call for communications: that is, how the idea of public interest news gravitates towards its traditional, journalistic and event-centered meaning, related to a specific conceptualization of the public space. In order to maintain a fruitful debate, should we seek rather to enlarge and/or to reduce the concepts of news and the public interest?
Henri Assogba (U Laval), Sophie Boulay (UQAM), François Demers (U Laval), Juliette De Maeyer (U de Montréal), Chantal Francoeur (UQAM), Julien Rueff (U Laval)