Theories of Journalism
Summary and Keywords
Journalism seeks to observe and communicate what it learns of social importance, something called news, and in doing so is always in the process of creating a public by bringing it into synchronized conversation with itself. Theories of journalism provide explanatory frameworks for understanding a complex combination of social practice, product, and institutional arrangement. Journalism’s late 20th-century professionalized, high modern version, which is still recognizable today, has continued to change, particularly with the disruptive effect of the Internet, as it has evolved to absorb other forms. The boundaries of profession and news organization have been destabilized within this rapidly shifting media terrain, but still there remain productive approaches for systematically organizing knowledge around the concept of journalism.
The early 20th-century perspectives on journalism—before becoming linked to the communication field and a more narrow media effects focus—were at home in the University of Chicago school of sociology, which emphasized community-based, multi-method participant observation. A sociology of news perspective resurfaced with more ethnographic research in newsrooms in the 1950s, and theories of journalism have continued to highlight the ethnographic method, especially in understanding the impact of technology on a more digitally-oriented journalism practice. A hierarchy of influences perspective, developed by Shoemaker and Reese, incorporates other perspectives beyond the ethnographic by considering factors at multiple levels of analysis that shape media content, the journalistic message system, from the micro to the macro: individual characteristics of specific newsworkers, their routines of work, organizational-level concerns, institutional issues, and the larger social system. At each level, one can identify the main factors that shape the symbolic reality constituted and produced by journalism, as well as how these factors interact across levels and compare across different contexts (e.g., national, technological).
A hierarchy of influences model worked well to disentangle the relationships among professionals and their routines, and the news organizations that housed them, which cohered into institutions. But journalism has been newly problematized, destabilizing and restructuring both the units and levels of analysis in journalism theorizing. The networked public sphere is constituted with new assemblages: of newswork, institutional arrangements, and global connections, which give rise to new emerging deliberative spaces. Journalism theories now have as much interest in process as product, in assemblage as outcome, but still need to be concerned with the nature of quality of these spaces. What shape do they take on and with what implications for healthy democratic discourse?
Journalism seeks to observe and communicate what it learns of social importance, something called news, and in doing so is always in the process of creating a public by bringing it into synchronized conversation with itself. Theories of journalism provide explanatory frameworks for understanding a complex combination of social practice, product, and institutional arrangement. Journalism’s late 20th-century professionalized, high modern version, which is still recognizable today, has continued to change, particularly with the disruptive effect of the Internet, as it has evolved to absorb other forms. Unlike many other more settled fields, journalism research has been obsessed with the very definition of its core concept—what journalism is. The boundaries of profession and news organization have been destabilized within this rapidly shifting media terrain, but still there remain productive approaches for systematically organizing knowledge around the concept of journalism. In this article I review some of these approaches using levels of analysis framework and consider ways this perspective must be adapted to new conceptions of this rapidly changing field.
Theories of journalism, as Löffelholz (2008) observed, come from diverse perspectives, beginning with early normative concerns leading to more empirical analysis of how journalists work. Adding a systems perspective attempted to position the individual as part of a larger system (e.g., Rühl, 1969) and to understand news as a cultural product. The early 20th-century research perspectives on journalism, before they became linked to the communication field and a more narrow media effects focus, were at home in the University of Chicago school of sociology, which emphasized community-based, multi-method participant observation including issues of communication and public opinion. Early figures like Robert Park had an interest in the newspaper and how it not just affected but created community itself by extending social networks—regarding communities as existing in communication. The post-WWII shift of sociological influence to Columbia University, and related communication research along with it, displaced this more holistic concern with a short-term effects, variable-analytic, social-psychology perspective on questions of interest to the burgeoning mass consumer industries—and to the mass media built on their advertising revenue.
Theories of journalism have largely been situated within this tradition of communication research more generally as it developed during this period. As a result they have shared a preoccupation with the large-scale mass media in the U.S. and Western Europe, and the professionals operating within those media institutions. Journalism has been regarded as having vital functions for the larger social system, leaving the task of research to explore the process of journalistic communication and ways audiences responded to news messages. This left relatively less room for more critical questions concerning how journalism fits within the larger social structure—including who makes news, what counts as news, and whose interests news serves. (Gitlin, 1978; Reese & Ballinger, 2001). Aligned with journalism and mass communication education—which in turn was concerned with training for media industries—research took on a strongly normative character in regarding journalism as a crucial underpinning of democratic society. That was what journalists themselves believed, serving as a justification for their professional status and legal protections.
Shift to a Sociology of News
Running counter to this process and effects tradition, a couple of early newsroom studies, in particular, signaled special concerns with journalism as a social practice. David Manning White’s (1950) classic study of the news “gatekeeper” suggested that news is what the “newspaperman” says it is, while Warren Breed’s (1955) study of social control in the newsroom, showed how journalists absorbed news policy, even if that policy was not always explicit, and how the tension between the different motivations of journalists and the (often more conservative) owner needed to be reconciled to make the system work. As Reese and Ballinger (2001) have argued, the findings of White and Breed were safely interpreted at the time within the prevailing narrative, or received history of the field, as upholding the status quo: namely that the gatekeeper and newspaper publisher would select stories in the interest of the community of which they were part. This blunted the critical edge and subversive quality of such research, which threatened to make journalism decision-making newly problematic.
Journalism professionals have historically adhered to a philosophical, realist view of the world in which news of external events is “out there” waiting to be gathered and disseminated. But this process is a social construction determined by a number of larger forces, making the search for these forces and understanding how they interact a logical focus of theoretical development. Theories of journalism have followed a sociological turn, a perspective that brings with it questions of power, control, structures, institutions, class, and community: all concepts that, as Waisbord (2014) observes, have been applied to journalism research more than other communication subfields, yielding an area often called “media sociology.” Broadly speaking, this approach to journalism ties social structures to symbolic formations, seeking to understand how social reality takes shape and foregrounding normative concerns of how well journalism is working under these arrangements.
Social protest and upheaval in the 1960s brought greater concern about how journalism was implicated in a discredited power structure, leading to greater interest in the inner workings of institutional journalism—as represented most visibly by a number of newsroom ethnographies. Stonbely (2013) identifies a group of such studies that, after a long hiatus, followed in the later 60s and 70s the earlier example of White and Breed. These studies, she argues, represent a “cornerstone” of American media sociology, covering that “legacy” period of media development centered around a handful of major broadcast and print media that commanded mass audiences and, for the most part, their trust. Among these she identifies Edward Jay Epstein’s (1974) News from Nowhere (about network television news), Mark Fishman’s (1980) Manufacturing the News, Gaye Tuchman’s (1978) Making News (about local newspapers), and Herbert Gans’ (1979) Deciding What’s News (about national newsmagazines and television). They all broke with the prevailing approaches to communication research by emphasizing news as an organizational product that had to be socially constructed, not simply transmitted to the audience. These became classic examples of newsroom sociology, time-consuming but rich in detail, and until recently served to anchor our understanding of how newswork happens.
The sociology of news has continued to highlight the ethnographic method, long marginalized within mainstream sociology. The method, however, has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years across the social sciences with its greater capacity to engage public interest with accessible storytelling—indeed, a quality more closely aligned with journalism itself. Ethnography and its participant observation have proved especially useful in understanding with close observation the impact of technology on a more digitally-oriented journalism practice. A new wave of news ethnographies has been precipitated particularly by the migration of news online. Prominent examples include the work of Boczkowski (2004, 2010), especially in showing how technology has affected the newsroom organization and practice. His work on Argentinian newsrooms shows the paradox of striving in an age of digital abundance to conform to the news competition. Ryfe’s (2012) analysis of three American newsrooms showed that journalists have not adapted very well to change, using the tensions embedded in their profession to reconfirm and justify the same procedures they have used since before the industry upheaval.
Usher (2014) provides the most recent single-newsroom ethnography within the Gans tradition of the New York Times, choosing an elite news organization as the embodiment of the journalism profession. Her participant observation shows what happens when a traditional and powerful institution must adapt to the inescapable digital world, that despite the major technological shifts, “many of the routines and practices of news production observed in the golden era of news ethnography remain constant” (p. 228). What is more, the routines surrounding key values of immediacy, interactivity, and participation show remarkable similarities to a diverse host of other online news settings (Domingo & Paterson, 2011; Paterson & Domingo, 2008).
Levels of Analysis: Hierarchy of Influences Perspective
Although ethnographies provide a nuanced, insider view of a social setting, they can privilege the immediate context of the newsmaking experience and work toward organizational functionalism. That is, everything observed is easily assumed to be there for a good reason, and selecting one organizational site elevates it as the key player in news gatekeeping decisions. Thus, beyond the first-hand observation of newswork, primarily within an organizational setting, a broader conception of the sociology of news is needed that incorporates the ethnographic perspective but includes other levels of analysis, including individual professional issues and larger macro social structures impinging on journalism. A hierarchy of influences model, developed by Shoemaker and Reese (2014, 1996), does this by considering factors at multiple levels of analysis that shape media content, the journalistic message system, from the micro to the macro: individual characteristics of specific newsworkers, their routines of work, organizational-level concerns, institutional issues, and larger social-systems. The model “takes into account the multiple forces that simultaneously impinge on the media and suggest how influence at one level may interact with that at another” (2014, p. 1). At each level, one can identify the main factors that shape the symbolic reality constituted and produced by journalism, how these factors interact across levels and compare across different contexts (e.g., national, technological).
This approach raises, especially at the individual level, the notion of structure and agency. As a human activity, journalism naturally involves the agency of individuals, which is both constrained and enabled by the structures surrounding them. Ascribing relatively more agency to individuals leads to a greater emphasis on the personal characteristics that guide them (the crusading journalist myth and biographical tradition underscore this tendency); an emphasis on macro structures, on the other hand, tends to de-emphasize this personal agency. A political economic perspective, for example, has the effect of rendering journalists as mere tools of class and other interests. Taking these issues into account, journalism research can be organized by these hierarchical levels as reviewed below, with examples of new conceptual issues.
On the most micro level, we assume that individual creative, professional practitioners matter and knowing who they are helps understand the larger journalistic project—who is being drawn to the profession, how adequately they reflect society, and what professional values they support. The individual level of analysis considers the personal traits of newsworkers, news values they adhere to, professional roles they take on, and other demographic features (e.g., gender, race, class). In spite of the traditional notion of professional “objective” detachment, we assume these characteristics matter in their work. Journalists make decisions based on psychological-level attributes, but they operate within a web of constraints.
Thus, this level of analysis considers the relative autonomy of individuals, how they are both shaped by, contribute to, and identity with their surrounding organizations. Defining news professionals as those working in major decision-making capacities for media organizations, Weaver and colleagues (e.g., Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2007) have tracked the composition of that group over several years, along with how they perceive their roles. Surveying journalists working for traditional news organizations shows perceptions by those individuals most invested in the shrinking professional core. They see journalism heading in the wrong direction, have declining job satisfaction, but give greater importance to their role in analyzing complex problems and investigating official claims (Wilnat & Weaver, 2014).
Although many such studies seek to capture a description of the profession as a whole, the individual level certainly draws attention to the fact that there is no single professional type, not even within national cultures. As professional environments are shifting rapidly, analysis at this level helps understand how professional roles relate to larger structures, serving as a means of adaptation and survival. In the dynamic Chinese media context, for example, Hassid (2011) has identified four types of journalists: American style professionals, communist professionals (“throat and tongue” of the Communist Party), workaday journalists (corrupt, anything for a price), and advocate professionals, who push the envelope and are committed to ideals of transparency, openness, and public participation. Geall (2013) argues that these are the professionals especially equipped for survival, who can exploit the openings provided by the chaotic aspects and contradictions of the Chinese media environment.
The routines level is concerned with those patterns of behavior that form the immediate structures of newswork. If journalism is primarily a social practice, routines are the ways of working that constitute that practice. They may include those unstated rules and ritualized enactments that are not always made explicit. In studying these routines, we assume that power is exercised within organizations—not always by idiosyncratic dictates by leaders but through establishing a pattern of practices that serve the needs of the organization, adapt to requirements of news sources, control the workflow, and give it a meaningful structure. These range from deadline and space requirements to pack journalism and the strategically enacted procedures (e.g., using quotations and balancing) designed to invoke “objectivity” itself. News routines serve the needs of journalists and the organization, but they also have come to embody considerations about the audience, what it will find acceptable and interesting in the forms of news values.
But these routines have been unsettled, as news media adapt to digital flows and metrics, affording the ability to present information that allows greater user participation. From a time when journalists had only a vague conception of their audience, reading and viewing now can be monitored in real time, leading to new value being placed on what is trending, shared, and endorsed. News aggregators, for example, both within and outside traditional news organizations, have had to develop new routines of screenwork, continually checking the incoming streams of information, monitoring what types of stories drive audience traffic, and finding ways to appropriately verify and advance what Coddington (2015) calls “second-hand story-telling,” with routines that support transparency. They help to reconcile the tension between the professional imperative of control and a more open participatory news space online. This “second-order” newswork still maintains a professional ethos, distant from the eyewitness field reporting professionals have always valorized, yet still holding that ethos as an aspiration.
Associated with the organizational level in particular, the ethnographic approach to journalism contributed the insight, now well accepted, that news is an organizational product. Edward Epstein’s News from nowhere did that for television news, showing its organizational constraints and structure in how the location of bureaus dictated what events were available to be translated into daily news flow. Now the walls of these organizations have become more fluid as they enter into collaborative relationships to produce news, and they take on a range of new emerging forms from the large-scale enterprise of daily news gathering to the small-staff, minimalist blogging operation. The key question at this level is “how does it work?” In that respect, the early analysis of Breed (1955) of social control in the newsroom continues to be relevant today in considering how the different parts of the organization work together to maintain itself and accomplish its goals.
These tensions are particularly revealed during times of social change. Lee and Chan (2008) show, for example, that although Hong Kong has a strong tradition of journalistic professionalism, self-censorship has increased following the handover to the mainland government, bringing greater political pressure on local media. News managers try to minimize conflicts by assigning sensitive stories to less experienced journalists, warning them ambiguously to “be smart,” or justifying their instructions with a professional rationale (“be objective”). Since the so-called “Umbrella Revolution,” news organizations there have faced greater challenges in smoothing over these conflicts with owners, many of whom have business ties to the mainland.
At the next, more macro, socio-institutional level is concerned with the “inter-organizational field,” how the various organizations doing news work cohere into a larger institution. The media institution in turn enters into structured dependency relationships with other major systemic players: including the state, public relations, and advertising. Benson (2004) has advocated bringing the sociology of media (systems) back into the analysis, by emphasizing the journalistic institutional field, deconstructing the media system (especially cross-nationally) into its institutional components. This represents the meso-level environment for media—the interplay of economic, political, and cultural factors—lying between organization and society as a whole.
The new institutionalism perspective imported from political science treats the “media” as a political actor in relationship with others (e.g., Ryfe, 2006). This approach includes a historical dimension, which helps explain the emergence of practices and norms as a contingent outcome. In showing how the news media have in common their goals of seeking legitimacy, access to information, and making money, institutionalist analysis helps explain their homogeneity (Cook, 1998; Sparrow, 1999). Bourdieu’s (2005) field theory is similar to institutionalism in identifying spheres of action, which must be understood in relation to each other, and which in the case of the journalistic field implies autonomy, homogeneity, and is a result of a path dependent historical trajectory. We understand the journalistic field to be structured by combinations of economic and cultural capital, and although there is individual agency the field conditions the actions of its members.
Both fields and institutions bring up questions of where the boundaries lie among these institutions as they jockey for power and how these interdependencies shape the news product. Power flows not only from the state to the media, but the other way around in a process of mutual adaptation. Fox News, for example, has dictated to the Republican Party as it seeks to manage the presidential campaign by creating a debate forum for aspiring candidates, some of whom had contracts with Fox for on-air appearances. At the institutional level we can better recognize the even more complex nature of mediatization: a distinctive stage in the long-term development of contemporary mass democracies in which political processes have grown more or less dependent on the mass media and shaped themselves accordingly.
The most macro, social system level is concerned with traditional theories of society and power as they relate to journalism. Much of early U.S. communication research was predicated on a benign, functional pluralism view of power in democratic society that assumed a self-righting balance of interests. But when journalism decision-making becomes problematic, powerful interests become directly implicated, and more critical political economic explanations consider journalism to be an extension of class and corporate power. Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) propaganda model, for example, gives journalists relatively little autonomy as they work to uphold the interests of their sources, advertisers, and other elites. In a more subtle elaboration, long pre-dating the propaganda model, hegemony theory takes Antonio Gramsci’s extension of Marx to explain how power relations become naturalized, even while granting media some relative autonomy from class power and interests. Ideology explains how the social system hangs together as the media project ideas and meaning in the service of power and interests. Violations of paradigmatic boundaries in a society require repair work and help explain media representations of deviance and marginalization of dissent.
One doesn’t need to take a Marxian perspective to recognize that journalism and media institutions function within a larger social system, and these systems increasingly span national boundaries. The most direct way to address factors at the social system level is through cross-national comparison, an important theoretical development at this level. This comparative approach applied to professional journalism is exemplified by Hanitzsch et al. (2011), who mounted a survey across 18 countries from a mix of news organizations on their role perceptions, epistemological orientations and ethical views, a design that allowed them to directly assess the influence of national context on the perceptions of journalists themselves. Their research raises the question: To what extent is there a global journalistic culture? They found three major clusters of similar countries classified as Western, peripheral-Western, and developing/transitional, but generally shared is a sense of detachment and non-involvement in their perceived professional roles, and in being a watchdog of government (and to some extent business). They differ on the value of interventionism, the promotion of certain goals of social change, but in general there is evidence for a universal ideology and professional identity.
Utility of the Hierarchy of Influences
As key concepts developed within journalism research, it has become helpful to unpack them across a levels of analysis perspective. Professionalism, for example, can be seen to operate in different ways across each of the five levels (Reese, 2001), as can another key concept, news gatekeeping: the winnowing of a vast amount of possible news items into a constricted space. Shoemaker and Vos (2009) examine gatekeeping across the five levels, discerning the forces at each level operating to shape news decision-making. These questions have been more focused on specific editorial decision-makers, but an increasing online abundance of news and social media platforms, capacity and audience interactivity require a similar rethinking of this concept. In spite of online abundance, news decisions are still being made, but in different locations and sequences. This seemingly flattened hierarchy of gatekeeping authority may disguise the actuality, as Vos and Heinderycks (2015) argue, of a persistent homogeneity to certain stories, and missing important others altogether (e.g., financial crisis of 2008).
A hierarchical model has encouraged the sorting out of micro, meso and macro levels, and provides a framework for analyzing the operation of combined factors. Evaluating the contribution of multiple levels simultaneously helps yield greater explanatory power. Survey of journalists, for example, by Weaver et al. (2007) examined the contribution of different nested contextual factors on journalistic work (organization, medium, etc.) This has been extended to include the social-system level in a hierarchical approach to factors shaping international journalism (Hanitzsch et al., 2010).
New Geography of Media Sociology
For a number of reasons, then, the hierarchy of influences has been a valuable guide to theorizing journalism, but to what extent must it be reconsidered in light of the major changes in the media landscape? The journalism of the 20th Century was synonymous with the prevailing industrial forms. News was what news organizations produced, and journalists were the professionals who worked for them. A hierarchy of influences approach worked well with this model to disentangle the relationships among professionals and their routines, and the news organizations that housed them, which cohered into institutions. How does this levels of analysis framework adapt to the new media world where the lines are not as tidy?
The news industry and profession have changed dramatically in the last two decades, with the internet severing the association of advertising with the news product, undermining the once robust subsidy provided by those seeking the mass audiences media were able to command. As a result, large-scale news organizations have faced serious economic disruption, along with easy digital access to free content threatening the unique role of professional journalism. Anderson, Bell, and Shirky (2012) put a positive face on the recent decade’s “post-industrial” effects on the news ecosystem as an increase in freedom to communicate beyond the traditional publishing and broadcasting models. This freedom has brought an explosion of digital practices and platforms, with in many respects new, more effective journalistic forms—but at a cost to institutional clarity and coherence. In the process, these changes have made the definition of journalist and news organization increasingly problematic.
In accommodating the ethnographic perspective, the hierarchal model has not precluded the variable-analytic, effects-on-content tradition, but the new online journalistic ecosystem has moved theorizing farther away from that tradition in adopting more spatially-oriented models of networks, spheres and fields. As the boundaries of journalism have shifted to include more citizen interaction and global connectivity, various terms have been used to describe the new journalistic eco-system, but they all suggest a more networked quality. This extends to the broader socio-political deliberative arena in general to which journalism contributes, a space now often loosely deemed a “networked public sphere,” or even a “global networked sphere.”
To refer more specifically to journalism’s new reality shaped by the internet, Benkler (2011), for example, uses “networked 4th estate” to refer, along with professional journalists, to those citizen and other social movements that combine to form a more decentralized democratic discourse, revealing a redistribution of how content is created and shared. One of the most prominent writers in the “future of news,” Jeff Jarvis (2006), uses “networked journalism” to refer to the new collaborative relationships between professional and citizen in creating new information. Journalists have become nodes in this larger networked journalism, a “diffused capacity to record information, share it, and distribute it” (Haak, Parks, & Castells, 2012, p. xx). At the more formal news industry level, Anderson, Bell, and Shirky (2012) use the “networked institution” concept to capture the need for news organizations themselves to become more collaborative. These concepts suggest that journalism can no longer be easily understood within organizational containers but extends across traditional, more well-defined boundaries through connectivity in unpredictable ways. These spatial metaphors and orienting concepts—whether networks, fields, or spheres—point simultaneously to the blurring of lines between professional and citizen, between one organization and another as they develop more collaborative partnerships and work across digital platforms.
This is a different way of thinking of news compared to studies of production within institutions. Adding a more organic quality to the picture, leads to terms like news “ecology” and “eco-system” (Anderson, 2013), still suggesting interconnected but disparate units, all participating in a similar space with a differentiation of roles. Traditional legacy media provide an anchor for smaller publications, bloggers and citizens, who react to and supplement what happens in the larger press. Thus, the practice, product, and institutional dimensions are captured in this new metaphor of networked journalism. The eco-system shift is revealed in new forms of newswork that theories of journalism must take into account. The relentless flow of abundant information has led to a new breed of news aggregators (referred to earlier) who add value through digesting, repackaging information—stripping it down to its core components. The news narratives traditionally housed within article story structures now get broken down into smaller “atomic units,” which can be restructured, reordered, annotated, aggregated, and widely shared—ordering them back up into different narrative structures (Coddington, 2015). Thus, this potential for connectivity extends even at the content-structure level to the elements of a traditional news story, which can be more easily disaggregated and redeployed.
Of course, this flow of dis- and re-aggregated information would not be possible were it not for the computational power now available. Journalism, like other forms of knowledge-production, has encountered its big data, or data-driven, moment, which has led to theoretical shifts to better understand the restructuring of news and potential for interactivity with users. From a professional vantage point, the effects of this computational power on journalism take on several closely related forms. From an early concern with “precision journalism,” when journalists were encouraged to use the tools of social science for more rigorous insights, other terms have emerged in recent years to capture this phenomenon (Coddington, 2014). Data journalism, loosely employed, refers to the use of data by journalists to gather and present stories, merging with web design and visualization to allow massive amounts of information to be marshaled and made available for crowdsourcing analytics. Access to big data tools brings both greater analytical power to journalists but also changes the way they can structure stories to allow greater utility for the audience. Regarding professional practice, a “computational journalism” is regarded by Hamilton and Turner (2009) as embracing both, bringing “algorithms, data, and social science to supplement the accountability functions of journalism” (p. 2). Through algorithms the audience itself has a more interactive capacity to learn and tailor news consumption based on personal traits and patterns.
Technology has reshaped the journalistic field in a more general way by importing new values. As news organizations have relied on those from outside the professional field for digital expertise, the values of the technology culture have become linked with journalistic practice. The open source concept, for example, is both a practical approach to coding but also a philosophy of sharing (it makes transparent the DNA of its design). Lewis and Usher (2013) argue that the ethos of open source—embedded in hacker culture and emphasizing iteration, tinkering, transparency, and participation—has important implications for journalism, drawing it out from its closed professional boundaries into greater transparency.
New Methodological and Conceptual Challenges
Capturing the workings of these new eco-systems brings new challenges to the traditional ethnographic method. The ethnographer must decide the appropriate “site,” identify the “social actors,” and describe their practices. But when news becomes more diffused in its production, with journalists working and communicating remotely, or in small organizations loosely aligned with a larger parent company, or dispersed across platforms, the single site becomes more difficult to select (e.g., Cottle, 2007). How can ethnography be done on decentralized, deterritorialized communities? What is there to observe?
In keeping with the “networked journalism” perspective, newer efforts fittingly have shifted away from a location-based “factory floor” ethnography. Howard (2002) has demonstrated the utility of a “network ethnography”: “The process of using ethnographic field methods on cases and field sites selected using social network analysis” (p. 561). In his analysis, he identifies a distributed “e-politics” community, not based in a single organization but in various agencies, party and campaign staffs, and individual consultants—a loosely configured professional group of digital tool developers for political communication. He locates the critical actors through their strategically located position in the network that links them together and targets interviews accordingly.
Beyond these methodological challenges, the new eco-system requires new conceptual tools. In social network analysis, connections typically are found among homogeneous nodes (whether people or news hyperlinks), but related to the network is the richer concept of assemblage, which can include human and non-human, material and non-material, combined into a nexus of meaningful integration. This concept is useful in many areas of social science to capture dynamic phenomena spilling out of existing categories, becoming recombined in new ways, and not as easily identified within a single level of analysis. An assemblage can be a contingent set of relationships to accomplish shifting and transitory social objectives not otherwise defined by formal institutions. In that respect, journalism is not some naturally existing category, but a complex and contingent assemblage—less product than process.
Technology is at the heart of this transformational connectivity, affecting journalism’s tools, processes, and ways of thinking. Rather than regarding technology as an exogenous force making its effects felt from the outside on journalism, it increasingly must be taken into account as “making a difference” as it becomes integrated into journalistic practice. This has led to new ways of theorizing socio-technical systems and examining their interconnections, such as Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT), borrowed from science studies (reviewed in Turner, 2005). This radically descriptive approach blurs the human/technological lines, rendering both “actants” in an “ontologically flat” perspective. From a levels perspective ANT doesn’t make the same distinction between individual-level factors and routines, merging them into an integrated nexus. More broadly, Lewis and Westlund (2014) have advocated approaching cross-media work, the integration of multiple platforms, as a “system of actors, actants, audiences, activities engaged in complex set of media activities” (p. 34).
The assemblage concept has richer utility than its association with ANT. Anderson (2013) argues more broadly that newswork itself is one of “assemblage” and “can be envisioned and described as the continuous process of networking the news” (p. 172) across “news products, institutions, and networks . . . drawing together a variety of objects, big and small, social and technological, human and non-human” (p. 4). In the case of “news objects,” these are the things available for inclusion into larger assemblages. He maps online hyperlinks in the Philadelphia community to show a form of assemblage within a news ecosystem, “pointing to a pattern of iterative pyramiding in which key web sites positioned within highly particular communities of interest act as bridges to larger, more diffused digital communities” (Anderson, 2010, p. 289).
This idea directs attention outside of journalism organizations to those places where interaction with journalism plays an integral part, especially in political communication. Assemblages can be viewed as a combination of heterogeneous elements oriented toward a given task (including semantic elements, messages, frames). Chadwick (2011) argues that, facilitated by digital platforms, political information cycles are complex assemblages of modular units, with permeable boundaries among them, which can only be understood in their relationships with each other. In the “hybrid media system” he designates assemblage as both process and event:
multiple, loosely coupled individuals, groups, sites, and temporal instances of interaction involving diverse yet highly interdependent news creators and media technologies that plug and unplug themselves from the news-making process, often in real time (p. 64).
Recent studies of political campaigns uses the concept to capture the relational aspects of mobilization, where elements are assembled in ways that have an identity, outside of a more formally constituted organization or institution (e.g., Kreis, 2012). Studying the more personal dimension of political field campaigns Nielsen (2012) finds ad hoc combinations of staffers, volunteers, and part-timers, that vary in their allegiance to hierarchy and length of their commitment.
Networked assemblages can still be located within specific levels of analysis, but they encourage reordering relationships and rethinking a linear process of influence in favor of constantly changing interest clusters driven by information entrepreneurs. Traditional political communication studies, for example, at the institutional level have treated news production as responding to state actors as it relays information to citizens, either in a cascading activation process (Entman, 2003) or through the indexing of news construction to the boundaries of debate within the political system (Bennett, 1990). Elite circuits of information exchange among institutional players, however, don’t map onto this relationship so easily. As Davis (2007) has argued, policy-making networks—a form of assemblage of elite actors—constitute micro-spheres of power which don’t correspond to representative politics. Journalists are integral, often captive, parts of these networks, not just the recipients of political newsworthy information which yields communicative output.
Assemblages within a Levels Framework
This new geography of journalism has problematized and destabilized both the units and levels of analysis in journalism theorizing. Because of these disruptions, much of the most important effort in recent years has been directed at the very definition of journalism and its boundaries with other fields (Carlson & Lewis, 2015). As a professional issue journalism becomes a jurisdictional project, policing its boundaries and defending its prerogatives. This can also be thought as a process of repair and maintenance of the journalistic “paradigm” (e.g., Reese, 1990), an ideological process similar to that captured at the social-system level of analysis. These concerns resemble Zelizer’s (1993) introduction of the “interpretive communities” concept to explain how journalists come to collective understandings of their work through shared discourse—a frame that extends beyond the strictly formal tenets of the profession itself. Despite the contested boundaries around the journalistic units of analysis, whether profession or organization, these boundary actions can also be identified across the levels of analysis. In this section, the levels of influence are considered in how they map onto new forms of assemblage.
Certain norms and routines, such as verification and sourcing, serve as boundary objects or markers, and are used to distinguish between journalism practiced by professionals and what they deem as less worthy practices. Individual organizations, such as the New York Times, seek to differentiate themselves from less acceptable entities as WikiLeaks, suspect because of its statelessness and non-institutionalized relationship with official sources (Coddington, 2012). The institutional level points to how mainstream journalism experiences an identity confusion, given the fuzzy borders between it and partisan news organizations such as Fox News, or comedic platforms such as The Daily Show and the former Colbert Report. That brings into question the homogeneity of the institutional field, violating the assumption for both Bourdieu and Institutionalists but making the process of boundary work more theoretically important.
As suggested earlier, the work of journalism and many of our theoretical questions are not so easily nested now within a set of hierarchical levels. Societal changes force a re-examination of the relationship between individuals and larger structures. That is, the aggregates traditionally signaled by levels—whether community, organization, or nation—are containers that don’t have the same meaning as they once did, as new structures are woven outside of and through institutional frameworks. As Castells (1996) argues, we need to rethink particularly the fundamental issue of identity, given that people “increasingly organize their meaning not around what they do, but on the basis of what they are, or believe they are” (p. 3). They are no longer as easily described by their individual markers of group membership. As a result, research needs to be more cautious with what it claims about the explanatory power of traditional demographic and other classifications when it comes to journalists (and other creative workers). For example, technology has brought new pressures on journalists, increasing the velocity of incoming information and need for multi-tasking, but it has also given them the ability to create a personal brand. Using social media such as Twitter can create personal reach beyond anything possible before, meaning they are not so easily subsumed within their organizational container.
The idea of assemblage is appealing in reflecting the reality of new configurations, suggesting elements that cut across several levels of analysis. But that means the boundaries between levels are not always as clear. Routines of newswork, for example, must now accommodate the combination of individual workers and their tools, combining individuals and their techniques into actor-networks. And “technology” has become a multi-scalar phenomenon, a nexus of actants not easily located at any one level. Previous theorizing reasoned from structures to predict symbolic expressions found in news coverage and mediated representations (“influences on content”), but this content itself now is not so easily detached from the hierarchical structures. Symbolic expression becomes a resource for inclusion in an assemblage. Nevertheless, even in a dramatically restructured news environment, hierarchical power—not the least of which the State—is still with us and reasserting itself in many areas, even if deployed through different means. And much of the work of journalism continues to occur in organized, institutionalized settings. This is true even for non-news organizations that practice journalism as a part of their social mission. Advocacy NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, investigate, report and disseminate information, not only to provide to traditional media organizations journalist but to share directly with their stakeholders (Powers, 2015).
The hierarchy of influences presents a useful standard against which to measure the destabilization of journalism and realignment of forces, and to incorporate explanatory power. The idea of a radically contingent and ever-shifting assemblage is at odds with the drive in social science to find predictable aggregates of social material, congealing into institutions that have a history and life of their own. Assemblages are still located within a framework of power, even if not so intuitively, and these larger structures add explanatory value. Benson (2014) has cautioned against the tendency of perspectives like actor-network theory to simply describe these new configurations of professionals and practices, to “follow the actors,” advocating instead that they be explained within larger structures. And a levels of analysis framework reminds scholars to identify in which larger macro structures their phenomena of interest are located.
New Global Assemblages
The changing theoretical landscape for journalism must be positioned against the forces of globalization, which brings a “stretching” of social relations, connecting people at a distance, and “compression” as they interact with simultaneity and synchronicity. The idea of “global journalism” brings another kind of assemblage. Certainly, there has been in recent years a greater international emphasis in journalism theorizing, which brings greater emphasis on the social-system level. The growing use of cross-national research designs allow for testing the influence of the national social-system on journalism and help untangle institutional-level variables—showing, for example, how the extent to which media rely on commercial support as part of the political economic field shapes media practice (e.g., Benson, 2013). But emphasis on institutional fields within national cultures may overestimate the degree of national journalistic homogeneity. Certain components of a journalistic field—such as television, and increasingly online news—may be more likely to converge toward a more global standard, while the printed press, more firmly rooted in historical styles, may be less likely to change. So the social-system level is not synonymous with the national, and assemblages help alert us to new configurations.
Corcoran and Fahy (2009) take a more pan-national approach to global journalism, examining how power flows within and across national contexts through elite-oriented media, whether the International New York Times, Wall St. Journal, or in their case the Financial Times. The FT is global in the sense that it has a privileged place in European Union discourse, with a core audience among globalized elites doing business in Europe and Brussels. Journalists became part of networks of information flow that support elite structures, leading the authors to suggest a “cosmopolitanism embedded in the transnational culture of European elites, whose material interests stretch beyond national boundaries and whose social imaginary is nourished by elite media such as the FT” (p. 110).
Globalization adds a different dimension that works beyond these nested levels-of-analysis hierarchies to produce something of the “global” embedded in local subnational spaces. Global phenomena operate at multiple scales and are not neatly located on a continuum ranging from local to international. Sassen (2006) points to not only the disassembling of the state, but reconstituted arrangements: new global assemblages of, in her case, territory, authority, and rights. Ethnographic analysis of newswork need not be abandoned in the search for new globalized forms of journalism. Research may take the form of case studies with thick description where these new combinations may be properly explored. But this more subtle aspect of global spaces raises the possibility of new sites for investigation. For example Firdaus (2012) has studied Al Jazeera journalists working in Malaysia, signifying a subnational, “glocal” journalistic space embedded within the global media-hub city of Kuala Lumpur.
In another approach to global journalism, Berglez (2008) advocates a new way of analyzing news from a content-based perspective that takes into account its deterritorialized quality. News texts can be examined empirically for their “global outlook,” to the extent that they draw wider connections, reflecting a different epistemological stance:
The national outlook puts the nation-state at the center of things when framing social reality, while the global outlook instead seeks to understand and explain how economic, political, social and ecological practices, processes and problems in different parts of the world affect each other, are interlocked, or share commonalities (p. 3).
The networked public sphere is constituted with new assemblages: of newswork, institutional arrangements, and global connections, which give rise to new emerging deliberative spaces. Journalism theories now have as much interest in process as product, in assemblage as outcome, but still need to be concerned with understanding the nature of quality of these spaces. What shape do they take on and with what implications for healthy democratic discourse?
Journalism research has a strong tradition of equating these spaces to a mapping of media content, and content-based studies are growing in number with vast amounts of media material available for analysis. Certainly, big data and related computational tools have begun to allow the kind of analysis more consistent with the new ecosystem at a network level of analysis. This is particularly true in research on online content that takes the hyperlink as the fundamental connecting feature, which allows the mapping of the networked space, including blogo- and Twitter-spheres based on a post- and Tweet-centric space. These analyses often provide striking visualizations of the patterns, but structures of these networks must still be related to larger structures of which they are a part. In explicating the idea of these “mediated” spaces, the challenge, perhaps counter-intuitive, is to conceive of them from a less media-centric perspective. Theories of journalism, by their nature, tend to begin with organized journalism and work out from there, but this may overstate its influence and hinder a fuller understanding journalism’s position. Journalism is itself an assemblage and a part of, albeit an important one, of others that lie both inside and outside of institutionalized structures. The assemblage concept alerts us to wider combinations of elements that constitute new mediated spaces, and these configurations must be identified, while a levels of analysis framework will continue to help organize explanatory efforts.
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