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Journalism is a constellation of practices that have acquired special status within the larger domain of communication through a long history that separated out news sharing from its origins in interpersonal communication. Telling others about events in one’s social and physical surroundings is a common everyday activity in human cultures, and news as a genre of such interactions has the primary characteristic of being new to the listener. A main difficulty for sharing intelligence is ascertaining truth, or, put the other way round, distinguishing intelligence from gossip (Froissart 2002). Telling about events, supplying novelty, and, from the process, discerning factual truth are the main rudiments that came to define journalism as a cultural practice.

Journalism, however, is a modern-era phenomenon, which began its separation from ordinary communication first with correspondence, in the form of newsletters sent out in multiple copies to existing social networks, a custom available to those with literacy, leisure, and means to write (Zboray & Saracino Zboray 2006). Newsletter authors also required some facility to produce more than one copy and to distribute the result, as well as sufficient social status to make such activity appear to have value for recipients. This latter quality has been the source of constant attention in journalism. From the beginning, journalism also depended upon the existence of a delivery means, such as a common courier, to convey news to readers (and in turn to auditors, when the recipients then read the news aloud). With the advent of the printing press, some early newssheets imitated hand-made newsletters, but the primary model for all printing was the book as printer-editors incorporated the sharing of new intelligences into their line of business. The precursors to journalism thus added writing, mechanisms of production, and a system of distribution to its definition, along with issues of status within an economic and social system.

Journalism EssayThe main claim to distinction for journalism has come through a close alliance with political life (Pasley 2001). Politics impinged on printing from the beginning in the form of government controls, and printing itself quickly became a political act, of either cooperation with or defiance against the powerful, or the state. Journalism developed at the nexus of negotiating boundaries to demarcate private life, civil society (or the market), and the state from each other, and in some perspectives that zone became a special or sacred space. It was a short step, then, for the emerging press to become enmeshed in politics, an alliance of two initially (and perhaps continually) unsavory activities (an irony often lost on practitioners and scholars). The relationship began with partisan politics clearly having the upper hand (Weber 1958/1991), but eventually turned adversarial as journalism escaped state and party control, moving more firmly toward the ascendant and eventually vying for discursive dominance.

In the nineteenth century, the advance of literacy and growth of (often national) markets, along with government-created information systems (especially the post and the census), joined with industrialization to turn newspapers into the central mode of news as an economic activity (Ward 2005). The term “journalism” proper emerged to refer to the resulting group of occupations involved in generating and preparing news content. Publishers remained in control, but journalists became chief among workers involved in industrial news production and distribution (Hardt & Brennen 1995). A further development in news manufacture was the founding and growth of news agencies to generate and distribute content across (often competing) outlets, which developed either among publishers (in commercial systems) or from central or government initiative (in noncommercial systems). Agencies replaced the informal exchange of news (printers merely copying content from other, distant printers) with a market exchange of a commodity specifically formulated to fit into the press regardless of partisan (or national) affiliations.

Owners and practitioners (and some scholars) normally claim technology – printing, the telegraph, radio and television broadcasting, and subsequent equipment – as a key impetus in the evolution of journalism, but studies find news organizations to be not leading but mainstream or late adopters of new techniques in most cases (Barnhurst & Nerone 2001). After resisting initially, they have so far found ways first to turn technical change to their economic advantage and then to trumpet themselves as innovators (although the outcome always remains in doubt midstream).

A more important component in the success of journalism, whether in commercial or public service media systems of the world, has been a willingness to engage with existing power relations, whether pandering to parties or markets, crusading for political stability or change, or doing some combination of these options. One measure of the cultural power of journalism is the violent reaction against its practitioners throughout its history (Nerone 1994), especially in periods of social controversy and change.

Aspects of Practice

Journalism emerged around the same time as the modern novel, and both forms share a basis in narrative. The two have borrowed liberally from each other in a long-running, usually tacit, dialogue, and the relationship between news and fiction is thus antagonistic only at a superficial level. News storytelling involves more than employment, with actors performing their roles at a time and place or scene that reaches climax and resolution, but also re-enacts deeper myths that express a society’s view of good and evil, or of who deserves to win and who to lose (Lule 2001).

Separating the occupation of journalist from author is one marker of a project under way by the early twentieth century to make journalism into a particular kind of profession. Other markers include the emergence of acceptable practices, training programs, associations, and codes of ethics. In many parts of the world, journalism remained part of and firmly aligned with literary work, and even in nations where the professional project predominated, such as the United States, movements of long-form and literary journalism arose.

Although fiction writing occasionally imitates news, journalism differs fundamentally in practice. Reporters turn to sources outside journalism for information and judgments, even when writing opinion or analysis, although the practice may veil the journalist’s perspective, at least partially (Schiller 1981). Journalists invented a particular kind of interview, which differs from ordinary interaction, especially in the case of broadcasting. Government and other leaders have developed specific presentational tools for getting and holding the attention of journalists. These activities, unlike the work of other authors, operate in predictable rounds growing out of news genres and processes of production, so that weekly news magazines, daily newspapers, multiple television newscasts, and hourly radio news updates set workflow into motion in news cycles akin to the hours of medieval monastic orders. Journalists experience these cycles as deadline pressures, a central aspect distinguishing news practice.

From its birth in the industrialized newsroom, journalism developed customary patterns for all aspects of work. The best-known example is the beat, which combines location and process so that a reporter goes through a set of routines to gather information from predictable and reliable places (Tuchman 1978). Because they share experiences, if not training, journalists within a mainstream (usually national or regional) system respond to each other and to the world in similar ways. For example, the collective mentality that leads journalists to gather around certain public occurrences or figures has acquired the name “pack journalism.” This pejorative term, along with others such as “paparazzi,” the photographers who hound celebrities, forms a system of policing the boundaries between journalists and others who do similar work but lack the insider status that, in general, only institutions in the industry have the power to confer.

Other terms convey the pattern of competition, such as the “scoop” and the “exclusive,” which reinforces standard practices and keeps practitioners in a state of perpetual anxiety. Unionization has been the principal force mediating between the power of news institutions and journalism workers, but all involved, even corporations and state bureaucracies, subscribe to a competitive discipline that defines practice. Journalism awards and prizes (operating primarily at the national level) formalize competition and reify the abstract quality assumptions about news work. A set of news elements (the five Ws – who, what, when, where, and why) underlies a broader set of news values, which go by a plethora of terms in training manuals and in practice, but may correspond roughly with the elements: prominence (who), peculiarity (what), novelty (when), proximity (where), and significance (why). Like other practical ideals (such as principles of design among graphic designers), news values inherently come into conflict with each other, which keeps news work interesting. But the patterned responses to practical principles not only help national and regional news cultures define themselves but also help guide individual journalists in their self-assessment.

News cultures have tended through the twentieth century toward consensus around two main ends, one supervisory at its core and the other advisory. As news managers, journalists operate as gatekeepers, handling what they perceive as a growing flow of information and providing an altruistic service for audience members (White 1950). These news manager-supervisors apply the principles to select and reject potential content, although decisions about what the public needs tend to occur without much recourse to the people themselves (Dennis 1978). As news advisors, journalists operate as advocates, promoting particular understandings of the world, again as a public service. Journalism is promotional and managerial in a vocational rather than commercial sense, and news systems blend these tendencies, which act as poles pulling practice in apparently opposite directions, advisory versus supervisory. Both, however, may tend to enhance journalism by directing attention away from journalists and toward their expressed public service vocation.

In the broadest sense, the ends of journalism point toward more general theories, such as the possibility of democracy and realities of power and authority (McNair 2000). Journalism is thus a construction that embodies ideals about society and the world, and these theories provide pictures of social, political, economic, and cultural organization, through the lens of journalism and its view of itself.

Differentiation among Journalists

As an occupational category, journalism in the nineteenth century merged several kinds of tasks: principally the editor, who managed some aspect of content from a central office, the correspondent, who ventured out as a worldly traveler and (perhaps imperial) observer of affairs, and various forms of news hounds, who did piecework as local scavengers to fill the editorial hole by the inch, often pursuing a particular topic or venue such as crime or the docks. As journalism emerged as a professional project, specialization produced new bundles of tasks. A foreign location, for example, allowed some journalists to build expertise through experience in a distant location. Government control remained one of the main difficulties for journalists crossing boundaries into media systems outside their own. Another specialty focused on wars and conflicts, and although such a pattern of assignments might enhance the status of the journalists exposed to risk, the professional in these roles also faced the drudgery of frequent deadlines and routine coverage typical of scavenger work, which earlier correspondents might have avoided. The tradeoffs between professional autonomy and state protection re-emerged as military authorities invented and elaborated on systems of control.

Journalism has embodied and reinforced concepts of the mainstream and the other, another form of differentiation that plays out on two levels: in the structure of news businesses and in the agency at work within these organizations. Ethnic groups that share a heritage, language, location, and the like (Riggings 1992), especially when excluded from mainstream institutions, began forming their own newspapers early in press development. The minority press has likewise tended to emerge in the wake of geopolitical boundary formation and international migration. These journalisms at the margins may begin in advisory mode, promoting group solidarity in opposition to the mainstream, but here again joining the professional project of journalism can shift their emphasis toward a neutral form of information management. Although women have generated publications throughout news history, the level of agency has been especially evident in their fate in journalism. Early feminist histories focused on remarkable women journalists, and recent work has shifted emphasis to the gendered division of labor and topics and then to gendered identity (De Bruin & Ross 2004).

The relationship of journalism to politics has also seen differentiation. Groupings of news workers covering national capitals and heads of state have acquired special status as a press corps, including their own organizations and rituals, and wield considerable influence but identify with and rely on official sources, in contrast to the ethnic, minority, and women’s, along with the underground and oppositional, groupings of journalists. The latter groups represent alternative political ideologies, and they may espouse specific positions on issues, but in general they take an active, advisory stand with their audience members (Downing 2001). Mainstream journalists focused on information supervision have turned to investigating public officials since the nineteenth century (Waisbord 2000), but their exposing of corruption and mismanagement tends to reinforce dominant ideologies by implying that small institutional changes and responsible individual behavior are sufficient to set things right. A recent movement to make reporting more answerable to civic and community needs strikes closer to reform within the political culture of journalism (Rosen 1999).

Other kinds of differentiation have grown out of the main currents of a society. Examples include journalists focused on topics such as science journalism and on modes of delivery such as visual journalism. The growth of computer networks and increased accessibility of large databases about public issues have contributed to a corresponding specialization for journalists in countries rich in the necessary resources and skills.

These same currents may have contradictory outcomes for the professional project of journalism. The production of news content has become more portable across traditional print and broadcast media as the tasks journalists perform converge on digital technology. The changes might point to multimedia journalism or instead to a de-skilling of practice, as the tools shift from professionals into other hands. In many countries, citizens can now tell each other their own news by writing and distributing it electronically from home or from a community center or library (Rodriguez 2000). Despite hopes for broader democratic participation, online forms of journalism have so far reproduced existing alignments in politics and emerged along existing economic and cultural cleavages.

Journalists, however, have accumulated considerable cultural capital in more than a century of existence. As a cultural practice, journalism has shed some of its unsavory past, but not all, as long as scandal and titillation continue, and in fact practitioners themselves can acquire fame (Corner & Pels 2003). Journalists have become central interpreters in public discourse, and even in the United States, where a denotative journalism of facts and events took early and deep root, the quantity and degree of interpretation within the mainstream news media have grown continually for more than a century (Barnhurst & Mutz 1997).


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