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Theorizing Journalistic Professionalism

Journalistic Autonomy and Professionalism

Even though media sociologists have questioned whether autonomy is desirable at all cost,4 it is common sense that the democratic capacity of news media rests on whether journalism is free to apply scrutiny to and request accountability from representatives of the public. Autonomy is conditioned by the ambitions of journalism to serve the public independently as well as the media systemic conditions in which it takes place. Leaving aside material constraints for the moment, I conceive of professionalism as the intrinsic aspirations of autonomy that arise from the occupational culture of journalism.

Journalism misses some crucial elements commonly associated with professions: It lacks formal knowledge and closure of its labor market, which means there are no clearly circumscribed qualifications required to enter the occupation.5 Beyond how it is organized as an occupational group, journalism is also defined as a field of practice that performs certain tasks more or less exclusively, which is what Andrew Abbott (1988) termed jurisdiction. The tasks of journalism are to gather, process, and distribute information to a broader public. Its power consists of conferring publicity to certain information and the actors providing or voicing this information. Journalism struggles for this jurisdiction in two main ways. First, since the internet age, journalism competes for discursive authority with other institutional actors and citizens on various digital infrastructures. Second, journalism has always struggled with specific institutions in each subject area it is involved with. Whether politics, arts, business, sports—journalism makes truth claims in these areas. Whereas challenges do not concern the jurisdiction of journalism in toto, institutions compete with journalism for interpretive authority within their specific domains.

The combination of relatively fuzzy professional boundaries and rather firm public service claims makes journalism an interesting object of study from a sociology of professions perspective. Fundamental agreement about a common purpose—serving the public with information—thus a unique position of the occupation and its service, goes a long way toward professional autonomy.6 According to Durkheim ([1957] 1992), this common purpose is substantiated with civic moral principles, even if the means to achieve this purpose are subject of ongoing negotiations and debates within occupations, even the most highly professionalized ones.

Civic morals are not only the ordering principles and bases of solidarity of these occupational groups but also of their special position in society, which is relatively autonomous from forces of the market and bureaucracy. Contrary to the general knowledge claims of these forces, professionalism is based on discretionary specialization and transcendent values of public service (Freidson 2001:105-123).7 In journalism, especially political journalism, democracy serves as a transcendental source of legitimacy and autonomy of action.

Of course, professionalism does not find complete and permanent expression. Besides the challenges on the jurisdictional level of occupational practice, autonomy is always limited by the material context which facilitates journalism—the media industry and news organiza?tions. Tensions between journalistic professionalism and the institutional and organizational conditions of possibility of journalism are profound and continuous. These tensions epitomize the opposition between the material-institutional (real civil society) and ideal-aspirational (civil sphere) dimensions of civil society (Alexander 2006). As the realm of moral regulation according to shared civic values, the civil sphere originates journalistic professionalism. Because the civil sphere is the medium through which different social spheres (civil and non-civil, which includes state and economy) legitimate themselves and engage with each other, journalism has a special role in mediating between them as well as classifying their motives and relations in civil and uncivil terms (ibid.:75-85).

A comparative analysis of journalistic professionalism needs to account for the institutional conditions of its realization, which includes limiting and enabling material and cultural circumstances. The analytical tools of field theory (Bourdieu 1993, 1996; Fligstein and McAdam 2012) lend themselves for locating expressions and acts of journalism in their institutional context.8 Rodney Benson (1999, 2013; Benson and Neveu 2005) specified this framework for comparative media analysis and disentangled complex interactions between self- and other-determining influences on news media and public discourse. The analysis in this book mainly focuses on two dimensions of journalistic fields—its position and its logic (Benson 2013).9

Chapter 2 determines the position of German and US journalism in the larger field of power, in relation to market and non-market (civic) heteronomous powers.10 Between these two powers arises autonomy, which, as Benson emphasizes, “should not be privileged as the sole locus of journalistic excellence” (Benson 2013:13). This accounts for the fact that both profit-oriented news organizations, like the New York Times, as well as public service media which receive significant funding from the state and which are subjected to influence by political parties can produce hard-hitting accountability reporting and other professionally esteemed acts of journalism. I view these heteronomies as conditions of possibility for journalistic professionalism to be realized.

The main subject of this book, however, is professionalism as the cultural logic of the journalistic field, which is based on occupational traditions, symbols, and historically conditioned norms and practices. Benson conceived news formats, that is, stylistic differences of news presentation, as the most reliable empirical manifestations of these logics while dismissing journalists” subjective beliefs as “surface discourse” one needs to “dive below” of (Benson 2013:26). This book, on the contrary, dives deeper into these discourses. This is not only due to a different theoretical position but also encouraged by recent empirical research suggesting a strong correlation between journalists’ role conceptions and news outcomes (Albxk et al. 2014). Besides questioning the correspondence between occupational practices and beliefs, Benson underplays the power of field logic as a stable source of professional autonomy,11 which in his mind is inherently transitory and negotiated (Benson 2013:13). I conceive of professionalism as a stable resource of journalistic autonomy.

State house press corps serve as miniature fields, remaining cognizant that political reporting represents one particular yet important subfield of journalism. Subfields are embedded within and subordinated to larger fields, which means that positions and relations carry forward into lower field orders (Fligstein and McAdam 2012:59-64). From a Bourdieuian perspective, relations within the field are exclusively competitive and its members primarily motivated by status enhancement and the desire to shape the rules of the game in order to generate dominant interpretations of reality.12 Thus, Fligstein and McAdam’s argument that actions in fields are at least as much about cooperation as competition is a useful addition to this theory. In their view, humans share an existential need to associate and cooperate with each other “by appealing to and helping to create shared meanings and collective identities” (ibid.:46). The following section deals with how journalists make sense, ritually affirm, and negotiate shared meanings of occupational identities. It presents an analytical framework to examine these expressions of professionalism.

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