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Professionalism as Cultural Practice

With its in-between status, the study of professionalism promises to be a particularly rich subject for cultural sociology. It is a code that guides members of the moral community in distinguishing professional from unprofessional motives and relations. This system of moral classification is ingrained in shared symbols of the occupation, which are expressed in narratives and rituals. With the help of this symbolic vocabulary, journalists make sense of their collective experience, negotiate and contend professional worth with each other, and assert themselves toward other institutions and within civil sphere more generally.13

This book looks closely at acts and expressions of purification and pollution to sanctify and revive shared values and condemn transgression within the moral community of journalism. With this in mind, this study exam?ines professionalism at two strategic research sites (Merton 1987): (1) Celebratory and commemorative discourses of professionalism, specifically in obituaries of journalists and journalism award statements, and (2) state house press corps in which journalists constantly seek to maintain their professional worth toward each other and defend and negotiate their professional autonomy against the appropriation by political interests. This struggle for worth and autonomy is intensified at a time of economic predicament and technological upheaval of the news business. The maintenance of professional authority in a state of crisis unfolds as a perpetual social drama (Turner 1974) for journalists, a continuous struggle over their integrity and relevance.

Two, partly overlapping, cultural practices help journalists accomplish these celebratory, differentiating, distancing, and self-elevating demands: boundary work and performance. Boundary work is relevant to journalists in two ways (see Gieryn 1983): Firstly, to protect their autonomy, which mainly concerns relations with politics and involves procedures of boundary maintenance. However, I will show that journalistic autonomy also involves a selective blurring of boundaries. I refer to the interplay between maintaining and blurring of boundaries as boundary management. Secondly, to expand their professional authority, which is particularly relevant since the rise of the internet and the broadening of the field of news production through participatory media (Singer et al. 2011). Because journalism, like any other professional project, seeks cognitive exclusivity over its task domain (Larson 1977), it has to adapt to new conditions of the networked public sphere in order to confront the gradual dissolution of established institutional authority (Benkler 2006; Friedland et al. 2006). Adaption involves advancing into participatory media spaces in which “everyone can be a journalist” by showing the qualities of “real journalism.” These engagements are not friction-free and set off discussions within journalism about means and ends of the occupation.

The motivation of boundary work cannot be reduced to status and power interests but involves the realization of moral and cultural convictions. Accordingly, autonomy aspirations and assertions in journalism are also rooted in beliefs about the inherent purity of the professional project. These beliefs are partly universal, partly informed by nationally specific cultural representations and schemas ofevaluation (Lamont and Thevenot 2000).

In the first instance, symbolic boundaries are cognitive schemas. They are “conceptual distinctions that we make to categorize objects, people, practices, and even times and space” (Lamont 1992:9). But they are not only that. Journalists externalize boundaries toward others in boundary performances. Performances are not merely situationally conditioned, as Goffman (1956) examined them, but draw authenticity from appearing as “motivated by and toward existential, emotional, and moral concerns” (Alexander 2004:530). Performers create these impressions by referring to collective belief systems. In this particular case, boundary performances signal symbolic affirmation of professionalism or opposition to unprofessionalism.14

The effectiveness of performances rests on their “ritual-like” character, which is the case when participants and audience members “share a mutual belief in the descriptive and prescriptive validity of the communication’s symbolic contents” (ibid.:527).15 Establishing shared belief is key, since the purpose of any performance is to fuse dispersed elements of meaning. Applied to journalism, what a performance of professionalism seeks to accomplish by aligning text, performer and audience is to make the moral community whole, which in Durkheim’s understanding is consonant with civil society.

‘Making the moral community whole’ is, furthermore, particularly prevalent at a place (state government) where journalistic autonomy is constantly attacked and a time when news making is in search of a viable business model and slipping professional journalism’s jurisdictional authority. These somewhat aggravating locational and historical circumstances bring forth salient features of occupational cultures of journalism, especially by examining their varying ability to innovate, adapt, and resist change.

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