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Theorizing the Culturality of Technologies

It is common sense in journalism studies that most significant changes in news media in the early 2000s are connected to the internet. For instance, one of the most decisive trends in US journalism has been the advancement of an ethic of transparency through social media (Belair-Gagnon

2013; Hellmueller et al. 2013; Karlsson 2010; Lewis and Usher 2013; Revers 2014; Singer 2007). However, transparency as a journalistic value is not new (neither is speed) but has been an ongoing current in the professionalization of journalism.2 The same can be said about participation: There has always been a participatory audience that made itself heard through phone calls and letters to newsrooms, letters to the editor, guest commentary, and so on.

This difficulty of identifying something genuinely “new” as well as the inevitable reaction of empirically minded media scholars against their more techno-utopian counterparts led to a kind of downplaying of the extent to which old media actually changed, and especially the role of technology in this change. There are also theoretical reasons for this tendency: The dominant social constructivist view on media transformations merely attributes possibilities of use (affordances) to technologies, emphasizing the contingent and negotiated character of technology-induced innovation within news organizations (Boczkowski 2004; Domingo 2008; Schmitz Weiss and Domingo 2010).

This chapter ascribes greater causal significance to technology, especially in terms of cultural meanings attached to it. It seeks to consider the culturality of digital media while avoiding the conflation of voluntarism and idealism, determinism and materialism, which haunts so many studies of the materiality of technologies (Leonardi and Barley 2008): accounting for human agency does not mean ignoring material constraints and facilitations of action; accounting for efficacies external to human agents does not mean disregarding ideal dimensions of social action.

In this chapter, digital media are envisioned as cultural environments of journalism, “encouraging certain types of interaction while discouraging others” (Meyrowitz 2009: 520). Emphasizing encouragement - as “rendering desirable”—rather than mere affordance—as “making possible”—avoids tilting on one side of the determinism/voluntarism continuum. Distinguishing between affordances and qualities of objects is helpful here (McDonnell 2010). The former only manifest themselves through interaction with the object while the latter are inherent and antecedent to affordances.

By the time a journalist adopts a technology, it already constitutes a bundle of materiality, designers’ inscriptions and previous users’ conventions of engagement (Orlikowski 2000). Even their most material of qualities are always already entrenched in culture. Not even when a piece of technology is first introduced is it free from cultural meaning: it meets cultural demands; it resembles features of existent technologies already ascribed with meaning; in the case of a digital technology, it arises from and is already embedded in digital culture. One such technology—Twitter—will be subject of further attention: At the time journalists adopted Twitter, it already bore “cultural baggage,” including hierarchized forms of engagement and communicative roles, which limited and guided possible forms of practice. Other Twitter users are central in this respect because they are not just tangible audiences for journalists but provide socialization into the social network by raising cultural expectations regarding desirable forms of communication and self-presentation (Marwick and boyd 2011).

Furthermore, technology is not isolated but “situated within a number of nested and overlapping social systems” (Orlikowski 2000: 411). Thus, not only digital cultural values flow into the journalistic engagement with new technologies (Deuze 2006) but also the historical backdrop of the crisis of legacy news media. Domingo (2008) theorized the myth of interactivity as an interaction between these two aspects.

When efficacies of digital media encounter resilient notions of journalistic professionalism, a fruitful ground for analysis emerges. There is broad agreement among media scholars that journalism is selectively receptive to new media, that is, only insofar as they confirm and help further established occupational goals and values (cf. Domingo 2008; Papacharissi and de Fatima Oliveira 2012; Robinson 2011). Thus, the result of adoption is always more complex than what is simplistically understood as “technological change.” Furthermore, contemporary journalism is hardly at an endpoint but still transforming. This is why the “normalization of technologies” thesis (e.g. Lasorsa et al. 2012; Quandt 2008; Ryfe 2012; Singer 2005), seems hasty in suggesting that journalism adopts new media merely in ways that reinforce and perpetuate traditional occupational norms.3

Digital media adoption results in combinations of old and new forms of journalistic practice, which may or may not have a profound impact on professionalism as it is. Even though all German reporters felt that the internet made a big difference in their working lives, understanding the practices of the Bavarian state house press in terms of traditional journalism was still reasonably comprehensive during the research period. The Albany state house, on the other hand, constituted a laboratory study of a hybrid media system (Chadwick 2013) where older and newer media practices intersect in a context in which the media and politics interpenetrate. Although reporters from legacy media outlets constituted the Albany press corps, their practices could not be understood in terms of traditional journalism alone.

 
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