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What is journalism in the early 21st century? At a very basic level, one could argue that journalism today is the application of a set of skills that provides current information about the world—news—to the public at large. Certainly, journalism is as much about news as it is about its public. Yet such a simplistic definition of what journalism might be misses out so much of the significance and complexity that pertains to journalism in our society today and historically. Journalism has a history; indeed, it has histories; that is to say, there is no single account of journalism that provides us with a definitive understanding of how what we now recognize as journalism has come about (Curran, 2002). The journalism of the 21st century is what it is not because of a simple linear development of technology and social and political progress, though these factors are no doubt significant. Similarly, news itself, the product of journalistic processes, is not simple to define and requires close investigation of its development and function.
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The purpose of this research paper is therefore to explore how our present ideas of journalism and news have emerged by looking at a range of factors that have contributed to the development of journalism as we understand it today. It will also reflect on contemporary developments within journalism before contemplating how we might expect our ideas of journalism to change as the 21st century unfolds.
Contemporary thinking about journalism’s role and function is not clear-cut and without controversy. Some suggest that journalism has numerous important roles within any democratic society. These include ensuring political accountability as well as enabling public understanding of the economic, political, and social world. Others suggest that journalism also plays an important role in the cultural life of societies. It entertains and amuses us, but it can also play an important role in shaping and reflecting a range of constituencies and communities in society. In this sense, journalism can add to the fabric of public life by providing the social glue that helps bond communities together and shape our understanding of who we are— our identity (Anderson, 1983). It could be argued therefore that journalism is more a shaper of identity than a provider of news in any objective sense, in that it seeks to connect with and therefore create its audience as a symbolic ritual (Carey, 1989).
More critical analyses of journalism, however, stress the role it plays in helping maintain established positions of power within societies. This is not necessarily the fault of journalists themselves but relates to the context and environment in which they work and the economic and temporal pressures they are under. Journalists have historically worked for highly competitive news organizations, the main purpose of which has of course been the drive for profit. In this sense, journalism can be seen as reflecting particular values that prioritize the interests of those who have the most to gain from the market of news production and dissemination. It has been suggested that such values are in fact a component of the means by which the most powerful in society maintain their position of dominance by framing the role and function of journalism in ways that reinforce and reflect their particular interests (Chalaby, 1998; Herman & Chomsky, 1988). In attempting to ascertain how our present understanding of journalism has come into being, all these perspectives on journalism shall be explored in this research paper with a view to developing a deeper understanding of how contemporary journalism is as it is and what the future might hold for it and for us.
Journalism and Its Values
In May 2007, the World Journalism Education Congress (2007) set out its declaration of principles; chief among these was the commitment to serve the public in an ethically informed manner. It suggests that “this commitment must include an understanding of and deep appreciation for the role that journalism plays in the formation, enhancement and perpetuation of an informed society” (para. 2). Similarly, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (1997), originally affiliated with the prestigious Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, suggests that “the central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society.” They continue, “This encompasses myriad roles—helping define community, creating common language and common knowledge, identifying a community’s goals, heroes and villains, and pushing people beyond complacency” (para. 1–2). In Britain, Journalism UK cites Article 19 of the United Nations’ (1948) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers;” and the International Federation of Journalists (2003) suggests that “respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist.”
Though the specific articulations of the core values and ideals of journalism may differ, as it seems from the examples above, one of the recurring themes is that journalism has a commitment to truth and to inform the public. Indeed, Harcup (2007) suggests that “our job is indeed to get at the truth” (p. 2), while Klaidman and Beauchamp (1987) argue that “just as physicians and lawyers are morally required to be truthful with their patients and clients, journalists are morally obliged to deliver truth to the public” (p. 30). This emphasis on serving the public and providing it with “the truth” is often framed in terms of journalism performing an important political function— acting as an intermediary between politics and the public at large.
Yet to see the history of journalism and its values merely in political terms is to miss much. To be sure, though periodical print culture developed in tandem with the erosion of the ancien regime and the birth of modern democracy, it is far too simplistic to suggest that the precursors of journalism were solely concerned with radically altering the social and political arrangements of their day in the “long march” to democracy. Though, as we shall see, public writing has a strong political history, the antecedents of journalism were also concerned with other matters that provided much broader cultural and economic functions. The appetite for gossip, rumor, and speculation as well as the spectacular, sordid, and horrific is as evident in the history and ideals of journalism as any political dimension. Truth was not a priority here.
More broadly, as Raymond (1996) suggests, “the desire for news, with its concomitant dangers, has probably been an aspect of most societies through history” (p. 2). Conboy (2002) also highlights the way in which tradition, folk culture, and superstition blended with an emergent commercial imperative to produce popular printed news that went far beyond the confines of political imperatives. As well as providing “intelligence” on matters of import, news also provided entertainment to those who read it. Such entertainment might be in the form of poems or ballads. It might be a gory account of a murder or public execution, or of a natural disaster in some far off land. Indeed, as Winston (2005) suggests, in the 17th and 18th centuries, this type of information was far more common than political news, which could be dangerous to produce.
In all likelihood, the celebrity-obsessed and sensationalist news agendas of today’s tabloids have their roots in the journalistic experiments of early-modern public writing. News was not just dry political and economic information, it was also intended to amuse and entertain. The so-called tabloid genre has always been close to newspapers’ key function to provide entertainment and amusement. Sloan (2001) suggests that the sensational crime story and “human-interest” story have been evident in America since the 1830s, with newspapers such as the New York Sun and the NewYork Herald seeking to expose lucrative gaps in the newspaper market with a cheap press that would be both informative and entertaining to the working people of America. These “penny dreadfuls” as they were known would “give the masses some thrills and chills for their money that couldn’t be found anywhere else” (p. 19).
The penny dreadful emerges from a tradition of journalism that has what might be termed a “social conscience” in that it sought to expose and uncover the dark underbelly of society. Most famously, Charles Dickens’s accounts of Victorian England highlighted the plight of the miserable and wretched as well as entertained and amused (see Tulloch, 2007). Similarly, W. T. Stead exposed child prostitution in late-19th-century London in the Pall Mall Gazette (Harcup, 2007). Yet such stories also performed an important economic function, as Conboy (2004) suggests, given that this form of “New Journalism” imported from America emphasized human-interest stories, gossip, and sensation, as well as devoting a lot of its pages to advertising. Schudson (1978) has described this phenomenon as the “journalism of entertainment,” which would later be exploited by rival news organizations headed by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. “Yellow” journalism had arrived, a legacy that continues today (Campbell, 2001). Indeed, the commercial success of popular journalism is a testament to the ways in which it not only helps construct our sense of national identity through language (Conboy, 2006) but also provides a moral framework within which we might orient ourselves.
Karen Sanders (2003) also suggests that journalism has an important role in contributing to the moral fabric of societies and helps reflect and shape our identity. She notes that “journalists sketch in the contours of our moral landscape. They contribute to the business of telling us who we are, interpreting the world for us, making it intelligible” (p. 9). In historical terms, as Black (2001), talking about journalism in England at the beginning of the 17th century, suggests, “news helped explain life” (p. 3).
So, according to Sanders and Black, journalism can also perform an important moral function in sorting out good from bad, right from wrong. Indeed, if we look at the moral indignation expressed in the pages of tabloid newspapers, we can see at a glance just how this construction of moral norms occurs. As Gripsrud (2000) suggests when talking about the ritualistic nature of tabloid news, “Tabloid forms provide the audience with existential and moral help, and support in the daily struggles to cope with an everyday life marked by the uncertainties characteristic of modernity” (p. 297).
The journalist and scholar Michael Ignatieff (1997) posited that journalism should also be expressive of a deeper sense of humanity in playing an important role in breaking down barriers between different peoples and different cultures. Ignatieff is talking here mainly about the role of objective reporting in national and ethnic conflict. He indicated that what is required is a deeper sense of context that not only helps explain why conflict occurs but should also seek to uncover that which transcends some of the causal elements of conflict—our common humanity (see Plaisance, 2002).
Journalism is also then about making judgments and about comment, not solely about attaining the “objective truth.” Journalism as a literary form, for instance, therefore may be able to tell us more about ourselves and the societies we inhabit than the “factual” reporting of the courts or the local council. One only has to look at the literary contributions from authors as diverse as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe to George Orwell and Martha Gellhorn to see that journalism offers us a rich source through which we can tap into our cultural identity and its history (see Collier, 2006; Keeble & Wheeler, 2007).
So from this brief summary we can see that journalism is not now, nor has it ever been, solely about a political imperative to aid democracy. The historical development of journalistic ideals also emerges from the specific historical contexts in which the practices with which we associate journalism started to become accepted. These in turn are linked to the changing social, political, and economic contexts in which these practices, which became known as journalism, started to emerge. For example, the idea of objectivity in journalism is of course one that is central to our modern conceptions of what journalism (or at least good journalism) should be about. However, the journalistic ideal of objectivity was not something that was a component of journalism even in the 19th century. Journalistic objectivity is something that has emerged over a period of time in different ways and in different contexts. Some media historians argue that journalistic objectivity emerged because of specific economic tensions between rival news organizations. For example, Keeble (2001) suggested that “as newspapers gradually lost their party affiliations, journalists worked to establish their independence as searchers for objective truth” (p. 129). This emphasis on truth would therefore provide a news organization with a competitive edge over its rivals.
Another interpretation of the emergence of journalistic objectivity stems from an analysis of the technological developments of the telegraph and wireless in the 19th century. Carey (1989), for example, suggests that it was the spatial range of news aided by technological innovation that meant that news had to be “stripped of the local, the regional; and colloquial” (p. 210) and be more in keeping with the language of science with its emphasis on authenticity and accuracy. However, Schudson (2001) takes issue with the economic and technologically orientated approaches to the historical development of the notion of journalistic objectivity; instead, he cites the emergence of a professional culture of journalism, and along with it practices such as interviewing and note taking, that sought to create and maintain a distance from the proprietors of news organizations and their political backers. According to Schudson, journalists also wanted to generate their own sense of “collective integrity,” which would “endow their occupation with an identity they can count as worthy” (p. 165).
To put a specific date on the “invention of journalism” would be to court controversy and possibly ridicule. Some commentators suggest that journalism, or at least the practices associated with journalism, can be dated as far back as ancient Roman times with the Acta Diurna (Hudson, 1873, p. xxix), which provided information about court proceedings and political affairs. Others suggest that journalism has its beginnings in the political turmoil of the English Civil War in the early 17th century (Frank, 1961; Siebert, 1952/1965). It has also been asserted that journalism was “invented” after the onset of the industrialization of the press in the mid-19th century (Chalaby, 1998), when news production became part of a much larger corporate enterprise with specific commercial interests and objectives. According to this perspective, journalism and its values took shape according to the priorities of the market.
If we were to look for examples of “journalism” in history, we would find that its history is relatively brief. The first mention of the word in English was in the 1830s. However, as Conboy (2004) suggests, many of the “practices and traditions” of journalism were already well established by the time the word journalism was adapted from the French word journalisme. Therefore, to come to some judgment about a starting point for when journalism began becomes highly problematic. This noted, if we are to look historically at how our ideas of journalism have come about, some discussion of early journalistic writing is warranted as this will, it is hoped, allow for a greater sense of clarity about how, why, and when the ideas and ideals of journalism came into being.
Context, of course, is everything, and the changing economic and political complexion of Europe as it emerged from the “late middle ages” into a new era of global trade and mercantilism is the starting point for our historical overview. Around the 15th century, a new system of protocapitalism was developing out of the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, with states jostling for supremacy. Given the political and economic rivalries of the 15th and 16th centuries, economic advantage was seen as a key element in securing the objectives of the new nation-states, and it was information that provided the main ways in which such an advantage could emerge. Up-to-date and accurate information was therefore an essential requirement for those who sought to achieve or indeed retain economic and political power. Information, in this new era of trade and national rivalry, therefore assumed value, in both political and economic terms. Information about trade and economics, information on international affairs, the goings-on in court (though not yet in Parliament), and local rivalries were important to the emerging mercantile class and those individuals of status who had commercial and political interests in receiving such information (Wilson, 2005).
Given the powerful status of news, those in authority considered its control imperative to the maintenance of the status quo. The printing press in particular had made the production and dissemination of news more widespread to the extent that control of its output was perceived as essential. The desire to control the spread of information is evident as long ago as the early Tudor period in England, as the debate about the limits of royal power and the religious orientation of the monarch was prominent in the print culture of the day. As a result, Henry VIII sought to achieve control over all printing to ensure that it conformed to the royal view, a trend that continued through to the reign of Elizabeth I. Such was the fear of print, and its ability to stir up opposition to authority, that various systems of control came into force to ensure that printers were brought into line with authority and the press was controlled. These mechanisms of control wavered in their effectiveness throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods, though they lasted until the English Civil War in the mid-17th century, when the licensing system collapsed, only to be revived during the interregnum (Siebert, 1952/1965).
Such a period of political turbulence, of course, produced many examples of public writing that were intended to serve explicitly political purposes. Officially printed material required licensing by the Stationers Company, which was loyal to the throne and had a commercial interest in restricting the market. It was during this period of political unrest that the print medium was being used explicitly as a political weapon. One of the first newspapers used to reflect unambiguous political ideas was Gilbert Mabbott’s The Moderate. Mabbott was inspired by John Lilburne and the political ideals of the Levellers and their radical proposals for democracy. As such, The Moderate sought and expounded the virtues of democracy and the political rights of all—“The laws of this land hold out an equal right and common interest to all.”
Another early example of public writing that could be seen as informing modern conceptions of journalism was provided by John Milton (1608–1674), who wrote Paradise Lost and, of course, Areopagitica (1644/1999). Areopagitica was essentially a plea for the repeal of the licensing system, which was being reimposed by Parliamentary rule. Milton’s thinking was shaped by the social and political turbulence of the day, and his arguments about freedom and truth can be seen as emanating from the enlightenment emphasis on human agency, rationality, and, of course, progress. Controls on the press were deemed to hinder such progress and stifle human agency. Licensing meant that open discussion and a progressive movement toward certainty hindered debate, which was seen as the key to greater understanding and truth. However, Areopagitica should not be seen as the archetypal liberal argument for press freedom; Milton did advocate the censorship of certain public texts, particularly those printed by Catholics. It would be wrong therefore to call Milton a journalist. Rather, Milton’s ideals influenced our modern conceptions about the power of journalism— the potential that print could have in advancing the “truth” about the world. Other public writers or pamphleteers of this age include William Walwyn, Henry Robinson, and John Lilburne (Siebert, 1952/1965). Following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, journalism in its early forms began to engage more fully with politics and with its public constituency. This new constituency was the rising bourgeoisie; this increasingly influential mercantile class required up-to-date information on politics and foreign affairs to assert themselves both politically and economically.
In America, news letters had appeared from the mid- to late 17th century, as did a number of English newspapers (Mott, 1941), but arguably the first American journalism in what might be termed the first American newspaper was titled Publick Occurrences and printed by Benjamin Harris in Boston in 1690. The newspaper contained both foreign and domestic news but had its first edition banned 4 days after publication for contravening the licensing restrictions. It was these licensing arrangements that ultimately ended Harris’s journalistic endeavors. The Boston NewsLetter, however, became “the first continually published American newspaper” (p. 11), and other titles soon followed: The Boston Gazette; The New-England Courant, which sought to provide information on trade, foreign affairs, as well as “human interest stories”—and, as Mott suggests, “with its appearance entertainment may be said to enter the history of American journalism as a definite newspaper function” (p. 16). As the productive dynamics of society were altering, so too did the opportunities to exploit the desire for news. News, because of its ability to reflect both a sense of place and a sense of time, can be seen as very important in allowing people to construct a more coherent sense of place, temporally, spiritually, geographically, and, of course, politically. Given the emerging importance of the idea of news in building a sense of collective awareness of the community and wider spatial and political environments, its commercial potential was soon realized. News became a commodity, and this commodification has had as much impact on the idea of journalism as any political impulse.
It was during the early 18th century in Europe and the later 18th century in America that we get the formation of what Habermas (1989) terms the public sphere—the realm of public, political discourse that both reflected on and sought to influence the changing dynamics of European political and economic life. The bourgeois public sphere then was an arena facilitated by journalism, public debate, and argument which would shape the relationship journalism had to both politics and economics from here on. It was this idea of the public sphere that would provide a guiding sentiment in the political transformation of both Europe and America as the 18th century unfolded. Conboy (2004) suggests that it was at this time that the
story of journalism over the next two centuries was to be an account of the ways in which this class negotiated its central role in society through print culture and the impact that this had on the formation and discourse of journalism. (p. 45)
Moreover, this idea that journalism and periodical print culture contribute to the broader functioning of the political community is of central importance to emergent ideas of journalism, and it is to this political framing of journalism that I will now turn.
Journalism and Politics
Probably the most popular and traditional view of the historical development of journalism frames its emergence in terms of its role as the fourth estate—the so-called watchdog role of the press. Historically, this perspective charts the development of journalism as a struggle between authority—Church and State—and the democratic impulse that had its foundation in the Enlightenment thought of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The idea that journalism and freedom of the press developed as a tool of political emancipation does indeed have a very strong historical basis in the many political tracts that explicitly sought to challenge the political hierarchies of their time. Such political dissent usually consisted of printed material that sought to challenge established positions of power and can be traced from the earliest agitational literature of the 16th century through the “struggle” for freedom of the press in the 19th century to the “watchdog role” that journalism is supposed to have today. According to this history of journalism, the development of press freedom in America on independence from Britain in 1776 and in the mid19th century in Britain enabled democracy to thrive as the press enabled public scrutiny and therefore accountability of politicians.
Journalism also ensured that the public had information at their disposal with which to make informed choices about who they would want to have in power. In short, journalism was perceived as essential to the effective working of democratic societies. This conventional account is in many ways very convincing, especially in its European and North American historical contexts. According to this perspective, the history of journalism, from Wilkes to Watergate, is littered with examples of brave journalists fighting political corruption, greed, and power on behalf of the people. The idea of journalism here then is that of a servant of the public, acting on their behalf as monitors of power and articulating the voice of the people.
In historical terms, the relationship between journalism and democracy seemed to crystallize following the Wilkes controversy in the late 18th century. Wilkes, an MP, sought to expose political corruption and incompetence via the publication of his pamphlet, North Briton. It could be argued that the Wilkes affair was historically important in creating the link between the narrow political constituency of Parliament, whose members were essentially selfinterested, and the public at large. It was via Wilkes that it became possible to publish the proceedings in the House of Commons so that the public would be provided with information and intelligence on matters of direct importance to them.
In America, the press was also increasingly used as a means by which political battles could be fought. It was a mechanism through which support for political struggles could be developed, particularly in the battle for independence from Britain. Before the War of Independence, newspapers such as the Boston Gazette were pivotal in shaping opinion against the British. Newspapers therefore were being used as a means to undermine the authority of government and to advance alternatives to the political status quo, as Mott (1941) suggests when he notes that “it was a group of local radicals that filled the columns of the Boston Gazette with the kind of political articles which eventually prepared the minds of the people for the idea of independence” (p. 75). Here, in the pages of the Boston Gazette, we can see the link between politics and journalism being consistently articulated, primarily in terms of undermining established unrepresentative authority. Such was the power of the press that those in authority sought to counter the arguments made in their own Tory newspapers.
A key figure in the democratic movement of the late 18th century and one who would cement the connection between the press and politics was Tom Paine. Paine (1995) would influence the development of democratic politics in Europe and America with his Common Sense (1776), American Crisis (1776), Rights of Man (1791), and Age of Reason (1795). Paine sought to articulate the idea that man had certain inalienable or natural rights and that government should be organized so as to protect and reflect these rights; chief among these were political rights. “A government of our own is our natural right,” he asserts in Common Sense, and the democratic sentiment from Paine’s writings influenced both revolutionaries and reformers in America and in Britain. Moreover, in a similar vein to Wilkes, Paine suggested that a free press should facilitate the connection between a democratic government and the people. In America, of course, this sentiment found its expression in the first article of the Bill of Rights.
However, in Britain at the beginning of the 19th century, the press was hindered from serving the people in this way because of the system of taxation, which meant that newspapers and pamphlets could not legally be produced or obtained by the majority of people. Arguments to repeal the taxes were made by both middle- and working-class publicists. These arguments were incorporated into broader movements that looked to establish a wider political franchise, provide a system of education for the poor, and, for the middle-class reformers, free the print market from government taxation and control (Hampton, 2004; Hollis, 1970).
Once these controls were removed in the mid-19th century, it seemed that journalism, independent from government control, could exist as part of a well-functioning democratic system on both sides of the Atlantic. This connection between journalism and politics has helped forge a set of ethical guidelines for journalists, who, in principle at least, should attempt to open up the executive and the legislature to the gaze of the public. Journalism’s relationship with democracy since the mid-19th century has centered on ensuring accountability and providing the public with sufficient information to enable them to make rational decisions about their political allegiances. This idea that journalism provides people with the means of scrutinizing government lends itself to the notion of the fourth estate— journalism as independent from government yet performing a key function for democracy.
Another way of thinking about the development of journalism is one that is in almost direct opposition to the above interpretation. According to this script, journalism emerged in the middle of the 19th century as an important element in the constraint, rather than liberation, of the masses. The idea of journalism here is about the expression of political and economic power and the dominant values of capitalism. Perversely, the story in its early stages is somewhat similar to what might be termed the traditional liberal view in that the idea of public communication was seen as progressive and emancipatory. However, it is during the industrial revolution in England, according to this more critical history, that the progressive emancipatory values of journalism started to become undermined by the priorities of profit. Chalaby (1998) suggests that before the end of printing restrictions on the press in the mid-19th century, journalism did not exist. Rather, what existed were popular appeals to the public made by politically motivated publicists in newspapers and pamphlets. Publicists, rather than journalists, provided news and information about the prevailing political institutions and climate; they also commented critically on the political and economic system, which they viewed as repressive and corrupt. According to this view, it was only after the final repeal of the stamp tax in 1855 that the commercial press expanded rapidly, and with it the prevailing views of capitalism and the free market.
Historically speaking, this relationship between the market and journalism has undermined the democratic sprit of journalism and sought to bind us into thinking that democracy and capitalism are synonymous and that journalism itself is of necessity tied to the market to function correctly in its democratic role (Curry Jansen, 1992). Of course, democracy and the “invisible hand” of the market are separate entities with separate histories and orientations.
Debate about journalism’s political function, however, seemed to diverge following the publication of Walter Lippmann’s (1922, 1925) studies of the American public. The essence of Lippmann’s arguments were that political life is far too complex for most Americans to comprehend, and therefore, journalism should contend itself with simplifying political information so as to retain its democratic ethos. According to Lippmann, the job of journalists was to “translate the technical deliberations and actions of political leaders and experts into a publicly accessible language to inform, as best as possible, a citizenry incapable of governing itself” (Haas, 2007, p. 7).
So the function of journalism should be to act as a conveyer of political information to the public in ways that enhance their understanding of politics, which allows for politicians to be held accountable. However, Dewey (1927) held that journalism’s role is not one of conveying a simplified form of political information to the masses but rather of engaging the masses in debate about political affairs. This deliberative model of journalism, then, is in stark contrast to the idea that journalism should convey information in that it adds the idea that journalism should also be an arena of public debate and should stimulate both the thinking and the doing of politics. Such is the essence of public, or civic, journalism.
Some of Dewey’s sentiments seem also to have been absorbed by the findings in 1947 of The Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, which, among other recommendations, asserted that journalism should “serve as a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism” (cited in Hass, 2007, p. 8). However, critics suggest that it is dangerous for journalism to venture into territory that might undermine long-established and effective news production processes (Davis, 2000). Again, we come back to the issue of objectivity in journalism, the ritualistic mantra that is taught in journalism schools around the world. Yet, as Altschull (1997) writes, “objectivity simply does not exist. . . . Objectivity is the mechanism for ensuring the status quo” (p. 148). In other words, the notion of objectivity is anything but objective as it orientates journalists away from serving the public and toward maintaining the far too close relationship between the political and economic elite (Franklin, 2004). The rise in political PR (public relations) and journalism’s increasing reliance on such sources also undermines journalism’s democratic imperative (Davis, 2008; Lewis, Williams, & Franklin, 2008).
So what is the answer? Does it lie beyond the realms of the physical world, in cyberspace? Contemporary debate about civic journalism seems to have been reinvigorated by advances in information and communication technologies, particularly the Internet. Indeed, the advent of the Internet has heralded new forms of public journalism that not only transcend the commercial imperatives and established institutions of traditional journalism but can also orient themselves toward greater deliberation and public awareness about politics and the wider world. According to some, the era of “alternative” media and alternative journalism is here (Atton, 2003). This is because of the ways in which new information technologies liberate communication, journalism, and its relationship with politics and the wider public more generally. According to McNair (2006), we have shifted from a paradigm of control, in which the political elite have been in a position effectively to censor and stifle public debate about politics, to one of chaos, in which technologies have enabled individuals and journalism to create a genuine public sphere. As McNair suggests, “Where the media have been expected to play a watchdog role over power in capitalism for centuries, the emerging environment provides enhanced means and opportunities for the exercise of that role” (p. 170). McNair also claims that the benefits of this shift are enhanced critical scrutiny of the elites, enhanced critical scrutiny of the media, decentralization and diversification of media production, and globalization of the public spheres (p. 170).
Yet how convincing is the idea that technology liberates us from the control paradigm? Sunstein (2007) has recently suggested that rather than enhancing the deliberative conception of democracy, technology has instead generated channels of communication that tend to limit the deliberative spirit. Sunstein also suggested that one of the novel features of such technologies is that individuals can tailor information to their specific requirements. From RSS feeds on particular topics to the “blogosphere,” where journalists, professional or amateur, can engage with the public on matters of interest to them, users can now manage their own information channels in ways that suit them. This, Sunstein argues, might close down deliberative opportunities rather than opening them up, as people tend to be drawn to material that reflects rather than challenges their political principles and ideals.
Winston (2005) proposes that the promise that technologies will throw open the doors of innovation in journalism is an overstated claim, as much of what appears as online journalism is taken directly from print hard copy. Even though we might be able to navigate through material with greater precision and speed, where is the innovation in that?
Conclusion: What Is Journalism?
So what is journalism, and how are we to understand how our ideas of journalism have developed? This research paper has sought to argue that there is no single idea of journalism. Rather, journalism and its ideals have emerged via historical intersections of political, cultural, and economic factors. Journalism is not just about politics; it is also not just about reinforcing culture. Nor is contemporary journalism necessarily about the bottom line, though market pressure does seem to shape the orientation of professional journalism. The central claim here is that if we are to understand journalism today, we must comprehend the development of journalism across these particular historical planes. Journalism is as much about power as it is about people as it is about profit. Journalism in the early 21st century seems to be a mixture of professionalized cultural practices aligned to political, cultural, and commercial aspects of the social world. Such practices are necessarily constrained within the development of the cultural values that correspond to each of the components above.
The idea that journalists have a responsibility to the wider community is also paramount. This enables journalism to amplify a cultural sense of place that meshes with our sense of identity and helps create common understandings and shared experiences—a sense of community established via a commitment to the public good as well as a commitment to uncovering the truth.
And what of the future? If we are to reflect historically about what might emerge in the future for journalism, we may pessimistically conclude that it is the profit imperative and the ever-increasing framing around technology that will further devalue journalism’s core ideals. However, as has been suggested elsewhere (Conboy & Steel, 2007), it is ultimately the public itself that has the ultimate say in where the future of journalism lies.
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Journalism and Culture
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Journalism as the Fourth Estate
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Journalism and Ethics
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