What do you consider to be the main advantages and drawbacks in examining journalism from an academic perspective?
“You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? Which tells you most about the thing?” (Lewis, 1945)
Clive Staples Lewis, writer and theologian opined that experience and observation were necessary for a full picture. In his essay first published in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, he talked about the academic observation of subjects such as light and love, and the experiential insight of these same subjects. He contrasted both perspectives by “looking at” and looking along.
It is the intention of this essay to show that both the academic discipline of “looking at” journalism and the journalist experience of “looking along” are essential. Thomas Carlyle first called the press the “Fourth Estate of the Realm”, and, according to Kenneth Newton, he meant that the media were the ones with the responsibility to hold the other three, (Houses of Lords and Commons and the Clergy) to account. (Newton, 1995). They are as much a part of the democratic process as the other three. John Keane commented on their role:
“…the media should present a full, fair, and accurate account of the news, they should inform and educate the general public, and they should cover a wide range of political opinions and positions.” (Keane, 1992).
This presents the essay with the first of the criteria of why academic study is important – it interprets the foundation and design of journalism to decide what is journalism and then uses these measures to hold against works which claim to be such. These “norms” of journalism, once discovered, then are interpreted as agreed standards. Academic study looks to see if the work being interpreted matches these norms. It becomes the foundation for study and for measuring. This is what is labelled as a “normative” approach to journalism.
Whilst there might be debate over how this normative theory has been reached, and even what are the “norms”, there is agreement that it is a desire to understand how public conversation, or discourse, should be conducted. (Christians et al., 2009:65-88).
The same writers describe democracy as “popular sovereignty” (Christians et al., 2009:91-113), that is ruled by the many.
Chris Anderson asks what the expectations of journalism are, and why they do it? (Anderson, 2020). Christians et al help with their four potential roles, monitorial, facilitative, radical, and collaborative, (Christians et al., 2009). It is all part of Lewis’ process of “looking at” journalism. It is the analytical approach by academics to what they “see” as journalism by looking on.
This analytical research of the media shows the effectiveness of this method of public discourse in conveying its message. In Lazarsfiled, Berelson and Gaudet’s 1940 study on the political effects of the media, they discovered it was not as effective as presumed. (Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet, 1968). They set out to see what influenced a voter on their choice of president. They introduced the Two-Step Flow Model, which postulated that opinion leaders were the ones that the larger populace were swayed by. It showed that each structured social group has its opinion leaders, and it was those voices that held sway over and influenced the thinking of others. Before this it was assumed that the media itself was the means. This is an illustration of academic research showing the role of the media. If no research had been conducted, then would the media industry still be operating under a false premise and illusion of importance?
Whilst it is a more in-depth study than this essay can break down, it is a good place to start on the necessity for academic research. The website communicationtheory.org suggests that the Two-Step Flow Model is still the foundation of most of the advertising research. (Two Step Flow Theory, 2021). According to a lecture given by Michael Higgins, it followed the three-step process of reactivation, reinforcement, and conversation.
Journalists themselves are studied as a community in a greater field on interpretive communities. Barbie Zelizer describes this interpretive community as “as one united by its shared discourse and collective interpretations of key public events” (Zelizer, 1993). They stand in the place of the public and interpret the meaning of events in a double exposure – that is the immediate retelling and the longer discursive nature.
It is academic study itself, and the question of what journalism is, that allows us to even question whether it is a profession, allowing it to be only judged through the prism of journalism itself, or by the even greater standard.
Zeliser again asks us to question this:
Has communication done its job? Has communication scholarship provided the tools necessary to explain how and why journalism works? Has it explained why publics let reporters present themselves as cultural authorities for events of the ‘real world’? In short, has communication adequately explained journalism and journalistic authority? (Zelizer, 1997:23).
These questions alone are answered by Hugo DeBurgh when he says that it is not enough to be trained as a profession, or vocation, but as a serious academic discipline (DeBurgh, 2003:1). DeBurgh stated that they should be trained and balanced in the following:
- Both on the job and academic learning
- Alignment with professional standards
- Interaction with society, on different local and nation levels
- Ability to apply conceptual theory and assessment
- Flexibility and ability in research and writing
Academic research is then showing us what constitutes a certain understanding of journalism and journalist. Put simply, it is someone interpreting on behalf of another. In the language of CS Lewis though, it is the clinical analysing from the outside or the “looking at…”. Unlike other areas of academic research and study though, it must also be “looked along” by those who look at. As a profession, a journalist can learn so much by going into the newsroom wherever and whatever that may look like and learn from others, and from the individual media institution what their norms values and roles are and how they interpret the news and then speak it out to their readers.
The looking along is essential in the academic field in one sense, as it is in training the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds of future journalists to see that they get to know the language of the readers, or community, that they will be speaking into.
At the birth of the New Testament church, the Bible records that the first disciples were given the supernatural ability to speak in different languages that those gathered in Jerusalem knew. (Acts2:6). That is the knowledge they had that God wanted the “public” to hear was disseminated in many ways to the different forms of hearing and interpretation that those gathered had.
In the twenty-first century world journalism and journalists do not have that shortcut that bypasses learning. Neither though, did the first century disciples. They had spent a rigorous and demanding three years being trained in all aspects of the work that they were to carry out by their leader, Jesus. The gift they received was, in part,§ that of language. Learning to speak in a way that interpreted what they knew and believed and distributed to the readers.
As a theology student I was told that to share the simplest of Gospel messages, I had to learn the deepest of theologies. That is that I had to develop a deeper understanding, not just of the truths themselves, but the people that were the intended readers of those truths.
This is an area where the academic study of journalism is also essential. In the changing climate of journalism brought on by the advent of social media, there are many instances of citizen journalism stepping into the interpretive role. Quoting journalist and photographer Sean McMullen, Viktoria Mirvajova (2015:151) reports that citizen journalism is “by everyday people”. Bowman and Willis (2003:10) describe it as participatory journalism:
The act of a citizen, or group of citizens, playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing, and disseminating news and information. The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging, and relevant information that a democracy requires.
It is seen as a bottom up, devoid of editorial oversight or journalistic discipline. The main disadvantage being that some of the academic disciplines discussed in this essay may be missing from the process of witnessing, interpreting, and disseminating the news/story.
According to Jorrith Schaap (2016:1) in an article on The Drum website, citizen journalism presents three ways of complementing traditional journalism. He talks about the large ownership of smartphones presenting the reality that “any topic is fair game”. This brings an “immediacy” to events. No longer do media organisations have to wait on a camera crew or reporter arriving on scene, but reporting can be done almost immediately. Thirdly, he reports, is “regional and local focus”. That is that we can now read events happening all over the world. This though, Schaap postulates, has resulted in the dwindling of interest in local stories. This view echoes my view that the academic study of journalism (look at) is essential, but also aligned with the world view (look along).
Could the growing appeal of citizen journalism be that, whilst the journalists themselves may not have the academic training of the traditional journalists, they do have the language of their demographic. As discussed at the beginning of this essay, the opinion leaders, are the real disseminators of the news. They hold the attention of their particular social group and have the ability and/or potential to sway them. It would also be true to say that they “speak the language” of their group.
Citizen Journalism is not a new concept that only arrived with the uptake of social media. Wally Hughes (2011:6) says that the profession of journalism developed from citizen journalism
In 1908, the University of Missouri opened the doors of the world‘s first journalism school, but newspapers had been around for centuries before that. As a matter of fact, early colonial newspapers in the United States had such an impact on the country that founders included a clause in the First Amendment protecting freedom of the press. But if the country had no professional journalists (since the profession had not been created, yet), then what were the framers of the Constitution protecting? (Hughes, 2011: 6).
The language of journalism is important. It is one discipline to understand the what – why- where – when- and who of news is gathered and how to do it. It is another discipline altogether to deliver that in a way that catches the opinion leaders of the day. Could it be, that opinion leaders becoming frustrated with the intervention of the fourth estate owners and self interest in their publishing platforms, have become the means of media gathering, interpretation and delivery themselves? Many bloggers have already formed their own interpretive communities, bypassing the media organisations themselves. Many media organisations have now moved to gathering in information distributed on platforms such as Twitter and forming their news articles around them. Joining the dots of citizen journalism and using the language that the readers “hear and understand gladly”.
CS Lewis (1945:1) asks which experience is true and valid – the looking at or the looking along? In journalism, both are valid. Both experiences are necessary to hold up the integrity of the Fourth Estate. What academia must not be guilty of is sucking the very life out of journalism by over analysing and adding to many layers to the study. This is what Lewis writes, separates the valid experience from the truth. The beauty or the ugly of the story can be lost in the analysing of the methods of it.
Journalism and media gathering are in the early days of major change, I believe it is too early to be sounding the death of traditional, academically disciplined study and delivery. If I come across a news story by a citizen journalist, I also went to see it reflected through the eyes of a mind trained in the academic rigour. Whether they have “looked at” the news before “looking along” it or vice versa matters not. Just that academic study is necessary for the integrity and longevity of true journalism.
Anderson, C., 2020. ‘A journalism of fear’. Journalism, [online] p.146488492091338. Available at: <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1464884920913383> [Accessed 21 February 2021].
Bowman, S. and Willis, C., 2003. We Media How audiences are shaping the future of news and information. [ebook] Stanford: The American Press Institute. Available at: <https://www.hypergene.net/wemedia/download/we_media.pdf> [Accessed 27 February 2021].
Christians, C., Glasser, T., McQuail, D., Nordenstreng, K. and White, R., 2009. Normative theories of the media. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Communication Theory. 2021. Two Step Flow Theory. [online] Available at: <https://www.communicationtheory.org/two-step-flow-theory-2/> [Accessed 22 February 2021].
Hughes, W., 2011. Citizen Journalism: Historical Roots and Contemporary Challenges. Honors College Capstone Experience/ Thesis Projects. Paper 305. Honors College at Western Kentucky University.
Keane, J., 1992. Democracy and the Media — Without Foundations. Political Studies, [online] 40(1_suppl), pp.116-129. Available at: <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9248.1992.tb01816.x> [Accessed 21 February 2021].
Lazarsfeld, P., Berelson, B. and Gaudet, H., 1968. The people’s choice. New York: Columbia University Press.
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Mirvajová, V., 2015. The Golden Age of Citizen Journalism. Annales UMCS, Politologia, [online] 21(1), pp.149-160. Available at: <https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/235268927.pdf>.
Newton, K., 1995. The Mass Media: Fourth Estate or Fifth Column? In: Governing the UK in the 1990s. [online] London: Palgrave, p. Chapter 7. Available at: <https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-23899-6_8> [Accessed 21 February 2021].
Schaap, J., 2016. Three ways citizen journalists augment professional journalism. [online] The Drum. Available at: <https://www.thedrum.com/industryinsights/2016/04/19/three-ways-citizen-journalists-augment-professional-journalism> [Accessed 23 February 2021].
Zelizer, B., 1993. Journalists as interpretive communities. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 10(3), pp.219-237.