WJS3: 2020–2022


Journalists and news organizations around the world are confronted with an unprecedented and multi-faceted crisis. In many contexts, this crisis – unparalleled in the history of modern news media – is seen as constituting a serious threat to journalism and its future existence as a social institution of vital importance to democracy and governance. The Worlds of Journalism Study, a collective endeavor of scholars from more than 110 countries, has documented these transformations since its inception in 2007.

The third wave of the Worlds of Journalism Study (WJS3) shifts the analytical focus to levels of risk and uncertainty journalists are facing around the globe, as well as the ways in which they cope with and adapt to risk and uncertainty in different political, socio-economic, and cultural contexts. A major goal of the study is to compare the situation of journalism in a wide range of societies, trace developments over time, and identify key factors that drive cross-national differences in the way journalists conceive of, and deal with, risk and uncertainty.

While shifting the focus to the study of risk and uncertainty in journalism, WJS3 continues previous efforts to track the state of journalism around the world. Adding a longitudinal perspective is even more important as the institution of journalism, being in a state of flux, may be at a critical juncture in a rapidly changing media environment. In line with the overall theoretical framework, the project assesses perceptions of risk in the following key areas critical to the practice of journalism: editorial autonomy, influences on journalism, journalistic roles, journalistic epistemologies, professional ethics, safety and resiliency of journalists, and conditions of labor. These aspects will be assessed based on representative surveys of journalists in all world regions.

Overall, the study has several distinctive and innovative features:

  • It uses a comprehensive conceptual and methodological approach to study journalists’ perceptions of risk and uncertainty in news production.
  • It traces developments in risk and uncertainty over time, thus examining ways in which journalism copes with and adapts to changing mediascapes.
  • It measures perceived risk, uncertainty and their possible consequences at different levels of impact, including the individual level of the journalist in professional and personal dimensions, the news organization, and the institution of journalism at national and international levels.
  • It also includes peripheral journalists working at the margins of journalism, which allows us to better represent areas of change and transformation.
  • Its global scope enables a comparative assessment of a wide range of contextual conditions (politics and governance, socio-economic development, and cultural values) and the way they configure to different environments for journalism.
  • Finally, the study will be carried out in a unique collaborative effort involving researchers from more than 110 countries.

Organized as a network of researchers from around the world, including scholars from a wide range of countries in the Global South, the Worlds of Journalism Study builds on more than 15 years of experience in comparative and collaborative research. For the study of risk and uncertainty in journalism, WJS3 has established collaborations with major international organizations concerned with the future of journalism, including UNESCO, Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists.

Political, Economic, Technology-related, and Cultural Risks to Journalism

Based on a comprehensive review of the literature, we argue that risks in journalism emanate from four interrelated sources: politics, the economy, technology, and culture.

Political risks: In many regions around the world, the political environment has turned increasingly hostile toward the work of journalists in recent years. This is true not only for authoritarian societies but also for a number of liberal democracies and even more so for countries whose political systems contain elements of both both liberal and illiberal systems. According to Freedom House, press freedom worldwide deteriorated to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016. Furthermore, the world is a dangerous place for journalists reporting on political corruption, crime, and human rights abuses, as well as on war and conflict. States’ failure to establish the rule of law and protection of rights across territories, with the corresponding rise or entrenchment of de facto power holders, has undermined the safety of journalists in many countries.

Economic risks: The digital era has radically altered the economics of news production whereby audiences still appreciate the news but are less willing to pay for it. The changes in journalism’s economic environment have brought about vastly increased choice and competition, the rise of platform companies that have won a large share of audiences’ attention and advertisers’ budgets, and an evolving transformation in how news organizations make money as advertising revenues dwindle. Increased economic pressures on news organizations have resulted in the closure of newspapers, reduction of editorial resources, higher workloads, increased profit-making and advertising demands, growing relevance of audience measures, layoffs of permanently employed editors and reporters and frequent use of (often underpaid) freelancers.

Technology-related risks: The changing digital environment has enabled new actors, including algorithms and social bots, to participate in public conversation, thus creating a networked news ecosystem that gives political, commercial and other entities the opportunity to bypass journalism and to address audiences directly. Participative modes of information-sharing through social media and easier access to information dissemination platforms have radically altered the relationship between journalists and their audiences. Not only do modern digital news ecosystems provide audiences with access to a wide range of information sources beyond the “mainstream” media, but it is now also easier to target and engage citizens directly for political, business or other purposes, thus effectively undermining the role of professional journalism as an intermediary institution. The ease of sharing information from a variety of sources on social media has contributed to the rise of disinformation and “fake news”.

Cultural risks: Another set of risks stems from the erosion of support for the press and the rise of hate groups that target journalists in many societies. Here, studies in a variety of countries point to a continued, and partly dramatic growth in levels of skepticism and distrust of the news media in significant proportions of the audience. Journalism’s inability to admit the inevitable selectiveness of its world representation has arguably contributed to such epistemic crisis. At the same time, radical and populist politicians and the rise of racist nationalist groups have legitimized hate speech and other targeting of journalists. As a result of this, as well as of the proximity and anonymity provided by social media, journalists, especially women and minorities, have increasingly been threatened and harassed through social media and while covering news events.

Altogether these risks and developments address nearly all themes of current journalism research and have been investigated in numerous studies based on a variety of methodological approaches. However, there is no study or approach that systematically, and comparatively, combines and investigates risks and uncertainty in journalism on the level of perception. Despite a recent up-surge in comparative research, none of these studies specifically addressed the areas of risk and uncertainty in journalism.