WJS3: 2020–2022

Conceptual Framework

The conceptual framework of the study builds on two theoretical features: an understanding of journalism as a discursive institution (general perspective), and the modeling of key areas of risk and uncertainty in journalism (specific approach).

Journalism as a discursive institution: The study is based on a general theoretical understanding of journalism as a social institution that is discursively negotiated and (re)created. This perspective is not only compatible to other approaches (e.g., field theory, institutionalism, structuration, and social constructivism), it integrates many of their premises in a view that prioritizes journalists’ subjective experience and perceptions. According to a discursive institutionalist view, journalism, as a social institution, performs a key function in society. Journalists work according to – and are socialized into – unspoken and often taken-for-granted norms, rules, and procedures, which are seemingly self-evident and are understood to be the “natural” way to gather news.

Journalism as an institution is subject to continuous discursive negotiation and (re)creation. In this process, journalists retain definitional control over what they consider legitimate practice, lay claim to cultural authority, and reinforce a sense of professional identity. Rather than being neutral and objective, this discourse is an uneven space of contestation and struggle in which journalists and other social agents vie for discursive authority in conversations about the meaning and role of journalism in society. Hence, the institution of journalism as it exists today in the various local contexts represents the state of play in an ongoing struggle over discursive authority. Discursive work creates the institution of journalism, recreates it as new agents are socialized, and reshapes it during discursive contestation or reflection even as more powerful players try to establish their discourse as central or final.

Journalism responds to changing contexts through processes of coping and adaptation on both the material and discursive levels. While journalists might cope with or accept threats on a short-term basis, adaptation implies that journalism has some capacity to buttress or rework journalistic ethics, roles, epistemologies, and other features of the institution. It is exactly here where peripheral areas of journalism become increasingly relevant. Working at the margins of journalism, peripheral journalists can more easily adapt and respond to changes in journalism’s environment by experimenting with new practices and models of doing news. Ensuing transformation of journalism’s institutional framework, however, is subject to continued discursive negotiation in the professional community and the larger public. As a consequence, journalism is in a permanent state of “becoming”.

Risk and uncertainty in journalism: At the heart of this discourse are journalists’ perceptions of risk as well as the institutional uncertainty they produce. The concept of risk here refers here to an array of existential threats to the viability and sustainability of journalism as an institution making a meaningful and vital contribution to social life. Risks primarily emanate from four, partly interrelated sources: politics, economy, technology, and culture. The forms (or manifestations) of these risks (e.g., eroding media freedom, violence against journalists, and deteriorating labor conditions) and the perceived consequences associated with these risks (e.g., shrinking levels of editorial autonomy and journalists’ safety as well as growing precarity of journalistic labor) generate significant uncertainty among journalists, news organizations, and the institution itself; observable, for example, in professional meta-discourse. Figure 1 is an attempt to summarize the four key sources of risk (areas of threats), their forms (manifestations of threats), and perceptions (areas of uncertainty).

Figure 1: Sources, forms, and perceptions of risk to journalism

Notably, risks to journalism can be posed by external developments (e.g., a lack of economic sustainability), internal factors (e.g., declining levels of professionalism) and by the relational dynamics between external and internal forces. Risks can emanate from long-term, gradual developments (shrinking levels of trust in the media, or increasing political polarization) as well as from short-term ruptures and shocks (e.g., the dotcom crash in 2000). Furthermore, risks to journalism depend on the various national opportunity structures with regard to politics and governance, socio-economic development, and cultural value systems.

These risks, and how they are perceived, have consequences (for journalists, news organizations, and the institution of journalism as a whole) in the following key areas that will be the focus of WJS3: influences on journalism, editorial autonomy, journalistic roles, journalistic epistemologies, professional ethics, safety of journalists, and conditions of labor. Each of these areas will be addressed in a thematic work package.