Joining a professional journalist association usually requires gaining one’s main livelihood by working fulltime in the editorial department of a media organization. News gathering may involve documentation, detective work, outright research, or combining findings from existing databases. Other specialists such as photographers, technicians, designers, and the like are central to producing content but are not responsible for the full journalistic text. Furthermore, media work involves observing events and images or fetching information from outside sources, transcribing or transforming the information, and finally editing and framing the information into a preset template.
It is difficult to pursue journalism outside editorial departments. Getting hired by a publisher is still one of the main criteria for entering journalism and for being admitted to a professional organization. “Professionalism” is often defined as the mastering of themes, forms, and routines, which regularly occur in journalism. As part of their stylebooks, media companies set the standards for their publications, but unlike medicine, journalism practice does not draw on scientific research for authority. Instead, journalism has depended, for long periods of its history, more on artistic effort than on professional routines.
Codes of ethics serve as a combination of abstract principles and guidelines to professional values and conduct, which unite journalists working under different conditions. Codes began to appear in the 1920s, but most codes emerged after World War II (EthicNet). The Society of Professional Journalists in the US revised its code of ethics in 1996 and did not mention, as in previous versions, objectivity of journalistic texts as the cornerstone for professionalism. Instead the code now emphasizes journalists’ active role in the mediating process: seeking truth, minimizing harm, acting independently, and being accountable (http://spj.org). The growing importance of professional standards helps journalists identify more with their job than with their media organization, but no wide agreements exist on how to staff a media organization and edit content, or on what minimum quality standards apply to journalistic products. The power to reorganize media organizations still rests with the publisher.
The formation of associations for journalists followed a sequence resulting from changes in the newspaper industry in each country and from the ensuing changes in journalists’ position within the work organization of newspapers, as well as from changes in the social standing of journalists.
The first generation of associations was social in character and had no specific vocational purpose. The groups served mainly as a forum for mutual respect and gave the members an opportunity to discover who worked where. The American newspaper industry, for example, had grown so complex by the end of the nineteenth century that even those with long experience in the press had lost the broader view (Dicken-Garcia 1989).
The next generation of organizations had more vocational ends: first, publishers seeking to regulate competition and to produce relevant data about the industry and advertisers, and, later, journalists negotiating for better wages and work conditions. Only recently have organizations been active in pursuing professional objectives beyond the codes of ethics.
Journalists started to organize in the late nineteenth century. Associations appeared on local, national, and international levels: in Germany in the 1860s and 1870s, in Scandinavia in the 1880s and 1890s. In Great Britain the pioneering Newspaper Society had already formed in 1836. The National Association of Journalists, with more professional aims, came into being in 1884 and formed the Institute of Journalists, which received a Royal Charter as a professional organization in 1886. In the US associations did not include publishers, editors, and journalists within one organization as early European associations sometimes did. The American Newspaper Publisher Association came into being in 1887. News workers began to organize in the 1890s and finally founded the Newspaper Guild in 1933, which eventually became effective for wage negotiations. In Scandinavia the multiparty press from the 1880s organized journalists, editors, and publishers in parallel organizations, which rarely cooperated across party lines, which delayed the formation of national or regional organizations and also prevented any real accord on professional standards.
Social Standing And Training
The social standing of journalists has been ambiguous throughout journalism history and still varies widely for at least three reasons: because journalism covers many different jobs, from manual to intellectual, because their control of what gets published varies greatly, and because journalists’ characteristics are hard to describe. These ambivalences, made acute by censorship in many systems, help explain the slow development of professional journalist associations.
At first the printer served in the capacity of editor and principal contributor. The printer’s job was dirty, literally speaking, and also low in esteem. As democratic governance increased and rudimentary party systems followed, many printerpublishers used the growing importance of newspapers to gain social status and, sometimes, political office (Pasley 2001). In many countries the early press also accommodated a mix of vocations. General literati, essayists, professors, and members of the free professions were among the forerunners of the journalist today. All worked part-time for newspapers, often as contributors but sometimes as editors. In countries where the press has not yet become a mass medium, much of journalism is still highbrow, literary, and intellectual.
In the early nineteenth century much of the news gathering and manuscript editing still occurred outside the printer’s shop. The network of regular contributors included out-of-town correspondents as well as legmen roaming the streets in metropolitan cities, visiting courts, harbors, and the like, hunting for news. Editors and printers met in coffee houses or taverns, and only with the advent of a mass press in the 1860s did newspapers regularly hire editors and journalists fulltime.
Beginning in the late 1850s production of books increasingly separated from newspapers, because the poor quality of pulp newsprint on rotary presses did not meet the standards of book publishing. Like journalism, book authorship appeared as a possible career. When the literati and intellectuals left newspapers, they also left the emerging journalistic profession in a social vacuum. The old profile of haute bourgeoisie could no longer characterize journalists, who instead became proletarian professionals, at least in the case of the US (Kaul 1986).
Around the end of the nineteenth century, when reporters moved to offices sheltered inside newspaper headquarters in metropolises around the world, their qualifications also changed. Newspapers came to emphasize a daily news cycle that demanded continuous surveillance of sundry events. Efficiency in writing all sorts of copy became the main qualification of journalists, making journalism more a job for handymen and wordsmiths than for specialists or independent intellectuals. At the same time the editorial hierarchy grew, adding layers of subeditors, rewriters, reviewers, and special correspondents, threatening to de-skill journalism in an industrial environment (Hardt & Brennen 1995).
The unsettled question of talent versus knowledge has allowed publishers to recruit journalists from any educational background. The resulting difference in education among their members reduced the motivation of journalist associations to set professional standards. Mostly, outsiders took the initiative to establish regular courses in journalism, first in America at the University of Missouri in 1908 and then at Columbia University in 1912. The University of Leipzig established the first German chair in Zeitungskunde in 1916, and Finland introduced a two-year course in journalism at college level in 1925. Chinese universities also began teaching journalism in the 1920s. Colleges of journalism and university programs of media studies became common in Europe only in the 1950s and 1960s.
What journalists, publishers, and editors could not fully agree on at the national level apparently became easier at the international level. The International Union of Press Associations worked between the 1890s and World War I with ideas of education for journalists and a code of professional ethics (Björk 1994), but first World War I and later the totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Germany disrupted these international efforts. Today about 30 international associations for journalists and editors work mainly on questions of press freedom, codes of conduct, and the safety of journalists who work either on assignment in dangerous areas or on topics generating serious conflicts. The best known are the International Press Institute, World Association of Newspapers, International Federation of Journalists, Reporters without Frontiers, and World Association of Press Councils.
Studies of journalists’ attitudes in two political systems in economic and political transition, China and Russia, reveal widespread uncertainty. Journalists in mainstream media are torn between professional autonomy and mandatory loyalty to politically and financially elite owners. No one believes that professional associations can change the state of affairs. The party used the old communist unions to control journalists and left a legacy of distrust in professional associations. The lack of organized protection makes individual journalists vulnerable to external and internal pressures.
Ownership of media in China still remains with the communist party. Rather than giving subsidies, the state allows media companies to compete for higher ratings or larger circulation and thus for more advertising. Censorship has become milder, but opposition to the party can still lead to an early retirement. Journalists may pursue popular journalism outside the realm of politics, but they still face restrictions in reporting public affairs (Lee 2005).
In Russia the old guard among journalists from the Soviet era still considers the media an instrument of power to serve the state and the public or society, but the larger group of post-communist, often untrained, journalists, emphasize entertainment and sensationalism (Pasti 2005).
Despite the comprehensive international network of professional associations, little or no agreement has yet emerged on the key characteristics of journalism (Weaver 1998). Comparisons between the Anglo-American traditions of objectivity in journalism and the German or Continental tradition of opinionated journalism emphasize a lack of accord on professional conduct. The two traditions have clearly different attitudes toward sources of information (Köcher 1986): British journalists are more aggressive toward authorities than are German journalists. The opinion editor and commentary are the height of the profession in Germany (Donsbach & Klett 1993).
A cross-national survey of journalists in 22 nations revealed their values and practices, but hardly any consensus either about the duties of journalists toward their sources or about the purpose of journalism. Transmitting news as soon as possible was the only value journalists accepted universally. The study concluded that no place has a monopoly on journalists’ professionalism (Weaver 1998).
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