Despite a common interest in communicative activity, mass communication professionals and communication scholars have long been at odds with each other. Scholars argue that media performance can only be enhanced by professionalization of the workforce and the self-knowledge generated from systematic, criteria-based analysis and assessment. They have also systematically criticized a great deal of mass media content since its origins. Conversely, communication professionals tend to disagree not by engaging in debate with scholars but rather by simply ignoring their work: the vast majority of academic literature from communication studies and cognate disciplines goes unread by media practitioners (Walker 2000). This is not to say that journalists and other media professionals are anti-intellectual. Rather, as sociologist Max Weber argued in 1918, problems arise in understanding a key media occupation like political journalism because the special talent, or what he called the “genius,” of journalists is rarely acknowledged, much less understood (Weber 2001). Consequently, wide discrepancies arise between practitioner and academic accounts of media practice, performance, and change.
There has been little research in the past on this relationship per se; rather, the topic typically arises in studies of specific media occupations or in discussion of developments in communication theory. Recently, however, fresh perspectives about the relationship between theory and practice in communication are emerging as scholars try to draw together the field’s multiple and disparate intellectual traditions and, at the same time, as practitioners move to document and debate in their own terms the kinds of knowing found in media practice. Arguably, parallel lines of reasoning can be found both in these ground-breaking practitioner efforts to understand the art of journalism as “critical reflective practice” (Sheridan Burns 2002; see also Tumber 2000; Adam 2001; Tunstall 2001; Zelizer 2004) and in innovative research on communication as a “practical discipline” (Dervin et al. 1989; Craig 2007). Taken together, these efforts provide resources for thinking about new affinities in the relationship between communication professions and academic research rather than its traditional afflictions.
The professionalization of communication is historically linked to the emergence of national mass media systems, the most potent of which developed in the United States of America from the 1890s (Pye 1963; Carey 1997). A new social role was created in that context; that is, the role of the “professional communicator” or broker of symbols who mediates in a vertical direction between information elites and general audiences, and in a horizontal direction between the diverse communities that make up general audiences (Carey 1997).
The generic term “professional mass communicators” includes a range of media occupations such as journalists, editors, public relations people, speechwriters, radio broadcasters, film and television producers, and actors (Ettema et al. 1987). However, the journalist occupation tends to absorb academic attention because, as journalism historian James W. Carey (1997, 133) indicates, the informational role of journalists is seen as crucial to mass media performance, and by extension, to the vitality of democratic public life.
Alongside the creation of this new occupational category, at the turn of the twentieth century, US universities created new tertiary education programs to train mass media recruits; professional associations and codes of practice also emerged at this time. This US model of concurrent media/professional development was later exported via postwar modernization programs to newly emerging nation-states in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. These programs typically included the creation of a new class of professional communicators via university-level journalism education courses (Pye 1963). The International Centre for Higher Education of Latin American Journalists (CIESPAL), set up in 1957 and based in Quito, Ecuador, is an exemplary initiative of this kind. While democracy today remains a vexed issue in many of the aforementioned regions, nonetheless, current research on their media highlights the ongoing influence of these imported mass communication concepts. Thus, for example, the “creative genius” of journalists is said to have enlivened the African press even during the period from 1970 to 1990, when it achieved particular notoriety for its sycophancy toward new national governments (Mytton 2001).
Discussion of media responsibility provides another focus for this topic. (William Rivers & Wilbur Schramm’s 1969) seminal study identifies government, media, and the public as the social institutions that guarantee responsible media performance. And, while a nation’s cultural standards are said to depend on a concert between mass education and mass media, the most influential of these three change agents is seen to be the media itself. It has a fundamental duty to improve its own performance through both self-regulation of the media (industry codes of practice), and professionalization of the workforce (codes of ethical practice, higher pay rates, mid-career education, and self-criticism).
In this schema, which owes much to a western liberal democratic view of press– government relations, governments contribute most when media regulation is minimal (Rivers & Schramm 1969). The public’s duty, on the other hand, is to argue for better media and, more broadly, for mass education that will raise public expectations of the media and, hence, cultural standards (Rivers & Schramm 1969). Universities do not figure in this kind of analysis. Academic research is mentioned, but only as a source that journalists routinely mock. Thus, “anti-intellectualism” is identified as a key problem in journalism, evidenced in the lack of a self-critical spirit found in individual newsrooms as well as in the institutional hostility toward public scrutiny. Interestingly, to remedy this anti-intellectualism, journalists are advised to undertake advanced media study, along the lines of the Nieman Program at Harvard University (Rivers & Schramm 1969).
Elsewhere, the professional education of journalists is the habitual primary focus in discussions of the relationship between professional journalists and academic research (O’Donnell 2002). A common premise is that journalists should be more appreciative of educational initiatives directed at improving their public standing as well as news standards. Further, professional education is assumed to enhance the capacity of journalists to shape news agendas (Schultz 1998, 64 – 67). So, for example, journalism graduates are expected to report news to higher editorial standards than amateur news cadets or occasional bloggers because they know more about journalistic ethics, news values, politics, laws that impinge on free speech (e.g., libel, defamation, privacy, sedition), and media history. Debate then centers on the balance between practical and theoretical subjects in curriculum design; the research assumes higher professional standards are linked to more theoretical curricula programs, but recognizes that media employers prefer job-ready skills to abstract knowledge when recruiting graduates (O’Donnell 2002).
Moreover, professional skills and autonomy are said to permit public advocacy and vigorous pursuit of news in the “public interest” (Schultz 1998), buffering journalists from the worst excesses of the market, political interference, workplace change, and the increasingly sophisticated news management techniques of sources. In this view, professional journalists and editors are key social actors enabling the mass media to exercise its normative role in democracy; that is, the role of facilitating and enhancing public life by providing citizens with a wide range of opportunities to inform themselves and engage in debate about matters of public importance. Watchdog journalism has become a synonym for the fourth estate ideal (Schultz 1998). In this way, the research on this topic reproduces the well-established dichotomy in western culture between intellectual and manual work (theory and practice), including its premise that a well-educated person offers more to the workforce and society than a laborer. Academic study can be seen in this context as an important resource both for communication professionals and for society. However, journalists and other communication professionals do not typically see academic research this way.
The Underlying Quandary
Doubts over the relevance of academic research to practice, and the expectation of antiintellectualism among media professionals can be seen as two sides of a quandary that repeatedly surfaces in the literature on this topic.
The quandary is summed up in the question: does communication practice really need communication scholarship? In other words, what is the nature of the relationship between communication research and communication practices, especially where these practices are seen as innate and intuitive, and are habitually performed in effective ways without the benefits of higher education or recourse to scholarship? This is, of course, a somewhat false dilemma because all communicative practice involves intelligent action, whether or not media practitioners want to call their work that or interpret it in explicitly theoretical terms. Nonetheless, it is also a real dilemma when it comes to identifying the specialized intellectual training that is indispensable for professional mass communicators: in curricular terms, decisions have to be made about which communication theory best serves practice. A related concern is whether independent, critical, scholarly review enhances excellence or deters malpractice in mass communication practice in ways that are significantly better than on-the-job self-appraisal. The quandary also has a political dimension: should democratic societies that hold free speech, equality, and pluralism as axiomatic principles rely on elite corps of highly trained mass communication experts, or are they better off with communicators who represent and understand their public?
Changing Perceptions of the Relationship
From the practitioners’ perspective, ongoing doubts about the relevance of communication research to media practice arguably have their origins in the foundational experience of higher education mentioned above. Professional education in this area historically sought to enhance occupational status rather than transform the occupation into a learned profession (McGuire 1992), and was not grounded in abstract knowledge, much less a general theory of journalism. Indeed, mass communicator studies began some four decades after the first journalism education courses, with Rosten’s (1937) inaugural survey of Washington correspondents (see Berger & Chaffee 1987), and the research field of journalism studies is a much more recent development, as evidenced by two international scholarly journals, Journalism Studies (Routledge) and Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism (Sage), both of which began publication in 2000. From the start, then, journalism curricula were “theory-free” and instead institutionalized free press principles, objective reporting techniques, and an ethic of social responsibility (Carey 1997). Today, irrespective of research developments, these practical “fundamentals” continue to be taught. Thus in simple, chronological terms, communication scholarship has been an optional rather than optimal resource in professional media practice and industry-based discussions of media performance and change.
Yet, on the other hand, as early as 1933, in their classic work on The Professions, British sociologists A. M. Carr-Saunders and P. A. Wilson attributed journalism’s susceptibility to commercialism to the lack of specialized intellectual training and the occupation’s failure to establish a “monopoly of technique indispensable to the proprietors” (Carr-Saunders & Wilson 2001, 40).
Journalists’ preference for practical competence over theoretical rigor finds support in an unexpected quarter: US educationalist Donald Schön’s (1983) proposal that all intelligent action presupposes a kind of knowing and, hence, that “reflection-in-action” be accepted as a legitimate form of professional knowledge. Schön’s concept challenges the traditional positivist epistemology of practice or “technical rationality” found in Carr-Saunders and Wilson’s sociology of the professions, claiming it encourages a limited view of professional practice as the application of research-based knowledge to real-world problems. In the alternative view, research is not only a scholarly endeavor but also an everyday activity of practitioners that informs good decision-making.
Australian journalism professor Lynette Sheridan Burns (2002) extends this new epistemology of practice to journalism, arguing news practices consist of ill-structured problems that are context-specific yet require consistent decisions that are mindful of ethical, professional, and commercial exigencies. Journalists typically find it hard to put their intellectual processes into words; Sheridan Burns therefore sees it as her task, as a former journalist, to research journalistic “reflection-in-action” and to teach systematic critical self-reflection as the mainstay of excellence in journalism.
Canadian journalism educator G. Stuart Adam’s (2001) incisive study of journalism’s epistemology centers on “the journalistic imagination” as both an individual property and the historical product of the culture of modernity. In this view, knowledge is understood as a creative design process; the “art” of journalism is a process of working imaginatively with and through scholarly and non-scholarly ideas. Thus, journalism students need to experiment with journalism’s ambitious forms – investigative reporting, documentaries, and features – rather than rehearse daily news practices. Likewise, rather than master communication and media studies theory, journalism students need to understand those disciplinary discourses and research interests that enable good journalism, such as ideas of justice-making (law), the purposes and practices of democratic institutions (politics), and notions of progress (history) (Adam 2001). In this way, discussion of professional practice in journalism assumes a more conventional scholarly form.
It is important to note that the reflective turn in thinking about professional practice occurred at around the same time as what might be termed a corresponding “pragmatic” turn in the field of communication, particularly in the USA (Dervin et al. 1989; Craig 2007). The empirical social scientific orientation of US communication studies came under considerable scrutiny and challenge in the mid-1980s from critical and cultural studies scholars, giving rise to “paradigm dialogues” that sought to rationalize the field’s multiple theoretical and methodological positions and, thus, reinvigorate its framework (Dervin et al. 1989).
Robert T. Craig proposed that communication is best understood as a “practical discipline” whose central purpose is to cultivate communicative praxis though critical study (Craig 1989, 97– 98). Despite some links to the Habermasian tradition of emancipatory critical theory, this methodology owes more to the US philosophical tradition of pragmatism (e.g., John Dewey), with its preference for socially relevant ways of thinking over formal theoretical abstractions. Hence, in this view, practical theory aims to integrate rational, skeptical inquiry into the analysis, evaluation, and redesign of communicative activities at whatever level. Craig’s primary exemplar is the 2000-year-old art of rhetoric (Craig 1989, 116) but arguably the art of journalism (Adam 2001) serves as a more illustrative case for media practitioners.
How, then, does this “pragmatic” turn in communication scholarship strengthen the possibility of new affinities between communication professions and academic research? Like the epistemology of journalism canvassed above, it brings theoretical inquiry into more familiar terrain for media professionals. In his history of the ideas shaping American journalism, the veteran journalist turned scholar J. Herbert Altschull (1990, 236) points to pragmatism as a “can-do” philosophy rooted in the search for “facts” that was “almost made for the American journalist.” Not only does Altschull encourage journalists to improve their performance by studying more, but he also encourages and expects them to join the scholarly dialogue about communicative futures. Thus, the pragmatist tradition can be seen as one bridging point between communication professionals and scholars.
Current studies of media professionals introduce a wider range of variables into the discussion of media responsibility, performance, and change (Tumber 2000; Tunstall 2001).
Thus, while Tumber (2000) points to ongoing concerns about news standards, media accountability, and the autonomy of journalists, these questions are no longer framed in terms of institutional self-regulation or workforce professionalization. Instead, there is broad discussion of global trends in media policymaking, the rise of corporate media power, the complexities of modern communication management, and the internationalization of both media and media studies. Media power is no longer understood solely in terms of the institutional independence of the press. Instead, the transnationalization of media corporations and operations has created new communicative spaces and practices, and new analytical concerns include corporate control, commodification, and competing media rights and responsibilities. Professionalization of journalism is no longer, if it ever was, a panacea for improving media performance because news has lost its privileged ranking as media practices proliferate and variegate via the Internet and other digital platforms. Indeed, the boundaries between news workers and the public are increasingly blurred by technological change that puts information tools in the hands of everyone with a desktop computer, giving rise to changing perceptions not only of journalism but also of terms like “media responsibility” and the “public interest.”
Tunstall’s (2001) study of media professions further departs from earlier work that foregrounds media’s responsibilities. It highlights three new categories of powerful, highly paid individuals who are central to media performance and change: the media mogul, the media baron or chief executive, and the media celebrity. Tunstall (2001) suggests these individuals exercise an unusual discretionary power to change media; a power that owes much more to their wealth, business acumen, and audience appeal than to educational qualifications or formal knowledge of communication. In this way, the business of media seems to overtake previous concerns to identify and investigate the intellectual work of journalism, and its role in strengthening the relationship between information, knowledge, and democracy.
Nonetheless, the search for more constructive dialogues between communication scholars and media professionals continues because, as a recent study indicates, we “are in the same boat and a hole at either end poses problems for all” (Izard & Morgan 2004)!
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