News routines are repeated practices and forms that make it easier for journalists to accomplish tasks in an uncertain world while working within production constraints. The routines journalists employ serve functional ends for journalists, news organizations, and audiences. Routines also result in dysfunction.
All work relies on routines, but tasks become more routine in organizations that produce on a mass scale, that face little environmental uncertainty, and that do not seek innovation. Journalists face uncertainty, but predictable mass production is more important than innovation for news organizations. To manage work and insure a flow of incoming information, news organizations have adopted factory-like practices and processes (Berkowitz 1997).
News routines emerged where the organization and the social environment intersect, say journalism historians. The development of western democratic market societies and the rationalization of economic life in the 1800s led to the pursuit of wide audiences, increased scale of production, and larger news organizations (Schudson 2003). As staffs increased, management attempted to control production bureaucratically. Rules and new technologies facilitated control, as did professional routines such as balancing sources and writing in a neutral style, which serve organizational purposes (Berkowitz 1997). Rivalry with other occupations also prompted routinization. To differentiate itself from public relations, journalism embraced detached neutrality as a professional value, encouraging mechanized, impersonal processes (Schudson 2003).
Routines persist because they are familiar and deeply naturalized. Change is difficult and risks undermining professional legitimacy, as publics and other institutions identify with, and even depend on, journalism’s routine practices (Ryfe 2006).
Scholars depict these macro-social influences on journalism organizations as hierarchical models. Although the levels differ, all the models propose that influence grows from the individual communicator through the organizational and environmental (community, government) to the social and cultural (e.g., Shoemaker & Reese 1996). Higher levels constrain decision-making at lower levels and encourage routines. For example, using official sources reflects an organizational need for easily available information, but also reflects the power officials have to shape the community agenda.
Different routines across press systems exemplify the social-cultural level. The highly differentiated, mechanized structure of large British and US news organizations constrains individual journalists more than do German news organizations of similar size, which have more-redundant roles and less-formal processes (Esser 1998). Russian journalists differ by routinely including analysis in news stories, likely a consequence of their historical association with elite intelligentsia (Wu et al. 1996).
Other news routines are more consistent across cultures. One way journalists deal with the clash of organizational constraints and macro-social uncertainty is through typification. Because they cannot control the stream of real-world events, they reconstitute it. They typify news into discrete categories such as hard vs. soft and spot vs. developing, thus gaining greater predictability of production. Typification eases work processes but may blind journalists and audiences to rival interpretations of issues (Tuchman 1978).
The routines of objectivity and news beats also cross cultures (Hafez 2002). Objectivity routines require balanced sources, personal detachment, factual reporting, and authoritative sources. These practices help news organizations gain wide audiences and avoid criticism, but may lead journalists to ignore non-official voices. Coverage routines establish news beats around officials with reliable supplies of information, decreasing uncertainty but letting officials shape the media agenda (Tuchman 1978).
Routines exist in news production as well. Journalists write hard news in inverted pyramid style, leading with content they think readers will find compelling, and page designers regularly anchor layouts with dominant photos. Both routines reveal a marketing orientation, itself a consequence of higher-order economic factors.
Scholars find that routines aid journalists and news organizations in practical ways. Routines protect journalists by allowing individuals to assign the consequences of routinized decisions to a system. Shared conventions and routines also help journalists establish agreed-upon criteria for evaluating professional status. Routinization aids managers in hiring. More widely accepted routines make the work of assessing job candidates easier, although perhaps leading to homogeneous candidate pools. Agreed-upon conventions, such as making the inside page less consequential than front-page stories, help journalists perform despite uncertainty about audience preferences. Conventions also ease audiences’ interpretations of news but may delimit their understanding (Altheide & Snow 1979).
However, routines that free journalists from investing in repetitive tasks can also stifle their creative expression (Ettema & Whitney, 1982). If practices become too routine and easy for others, journalists’ jurisdictional authority over news work may erode. Thus journalists tend to portray their work as highly uncertain, subject to the whims of the “world out there.”
- Altheide, D. L., & Snow, R. P. (1979). Media logic. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Berkowitz, D. (ed.) (1997). Social meanings of news. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Esser, F. (1998). Editorial structures and work principles in British and German newsrooms. European Journal of Communication, 13, 375 – 405.
- Ettema, J. S., & Whitney, C. W. (eds.) (1982). Individuals in mass media organizations: Creativity and constraint. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Hafez, K. (2002). Journalism ethics revisited: A comparison of ethics codes in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Muslim Asia. Political Communication, 19, 225 –250.
- Ryfe, D. M. (ed.) (2006). New institutionalism and the news. Special issue. Political Communication, 23(2).
- Schudson, M. (2003). The sociology of news. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Shoemaker, P., & Reese, S. (1996). Mediating the message: Theories of influence on mass media content. White Plains, NY: Longman.
- Tuchman, G. (1978). Making the news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.
- Wu, W., Weaver, D., & Johnson, O. V. (1996). Professional roles of Russian and U.S. journalists: A comparative study. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 73, 534 –548.