Political journalists, viewed through the lens of the editorial organization, are those who report on political affairs or work on the political desk. This perspective foregrounds organizational factors in news production, particularly the division of labor in the editorial process. Typical Anglo-American newsrooms make a functional distinction between news gatherers (reporters) and news processors (editors), but in continental Europe many news cultures have implemented divisions among subject-related editorial departments (such as politics, business, or sports), where journalists function as professional all-rounders with tasks involving reporting, editing, and commenting.
Organizational pressures, especially the cutbacks in financial resources allotted to editorial processes, have left journalists limited, if not inadequate, time to produce a balanced, comprehensive, and contextualized account. Other limitations emanate from the textual constraints of most news formats and from the increased speed of news production through new communication technologies. Consequently, reactive modes of political journalism have gained ground as more proactive approaches have receded. Reliance upon official sources is particularly pervasive in, but not limited to, news cultures with an authoritative press system. Even in liberal media systems, journalists commonly recognize government information as credible and authoritative, which makes it much easier for political advertisers and public relations executives to get their messages into the news (McChesney 2004). Because politicians have long recognized the impact of media and public opinion on the processes of political decision-making, journalists operate permanently under pressure from lobbyists and so-called political handlers, who strive to control and manipulate information. As political communication has relied more on strategic information management, media coverage has turned cynical and negative in tone (Patterson 1993).
Political journalists also work under normative expectations that often conflict. In an era of mediated politics, they play a vital role in informing the electorate. They are expected to act in the public interest, as gatekeepers who identify the relevant political news of the day for citizens, and also as watchdogs who monitor the legislative, executive, and judicial estates to safeguard democracy. Tensions arise between the demands of covering the revival of local cultural identities and the processes of globalization, as societies look to political journalists to serve as a cohesive force contributing to social integration.
In contrast to normative expectations, however, some scholars argue that political journalism in fact causes alienation, induces cynicism, and has a narcotic influence that continues to erode public engagement in civic life (McNair 2000). As media organizations have become subject to marketing, commercializing, and commodifying processes, political journalism has tended to highlight the popular and spectacular over the relevant. This tendency, along with a decline in voter participation, has helped give rise to a reform movement that endeavors to reconstruct public life by reconnecting journalists with the communities they cover. Other efforts attempt to furnish political journalists with a more assertive role in national development and nonviolent conflict resolution, especially in poor and war-torn societies of Asia and Africa.
Consistent evidence shows that journalists come primarily from the middle and upper middle classes. Some media critics (e.g. Paletz & Entman 1981) argue that their elite background prevents many political journalists from challenging the political status quo. They are thus seen as preserving the legitimacy of the prevailing political, economic, and social system.
Finally, journalists are also political actors. The strategic ritual of objectivity dominates the professional ideology of journalists around the world (Weaver 1998), but interpretive and interventionist practices still exist in political reporting. In the United States after the September 11 attacks, prominent political journalists positioned themselves as Americans first, journalists second, in a stance that may have contributed to the biased coverage of the war on Iraq in the mainstream US media. In a similar vein, leading media figures in Europe (including France, Germany, and Great Britain) and Asia (especially in the Islamic context) spoke out against the war.
Politically active journalists perceive themselves as participants in the debate, as advocates of and missionaries for a particular political cause. They may act on behalf of the socially disadvantaged or as the mouthpiece of a party or other group whose interests are at stake in a political process. As advocates, their impulse is not to stand outside the flow of events, but to participate, intervene, and get involved to promote change. The interventionist impulse also motivates public, development, and peace journalism.
Historically, politically assertive journalism has a rich tradition in Latin America and also in Europe, where the media tend to have distinct political orientations (Hallin & Mancini 2004). Surveys of journalists have shown that the degree of their partisanship is higher in the political cultures of Germany and Italy than among their colleagues in the United States (Donsbach & Patterson 2004). Although the majority of news workers lean to the liberal side of the political spectrum, most media organizations, as a result of their integration into the economic system, lean to the conservative side.
- Donsbach, W., & Patterson, T. E. (2004). Political news journalists: Partisanship, professionalism, and political roles in five countries. In F. Esser & B. Pfetsch (eds.), Comparing political communication: Theories, cases, and challenges. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 251–270.
- Hallin, D. C., & Mancini, P. (2004). Comparing media systems: Three models of media and politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- McChesney, R. W. (2004). The problem of the media: U.S. communication politics in the twenty-first century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- McNair, B. (2000). Journalism and democracy: An evaluation of the political public sphere. London: Routledge.
- Paletz, D. L., & Entman, R. M. (1981). Media, power, politics. New York: Free Press.
- Patterson, T. E. (1993). Out of order. New York: Knopf.
- Weaver, D. H. (ed.) (1998). The global journalist: News people around the world. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.