The professionalization of journalism refers to the process by which a category of workers engaged in reporting and commentary in the public media on current events and ideas achieves the status of the occupational professional. Key issues in understanding the professionalization of journalism center on the difficulties in defining “professionalization” itself; the historical differences between US and non-American trajectories of professionalization; the relationship between journalistic objectivity and professionalism, especially in the American case; and the current economic, technological, and political challenges to the professional status of journalism.
The difficulty most media scholars face in determining whether to consider journalism a profession links partly to the social and cultural practices of journalism and partly to difficulties in the study of the professions in general. Although the scholarly criteria for considering whether or not an occupation is a profession has remained largely stable since Durkheim – professions control their own recruitment, claim an exclusive area of competence, and postulate various normative benefits generated by their occupational autonomy – the method of analysis has moved from seeing professions as the bearers of functional traits to viewing them as interested social actors.
An older trait approach to the sociology of professions engaged in a functional analysis of professional systems, a research program whose openly normative tendencies define a profession as a model of occupational autonomy and responsible self-management that everyone should imitate. Trait theories continue to manifest themselves within much of the literature on journalism, primarily in attempts to determine whether or not journalism is a profession. Most scholars working in the sociology of the professions have abandoned the trait approach and its functionalism. Many sociologists care less about answering the question “Is this occupation a profession?” and more about analyzing the circumstances in which workers attempt to turn an occupation into a profession and themselves into professionals (Hughes 1965). The study of “the profession” as an idealized functionalist category has been replaced by the more Weberian study of “professionalization” and the “professional project” (Larson 1977).
The theory of the professional project has remained at the center of much of the most important work in the sociology of the professions for the past several decades (MacDonald 1995). For scholars in this tradition, professions are neither naturally existing occupational categories nor the bearers of socially functional traits. Instead they are collective social actors that attempt to translate one order of scarce resources – special knowledge and skills – into social and economic rewards. Within the studies of journalism, this Weberian analysis is seen in studies that trace the rise of journalistic professionalism over the course of history.
Key to the success or failure of an occupation’s professional project is its ability to achieve a regulative bargain with the state. Professional groups must also do more to secure their monopoly than simply petition state elites; they must engage in a competitive struggle with other occupational groups that offer similar knowledge-based services, a process of struggle over jurisdiction (Abbott 1988). Finally, the fundamental aim of a profession is less a strict monopoly than a looser form of social closure: a process that allows the professional group itself to define the criteria for judging its own competence, by promulgating abstract standards of conduct and controlling the selection and training of its members.
In the study of journalism, scholarship has moved along a similar track. Much recent research analyzes the means and methods that the journalist has employed to seize control of both the abstract knowledge base and the occupational autonomy needed to establish professional dominance. For instance, cross-national empirical evidence demonstrates that journalists see themselves as a professional ingroup (Donsbach 1981). Rather than attempting to shoehorn journalists into traditional professional criteria, a more interesting approach is to determine categories of professional journalistic competence and analyze how much the practice of actual journalists reflects these categories.
Many cross-national studies of professionalism and journalism adopt some or all of the sociological perspectives on professionalization, though not always explicitly. Three important cross-national studies of journalistic professionalism are “Professionalization in the media world?” (Kepplinger & Köcher 1990), Comparing media systems (Hallin & Mancini 2004) and Making journalists (deBurgh 2005). These three join others that probe professionalization and journalism (Frohlich & Holtz-Bacha 2003). The benefits of crossnational comparisons are that they call into question some of the basic assumptions of a professionalization model grounded solely in the historical experience of American or British journalism.
Hallin and Mancini (2004) includes professionalization as one of the four axes (along with media market development, political parallelism, and state intervention) along which to analyze the three major media systems of North America and Europe (the polarized pluralist, the democratic corporatist, and the North Atlantic liberal). The three media systems vary in their approximation to the abstract model of professionalism that Hallin and Mancini propose. Polarized pluralist journalism as practiced in Mediterranean countries possesses a weaker level of professionalism and closer ties to the perspectives and activities of other political and social actors. Democratic corporatist journalism within the northern and central European countries is a highly professionalized endeavor; journalists often join press organizations and subscribe to overt, written codes of enforceable conduct. “Professional” does not translate into either objective or “free from ties to political parties,” but rather defines journalistic autonomy as a form of active political intervention in the political world. The overview of the North Atlantic model, finally, largely parallels analysis of the development of professionalism in the United States: high levels of professionalism of a noninstitutionalized sort, primarily dependent upon claims to journalistic objectivity and an overt abstention from political life.
Other cross-national studies have also addressed issues of journalistic professionalism. The main limitation of many of these comprehensive and theoretically sophisticated overviews of major journalism systems and global variations in professionalism and professionalization is their focus on the west: North America, Britain, and Europe. Other scholars have launched moves toward expanding the comparative frame, exploring global issues related to journalism education, training, and practice and, secondarily, professionalization (Waisbord 2000).
Discussion In The United States
Despite moving toward a deeper understanding of cross-national professionalism, most journalistic analyses of professionalism still use the United States as a typical case, either in comparison to other countries or as the definition in need of conceptual adjustment. A review of how journalistic professionalism developed in the United States must therefore precede any analysis of current challenges to journalistic professionalism.
A factor complicating an overview of the American case is that few historical studies tracing the development of journalism see professionalism as the primary object of study. Some of the most historically detailed overviews trace the growth of the occupation of journalism in general, colorful terms (Summers 1994), and many of the most useful case studies see the emergence of objectivity as synonymous with the growth of professionalism (Kaplan 2002; Mindich 1998). As a result, journalism scholarship regularly conflates “journalistic objectivity” with “journalistic professionalism,” even though the correlation does not necessarily hold true on the comparative level.
In any case, most sociologists and historians of journalism point to the emergence of paid, full-time reporters (coinciding with the birth of the inexpensive popular newspapers in major American urban areas, especially New York City) as marking the first step toward journalistic professionalization. Originally considered a disreputable or marginal activity, reporting would, in the decades after the Civil War, yoke itself to the largely middle-class professionalization project. Journalists began to shed their so-called bohemian ways (Tucher 2004) in favor of an adopted image of solid respectability. By the early twentieth century, the Progressive Movement developed a growing emphasis on, even a mania for, democratic professionalism, and journalism moved in tandem, organizing its first professional schools, adopting its first codes of ethics, launching its first trade publications, and organizing industry and trade groups such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE; Banning 1999).
Even more important than the adoption of these formal markers of professionalism, however, was the decoupling of the newspaper from the political party machine (Kaplan 2002) and the growth of an explicitly commercial model of news reporting that seized upon “objectivity” as its primarily narrative marker (Schudson 1978). Scholars dispute the exact timing of this shift, as well as its sociological backdrop, but in the decades between the turn of the century and World War II, North American journalism institutionalized the current, familiar model of professionalism on a national scale.
Over the next half century, this dominant narrative fusing objectivity and professionalism would not go unchallenged. In reaction to widespread social unrest and the collapse of the postwar liberal consensus, critical professionalism grew in the late 1960s (Hallin & Mancini 2004), fusing a professional reportorial style with a more aggressive and power-challenging approach to the craft. Several decades later, a widespread disgust with a process of politics seen as trivial and relentlessly negative gave rise to the public journalism movement, a similarly anti-professional response among a small faction of journalists (Carey 1999). In sociology, the description of journalistic objectivity as a strategic ritual (Tuchman 1978), the detailed analysis of the daily processes for making news decisions (Gans 1979), and the critique of how the national media shaped the image and social behavior of the new left (Gitlin 1980) challenged the epistemological foundations underlying journalists’ self-image. Still, the success of the narrative that the North American professional model proposed has been remarkable, especially considering that journalistic professionalism rests upon shaky foundations.
How great a challenge journalistic professionalism faces varies from country to country, depending on national factors and how institutionalized professionalized journalism has become. Several long-term social trends threaten the still weak status of journalism as a profession: growing corporatization (and its counterpart, politicization); the diffusion of digital communicative tools; and, at least in the United States, the collapse of the three-decades-old modus vivendi between news organizations and the government on using journalists as witnesses in legal proceedings.
Sociologists have long had theoretical and empirical concerns about the process of educated labor becoming increasingly proletarian (Larson 1977), and a few American media scholars have drawn an explicit link between the growth of centralized, profitdriven media systems (Bagdikian 2000) and a decline in journalistic professionalism. In the European context, where the tradition of mixing state and private media enterprises faces increasing pressure to Americanize, scholars have drawn a far more forceful link between professional decline and a media system grounded in a capitalistic communications environment. Bourdieu (1998) was especially polemical in this regard. To complicate matters further, increased corporate control and consolidation find their apparent opposite in a second trend that also could affect the status of journalism as a profession: the explosive growth of digital communications via the Internet, which futurists, online entrepreneurs, and scholars say has the potential to democratize the current journalistic system. Most commentators doubt that online media forms like weblogs, podcasts, videoblogs, one-woman media startups, or radical media enterprises like Indymedia will replace the professional journalist, but nearly all argue that the profession will not emerge from the Internet era unscathed. Scholars have so far done little to no research on how the impact of the Internet on professional journalism varies across national boundaries, leaving to speculation whether its effects have been universal.
In a sociological and cultural sense, these technological, regulatory, and economic trends are in their early stages and difficult to assess, but they are the likely terrain where the professional project of journalism will unfold. In the coming years, research should include an examination of technological challenges to journalism and journalistic expertise, a comparative analysis of legal-political culture in the relative failure of journalism professionalization; and the cross-national study of institutions of journalism education. Finally, the professional project of journalism manifests itself as much in practice as in theory or education. In the so-called “distributed newsroom” of the twenty-first century, research should assess how the organizational structures, work routines, staff interactions, and ethical decision-making processes of journalists are changing.
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