Dimensions of Indigenous journalism culture: Exploring Māori news


Dimensions of Indigenous journalism culture: Exploring Māori news
Dimensions of Indigenous
journalism culture: Exploring
Māori news-making in
Aotearoa New Zealand
2014, Vol. 15(8) 951­–967
© The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1464884913495757
Folker Hanusch
University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia
Indigenous news media have experienced significant growth across the globe in
recent years, but they have received only limited attention in mainstream society or
the journalism and communication research community. Yet, Indigenous journalism is
playing an arguably increasingly important role in contributing to Indigenous politics
and identities, and is worthy of closer analysis. Using in-depth interviews, this article
provides an overview of the main dimensions of Indigenous journalism as they can be
found in the journalism culture of Māori journalists in Aotearoa New Zealand. It argues
that Māori journalists see their role as providing a counter-narrative to mainstream
media reporting and as contributing to Indigenous empowerment and revitalization of
their language. At the same time, they view themselves as watchdogs, albeit within a
culturally specific framework that has its own constraints. The article argues that the
identified dimensions are reflective of evidence on Indigenous journalism from across
the globe.
Indigenous, Indigenous media, journalism, journalism culture, Māori, native journalism,
New Zealand, role perception
Like a variety of so-called alternative types of media, the Indigenous media sector has
grown over the past decade in many countries and regions, such as Australia, Canada,
Corresponding author:
Folker Hanusch, School of Communication, University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore, DC, Qld
4558, Australia.
Email: [email protected]
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Journalism 15(8)
New Zealand, Scandinavia and the United States. Partly due to the emergence of new
technologies, Indigenous peoples around the world have increasingly been able to reach
their own urban, regional and remote communities. Having historically been portrayed
mainly through the eyes of non-Indigenous media, this development has provided
Indigenous peoples an opportunity to have their own voices heard and to tell their own
stories, primarily to their own people but also to non-Indigenous communities. As
Meadows (2009: 522–523) has argued, these media ‘enable Indigenous people to deliberate together, to develop their own counter-discourses, and to interpret their own identities and experiences’ and in this way they can act ‘as a cultural bridge between the
parallel universes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous society’.
While Indigenous media in a broad sense have attracted considerable attention from
scholars concerned with the way in which Indigenous peoples adopt their own media
strategies, news production and journalistic activities within those media have been
examined somewhat more rarely. One reason for this may lie in the fact that the vast
majority of scholarly work on Indigenous media has been conducted mostly from a cultural studies or anthropological perspective, while the field has attracted considerably
less attention from journalism studies or communication researchers. However, the way
in which Indigenous journalists think about and practise their work is important in order
to understand how the growing number of Indigenous news providers across the globe
may be contributing to their own cultures’ identities. Journalism is an important cultural
resource and remains culturally contextualized, and it is crucial we examine the way in
which Indigenous journalism cultures may constitute and identify themselves in a predominantly non-Indigenous news environment.
This article explores Indigenous journalism culture in the case of the Māori of
Aotearoa New Zealand, a country that boasts a relatively sizeable Indigenous news
media landscape, with competing news and current affairs programs on two television stations, and a syndicated radio news service, as well as a monthly magazine.
Based on in-depth interviews with 20 Māori journalists, the article examines their
motivations for pursuing their occupation and their views about their professional
roles, identifying a number of important dimensions that constitute Māori journalism
Indigenous media
Indigenous media have existed in many parts of the world for a considerable time, but
they had been given relatively little attention in mainstream society or academia until
around the 1980s and 1990s (Meadows and Molnar, 2002: 9). The past two decades,
however, have seen a rapid rise of Indigenous media around the world, and with it a
renewed interest in the role that media which are controlled by Indigenous people can
play in contributing to Indigenous public spheres.
Research on Indigenous people and the media can typically be divided into two main
approaches. The first is concerned with the way Indigenous people are portrayed in the
mainstream media, where media content is produced by non-Indigenous people. Some
examples include analyses of news media coverage of Aotearoa New Zealand’s national
day (Abel, 1997), mainstream media coverage of Australian Aborigines (Hartley and
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McKee, 2000; Meadows, 2001), Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans (Kilpatrick,
1999; Rollins and O’Connor, 1998), or mainstream news portrayals of the Sámi
(Pietikäinen, 2003). All these studies show that Indigenous people are repeatedly and
consistently marginalized and stereotyped in mainstream media, portrayed through a
variety of tropes, and are under-represented among the number of media workers.
The second approach examines the media strategies of Indigenous people themselves,
in their attempt to break out of the stereotypical portrayal by the mainstream and to create a space where they can tell their own stories, in their own ways. An example of this
approach is the seminal work of Faye Ginsburg (1991, 1993, 1995). Other studies
include: an analysis of Native American media and their struggle for cultural sovereignty
(Singer, 2001); Indigenous Canadians’ adoption of television (Roth, 2000, 2006; Santo,
2004) and other media (Alia, 1999); the impact of satellites on Indigenous communication in Australia, Canada and New Zealand (Molnar and Meadows, 2001); the poetics of
Indigenous media in Chile (Salazar, 2004); and broader overviews of the state of
Indigenous media around the globe (Alia, 2010; Browne, 1996; Ginsburg et al., 2002;
Wilson and Stewart, 2008).
These two major perspectives are inherently linked, as Ginsburg (2002: 51) points out
when she argues that media technologies such as film, video and television ‘contain
within them a double set of possibilities’ (2002: 51). On the one hand, they can be ‘seductive conduits for imposing the values and language of the dominant culture on minoritized people’. This has famously been described as the ‘neutron bomb’ effect, a term
coined by Inuit broadcaster Rosemarie Kuptana (1982), who argued that non-Indigenous
television ‘destroys the soul of a people but leaves the shell of a people walking around’.
Kuptana made this reference in view of the absence of native television, however, and,
as the subsequent period has shown, media technologies can also ‘offer possibilities for
“talking back” to and through the categories that have been created to contain Indigenous
people’ (Ginsburg, 2002: 51). Thus, Indigenous media are almost always a response to
the dominant culture’s media treatment of Indigenous people.
Indigenous peoples around the globe have in recent decades experienced an ‘explosion of Indigenous news media, information technology, film, music, and other artistic
and cultural developments’ (Alia, 2009: 39). Often a result of different cultural and political renaissance processes, these media have allowed Indigenous societies to tell their
own stories in culturally specific ways, enabling them to engage in (re)building their own
identities. Increasingly, this process has occurred in a transnational and global way, with
numerous collaborative projects, such as the establishment of the World Indigenous
Television Broadcasters Network (WITBN) which currently includes representatives
from Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Norway, Scotland, Solomon
Islands, Taiwan, the United States, and Wales. The increasing media collaboration
between various Indigenous peoples prompted Alia (2003) to argue that they constituted
a ‘New Media Nation’:
No real ‘nation’ in the political sense, it exists outside the control of any particular nation state,
and enables its creators and users to network and engage in transcultural and transnational
lobbying, and access information that might otherwise be inaccessible within state borders.
(Alia, 2010: 7–8)
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Indigenous journalism culture
While much attention has been paid to Indigenous media and the role they can play in
revitalizing Indigenous communities and rebuilding their identities, Indigenous journalism has typically been only one of many aspects that were examined. This is surprising
considering the long history of Indigenous journalism: the first tribal newspaper in the
USA began publishing in 1828 (Littlefield and Parins, 1984), the first Aboriginal newspaper in Australia appeared in 1836 (Meadows and Molnar, 2002), the first Māorilanguage newspaper in 1842 (Curnow, 2002), and the first Sámi political newspaper in
1906 (Lehtola, 2005). Nevertheless, there does exist enough evidence for theorizing
about the dimensions of journalism culture – here defined as ‘a particular set of ideas and
practices by which journalists legitimate their role in society and render their work meaningful’ (Hanitzsch, 2007: 369) – in Indigenous societies. In the following, these dimensions, identified as empowerment, counter-narrative, language revitalization, culturally
appropriate reporting, and the watchdog function, are discussed.
As the general literature on Indigenous media has argued, Indigenous journalists play
a crucial part in the empowerment of Indigenous society. Pietikäinen’s (2008: 173) interviews with Sámi journalists working in Finland noted that journalists believed they had
an important role to play in ‘providing an alternative public space’, a space that enables
Indigenous peoples access for discussion of their issues, on their terms. Such media can
be ‘symbols of empowerment and means for political mobilization of ethnic communities’ (2008: 177). Indeed, this process is crucial for Indigenous politics, with Salazar
(2003, 2004), who studied Mapuche media in Chile, arguing that Indigenous media are a
critical form of making politics.
Closely connected to empowerment is the ability to offer a counter-narrative to mainstream media reporting. Many Indigenous news outlets – though not all – started as
activist organizations, with Alia (2010: 110) arguing that ‘throughout history, Indigenous
media projects have often begun in “illegal,” “outlaw,” “guerilla,” “rebel,” or “pirate”
ways’. Grixti (2011: 343) notes that they are typically ‘the work of activists who use
Western media technologies in order to counter dominant media misrepresentations of
Indigenous people by documenting Indigenous cultural traditions from an Indigenous
perspective, and in the process articulate Indigenous cultural identities and futures’.
Concerned with negative portrayals in the mainstream news media, many Indigenous
journalists aim to provide a narrative that goes in the opposite direction. This can of
course result in biased reporting. For example, interviews with Native American newspaper editors showed most thought their publications needed to counter the negative
mainstream portrayals by focusing on positive stories about their own people (Perkins,
2003). Similarly, Alia (2009: 41) has noted that her numerous interviews with Indigenous
media practitioners and audiences had shown that there was a strong perception of such
media as ‘operating in the people’s interest’.
Language revitalization is an important concern in many countries where the dominant culture is non-Indigenous. Pietikäinen’s (2008) study of Sámi journalists found they
all recognized the role they played in this process, and Browne (2005) has noted that
many minority media have to deal with the issue of whether to help revitalize a language.
Often, Indigenous media have emerged out of concerns that an Indigenous language may
be threatened with becoming extinct. Surveys with journalists in 10 European
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minority-language communities (Basque, Catalan, Galician, Corsican, Breton, Frisian,
Irish, Welsh, Scottish-Gaelic, and Sámi) have found that more than two-thirds of them
‘understand professional journalism as an activity in which they incorporate a function
of language backing, either at the support or advocacy levels’ (Zabaleta et al., 2010:
Mainstream news values are often perceived by Indigenous peoples as being based on
values that are in contrast with their own. Hence, Indigenous journalism tends to be practised within a culturally appropriate environment that is based in Indigenous values and
practices. Grixti (2011) notes that Indigenous value systems are typically oriented more
towards the collectivity than the individual-focused values of western societies.
Pietikäinen (2008: 177) argues that having their own media makes it possible for
Indigenous journalists to ‘practise culturally typical ways of communication, to recognize experiences, perspectives and topics often disregarded by other media’. Based on a
study of newspaper content as well as in-depth interviews, Loew and Mella (2005) found
that journalists working for Native American newspapers invoked cultural values in their
reporting of the environment. They argued that ‘native interpretations of legal disputes,
political differences, historical events, and economic decisions are driven by a clear
sense of place, which, for Native Americans, embodies identity and culture’ (2005: 132).
In the Pacific Islands, most notably in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, there have been calls
from journalists to reclaim Pacific images away from western news media, which ‘have
failed to seriously take Pacific and Indigenous cultures and their world views into
account’ (Robie, 2004: 249).
Finally, the watchdog function, so synonymous with the development of western journalism, is also a relevant part of Indigenous journalism. It appears that many Indigenous
journalists sense a need for being objective reporters and to be watchdogs of those who
are in power in their own societies, even if this is not always easy and sometimes quite
difficult to reconcile with the aim of focusing on positive stories. In her account of Inuit
and First Nations journalists in northern Canada, Alia (2010) has noted their struggles to
remain independent of Indigenous governments. This conflict between journalistic
objectives and tribal allegiances is rarely easy to resolve for the journalists. As Kemper
(2010: 7) has argued in the context of the USA, ‘native journalists are native and journalists, regardless of the order in which you put the words. From their writings, it appears it
would be unthinkable to most of them to do anything that would undermine the Indigenous
people they serve’ (emphasis in original). Based on an extensive review of the literature
and interviews with tribal journalists, he argues that ‘there have been and still are enormous pressures, especially when those media outlets are owned by tribes’ (2010: 35).
When news media are not owned by particular tribes or Indigenous authorities, they may
be more likely to act as watchdogs. For example, the news director at Norwegian Sámi
radio has been quoted as saying: ‘Of course we are independent of Sámediggi (Sámi
parliament). We maintain a critical point of view. We can’t be the fan club for Sámediggi’
(Buljo in Alia, 2010: 133).
All these dimensions are inter-connected, of course. For example, the ability to practise culturally specific ways of journalism leads to a sense of empowerment. Indigenous
journalists appear to consider as their primary goal the provision of information that is
relevant to their audiences, their culture and an overarching goal of contributing to the
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survival of Indigenous identities and languages (see also Santo, 2004). Against the background of developments in Aotearoa New Zealand, Grixti (2011) has noted the interplay
between language, cultural identity and political activism. The dimensions identified
above also appear to combine in a complex mix that at first glance may be difficult to
reconcile, such as the dimensions of empowerment and watchdog. Native American
journalist Paul DeMain (2001) has stated that he regards himself as both a ‘guerrilla’ and
a ‘legitimate’ journalist – a position which may appear unusual from a traditionally western understanding that strongly differentiates between the two. One way to deal with the
potential conflict is to declare any biases – an approach practised by Indigenous journalists in Malta (Sammut, 2007).
Indigenous journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand
Before examining Māori journalists’ professional views, it is important to briefly
provide some context on Indigenous news media in Aotearoa New Zealand. While
the first Māori-language newspaper was established in 1842, it took until 1862 for
the first Māori-controlled newspaper to be published (Curnow, 2002). Māori newspapers never lasted for very long, and the continuing subjugation through wars and
assimilationist policies, which led to a loss of Māori speakers, meant these newspapers died out during the first two decades of the 20th century (Walker, 2004). It was
not until the 1970s and 1980s that Māori journalism would be practised in a meaningful way again. The creation of the Waitangi Tribunal led to at least partial reparations for past injustices committed against the country’s Indigenous population and
it also played a crucial part in establishing what may well be regarded as one of the
more vibrant Indigenous media sectors. In a decision in 1986, it established that the
Māori language was a taonga (treasured possession) which, under the principles of
the Treaty of Waitangi – the country’s founding document establishing relations
between Māori and the British Crown – needed to be protected and nurtured (Walker,
2004: 268). The decision soon led to the establishment of the first Māori radio stations in the 1980s and, in 2004, the birth of Māori Television (Middleton, 2010).
Māori TV’s mission is ‘to make a significant contribution to the revitalization of
tikanga Māori (Māori values and customs) and reo Māori (Māori language) by being
an independent, secure and successful Māori Television broadcaster’ (Māori
Television, 2012).
Māori journalism today has a variety of outlets. There are 21 iwi (tribal) radio stations which broadcast a syndicated national radio news program; news and current
affairs shows in Māori or with a Māori focus on Māori Television and its second, digital, channel Te Reo, which broadcasts exclusively in the Māori language; news and
current affairs in the Māori language or with a Māori focus on the state broadcaster
Television New Zealand (TVNZ); as well as a small number of magazines but no regular newspaper. The phenomenal rise of the Māori news media sector in just the past
three decades has been well documented in the scholarly literature in Aotearoa New
Zealand. The emergence of modern Māori journalism culture can thus be traced back
to the year 1983 when the news program Te Karere was first aired on TVNZ. Established
by journalist Derek Fox with the help of others, it aimed to take a specifically Māori
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perspective on the news – an approach reminiscent of evidence already discussed from
other Indigenous societies. Fox (1992, 1993) is adamant that this does not mean reporting only positive news, but taking a different perspective to that of Pākehā (of European
descent) journalists reporting on Māori issues. One example was the mention of interviewees’ tribal affiliations. ‘These things are important, because Māori people need to
know someone’s tribal affiliation in order to properly consider what they are saying in
public’ (Fox, 1993: 129).
Stuart (2002: 44) has argued that Māori and Pākehā news cultures are ‘so different
that Māori approaches are nearly impossible to reconcile with western cultural approaches
to “news”’. He sees significant differences in reporting decision-making processes, for
example, where it may be inappropriate for other Māori to comment on decisions that
have been made. Writing styles are another aspect, with cultural traditions necessitating
a different approach to the news formats developed within a western context. Journalist
Wena Harawira (2008) notes the importance that the Māori language plays for Māori
journalists, and the way in which they are able to help shape the language by developing
new terms for which there may not have been a Māori word previously. Further, she
argues that there are important cultural concepts for journalists to adhere to, such as
when interviewing elders. At the same time, she strongly rejects any accusations of
biases, saying she would ‘only accept that kind of criticism if, say, Radio New Zealand,
TVNZ or TV3 are labelled as biased towards Pākehā’ (2008).
Comparing Māori and Pākehā radio news, McGregor and Comrie (1995: 36) found
the Māori program focused ‘not on dissention between people but rather on dilemmas for
Māori’. Archie (2007) argues that Māori media focus more on issues, provide a wider
range of views, and do so in a less confrontational way. Comparative studies of Māori
and Pākehā television news programs have also found considerable differences. Comrie
(2012) found that news on Māori Television had a stronger public service orientation, for
example more in-depth interviews, longer soundbites, and they used a strategy frame less
frequently than the mainstream Pākehā channels TVNZ and TV3. The longer airtime
given to sources, in particular, reflects a Māori cultural notion that everyone is entitled to
be heard (Comrie, 2012: 287).
Against the background of the literature on and dimensions of Indigenous journalism
culture identified earlier, this study’s aim was to paint a picture of modern-day Māori
journalism culture. So far, there had been no systematic study of Māori journalists’ professional views and only very few comprehensive approaches to studying Indigenous
journalism culture at large. For this reason, two main research questions guided the analysis: (a) What are the main dimensions of Māori journalists’ professional views in
Aotearoa New Zealand?; and (b) To what extent may these views reflect wider developments in Indigenous journalism cultures around the globe?
Twenty Māori journalists were sampled from the following organizations: from
TVNZ, five journalists from news program Te Karere (in Māori) and three journalists
from current affairs show Marae Investigates (mostly in English); three journalists from
the Radio Waatea syndicated news service (in Māori); and at Māori Television, four each
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from Te Kaea (news in Māori) and Native Affairs (current affairs mostly in English).
Further, one journalist was interviewed from Mana Magazine, a monthly publication in
English. These media constitute the main outlets for Māori journalism in Aotearoa New
Zealand. Eighteen interviews were conducted in Auckland during the week of 29 August
to 2 September 2011. Additional interviews were conducted via Skype, one in late
September 2011 and another one in February 2012. Respondents included reporters,
directors, producers, news editors and general managers. In terms of their iwi affiliations,
journalists mirrored the whole spectrum of Aotearoa New Zealand, with all major tribal
groups represented.
Journalists’ backgrounds varied widely, ensuring a variety of views on Māori journalism would be heard. The youngest journalist was 24 years old, and the oldest was 64.
Half the respondents were aged in their thirties, however, reflecting the relative youth
that exists in a media sector which has significantly expanded since the arrival of Māori
TV. At the same time, five journalists were over 50, which allowed for crucial insights
from these ‘elders’ of Māori journalism who had vast experience in the business. At the
other end of the spectrum, six journalists had fewer than 10 years’ experience, with the
least experienced having worked in the industry for three years. The average work experience was around 15 years. The sample was relatively evenly spread on gender terms:
nine women and 11 men. The interviewed journalists were highly educated, with a total
of 13 journalists having at least a Bachelor’s degree, while five others had a diploma or
certificate from a polytechnic. Only two journalists did not have a degree, but both had
studied for some time at university. Typically, journalists had studied courses in Māori
language and development as well as journalism/media studies. Journalists identified
mostly as middle of the road or slightly to the left of centre as regards their political
views, and in terms of income, most earned between NZ$70,000 and 90,000, although
there was considerable variation. It should be pointed out that the above selection did not
aim to provide a representative picture of Māori journalists, but rather to provide a variety of views to assist in theory-building around Indigenous journalism culture and its
Results and discussion
The interviews with Māori journalists point to the existence of a number of dimensions
which appear to constitute a distinctly Indigenous journalism culture, and which compare with findings from elsewhere across the globe. The respondents’ self-descriptions of
their professional views are broadly in line with the dimensions identified earlier, in that
roles of empowerment, providing a counter-narrative, playing a part in language revitalization, and conducting culturally appropriate journalism, as well as being a watchdog of
Indigenous leaders, were raised as the most important functions that Māori journalism
plays in the country.
The majority of respondents, when asked to define journalism, noted the existence of
a Māori perspective of the news. This term, introduced more than 20 years ago by Derek
Fox (1990, 1992, 1993), provides a crucial foundational element for Māori journalism
culture even today. The Māori perspective is connected closely to the development of
Māori broadcasting in the 1980s, the purpose of which was language revitalization as
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well as a way to empower Māori to tell their own stories in light of the widespread stereotypical reportage of all things Māori in the mainstream, Pākehā media of Aotearoa
New Zealand.
The Māori perspective can be defined as journalistic practice that explicitly focuses
on news in the context of what it means for Māori society. It privileges a Māori point of
view, but at the same time aims to do so according to the generally agreed reporting
guidelines of fairness and balance. It is grounded in and ideologically closely connected
to the imbalance that exists in mainstream reporting of Māori issues, and in the desire to
empower Māori and to provide a counter-narrative. If Māori journalism’s purpose is to
serve Māori society, one Radio Waatea journalist said, it is important to focus on the
Māori perspective: ‘We need to provide our perspective on all sorts of issues, right across
the broad spectrum of mainstream journalism. There’s always a Māori point of view, and
there’s always a Māori way of telling it.’
A senior Māori TV journalist agreed, pointing out that it was now generally acknowledged that everyone wrote from a perspective.
The difference between us and mainstream is that mainstream will try to make out in their
journalism courses that there’s no such thing as a Pākehā perspective, that they’re neutral. But
I would challenge them on that. They’re not neutral. They come from a Pākehā perspective and
they don’t say that they come from a Pākehā perspective, but they do, or they have certainly
done in the past. But we’re willing to admit that we write from a Māori perspective and how
stories affect Māori and we’ll say that.
Mostly the stories deal with Māori events and issues, but they can also be about general
world events and their implications for Māori.
Providing a counter-narrative to mainstream media reporting was a prime motivation for many of the respondents. A number of studies have highlighted the stereotypical and negative mainstream media coverage of Māori (Abel, 1997; Nairn et al., 2009;
Rankine et al., 2011), and it is this coverage that drives many journalists to work in
Māori news media.
You had mainstream media who were quite ignorant of Māori issues and then you had a very
badly resourced Māori media through radio and a couple of hours a week, maybe, on TVNZ,
who could be doing a better job as well. I felt at the time, rather than sit back and complain and
criticize, I suppose, it’s just in my nature to want to be a part of it. (TVNZ journalist)
A Māori TV journalist agreed: ‘I’ve always perceived our role as balancing the inequity
in the way that Māori issues were told previous to things like Māori TV.’
The counter-narrative also contributes to an empowerment for Māori, a further
strong motivation as expressed by the respondents. For example, one Māori TV journalist made it clear the negative reporting in the mainstream media was not so much a
motivation for her, but rather to ‘bring about an awareness of the truths that run underneath the serious issues and the lifestyle elements of the Māori world […] so that
Māori communities can make informed decisions when making choices in our own
lives’. This desire to report on Māori politics and society was echoed by a TVNZ journalist, who wanted ‘to be able to influence decisions we are making, because if we
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don’t do that now, then we’ll rely on everyone else still telling the same stories’.
Another Māori TV journalist always knew she wanted to work in a Māori environment, ‘telling our people’s stories because I think they are the most interesting. And
they are the ones who I have a strong connection to.’
Providing a counter-narrative and contributing to empowerment on the one hand, and
performing an advocacy role on the other can lead to a certain tension. While advocacy
journalism is often rejected by mainstream journalists in Europe and North America, it is
quite openly welcomed by journalists in other societies, as well as alternative journalists
in the West, which has a long tradition in and, in some cases, government support for
providing alternative viewpoints to mainstream media (Atton and Hamilton, 2008). The
Māori journalists interviewed for this study noted the difficulty they had in divorcing
themselves from the issues they cover. One Māori TV journalist with more than 20 years’
experience said covering the political upheaval in Aotearoa New Zealand during the
1980s and 1990s was not easy for many Māori journalists who tried to maintain objectivity, because inherently they were part of the story. ‘We were part of that change in that
political landscape and, I mean, we all have feelings,’ he said. He recounted an instance
where his reporters had been marching with protesters.
They felt that they were very much part of all this and they didn’t see their roles as being just
reporting the story and divorcing themselves from it completely. They felt it was their right to
be able to join their people and become part of the protest.
When he questioned the journalists, arguing they should report the news rather than be
part of it, they responded that they had reported the news earlier in the day, but that now,
after work, they needed to participate, saying: ‘Just because we’re journalists, we’re not
different, and we’re not standing away from our people.’ Such responses resonate with
previous evidence that Native American journalists consider themselves both native and
journalists at the same time, and do not necessarily regard the two as being in conflict
with each other (Kemper, 2010).
General opinion on the issue of whether journalists should perform an advocacy role
was somewhat split among the respondents. While some believe there is a definite role
to be advocates, others believe it has been resigned to the past, although some of the differences may be due to diverging understandings of what it means to be an advocate.
Most typically, advocacy that is permissible is perceived as telling ‘triumph stories, but
those are more personal profile stories, or successful Māori businesses – those triumph
stories – but we don’t go and advocate for a certain iwi, or a certain political group. You
can’t do that’ (TVNZ journalist). A senior Māori TV journalist said he thought journalists
marching with protesters were a thing of the past:
We are reporters, we are not protesters. You choose to be one of the two, you can’t be both. You
can’t carry the flag across the bridge, you record the people carrying the flag across the bridge.
You can support them, but you can’t come across.
In fact, providing balance was now an immensely important component of their journalism. Said a Māori TV journalist:
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Now our challenge is to make sure that we talk to everyone in the story as well and that we
don’t just give the Māori point of view. You know, that we talk to the council or to others that
might be at issue with what the story in particular is doing. So it’s getting that balance.
Another prime characteristic of Māori journalists is that they want to play a role in language revitalization. This motivation, found in Indigenous journalists elsewhere
(Browne, 1996; Pietikäinen, 2008), was cited by a majority of respondents as the primary
reason for entering the industry. One Māori TV journalist said she hadn’t been brought
up in the language and thought journalism provided a good opportunity to help spread it:
After learning te reo, I just knew how important it was to myself, and to society and to New
Zealand, and so I wanted to be in a role, have a job or position where I could utilize it daily and
get it out there as much as I could.
Some journalists entered the industry simply because they were fluent in te reo: ‘The
boss knew that I had certain language skills and he needed people like that on staff’
(Radio Waatea journalist). Similarly, a TVNZ journalist stated:
From high school I identified that journalism was an area that I was interested in, getting into
with my te reo Māori … There was an area there that I thought I’d be able to use my language
in a way that was positive and interesting.
A Māori TV journalist revealed his primary motivation was to be able to keep practising
the language: ‘I didn’t really do it to be a journalist. I did it because it was all in Māori,
because that was my passion.’
In terms of the general structure of news stories, most journalists argued that they
could get the essence of stories across in English, but the use of te reo allowed them
much more poetic license to bring the story into line with Māori culture. Said one Māori
TV journalist: ‘In a lot of ways, it is much easier to tell stories in Māori because you can
be a lot more metaphoric and poetic. It conveys more emotion and more beauty.’ A colleague added that words in Māori had a deeper meaning in their connection to culture
and also spiritual aspects. She said she liked being able to combine the spiritual and
physical realms in her stories. An advantage of using the language was that Māori journalists could sometimes get better access to sources, as some would only talk to the
media if they could speak in Māori. A number of journalists also cited instances when
politicians and community spokespeople had been able to get their points across more
appropriately in Māori because of the better context this provided.
Yet, as one senior journalist put it, while the Māori language is the very foundation of
Māori broadcasting, it is also one of its biggest limitations. This is particularly the case for
the news programs, Te Karere and Te Kaea, which screen almost exclusively in te reo.
Hence, journalists require sources who can speak the language on camera, an undertaking
that is often challenging because of the limited number of fluent te reo speakers in the
country. A senior Radio Waatea journalist thought the situation was slowly improving,
however. ‘With the growing number of second-language speakers that are becoming more
confident speakers, it is becoming not so difficult to find speakers.’ To combat language
problems, journalists on both Te Kaea and Te Karere now also conduct interviews in
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Journalism 15(8)
English, and either translate them or sub-title the information. This is possible because Te
Kaea has a 95 per cent te reo requirement, while Te Karere’s is 80 per cent. Radio, on the
other hand, cannot simply sub-title, and even voice-overs are rarely appropriate. The solution there is to produce a straight news story, which is read by only the news reader with
no interview audio attached.
Closely intertwined with language concerns is the desire to practise journalism within
an appropriate cultural framework. As one Māori TV journalist with more than 20 years
of experience said:
Journalism is an important genre of programming for my people that allows Māori people
to respond to issues on a daily basis in the Māori language in a framework; a cultural
framework that they are familiar with and able to respond and have a say in the issues that
concern them.
This framework, he believed, was fundamental and the connection of journalists with
their respective tribes was, while sometimes challenging, important to maintain cultural
Some journalists pointed out they always took their shoes off when entering someone’s house, or even brought small gifts such as biscuits when interviewing sources.
Others would have karakia (incantations and prayers) first, or go through a pōhiri (traditional welcoming ceremony). Personal and work values were thus inextricably linked for
the vast majority of respondents. They are quite simply bound up in the collectivist relationships of the Māori world and these relationships often guide their behaviour and
values when working as journalists, a finding similar to the situation found among Sámi
journalists (Pieitkäinen, 2008). One Māori TV journalist used the analogy of wearing a
Māori hat and a journalism hat, in that it was not simply a case of going into an interview
as a journalist:
You don’t take the Māori hat off, you put the journalism hat on. Then you take that off once you
finish the interview and then you’re Māori again. And I think that’s where our Pākehā colleagues
fall short. It’s that they go in and take their person hat off and put it back on when they’re
finished and that’s different for us.
In essence, it means always maintaining one’s identity as Māori – including all that
entails – and only adding a journalistic identity during work, rather than substituting it.
At the same time, cultural aspects can be limitations as well. In Māori culture, kaumatua, or elders, command utmost respect from those who are younger, which can create
difficulties for younger journalists. A number of journalists pointed out that their job was
made all the more difficult because at the end of the day they were part of their communities, which meant they needed to be able to go back to their iwi even after having covered
controversial stories about them. Here, attitudes were somewhat divided, in that some
journalists felt they would always be able to cover controversial stories about their own
iwi, while others thought it could constitute a conflict of interest and it was better to have
someone else do a particular story. It is common for news organizations to send journalists to cover stories that relate to their own iwi, because they are deemed to have inside
knowledge and good contacts.
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At the same time, if journalists are too close to a story, they can be taken off an assignment. Said a Māori TV journalist:
I think we generally have a rule at work that if a story comes from your own area you have the
first go at it. If that’s your tribal area, the expectation is that you have the contacts in that area.
But if it’s something like that and you wish to not cover, then there’s no expectation that you
have to cover it.
According to the respondents, Māori politicians also often exert pressure, arguing journalists should concentrate on doing nice stories.
While journalists do not make any excuses for wanting to provide a counter-narrative
to mainstream news as well as being language advocates, this does not mean they do not
view their role as watchdogs. In fact, the watchdog role, so synonymous with western
journalism, is very important in the Māori context. As one Māori TV journalist said, it
is important to examine the decisions that are made by iwi and party leaders.
I think that is a really important part of our job because no-one is above scrutiny. No Māori
organization is above scrutiny and I absolutely believe that – just like the mainstream media in
NZ do a very good job at holding their leadership, and their government departments
accountable – our Māori audience deserves exactly the same thing. So I don’t think that any
Māori in a leadership position, or any Māori organization or government organization, should
get a free ride just because they happen to be Māori.
It appears possible to marry the advocacy role with a commitment to being a watchdog for
Māori society. A Radio Waatea journalist, who was adamant that Māori journalism’s role was
to provide a counter-narrative, said it was just as crucial to hold those in power to account.
Absolutely, good or bad, we are not here to be a propaganda [tool] for our people. We are here
to make sure that we are portrayed in the correct light. There are no shenanigans or undermining
going on behind the scenes, we don’t have hidden agendas.
He cited cases of child abuse where the reporting had not shied away from asking the
tough questions and essentially was very similar to what was reported in the mainstream
Nevertheless, younger journalists in particular found it could be quite challenging to
question those in power. Said a TVNZ journalist:
There’s an expectation on Māori journalists to not be the watchdog in a lot of the cases […]
That can be frustrating at times, because while you want to ask them the hard questions, there’s
that expectation that as a Māori journalist you won’t ask those hard questions.
However, a senior TVNZ journalist said while it could be tough covering a controversy
around one’s own aunt and one always seemed to have to explain and justify one’s stories, he found they would typically understand once that explanation had been given.
Similarly, a young Māori TV journalist said even though she was probably related to a
number of the leaders, she was ‘still not afraid to question them because they’ve been
paid to do their work’.
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Journalism 15(8)
This article explored the ways in which Māori journalists in Aotearoa New Zealand
make sense of their work. Through the interviews with 20 news workers in various
Māori media, five main dimensions of Indigenous journalism culture in the country
could be identified. Māori journalists see themselves primarily as providing a counternarrative to balance negative mainstream media reporting, and are interested in aiding
Māori empowerment and the maintenance of identity. They believe in providing a
Māori perspective of the news, which also includes journalistic practices that follow
cultural values and customs. While many see themselves as advocates, they are also
adamant that they have a crucial watchdog role to play for the benefit of Māori society.
In this regard, it is extremely important to hold Māori politicians and other leaders to
account. Finally, the vast majority of Māori journalists view the revitalization of the
Māori language as an enormously significant part of their role. Many entered the news
industry mainly because they could speak the language and thought they could play a
positive part in nurturing its growth.
The dimensions identified here are also reflective of literature from across the globe,
which has touched on Indigenous news-making practices. In fact, Pietikäinen’s (2008:
188) description of Sámi journalists – who she said ‘consider their primary goal to be to
provide relevant Sámi information in the Sámi language from a Sámi perspective and, by
doing this, to help guarantee the survival of the Sámi community’ – could easily be
applied to Aotearoa New Zealand if one substituted Sámi with Māori. As noted earlier,
Alia (2010) has argued that a ‘new media nation’ has emerged, which is characterized by
increased transnational cooperation between Indigenous media organizations. Based on
the evidence presented here, it would appear that Indigenous journalism culture is also
characterized by dimensions which can be applied transnationally. Whether this necessarily equates to a transnational consciousness among Indigenous journalists across the
globe is yet to be analysed.
As noted earlier, the field of Indigenous journalism is still underexplored, yet the
dimensions which have been identified here may be able to lead us to a more nuanced
understanding of the various tensions in and opportunities for its practices across the
globe. At the same time, it must be stressed that this study represents only a pilot study
of the Māori context – more research with a larger sample of Māori journalists is necessary to determine whether the trends and dimensions identified here are representative of this particular journalistic field at large. Similarly, more research on journalism
practices among Indigenous societies in other parts of the globe will be necessary to
validate the argument that Indigenous journalism culture is transnational in nature. It
is possible that the dimensions highlighted may be present to different degrees in different Indigenous contexts, or that additional dimensions may emerge through such
research. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this study can provide some useful ideas for
such examinations.
The author would like to thank the journalists who participated in this study. Special gratitude is
owed to Maatakiri Te Ruki, who worked as a research assistant on this project. Ehara i te toa takitahi. Engari, he toa takitini.
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This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.
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Author biography
Folker Hanusch (PhD, University of Queensland) is Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University
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JOU15810.1177/1464884913505997Konieczna and Robinson
Emerging news non-profits:
A case study for rebuilding
community trust?
2014, Vol. 15(8) 968­–986
© The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1464884913505997
Magda Konieczna
University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
Sue Robinson
University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
A new news disseminator has emerged to revitalize the profession of information
gathering – the non-profit news organization. Adopting a framework of community
trust, this article begins a scholarly response to the questions: Who are these nonprofit journalists and what do they aim to accomplish? A rhetorical analysis of nearly 50
mission statements and ethnographic work on two case studies revealed a commitment
to rebuilding public trust, to reclaiming community journalism, to re-emphasizing
the “ordinary” citizen, and to pioneering collaborative news work by means of
digital technologies. Our analysis demonstrated that many of these organizations, in
considering news as a public good, work to re-conceptualize the industry for citizens,
but depend upon a level of funding that might not be viable in the long term. However,
this research posits that little in the way of true community trust can be achieved until
these organizations discover a sustainable business model.
Non-profit news, community, journalism, trust, digital
Many media watchers are sounding alarms about the floundering journalism industry
and proposing replacement models (McChesney and Nichols, 2010; Picard, 2008). One
new type of journalism has emerged with the aim of filling the void left by editorial
Corresponding author:
Magda Konieczna, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 5148 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave., Madison, WI
53706, USA.
Email: [email protected]
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Konieczna and Robinson
layoffs and shrinking news holes – non-profit news centers. These organizations are
proliferating, collaborating, and becoming a significant part of the emerging media ecology. In 2009 they banded together into the Investigative News Network (INN), which
formed with just 20 groups. In four years, 60 more ventures had joined the INN – most
of them brand new. Although formal figures are hard to come by because of changes in
Internal Revenue Service categorization, most anecdotal reports show a giant spike in
news non-profit births since 2008 (Stearns, 2011). The vast majority assume the Web as
their news production platform, encourage citizen journalism, utilize crowdsourcing as a
reporting technique, employ data-visualization experts and populate email list serves,
Twitter hashtags, Facebook groups, blogs, and all sorts of digitally enabled forums and
venues. Their voices are becoming louder and more insistent, with many of their stories
showing up on mainstream sites and publications and even winning Pulitzer Prizes
(Susman, 2010). This article begins a scholarly response to the questions: Who are these
non-profit journalism organizations, and what role are they playing in democracy?
Textually analyzing the mission statements of the organizations and ethnographically
observing their behavior, the researchers qualitatively approach these questions to produce a snapshot of this burgeoning industry as of 2013. We seek to apply a framework of
community trust that considers the news to be a public good, necessary for a working
democracy in the tradition of civic journalism tenets.
The evidence shows that these groups aim to re-connect citizens with news about
public affairs primarily through a rebuilding of community trust, which has decreased
over time. News non-profits aim for a new journalist–audience relationship borne of
mutual understanding and citizen agency in information co-production. Through digitally enabled collaboration and networking, non-competitive practices and citizen participation, the news non-profits strive to find common ground, tell stories, seek solutions,
engage with citizens and thus reclaim community for the “ordinary” citizen. At the core
of these missions and their practices lies a commitment to civic journalism and the idea
that citizens represent a fundamental component of any venture to provide accurate,
significant information about public affairs. This analysis demonstrates that these groups
hope to re-establish the trust connection between people and their news sources and have
worked to re-define that journalist–citizen relationship through their daily activities. The
model these non-profits are building represents a laboratory for operationalizing the
community–news relationship so essential for civic revitalization. However, this model
must combine the old trustee model of journalism, in which the public relied on journalists to monitor those in power, with a more recent model of civic-based journalism that
focuses on engaging citizens rather than watchdogging government and other institutions. This is a complex balance that arises from the fact that these organizations were
born from mainstream media themselves and thus mirror those long-established
Community, journalism, and citizen trust
Trust as a concept is much studied in various disciplines. It is considered an essential
component of building communities, according to scholars (Asen, forthcoming; Putnam,
2000, 2007). Warren (1999: 1) defined trust as “a judgment, however implicit, to accept
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Journalism 15(8)
vulnerability to the potential ill will of others by granting them some discretionary power
over some good.” Messick and Kramer (2001: 89) think of trust as a “social dilemma” that
offers a choice and demands a decision on the part of any truster. Putnam (2000: 137)
wrote that “people who trust others are all-round good citizens.” Asen (forthcoming)
argued that trust manifests in the relationships that form in public arenas for good public
deliberation via flexibility, forthrightness, engagement, and heeding. For example, storytelling – a major sub-mission of the non-profit news organizations examined in this paper,
according to the evidence we present below – necessitates a level of trust between author
and listener for any textual significance to manifest (Fisher, 1987). From the news, citizens as readers must rely on stories to relate not only what has happened but also their
societal values (Gans, 1998; Lule, 2001). In terms of the relationship between the journalist and the news consumer, trust implies a future promise, a level of risk-taking, an intentional action, a valued commodity, and a sense that the reporter is going to provide an
essential public good: relevant and significant, accurate and truthful accountings of the
news (Hayes et al., 2007; Kohring and Matthes, 2007; Vanacker and Belmas, 2009).
Gans (1998) defined journalists as the self-appointed purveyors of democracy who
operate under a theory that if they inform people, these citizens are more likely to participate culturally and politically. What was once a partisan press in colonial times had
become “trustee journalism,” in which the public trusted that reporters would represent
their interests and uncover truths needed for self-government (Carey, 1999; Rosen,
1999a; Schudson, 1999). This trust grew out of early trends of muckraking and investigative reporting initiatives in the late 20th century, as well as the development of the beat
reporter as a public authority (Carey, 1999). Citizens endowed the press with the authority to be the primary purveyors of news for their community, trusting them to gather,
report, analyze, and disseminate civic information (Altschull, 1984; Cook, 1998).
Commercial news organizations adopted this call toward social responsibility, establishing tenets of their trade including truthfulness, relevance, loyalty to the citizens, verification, provision of comprehensive and balanced information, independence, monitoring
of power elites and institutions, a forum for public discussion, and an ethical sensibility
(Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2007: 5–6). Many proudly described their practice as a kind of
“community journalism,” which sometimes meant small-town papers committed to a
specific geographic place and always referred to a “nearness” to citizens as a representative of their interests in civic life (Reader and Hatcher, 2011). Implicit in this relationship, according to scholarship, has been an assumed institutional authority over a general
public that necessitates a dependability and longevity of existence even within its topdown approach (Cook, 1998; Offe, 1999). Any kind of civic trust in institutions must
incorporate consistent performance, a uniformity in application of a specific set of values
and ideology, and a commitment to fairness and impartiality (Offe, 1999; Warren, 1999;
Wuthnow, 1999). The press was able to maintain this trust for many years because of its
status as an institution. Journalism’s longevity, the press’ stated commitment to core
values such as truth, and its consistent exercising of its storytelling power on behalf of
the public helped nurture a community–trusting relationship (Altschull, 1984; Cook,
1998; Hayes et al., 2007; Warren, 1999).
However, as Carey noted, the side effect of this trustee journalism was that “the public
became a passive observer…. The public had to do no more than keep itself informed
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Konieczna and Robinson
and exercise its power now and again in election” (1999: 57). In addition, we should
note, what has generally not been included in the missions of the press has been any
intention on the part of mainstream journalists to cooperate with each other, collaborate
with others, operate at less than a profit for shareholders, or engage citizens as anything
other than audiences (Allan, 1999; Bagdikian, 1983; Lewis et al., 2005; Robinson, 2007).
Scholars have lamented this disconnect between journalists and their audiences, and, in
the early 1990s, began recommending civic journalism tenets. These new principles
advocated that as primary stakeholders in democracy, citizens must also play a role in
journalism (Carey, 1999; Haas, 2007; Merritt, 1995; Rosen, 1999b). Merritt (1995) specifically noted that incorporating “regular” people into newsgathering and production
practices (including story selection) could regain public trust. Carey (1999) called public
journalism a “reform” movement that would reinvigorate citizen participation in community. At least on a theoretical level, this kind of citizen-centered, bottom-up trustbuilding exercise might offer an effective strategy for boosting the press-audience
relationship (Offe, 1999). However, after an initial flurry of activity in the late 1990s, the
movement essentially failed, in part because of a failure to fully incorporate citizens or
to commit to the ideal beyond one-shot projects (Haas, 2007; Ryfe and Mensing, 2010;
Zelizer, 1999). Meanwhile, the economic downturn of 2008 pushed many newspapers
over the fiscal edge, leading to the closure of at least 48 American newspapers and bankruptcy filings by six companies that publish daily papers in late 2008 and 2009
(McChesney and Nichols, 2010). More than 17,000 journalism jobs were lost in the
United States in 2009 and 2010 (NewspaperLayoffs.com, 2010). Simultaneously, the
level of public trust that the news media report information accurately and fairly has
steadily declined each year; almost two-thirds of Americans distrust the news media
(Morales, 2010).
The news non-profit
These accelerating problems with the funding model for mainstream media, coupled
with a lowered barrier to entry via digital technologies, have led to a new movement –
one some hope will take up where the civic journalists left off. Funded by foundations,
donations, and alternative revenue streams, non-profit news organizations have begun
proliferating. Of course, the idea of non-profit journalism has existed for decades: The
Christian Science Monitor was founded in 1908 and National Public Radio (NPR) went
on the air in 1971. As the commercial media industry showed signs of weakness, media
funders and others began to highlight the non-profit model as a possible savior of journalism (Akst, 2005; McChesney and Nichols, 2010; Overholser and Jamieson, 2005;
Picard, 2008). Since 2005, 308 non-profit news projects have been funded in 25 states
with US$249 million (Schaffer, 2013). These numbers only include those that received
foundation support.
Although many genres of non-profit news organizations exist, this study examines
only those that have no (stated) political ideology, that consider themselves “news” disseminators, that report and produce information themselves (as opposed to paying someone else to do it), that have organized under a formal structure of a dominant trade
organization, and that have come to the scene since 2002. Not a great deal has been
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written about these new players from a scholarly perspective, other than in trade publications or white papers (Christoffersen, 2009; Downie and Schudson, 2009; Horwitz,
2007; Osder and Campwala, 2012; Rowe, 2011; Schaffer, 2009; Zipken, 2012). The literature available categorizes the non-profit organizations as entrepreneurial, experimental ventures with the express aim of supplementing journalism (Schaffer, 2009: 32). We
do know that a large portion of these organizations derive most of their funding from
foundations, depend on freelance and user-generated content, and cannot replace traditional news publications (Friedland and Konieczna, 2010; Schaffer, 2009; Shaver, 2010;
The State of the News Media, 2012). Most of the major studies on non-profits have
involved specific case studies or interviews with a limited number of participants
(Birnbauer, 2011; Schaffer, 2009; Shaver, 2010).
The study at hand examined missions of new non-profit news organizations as they
appear on websites and IRS tax filings for the organizations, and analyzed the practice of
a small sub-group of the sample. The mission statements reflect how the newest members of a growing genre of journalism think the industry should behave. We sought to
document the values that they put forward, their ideals, and their intentions; in order to
understand the role these new players fulfill in the digital news environment, we must
first catalogue what they hope to accomplish. The ethnographic work examined how
these missions played out in practice. Our research questions included the following.
•• In their mission statements, how are non-profit news organizations framing their
role in this new media ecology?
•• According to these statements, by what methods are they trying to accomplish
these missions? What values seem most important to them?
•• How does their actual behavior reflect what is observed in their mission
•• Following our framework of community trust, how is the notion of news as a
public good produced by “trustees” reflected in these mission statements and their
daily behavior?
To answer these questions, we collected the mission statements of non-profit news
organizations that are members of the INN, a trade organization whose members have a
specific journalism-oriented news standard that requires non-partisanship and a commitment to funding transparency (see list, by geographical orientation, in Table 1). We used
INN membership to guide our purposive sampling. This flagship professional association has worked to organize and define its industry by setting the rules and terms of
membership. The INN offers a formalized structure for news organizations that have two
goals: to improve the quality of journalism, and to experiment with alternative business
models in creating a sustainable new field of newswork.
We culled the list to weed out more established, older organizations such as NPR and
international groups; several did not have operating websites or had become defunct,
leaving 46 viable organizations with mission statements. In addition, we analyzed a
March 2012, 88-page report that the INN released after in-depth surveys of its members
(Osder and Campwala, 2012). We performed a rhetorical analysis on the mission statements, which we considered to be cultural artifacts that reflected a larger emerging
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Table 1. Geographical distribution of news non-profits.
Hyperlocal (City/Town)
Local (Regional or State-Level)
National or International
New Haven Independent
National Institute on Money in
State Politics
Tucson Sentinel
Investigative West (Pacific
Investigative News Source
(Southern California)
New America Media (Pacific
News Source)
Texas Observer
Wisconsin Center for
Investigative Journalism
Voice of San Diego
Broward Bulldog
SF Public Press
Aspen Journalism
New England Center for
Investigative Reporting
Oklahoma Watch
Philadelphia Public School
Oakland Local
PublicSource (Pittsburgh)
St. Louis Beacon
Austin Bulldog
Online Journalism Project
Pulitzer Center for Crisis
Schuster Institute for
Investigative journalism
New America Media
Toni Stabile Center for
Investigative Journalism
California Watch
Connecticut Health Investigative iTeam.tv
Maine Center for Public Interest Common Language Project
Education News Colorado
Florida Center for Investigative 100 Reporters
Health News Florida
Alicia Patterson Foundation
Iowa Center for Public Affairs
Media Crime and Justice
Michigan News Center
Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
The Lens
narrative about the non-profits’ position in society. We explored the interplay between
word choice and meaning, discerning patterns of thought (Foss, 2008). This technique
allowed us to unveil the values, motivations, and dominant ideology present via framing,
historical references, allusions, metaphors, and phrasings (Brummet, 2009). We drew
from terminology found in the normative press literature describing what is necessary for
community trust to exist between journalists and their citizen audiences, including a
sense of authority, a protector of a precious public good, a dependability, and a
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Journalism 15(8)
commitment to the truth (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2007). We sought articulation of the
notion of community trust between journalists and audiences. From our reading of past
scholarship about these trust relationships in American journalism, we can understand
components of these ideals as including promises for particular kinds and standards of
content and the specific, acknowledged relationships and considerations of audiences.
We also conducted ethnographic work at two of the non-profits in our sample,
MinnPost and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. MinnPost is a nonprofit news website in Minneapolis, publishing stories aimed at “a news intense public.”
Co-founded in 2007 by Joel Kramer, a former editor and publisher at the Minneapolis
Star Tribune, and his partner Laurie Kramer, MinnPost employed 15 active reporters and
10–15 editors, web staff, and ad people at the time of the fieldwork. The Wisconsin
Center for Investigative Journalism in Madison publishes stories via mainstream news
organizations. Founded in 2009 by former reporter Andy Hall, the Center had two permanent reporters at the time of fieldwork, one of whom used to work at an alternative
weekly, and a mix of professionals and student interns. The two organizations were chosen because: (1) both were willing to commit time and access to the researchers; and (2)
they represent two types of news non-profits, one distributing a product for a single
outlet – its website – and the other housed at a university and disseminating through
mainstream news and non-profit sites. Work at MinnPost was conducted over two separate weeks in the summer of 2011, and two weeks in the spring of 2013. That included
roughly 100 hours of observation of newsroom interactions and workflow and about 30
in-depth, semi-structured interviews with all the editors and business staff and many
reporters. Research at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism was conducted
between September 2011 and April 2013. Over that time, most staff meetings (about 40)
were attended, as were two board meetings and a meeting between the center and the
local public television staff. In total, about 100 hours of observations and interviews
were conducted, including three formal interviews with three main employees and dozens of more informal conversations.
News non-profits’ missions
The first research question investigates the stated intentions of the new non-profit news
organizations, all of which consider themselves to be “filling a void” in journalism to tell
the truth about “overlooked” topics regarding government and American society (Osder
and Campwala, 2012: 63). Almost all acknowledged the goal of truth-telling and investigative work, as in this broad statement by ProPublica:
Investigative journalism is at risk.…This is therefore a moment when new models are necessary
to carry forward some of the great work of journalism in the public interest that is such an
integral part of self-government, and thus an important bulwark of our democracy.
The 2012 industry study by the INN (Osder and Campwala, 2012) included this goal
among the mission of news non-profits, and it was stated in most of the other organization missions in our sample. This evidence also demonstrated four recurring submissions among the sample that extended beyond the investigative journalism ideal:
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finding common ground, telling stories, searching for solutions to community problems,
and stimulating civic engagement by training citizens and future journalists to be information producers. Such principles nearly mirror those set forth by scholars advocating
for the civic journalism movement in the 1990s (Ryfe and Mensing, 2010) and provide
the foundation for establishing a kind of institutional, community trust relationship.
Finding common ground
Any trust relationship must incorporate an assurance that all parties are paying attention.
Public-policy rhetorician Robert Asen (forthcoming) calls this “heeding” in the sense
that people engaged in some deliberative relationship must understand and acknowledge
all perspectives that want to be heard. One of the holes unfilled by commercial news
organizations includes the voices of “regular” people, that is, non-officials and nonactivists (Lewis et al., 2005). These new non-profits argued that they could provide a
mouthpiece for those who are voiceless (Common Language Project, New America
Media (NAM), Newsdesk.org, Texas Observer). NAM’s mission said it:
… is dedicated to bringing the voices of the marginalized - ethnic minorities, immigrants,
young people, elderly - into the national discourse. The communities of the New America will
then be better informed, better connected to one another, and better able to influence policy
These outlets aimed to bridge differences, rather than carve out a singular space. Note
here how NAM sought to bring those who are marginalized into the national discourse,
as opposed to creating a separate community. Other groups use similar language, such as
the New Haven Independent, which called out to “people, from knuckleheads to dreamers” and wanted to “reclaim community.” The TucsonSentinel.com “encourages interaction in civic dialogue that features diverse viewpoints and advocates constructive
change.” Common Language Project strove to produce journalism that “can help foster
dialogue among people across the political, geographic, ethnic and linguistic barriers that
divide them.” All of this goes to the idea of re-emphasizing the commune in community
to downplay the political polarization and to highlight non-mainstream perspectives.
This rhetoric brings these organizations in line with civic journalism mandates that
require “getting the connections right” (Rosen, 1996: 81). Citizens must want to become
more informed and inspired to act civically and collectively in order for ordinary people
to form attachments to communities.
Telling stories
The ability to connect is essential in the formation of trust (Putnam, 2000; Warren, 1999).
One way these non-profit news organizations have hoped to establish that connection has
been through storytelling (Common Language Media, FairWarning, Florida Center for
Investigative Reporting, iTeamTV, InvestigateWest, Oakland Local, ProPublica, Voice
of San Diego). Narrative theorists such as Walter Fisher (1987) have long posited that
stories demand a trusting relationship between author and reader and that through the
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Journalism 15(8)
telling of stories we can know, rely on, and engage with one another. Of course storytelling has long been part of journalists’ normative practices. Lule (2001) and other scholars
showed the mythologizing tendency of reportorial work in our nation’s newspapers as a
way of building common ground for connection. Many mission statements adopted narrative language, such as ProPublica’s commitment to being a “moral force” in the “public interest.” The Voice of San Diego suggested that this kind of mythologizing was
needed to make people feel present and engaged in the world around them: “Our commitment is to engage you through lucid storytelling and serial narratives, to bring you
along with our reporters as they do what they love and get you involved in a conversation
about San Diego.” Through its telling of stories, The Voice of San Diego hoped to
encourage dialogue and deliberation via some kind of connection – core tenets of both
traditional and civic journalism and a key component of developing community trust.
Seeking solutions
Citizens have trusted the press to produce information in the name of public interest as a
path toward vibrant, working democracy (Altschull, 1984; Cook, 1998; Gans, 1998).
Prior to the Internet, people depended on a collective source of public affairs reporting
that could help solve community problems. These news non-profits stated an intention to
fulfill that role in the citizen–journalist relationship (Investigative Newsource, Open
Secrets, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, to name a few): “In our dedicated pursuits, the Investigative Newsource satisfies a need for deep, thoughtful, datadriven journalism that illuminates government actions, accounts for public monies,
provokes a search for solutions to governmental and societal problems and strengthens
democracy in the region” (Investigative Newsource). News non-profits intended to provide a space for resolving societal problems. “In the best traditions of American journalism in the public service, we seek to stimulate positive change. We uncover unsavory
practices in order to stimulate reform” (ProPublica). Thus, new news non-profits suggested they were worthy of citizen’s trust and that, if granted this power over information, they would carry out a promise to provide for the public interest.
Engaging with citizens
Any trust relationship insists upon reciprocity, or at least acknowledgment of the truster’s needs and desired outcomes (Asen, forthcoming; Putnam, 2000). One major mission
taken on by these organizations was to “arm” consumers and workers (FairWarning)
with valuable information to be engaged democratically (Investigative Newsource,
MinnPost.com) in order to inform the populace (National Institute on Money in State
Politics) and be civically engaged (Oakland Local). “It’s a community media project
where independent reporters, community members and non-profit organizations can
come together and collaborate to support civic engagement” (Oakland Local). The Voice
of San Diego “encourages interaction;” The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting offered
educational programs that “provide students with fresh information on global issues,
help them think critically about the creation and dissemination of news, and inspire them
to become active consumers and producers of information.” Many of the sites offered
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spaces for user-generated content; some were training citizens and students (Common
Language Project, Oakland Local, PublicSource, The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting,
The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Center for Investigative
Journalism). Oakland Local made it its business to “offer hands-on trainings, mentoring
and support for staffers and volunteers from non-profits and local community groups and
local small business people who wish to improve their skills in telling stories, using
social media, and build an online presence.” 100Reporters was “planning to train citizens
– the first victims of graft and cronyism – to expose the corruption around them, and to
bring these citizens into the reporting of stories wherever possible.” In these ways, the
new news non-profits aimed to incorporate citizens as full members of the community–
trust relationships they are trying to build.
News non-profits’ stated strategies
The second research question explores the methods that news non-profits report to be
using to accomplish these missions. Our analysis found the following four common strategies: using digital technology; aligning and collaborating with journalists; networking
with each other; and building citizen relationships.
Digital technology
Non-profit news organizations aimed to reinvent the industry by using database reporting, video and social media, according to their mission statements (St. Louis Beacon;
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism) – as in this statement from the New
Haven Independent: “Power of the press now belongs not to those who own one, but to
those who own a modem. We own a modem. Update: Or we used to own a modem. You
don’t even need a modem anymore.”
Journalistic alignment, collaboration
News non-profits’ sense of authority in the realm of information production derived from
their relationships, associations, and collaborations with mainstream media. Many of
these organizations depended upon partnerships with mainstream publications that disseminated their content (MinnPost.com, ProPublica, Wisconsin Center for Investigative
Journalism) or boosted their brands by boasting of connections with mainstream publications (FairWarning, InvestigateWest, OpenSecrets, Schuster Institute for Investigative
Networking together
Many of these groups partnered on stories, had members who served on each other’s
boards, applied for grants together, and linked to each other’s projects (Common
Language Project, FairWarning, Investigative Newsource, Spot.us, Wisconsin Center for
Investigative Journalism, and WyoFile). Several of them, such as Investigative
Newsource, emphasized that they are “not competitive.” The Center for Public Integrity
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organized large-scale collaborations with other non-profits on specific projects. Broward
Bulldog accepted an invitation to collaborate with 100Reporters in February 2012, while
Spot.us joined with American Public Media in November 2011, and the Bay Citizen and
the Center for Investigative Reporting merged in February 2012. The 2012 INN report
stated, “More non-profits will have to do what businesses have done – merge or collaborate. But it will be difficult to survive on their own” (Osder and Campwala, 2012: 27).
Building citizen relationships
Many of the mission statements in our sample asked citizens to co-produce local content
through “citizen-reporting submissions” (Common Language Project) or “building a
membership base of citizen watchdogs” (InvestigateWest). Others teach digital literacy
and multimedia production (Common Language Project, Wisconsin Center for
Investigative Journalism). Oakland Local and the St. Louis Beacon sponsored gatherings
to foster community dialogue. The INN listed citizens and the public (as opposed to
“audiences”) as the number one stakeholder for news non-profits and suggested that
without community ties the groups would not be sustainable.
News non-profits in practice
The third and fourth research questions seek to determine whether practices in these
working newsrooms reflected their stated missions and also the tenets of building trust
with the community. If we remember that to instill a sense of community trust, an organization must nurture relationships, perform consistently, hold dear a set of values, and
commit to the understanding that news is a public good, we can examine briefly our two
ethnographic cases – the Wisconsin Center and MinnPost – in relation to this
The Wisconsin Center’s mission statement declared it would: “Protect the vulnerable.
Expose wrongdoing. Seek solutions to problems,” focusing on under-covered topics
such as mental health in the state’s jails or rural population loss. During one December
2012 journalism class at the University of Wisconsin, executive director Andy Hall highlighted in particular a labor-intensive project involving an examination of the governor’s
calendars to determine how he spends his time. “I think it helped provide voters with a
lot of important information before the [2012 Wisconsin] recall election,” Hall told the
class. Between its founding in 2009 and 2013, the Center had produced more than 125
full reports and 105 columns with the stated, oft-articulated desire to “do good.”
By 2012, Hall was taking calls from all over the country asking him to share his
expertise as a non-profit manager or the Center’s specialties in database reporting, mapping – which the center had started doing in earnest in 2010 – or investigative work.
“Collaboration is key,” the organization declared at the top of its webpage, and the topic
was one of Hall’s favorite discussion points in the halls of the journalism school. Many
of the Center’s stories incorporated either non-profit or mainstream media partners, such
as the story on the Wisconsin governor’s calendars. The Center did not have the resources
to do the work on its own, so it shared tasks with reporters at a commercial newspaper,
public television, and students in the j-school. During 2012, the Wisconsin Center was
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observed moving into topical areas of interest it shared with other news non-profits
(including MinnPost), such as frac sand mining and other forms of content presentation
such as interactive mapping. The Center also collaborated with alumni, distributing stories written by a former intern in Haiti and requesting photos from another who had
become a photographer at a Wisconsin newspaper. Hall and his staff conducted trainings
for mid-career journalists, thinking of themselves as contributing valuable skills to journalists around the state and country. Hall said, “It’s why we get grants – because we’re
seen as national leaders helping the industry.” Here, Hall connected the Center’s collaborative strategy with its continued longevity and sustainability – an essential element for
community trust moving forward.
That collaboration was also a key part of the Wisconsin Center’s ability to perform
consistently – another key to community trust-building. During the course of the ethnography, Hall asked staff to track where the organization’s stories appeared, and post results
on the website so citizens and potential funders could see evidence of the Center’s performance. During one 2013 meeting, Hall announced to staffers that, “The Capital Times
is planning on running [current project] as the cover story on Wednesday. Lauren will
check to see where it shows up. Ten news organizations requested the password.” The
meeting’s 10 attendees clapped for the undergraduate intern whose story had garnered so
much mainstream press attention. The intern worked as a peer with the rest of the staff,
exemplifying the Center’s relationship building with journalism faculty and students.
Hall was very cognizant of the fragile future of the Center, and he and the full-time
reporters spent much time training students to learn the trade: in an editorial meeting in
January 2013, Hall passed around correspondence between the Center and one of its
funders, explaining that “I’m sending it around because one of our goals here is that in
addition to the journalism experience, you get some exposure to the financial end.” For
Hall, the media partners, non-profit collaborators, alumni, and student interns all represented core partners necessary for the health of the fledgling organization. Hall’s enacted
strategy was to build audiences through existing media channels, even defining “public
engagement” in relation to how many news organizations had picked up their stories
(personal communication, 2013). Hall wanted to reach as many “regular” citizens as possible; he estimated 30 million people had seen the Center’s products through July 2013.
For Hall, rebuilding public trust in news meant doing so through traditional journalistic
practices, filling in the voids mainstream news outlets had let grow.
That includes transparency, which Hall said is key to building trust. The Wisconsin
Center was open about its sources of funding, posting those organizations’ and individuals’ names on its website and ensuring that those sources did not impact content. Hall
sometimes interacted with readers critical about their perception of the Center’s loyalties
– who either contacted him directly or were forwarded on to him by the news organizations that carried the Center’s stories. He pointed them to the organization’s financial
support policy that explained funders cannot influence content. He has also delved into
the comments on news stories written by the Center and published on the websites of
other news organizations, especially when it came to setting the facts straight. After one
particularly controversial story about an altercation between Supreme Court judges in
Wisconsin, some readers were saying that the Center had reported that one judge put
another in a chokehold. Hall jumped in on that discussion to clarify that the Center had
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never used the term chokehold. He has also asked news organizations to publish corrections if they had mischaracterized how the Center presented the story. “At some point we
decided, don’t just sit there and let the inaccurate, untruthful criticism mount. If somebody wants to criticize a decision, fine, but let’s be clear about what we published before
we get attacked,” (personal communication, 2013).
It should be noted, however, that the Wisconsin Center’s reputation was intertwined
with that of the media who publish its pieces. These relationships were reciprocal: some
of the Center’s reputation influences the reputation of the collaborating or reprinting
organization, and vice versa. “We’re in bed together,” Hall said (interview, April 25,
2013). But he was hopeful that the Center could leverage these relationships to improve
trust in journalism as a whole. “As a relatively small, relatively young news organization, we can in fact play a role in helping increase the public’s trust in what’s reported not
just by asking the public to trust us or other news organizations, but by working really
hard every day to make sure our stories are thoroughly reported, fairly written and accurate. Through that process of leading by example, we potentially can play a role in
increasing the public’s trust in journalists,” (personal communication, 2013). One way
the Center enacted this was by offering the organizations that published its content access
to primary documents and alternative forms of the content, such as graphics. News
organizations around the state have slowly been incorporating all of this content – not
just the text. “They (readers) can hold us accountable if they think we misinterpreted or
distorted…. It helps the reader see much of the body of information upon which conclusions in the report were drawn,” (personal communication, 2013).
In contrast, MinnPost’s mission statement targeted only the “news-intense” public
(compared to the 30 million potential readers of the Wisconsin Center). “MinnPost made
a concrete decision when we started that we were looking for a subset of the newspaper
audience – half of the half. We estimated our target audience is one-sixth of adults –
those who are news intensive and read multiple sources,” CEO Joel Kramer said (personal communication, 2011). In 2013, Kramer said the organization still had work to do
on this front. While he believed that MinnPost was well known among people actively
engaged in policy – the organization’s primary target – there remained what he called a
“second band of college-educated, news-engaged people” who had yet to find the organization (personal communication, 2013). And, like Hall, Kramer was also keenly aware
of the need for his organization to become a stable news source. Much of MinnPost’s
efforts on this front involved looking for a new business model for journalism. Not content with simply getting by year by year, the organization created strategy groups in late
2012 to help establish metrics and best practices for improving its scoring on each of
those metrics. Most of the strategy groups were related to financial sustainability – focusing on topics such as acquiring major gifts and growing readership. On the readership
front, although its website was the primary venue for MinnPost work (with 12.5 million
page views in 2012), MinnPost contracted with newswires to distribute its stories in
mainstream media: “What we get out of it is brand recognition,” Kramer said (personal
communication, 2011), acknowledging here that his organization’s survival was linked
to the institutional press. That link, though, was much more tenuous than it was for the
Wisconsin Center. In 2013, almost two years after setting up a relationship with the
Minnesota Newspaper Association to carry MinnPost’s stories, MinnPost was
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not tracking where its stories ran. The organization’s focus remained on its main platform
– its own website – and on building the sustainability of that product. In contrast, the
Wisconsin Center saw tracking as a key path to its brand of donation-based sustainability
because it allowed the organization to make an argument to foundation and individual
donors alike about its impact.
In terms of nurturing relationships, MinnPost worked on new ways to build links to
citizens of Minneapolis. For example, the organization hosted a series of Town Hall
meetings in 2011 in which journalists interviewed newsmakers in front of a crowd. Also,
as part of a 2011 fundraiser, it auctioned off a “conversational salon” in which experienced mediators would help the buyer set up a debate between 30 people on the topic of
his or her choice. As another example, editors in 2011 discussed setting up opinionwriting workshops for people who wanted to contribute to the organization’s op-ed section and in 2013 planned to accept letters to the editor to create an avenue for reader
contribution less intensive than an op-ed but more intensive and visible than an online
comment. In addition, as part of the organization’s strategy groups, MinnPost began to
build structures focused on increasing its readership. While the organization worked on
engaging that second band of educated people, it was more important, Kramer said, to
build stronger relationships with existing readers, getting them to stay on the site longer
at each visit, and click on more pages (personal communication, 2013). “We concluded
we had more prospect for growth by deepening existing relationships,” Kramer said.
That’s based, he said, on industry metrics that show that some news sites get four to six
clicks per viewer, whereas MinnPost was getting roughly two. The organization was
applying a similar strategy to raising money, focusing first on building stronger relationships with existing donors.
As of 2012, MinnPost also was moving into collaboration with other non-profits – in
fact, the Wisconsin Center and MinnPost worked together during the year on an application to a Minnesota foundation for money to report on frac sand mining, happening in
both states. Through all of their coverage, Kramer articulated that the organization’s role
was to empower citizens through information; he asserted that he could accomplish this
better than mainstream organizations. For example, MinnPost commissioned a poll of
Minnesotans’ views of the shutdown of the state government to fill what editors perceived to be a hole in the information available about the shutdown. “I’m still shocked
that the Star Tribune isn’t doing this,” Kramer said during an editorial meeting in July
2011. For MinnPost, rebuilding community trust in news organizations involved only a
portion of the public, but the organization sought to engage with that segment intensely.
The organization played up such sentiments in its publicity material, emphasizing the
organization’s values and the idea that news is a public good. Its 2011 year-end publication, an almost 50-page tabloid reprint of its top stories of the year, had this statement to
readers at the end: “MinnPost’s message to the community is simple: High-quality journalism is not just a consumer good, and we can no longer depend only on the private
sector to provide it. High-quality journalism is a community asset, the underpinning of
democracy, community and quality of life.” In articulating news as a “community asset,”
MinnPost made a public trust argument about journalism as a reliable watchdog. Yet
Kramer also strove to nurture a more citizen-centric trust relationship through transparency. The organization disclosed its funding sources as well as any conflicts of interest.
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But in addition, he discouraged MinnPost reporters from putting on a “false air of objectivity,” having them explain to readers how they came to their conclusions. “We think it’s
just a better way to do journalism, but it also builds trust because it enables the reader to
make his or her own judgment,” (personal communication, 2013). Kramer tried to
encourage this kind of writing during his time at the Star Tribune too, but it is harder for
a mainstream newspaper to publish this kind of writing because of reader expectations.
“A start-up can more easily do it; a place with a small dedicated audience that understands what you’re doing can easily do it” (personal communication, 2013). Finally, he
also worked to incorporate reader engagement such as accepting reader-generated content and story ideas.
A discussion: Rebuilding community trust
The evidence in this study indicates that these news non-profits are indeed based on the
traditional model of trustee journalism, but that they also wish to re-define the relationship between journalists and citizens and erase the previous boundaries of informational
authority. Not only are these journalists working to have citizens “trust” non-profits to
uncover those stories the local news organization failed to report, but they are also
actively cultivating a sense of ownership over information and over the news organization itself for citizens (100Reporters, InvestigateWest, Midwest Center for Investigative
Journalism, New England Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica, Texas
Observer, VTDigger). In establishing goals about storytelling and strategies around relationship building, the organizations aim to help readers move beyond being the passive
observer Carey (1999) worried about. They work to empower citizens in the information
exchange and provide them with an opportunity to identify with the material as a community document. This article suggests that through such missions and strategies, these
non-profits hope to “reclaim our communities” (New Haven Independent) as new kinds
of civic journalism with citizens as primary stakeholders and, most importantly, collaborators via relational trust-building.
The values innate in any trusting exercise depend on relational interaction between
information producers, information sources, and information sharers – something many
of these news non-profits purport to offer via the communal re-connecting they aspire to
generate. A majority of the studied organizations called for independence and transparency as part of their missions for producing content (FairWarning, INN, National Institute
on Money in State Politics, PublicSource, ProPublica, Wisconsin Center, WyoFile). In
declaring that its newsrooms were “free from partisan political influences,” as
PublicSource did, these organizations hoped to build trust in the balance of the content.
In mapping a blueprint for collaboration with stakeholders, media organizations, and
citizens, the INN (Osder and Campwala, 2012) posited in its 2012 report that significant
“trust” relationships among all of these players will be essential to any form of sustainability for these non-profits. In aligning their missions with the ideals of legacy media
while also differentiating themselves, the non-profits demonstrate an intimacy and a
shared knowledge of the norms and practices of journalism as an accepted, authoritative
profession. As Warren (1999) stated in an essay about democracy, government, and trust
(relevant to the institution of the press as well): “Because the rules of an institution can
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Konieczna and Robinson
be known and generalized to a very large number of strangers (i.e. reporters), the truster
(i.e. the news consumer) can extrapolate those rules to individuals about whom he has
little direct knowledge” (349). Not only are these organizations assuring citizens of their
knowledge of the rules of good information sharing, but the non-profits are also urging
people to take an active role in the information-exchange relationship. This brilliant
strategy positions citizens in the middle of that trust relationship and forces them to take
ownership over parts of it. That “social dilemma” truly becomes relational in a way
legacy media never asked of its constituents.
It should be noted that these findings demonstrate a significant contradiction: while
almost all aimed to re-connect with citizens and fill a void left by mainstream publications, many adopted the existing institutional framework of media organizations – and in
particular ascribing to the trustee model journalism – to do so. In part, this comes from
having former journalists at the helm of many of these organizations; they do not know
any other structure. Also in part, this results from the need of these new actors to tap into
a resource base; non-profit directors are borrowing institutional cache. Nonetheless,
these new news organizations run the risk of replicating the dominant – and failing –
structure rather than challenging it. At the same time, the collaborative model observed
in the ethnographic data showcases a new news model, one eschewing the status quo.
Many of these organizations seek to collaborate not only with mainstream news organizations – perhaps a necessary survival mechanism – but also with each other and with
citizens. Our case-study organizations purposefully generated deeper relationships with
student interns, for example, and resurrected civic journalism practices such as Town
Hall meetings. Their choice of investigative news topics and rejection of more popular,
sensationalized stories demonstrated their commitment to news as a public good. This
bodes well for these non-profits’ contribution to American democracy, as these dynamics
shall foster a much different environment.
As these civically minded non-profits carve out their niche and build trust relationships
with citizens, many legitimate questions swirl around the sustainability of these new
business models. These uncertainties necessarily jeopardize any kind of community reclamation by way of trust relationships. Controversy, cynicism, and doubts dog these
groups. Foundations or wealthy patrons fund many – how sustainable is such a model?
Some (not in our sample) decline to disclose where their money comes from – how can
we trust the veracity of their information and the altruism of their agenda? Many have a
very small readership – how can a group with so little marketability hope to survive
amidst the glut of the information age? The very digital technologies that enable these
groups to produce and disseminate news and take a shot at rebuilding community trust
might also bring about their demise. This article does not begin to answer these questions, which are fodder for another paper.
Nonetheless, it must be remembered that one of the fundamental characteristics of
any kind of trusting relationship is risk-taking (Vanacker and Belmas, 2009). News
organizations in particular should be gathering information “in ways that make readers
want to go through the effort of receiving it” (Meyer, 2004: 229), with quality content
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Journalism 15(8)
that promotes civic engagement. The evidence presented in this paper demonstrates
how the news non-profits say they are using digital technologies to bring citizens further into the newsgathering process, which might lead to more significant relationships
between the public and political life. Vanacker and Belmas (2009) call for collaboration
among citizens, politicians, old-school media organizations, and other community players to raise the bar for political reporting and ensuing deliberation. This research also
argues that the mission statements appear to reflect much of the work of the early public
journalism movements, especially in regards to a commitment toward communitybased issues as well as mutual understanding, the illumination of marginalized concerns, and the encouragement of solutions-based citizen action. The evidence from our
two case studies indicates some exercising of those tenets. We call on future researchers
to observe, through more comprehensive content/discourse analysis methods, what
these organizations actually do. Perhaps a longitudinal study would be warranted, revisiting these organizations in a few years. When we look back at this time period, we may
see that the non-profit news organization served as the foundation for renewed trust
between American citizens and their journalists (via strategies of storytelling and
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Author biographies
Magda Konieczna is a graduate student in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. She studies journalism and media management issues, particularly as the industry is changing in the digital age.
Sue Robinson is an associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. She teaches and researches online journalism, information
authority, and new technologies.
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JOU15810.1177/1464884913508608JournalismLiu and Berkowitz
“Where is our Steve Jobs?”
A case study of
consumerism and
neo-liberal media in China
2014, Vol. 15(8) 1006­–1022
© The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1464884913508608
Zhengjia Liu
University of Iowa, USA
Dan Berkowitz
University of Iowa, USA
When covering foreign events, journalists bring resonant cultural meanings to an
otherwise little-understood occurrence. From a cultural perspective, we analyzed
“Steve Jobs fever” in five publications of a progressive neo-liberal media group in China.
The media texts allowed us to understand society’s neo-liberal narratives. The media
re-crafted Jobs’ death into a story about Chinese society: the first theme foreshadowed
the greatness and necessity of having Steve-Jobs-style genius; the second theme
raised the question why not having an equivalent Steve Jobs and immediately answered
it; finally, the third theme logically provided the solution to solve this social crisis.
This story fits into the enduring narratives of national salvation through technological
consumption and further Westernized liberalization. The study attempts to move
research on Chinese media beyond the Chinese context by making a conceptual
contribution for understanding journalism in a global environment.
Cultural proximity, consumerism, neo-liberalism, Steve Jobs, China
When the death of Apple, Inc.’s CEO Steve Jobs was announced on 5 October 2011,
China’s neo-liberal media reacted intensely. Like others, Southern Metropolis Daily – a
Corresponding author:
Zhengjia Liu, School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, E305 AJB, University
of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52246, USA.
Email: [email protected]
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from http://www.elearnica.ir
Liu and Berkowitz
regional newspaper in Guangdong Province – reserved its entire front page and seven
other pages for stories about Jobs. A second-page editorial read:1
[DQ]China has the largest number of Apple users. Steve Jobs did not only amaze us, but also
raised a question: when can we have our own Jobs? … [I]f China’s system and cultural
environment could be more open, we will have our own great innovators! (Southern Metropolis
Daily, 7 October 2011).
This extensive coverage in the neo-liberal media about Jobs’ death highlights his symbolic meaning to the Chinese consumerist context. Southern Metropolis Daily’s ownership, the Southern Media Group, represents an icon of China’s neo-liberal media well
known for cross-line reporting and advocating for political liberalization (Zhao, 1998,
2003, 2008a, 2008b). Their reporting style clearly stands out as distinct from the Party
media, such as People’s Daily, that simply reported Jobs’ death as a loss to America,
appearing at the very end of the second to last page of its7 October paper (Chen, 2011).
The intensive coverage of Job’s death exemplifies how, through the process of covering foreign events, journalists attempt to bring resonant cultural meanings to an otherwise little-understood occurrence. To do this, they create cultural proximity by selecting
story elements and interpretations that better fit enduring and well-established cultural
narratives (Berkowitz, 2011; Gans, 1979).
Neo-liberalism as a world-view is understood as a maximization of global market
governance and a minimization of state government, because the market is associated
with competition and is a better way to achieve economic efficiency and choice (Larner,
2000). As an ideology, neo-liberalism is often criticized as new American imperialism,
promoting low wages and inequality, particularly in developing countries disadvantaged by globalization (Howell and Diallo, 2008). In China, neo-liberalism is contextualized in the nation’s historical background and political agenda. To understand the
Chinese neo-liberal culture in a transitional moment, Southern Media Group’s portrayal
of Steve Jobs is used as a device in this study. From the conceptual framework of cultural construction of news, we conduct a textual analysis of news and opinion items
appearing in five nationally well-known publications in the media group. Our underlying argument addresses how neo-liberalism is associated with other ongoing cultural
themes, such as nationalism, technological progress and consumerism in media
Cultural construction of news
Proximity, one of several often-debated news values, is not simply a geographic concept
(Harcup and O’Neill, 2001). When news is lacking geographic proximity, journalists –
the interpretive community (Zelizer, 1993) – adapt it by creating connections to cultural
proximity, so that audiences are able to relate to what has happened in unfamiliar societies. To do this, journalists write their stories through long-standing narratives that coincide with established cultural values of the domestic society (Berkowitz, 2011; Nossek
and Berkowitz, 2006). In this way, a foreign event is “domesticated” and can better resonate with the audience (Cohen et al., 1995).
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Journalism 15(8)
For example, American newspaper coverage of Sudanese refugees drew on an enduring narrative of “the promised land.” Refugees were represented through familiar stereotypes of backward people from a dark continent. American consumerist values and
liberal capitalist beliefs are further reinforced as a pre-eminent cultural element that
those refugees need to adopt. These news stories offer little about Sudan but instead retell
cherished stories about America (Robins, 2011). To understand re-crafting of cultural
proximity in media narratives, scholars need to explore how reality is constructed within
a distinct cultural environment. This approach of studying news centers on cultural constructions and argues that to report and write news is not just a strategic activity, but a
process that re-uses meanings already present in the culture of journalism and the culture
of society (Ettema, 2011). To turn Philip Graham’s famous quote on its head, history is a
rough draft of the news (Berkowitz, 2011). For instance, the death of an iconic figure
evokes collective memory – a mythological version of the past rearticulating the present
significance to society (Meyers, 2011; Zelizer, 2011). By referring to the past, media
memory in turns offers society a diagnosis of the present and a warning for the future
(Kitch and Hume, 2007).
In contrast, the conventional normative approach of journalistic research focuses on
the possibility of – and the reasons for – producing biased stories. Such a perspective
could be problematic when the American journalistic ideology of reporter as objective
informer is taken for granted as the standard (Berkowitz, 2009, 2011; Berkowitz and
Eko, 2011). For instance, different from American journalists trying to be bystanders and
to distance themselves from elites, advocacy journalists in Asian transitional societies
tend to actively collaborate with elites to challenge an absolute power, which in turn can
benefit that society’s long-term democratic development (Waisbord, 2009). Likewise,
the normative approach may fall into a false dichotomy of domination versus subordination and inappropriately simplify the complexity of social strata (Thornton, 1996). In the
last three decades, research on Chinese media has been primarily based on a government-control versus press-freedom framework, which is largely influenced by Western
liberal democratic ideology. This etic paradigm becomes redundant because it largely
neglects that news is produced in the historical context and conveys cultural meanings to
society (Akhavan, 2012). As a result, research on Chinese media has often limited the
discussion to a specific topic within the Chinese context and has failed to provide a conceptual contribution to the larger field (Meng, 2010).
Therefore, in this study, we focus on how cultural meanings shape the news, aiming
research at journalists’ work as story brokers of a culture to understand journalism
beyond the normative approach. The Chinese media’s coverage of Steve Jobs’ death
provides the case that the media craft cultural proximity of foreign news to retell enduring cultural stories in their society.
Changing China and changing media
China is the second-largest market for Apple. By the end of 2012, this market accounted
for 13% of Apple’s overall revenue, and its fourth-quarter sales increased 67% –
compared with 15% in America and 11% in Europe. As the penetration rate of high-tech
products in China grows dramatically, the Chinese market is expected to be increasingly
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Liu and Berkowitz
crucial to Apple. There are eight Apple retails stores in China, among which the Wangfujing
store is the largest one in Asia (Shinal, 2013). In total, Apple’s original equipment manufacturers (OEM), such as Foxconn, have 331 plants in mainland China (Apple, 2013).
Apple’s growth in China is one example of the nation’s political and economic reform,
which was initiated in 1978. Soon after Mao’s death, the second generation of the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping initiated a national
reform program to establish a bureaucratic state capitalist system. The program has
established a limited market economy system within the state plans (Lieberthal, 2004).
Particularly since 2001 when China rejoined the World Trade Organization (WTO), the
nation has further embraced the global market.
This economic reform accompanies an ideological shift. The regime has switched from
Mao’s totalitarianism to Deng’s authoritarianism and has gradually withdrawn from some
aspects of people’s social life (Lee, 2003). From the political economy perspective, scholars have observed the ideological expansion of neo-liberal capitalism in the nation. In the
Western context, neo-liberalism emphasizes a globally-free market and recasts governmentality “as non-political and non-ideological problems that need technical solution[s]”
(Zhao, 2008b: 25). In the Chinese context, neo-liberalism maintains its emphasis on market economy and technological solutions, but fragments into ideological factions when
they advocate for different political agendas. The more conservative coalitions defend a
powerful government to protect the nation’s interests in global competition. They believe
that Western democracy – in essence the American new imperialism – does not fit into
China’s culture. The more progressive coalitions posit that the current political system
conflicts with free market economy. They believe that the government has been interrupting healthy and beneficial market competition and argue for further Westernized political
reform (Li, 2010; Lieberthal, 2004; Zhao, 1998, 2003, 2008a, 2008b).
As a political buffer zone for Hong Kong, Guangdong Province has been governed by
the more progressive neo-liberal leadership (Page, 2012; Yang, 2004). In 1979, the province governor convinced the central government to allow Guangdong to establish its own
trade policy and to invite foreign investment. It established the nation’s first three Special
Economic Zones, where privately-run enterprises have been allowed to dominate the
regional economy, in contrast to the state-dominated economy in the rest of the nation.
Today, 20 Economic and Technological Development Zones have been established in
Guangdong. Several of Apple’s major OEMs are located in these zones, with local government expecting high-tech manufacturing to account for more than 20% of its GDP by
2015 (The China Perspective, 2010).
The changing media environment
As the political and economic environment has changed in society, the Chinese press
system has been less monolithically manipulated by government than it once was
(Donald and Keane, 2002; Polumbaum, 2008; Zhao, 1998, 2008a, 2008b). The media
industry started its own reform program in the 1990s, which accelerated when China
entered the WTO in 2001. As a result, the Chinese press system has become more commercialized and focused on audience interests (Lee, 2003).
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Journalism 15(8)
Also, as scholars consistently point out, press control in China has never been operated through any formal, institutionalized, and universalized pre-publication censorship
apparatus. Instead, news organizations self-censor news content and report to the
regional party’s propaganda departments, which have the authority to intervene in the
news process. Reporters may face ad hoc punishments if the published content has
crossed an acceptable line, which is also situational to the specific context. Therefore,
there are considerable chances for local party committees and news organizations to
advocate for their own agenda (Polumbaum, 1994; Zhao, 2008b). In addition, younger
generation journalists are brought up, educated and trained in a more open social environment and are unwilling to equate propaganda with news when pursuing their professional dream (Polumbaum, 1994, 2008). The changing media are not only the
consequences of the reform program but also are playing roles in this transitional
The Southern Media Group, for example, is affiliated with, but not financially reliant
on, the provincial Party Committee. Its main readership comprises educated urban residents (Shirk, 2011; Zhao, 2003, 2008b). Supporters honor these publications as “the real
media with a conscience” (Shirk, 2011). For instance, when Southern Weekend’s 2013
New Year Letter to Readers was censored, journalists and their supporters demonstrated
through both online and offline protests (Johnson, 2013; Wong and Buckley, 2013).
However, the conservative faction labeled the Southern Series “the traitors of China,”
because they believed that these media showed bias by advocating for Western democracy (Han, 2011).
It is vital to point out that liberalization does not equate to democratization, even
though progressive neo-liberal elites are often praised as democratic reformers (Zhao,
1998). Liberalization merely aims to deconstruct absolute political power, while democratization includes the reconstruction of power structure (Zheng, 2008). By examining
several social phenomena, Zhao (2008a) warned that Chinese neo-liberal media, just like
Western liberal media, widely represent the interests of business corporations and liberal
elites. As Zhao (1998, 2003, 2008a, 2008b) observed, these progressive media are not
independent from authoritarian power but are associated with the progressive neo-liberal
coalition in power. In the 1980s, the pioneering progressive newspaper – World Economic
Herald – was protected by Zhao Ziyang’s authoritarian government and its agendas of
political reform never went against Zhao’s policy. When Zhao stepped down from power
during the Tiananmen demonstration in 1989, the newspaper was immediately closed.
Similarly, in the current environment, the Southern media’s proactivity is associated with
the regional Party committee’s liberal leadership. In general, from the political economy
perspective, Zhao (1998, 2003, 2008a, 2008b) concluded that Chinese media struggle
between the Party line and the money line.
However, based on a normative paradigm, such discussion is easily able to find problems in the neo-liberal media without providing an understanding of how neo-liberal
narratives are constructed in media texts. Conceptually, such a discussion fails to move
research on Chinese media beyond the Chinese context. Therefore, this study argues for
a cultural perspective to understand journalism within its social context. It explores how
neo-liberal narratives are packaged with other ongoing cultural themes – such as nationalism, technological progress and consumerism.
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Liu and Berkowitz
Nationalism and technological progress
Political science scholars have consistently noticed nationalism as a crucial component
in Chinese society (Gries 2004; Schwarcz, 1986; Tang and He, 2010; Zhao, 2008b).
Nationalism is defined as an imaginary social construct that creates a collective identity
among individuals who feel belongingness to their given nation (Benedict, 1991). A
national survey project in 2008 showed that the Chinese people felt the highest level of
nationalism compared with people in other countries, such as the US, Canada, South
Africa, Venezuela, and Japan (Tang and He, 2010). By examining historical events since
the 1990s, Gries (2004) distinguished popular nationalism from state nationalism and
noted that they conflicted with each other. Popular nationalism separates the concepts of
state and motherland and rejects the Party’s nationalist creditability. The state is also trying to control popular nationalism when it threatens to create instability for the regime.
State nationalism is also associated with the neo-liberal governmentality that participates
in the global market. For example, when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in
Belgrade in 1999, there were street demonstrations in more than 100 Chinese cities
expressing discontent with the government for not being tough against the US. As a
response, the Party media – People’s Daily, Central China Television, and Xinhua News
Agency – issued similar stories that under the Party’s leadership, people were working
hard to promote technological development to increase the national strength, to assuage
populists’ anger toward the US (Gries, 2004; Zhao, 2008b).
The Chinese nationalist movement is also tied into the theme of technological progress. Since 1840, when the Chinese Empire’s historical legacy collapsed because of
Westerners’ invasion, the Chinese have deeply believed that the nation was defeated by
Westerners’ advanced technology (Schwarcz, 1986). Technological progress would
therefore be the crucial strategy to achieve national salvation. In more than 150 years,
different elite groups launched their own technological development movements. When
the current economic reform was initiated to re-establish the nation’s power, Deng
Xiaoping’s saying, “Science and technology are the primary productive forces” became
a guiding slogan (Lieberthal, 2004). Consequently, consumption of technology is articulated with meanings of supporting the nation’s development.
Consumerism with Chinese characteristics
When consumption – the individual-level purchasing behavior – is reconstructed and
interpreted with social meanings, it becomes a “psycho-social” apparatus conceptualized
as consumerism. For instance, consumption of high-tech products is interpreted as supporting scientific and social progress; consumption of popular music is packaged with
peace and love; consumption of fashion is illustrated as a high-end lifestyle. In general,
symbolic values of consumer goods are endowed with social significance (Miles, 1998).
In the early 21st century, China is the second-largest market of luxury products (Karon,
2011). Consumption functions as a way to fulfill one’s desires, to support economic
development, to establish a lifestyle, and to symbolize success. Since consumerism is an
unstable cultural articulation, it is flexible enough to be packaged with any ideological
factions (Miles, 1998) and also able to be reconstructed within enduring cultural contexts
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(McCracken, 1990; Miles, 1998; Sunderland and Denny, 2007). In a society highly valuing nationalist pride, Chinese consumerism is inevitably associated with nationalism
(Zhao and Belk, 2008). Consumers prefer to have Chinese celebrities, particularly sports
stars, as spokespersons, because those stars can evoke nationalist pride (Zhou and Belk,
2004). In contrast to favoring Chinese spokespersons, Chinese consumers prefer Western
brands, because of the norm of seeking prestige faces (mian zi) in this collectivist society. Culturally, the West represents a source of admiration and antipathy (Belk and Zhao,
2003). Therefore, worship of Western lifestyle is a significant consumerist value orientation in the Chinese marketplace (Wei and Pan, 1999), where Chinese consumers show
higher openness to foreign products than do their American counterparts (Parker, Haytko,
and Hermans, 2011). Young urban Chinese consumers are found to have few differences
with their global counterparts in consumption, embracing modern capitalism and global
consumerist values just like their American peers (Podoshen et al., 2011).
In general, the interaction of these ongoing cultural themes provides the background
to craft the cultural proximity of Steve Jobs’ death. Based on the conceptual and contextual development, this study incorporates a close reading of the Chinese neo-liberal
media’s portrayal of the American business icon Steve Jobs’ death, helping to understand
the cultural stories these media retell to the society. Our analysis is guided by the following questions:
•• What do the Chinese neo-liberal media stand for?
•• How are cultural themes intertwined to craft cultural proximity of Steve Jobs’
Textual analysis was conducted to identify common themes and to summarize storylines
(Attride-Stirling, 2001; Fairclough, 1995; Schrøder, 2002). Our data come from coverage of Steve Jobs’ death appearing in Southern Media Group’s five nationally-influential
publications.2 Because the publications are in Chinese, only one author read through the
content and a Chinese-speaking graduate student helped with double-checking the selection decisions. From the media group’s online archive3 we scanned the publications from
6 October 2011, the day when Steve Jobs’ death was announced, until 6 November 2011,
when this event faded from coverage. In total, 47 items were found relating to Steve
Jobs’ death.
We excluded advertorials and excerpts translated from American media. In addition,
items focusing on anecdotes about Steve Jobs’ and Apple’s history were not included.
As Nossek and Berkowitz (2006) suggest, this chronicle form of news only serves an
informational function while the story form of news is most like cultural narratives.
After eliminating those items, our analysis focused on the remaining 20 stories of
Chinese society’s reaction to Jobs’ death. In qualitative research, 20 cases are acceptable to reach data saturation and variability (Bernard and Ryan, 2010; Guest et al., 2006;
Morgan et al., 2002).
Although only one author read through the content, theoretical frameworks were discussed between both authors. When each article was read, notes were taken of the
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Liu and Berkowitz
emerging themes (Attride-Stirling, 2001; Saldana, 2009). The general themes were later
categorized based on the agreed cultural frameworks (Nossek and Berkowitz, 2006).
A social crisis: The absence of Steve-Jobs-style genius
Through our analysis of the news narratives, we found a general storyline underlying the
coverage: Chinese society was facing a crisis of not having an equivalent to Steve Jobs.
Three themes can best summarize stories that were examined. The first theme explicated
how Steve Jobs, glorified as an innovator or scientist, has amazed Chinese high-tech
industry and consumers. The second theme raised the question of why China has fallen
behind America in terms of innovation. The third theme advocated a solution that to
catch up with America, China needs systemic changes.
Being amazed: The utopian view of technology progress
The first theme was associated with technological progress. Steve Jobs was defined as an
innovator or scientist parallel with Newton and Einstein, instead of a businessman or
entrepreneur (Jin, 2011). Therefore, Apple products were technologies, rather than commodities, invented by Steve Jobs. In this way, consumption of these products was not
simply a purchasing behavior but an adoption of emerging technology (Miles, 1998).
This theme manifested the utopian discourses of technology from both the Apple consumers’ and the high-tech entrepreneurs’ perspectives. Southern Weekend covered Apple
consumers grieving outside an Apple Store in Beijing:
[DQ]Apple fans poured into the Apple Store in downtown, with flowers, poems, candles, and
even tears … The passers-by stopped and stood in silent tribute. “He was a good man.” stated
Chen Jianrong, a Beijing resident, who was feeling sad, “Because of my iPad, I can play with
my grandson without learning how to use a computer. He brought us the simplest happiness.”
(Ye, 2011)
The quoted interviewee, Chen, made a morally-positive evaluation of Steve Jobs, because
iPad, a product of Jobs’ company, brings happiness to him and his grandson. Chen was
illustrated as an exemplar of the Apple fans and Chen’s story explained why fans poured
into the store to mourn Jobs.
In another opinion piece, the columnist explained the reason why consumers like
iPhones: “iPhone 4 makes everyone equal. There is no special iPhone 4 only possessed
by dignitaries. The added value for common people to own iPhone 4 is the equally shared
dignity” (Nie, 2011).
This excerpt suggests that the value of social equality was added to the consumption
of iPhone 4, even though the price of an iPhone is beyond the reach of many laborers in
Apple’s OEM factories.
Apple consumers, in fact, were not the focal point of the media’s portrayal. Chen was
the only quoted consumer in the 20 analyzed news stories. Rather, the focus of the
“amazed” theme was on the entrepreneurs who make their fortunes through deals with
Apple, including App software designers, OEM owners, venture capital partners and local
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smartphone developers. These high-tech elites are called “Jobs’ Chinese disciples” (Qiu,
2011; Ye, 2011; Zeng, 2011a, 2011b). Their stories were similar: Apple gave them opportunities to make profits all over the world. “Steve Jobs’ Apple has changed the Chinese
Internet Technology industry and has brought up a group of millionaires and has provided
millions of people with jobs” (Zeng, 2011a). Terry Gou, the CEO of Apple’s largest OEM,
Foxconn, told the reporter that Jobs once gave him a business card with his signature and
Gou kept this card as a priceless treasure. Gou stated, “The world lost a real hero and I lost
a friend. His spirit of utter devotion and creativity will never be forgotten” (Zeng, 2011a).
In this example, Jobs was glorified as a philanthropist sowing dreams, hope and
money, but the exploitation of workers in Apple’s production plants was not mentioned.
Also the story did not mention the sensational news that in 2010, 11 Foxconn employees
committed suicide in the plant’s dormitory, and Terry Gou was widely criticized as a
sweatshop owner (Malone and Jones, 2010). In addition, when Steve Jobs’ death news
was being broadcast, an environmental NGO (non-governmental organization) criticized
Apple’s exploitation and pollution problems. One of the polluting factories was Foxconn’s
branch plant (Wang, 2011), yet that story only appeared once, on the second to last page
of the 10 October Southern Metropolis Daily.
Likewise, none of the Chinese coverage mentioned Jobs’ notoriously eccentric nitpicking personality that often has been covered in American media (Gladwell, 2011).
Thus, Steve Jobs was idealized and romanticized in the Chinese neo-liberal media’s
memorial, a narrative tailored for the Chinese cultural background. The asymmetrical
portrayal of the changes brought by technological products highlights the enthusiasm
that the technology in general is making progress for individuals in China. In contrast,
the second theme focused on progress at the national level.
Why them? Why not us? Neo-liberal capitalism as the promised land
In this second theme, stories focused on the reasons why the Americans had innovators
like Steve Jobs but “we,” the Chinese, cannot find an equivalent genius. The news narratives ascribed Steve Jobs’ success to the American culture and blamed the absence of an
equivalent Steve Jobs on the Chinese culture and political-economic system.
For instance, one opinion piece in Southern Weekend listed four components of
American culture that allowed Steve Jobs to be successful:
[DQ]The culture of tolerance and curiosity allows a free spirit like Steve Jobs being able to
come into his own … Free business environment lets Jobs come back to Apple for a second
time … The culture of equality decides that iPhones are affordable to anyone, celebrities or
common people … The culture of optimism encourages a terminally ill person to continue
pursuing his dream. (Nie, 2011)
In another piece, a columnist even argued,
[DQ]No other people can compare with Americans in terms of creativity: not French, not
Russian, not Japanese … America is a hybrid nation with immigrants from all over the world
… so the people are born to be creative (Wu, 2011).
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Liu and Berkowitz
In these articles, America was portrayed as “the promised land,” much like portrayals by
American media (Robins, 2011 – in these stories, the problems of capitalism, racism and
class conflict in American society disappeared. Such a portrayal did not fit either the
state nationalist or popular nationalist advocacy narrative. It did not place the US in a
holistic position as a Western invader; neither was Apple portrayed as an American capitalist giant exploiting Chinese laborers.
In addition, these stories did not simply glorify the American capitalist culture; they
also sharply blamed the absence of an equivalent Steve Jobs on the Chinese culture. In
one article, the editor collected six posts from microblogs on a Chinese social networking site, Sina Weibo, which is a Chinese equivalent of Twitter with users dominated by
members of the newly-arising middle class: 18 to 35-year-old, highly educated and
financially better-off urban residents (SOHU IT, 2011). These microblogs parodied the
possible tragedy, as if Jobs were a Chinese (Deng, 2011). For example, one piece read:
[DQ]Five possibilities if Jobs was born in China: 1. His patent was pirated so he died; 2. He
could not pass the Public Servant Exam4 so he died; 3. He could not find a job after he quit
school, so he went back to his hometown in the countryside and set up a stall without permission.
Later he was beaten to death by municipal administrators; 4. He invented iPhone and MacBook,
but the products were banned because they could facilitate freedom of speech and threaten
regime stability. 5. He invented iPhone and MacBook, but was accused of plagiarism. (Deng,
The newspaper editor’s selection of these satirical pieces implied his/her agreement with
the micro-bloggers’ criticism of the Chinese system:
•• first, the law has not given a secure protection of innovation;
•• second, the administrative system has been exploiting the small-size business;
•• third, the education system has killed the young generation’s creativity, so young
people are eager to be part of the power system;
•• fourth, technological development has been restricted by the authoritarian regime.
Comparing America and China, these stories placed the former as a leading nation,
with advanced technology and culture. However, the stories did not simply suggest that
China is backward. Instead, the overarching question, “Where is OUR Jobs?” implied
the ambition to catch up with America. This ambition was illustrated by the third theme,
in which the neo-liberal media posit the solution to produce “our Jobs.”
The solution: Advocating for further political reform
The third theme connected Apple products and Steve Jobs with political demands. For
instance, one article in Southern Weekend elaborated a historical connection between
Apple and the current reform program (Ye, 2011). The story traced back to 1980. An
Apple employee came to Shanghai to promote the Apple II computer. Because the Cultural
Revolution, which ended in 1976, had ruined technological development in China, the
Chinese at that time had no knowledge about computers. The promotion did not go
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Journalism 15(8)
successfully. The salesperson was disappointed and left an Apple II at a youth recreation
center in Shanghai. A boy, Lin Jin, later learned how to use a computer by playing with
that Apple II. In 1984, Deng Xiaoping visited that recreation center and watched Lin playing chess on the computer. Deng stated, “The introduction of computers should begin at
an early age.” The reporter wrote, “The little computer opened a window for China to
learn the world … Since then, China’s computer wave has continued” (Ye, 2011).
In this story, Apple products were again portrayed as technology that needed to be
adopted. This technology had not only made economic progress, as the first theme
elaborated, but also triggered the political figure, Deng, to strengthen his reform directive. A historical tie between Apple and Chinese politics was constructed by the
The news stories then focused on the current political plan. On 10 October, the local
government of the City of Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, announced an official plan, which
included RMB50m (about US$8m) in order to produce 1,400 Steve-Jobs-style talented
people in five years. This plan drew criticism of the government’s plans for even “having
our Jobs” (Jin, 2011; Ye, 2011). Southern Metropolis Daily’s famous columnist, Wu Yue
San Ren (2011) argued that Steve Jobs could not be copied in China. Jobs’ success was
based on two levels of freedom – free choice and the free market – both of which were
absent in the current Chinese society. He stated,
[DQ]We need a complete market economy. Today, when an enterprise gets bigger, it is exploited
by all levels of governmental institutions. As a result, either it has to work for the government
or its further development is limited … Government can build up a big company but a great
enterprise can never be fostered by government. (Wu Yue San Ren, 2011)
The columnist directly elaborated the neo-liberal elites’ opinions of how to have “our
Jobs.” The overpowering government has not only prevented young Chinese talent from
becoming equivalent to Steve Jobs but has also kept Chinese enterprises from becoming
an equivalent to Apple. In a complete market economy, the government will step down
from controlling economic development and people’s free choices.
It is noticeable that the government did not have its voice in the media coverage,
though there were intense criticisms against it. Therefore, though the neo-liberal media
have been recognized for their efforts to push the bottom line of free speech, these media
were not playing objective bystander roles as American journalists do, but were like the
advocacy journalists in other traditional Asian societies – they intend to reduce the absolute power and aim to promote the society’s long-term political development (Waisbord,
2009). The consumerist meaning of Steve Jobs was essentially associated with the progressive neo-liberal elites’ political appeal.
In summary, the media re-crafted Jobs’ death into a story about Chinese society: the
first theme foreshadowed the greatness and necessity of having a Steve-Jobs-style
genius; the second theme raised the question why China did not have an equivalent to
Steve Jobs – and immediately answered it itself. Finally, the third theme logically provided a solution to solve this social crisis. In all, this story fits into the enduring narratives of “national salvation through technological consumption” and “the importance of
further Westernized liberalization.”
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Liu and Berkowitz
Our study is based on the concept of cultural proximity, which allows journalists to craft
coverage of foreign events to fit well-established cultural narratives of a society. Such
narratives help understand the cultural stories that the Chinese neo-liberal media wrote
for their society at the time of Steve Jobs’ death. We asked two questions:
•• What do the Chinese neo-liberal media stand for?
•• How are cultural themes intertwined to craft cultural proximity of Steve Jobs’ death?
The findings, first of all, present the dynamics of the Chinese press system. Media
scholars have argued for years that the Chinese media have developed more than one
voice. Not all media are still playing a mouthpiece role for the central government, so
that there are opportunities for the Party’s regional committees and news organizations
to promote their own agendas. As we demonstrated, the progressive neo-liberal media of
the Southern Media Group were affiliated with local government by a neo-liberal leadership and rooted in a market-driven local economy. Their circulation numbers and national
reputation created media content that resonated with a considerable number of readers
nationwide. These media recast the meaning of Jobs’ death by drawing on cultural proximity to make a political appeal against suppressing the free market. This appeal did not
go beyond the authoritarian government’s overall neo-liberal ideology, acknowledging
Deng’s economic policy and remaining consistent with the regional Party’s position on
further political liberalization.
A second finding of this study illustrates connections among the society’s ongoing
themes: consumerism, technological progress, nationalism and neo-liberalism. Steve Jobs
was portrayed as an innovator instead of a business figure and Apple products were correspondingly defined as technological advances instead of commercial commodities. Apple
consumers were accordingly labeled as fans instead. From this perspective, the purchase of
Apple products was interpreted as the adoption of technology and the support of progress
and development. Likewise, business partners of Apple were admired for their individual
success. Such utopian views of technology and consumerism were not unfamiliar in
Western neo-liberal capitalism but less a part of the Chinese political-economic system.
However, as this study shows, consumerism in China can also be associated with
liberal nationalism. The overarching focus of the Chinese neo-liberal elites’ reaction to
Steve Jobs’ death was that “we” have fallen behind and need to catch up with Americans’
creativity. This perspective indicates an ambition to make the nation stronger through
greater technological innovation. Different from both state and popular nationalism
(Gries, 2004), the liberal nationalist notion regards America as a model to follow instead
of an enemy to fight. Similar to popular nationalism, though, it also rejects the state’s
nationalist credibility. Even further, this neo-liberal nationalism accuses the current
regime of constraining the nation’s development and expresses the political appeal of
further reform. Compared with The New Yorker’s presentation of a dark side of Steve
Jobs (Gladwell, 2011), the Chinese neo-liberal media’s commemoration of Jobs offered
a diagnosis of the current political and economic system’s problems and warned their
society of a very likely failure from falling behind the Americans.
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In summary, the journalists at these neo-liberal newspapers crafted the meanings of
Steve Jobs’ death to fit existing cultural narratives of the current Chinese society, with
themes such as technological progress, consumerism and neo-liberal nationalism. This
study demonstrated how coverage of geographically-distant occurrences became culturally proximate and meaningful to the domestic society.
The cultural construction of news approach used here treats news as the text to understand the larger culture that produces it. As the case indicated, Chinese society is far
more complicated than the previous control-versus-resistance model frequently presented. Liberal nationalism is different from either state nationalism or populist nationalism. Neither right nor wrong, different groups for their own political agendas could
reconstruct the meaning of consumerist values. For future research in this vein, scholars
should be aware of the complexity of social structure, which can be unwittingly simplified by adopting a normative false dichotomy.
In addition, the normative paradigm easily limits research on Chinese media within a
specific context and fails to make further dialogues between Chinese media studies with
the larger field (Meng, 2010). In other words, normative research may provide description of Chinese media but can hardly explain media phenomena in a different social
context. Thus, the cultural approach taken here argues to situate journalism in both the
professional culture and the culture of its society. It does not presume a universal norm
of journalism but allows scholars to acknowledge the diversity of press systems and
journalistic cultures in the current global context, a notion that can also be adapted to
studying news media in other transitional societies.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.
All block-quoted press excerpts are originally in Chinese and translated by one author with a
Chinese-speaking graduate student’s assistance.
2. Southern Weekend, the flagship press of the Southern Media Group, was established in 1984.
It was the first weekly in the nation and by 2012 had a circulation of 1.6 million readers, the
largest number among all weeklies.
Southern Metropolis Daily became nationally known in 2003 when it intensively reported the
severe spreading of SARS and pushed the government to make the epidemic situation transparent to the public. Its current circulation is about 1,790,000. Southern Weekly is Southern
Metropolis Daily’s weekend periodical, with a circulation of 500,000.
21st Century Economic Herald’s precursor was 21st Century World Herald, which had covered too many “risky” stories and was closed in 2003 (Polumbaum, 2008). This business
herald has become the biggest financial newspaper with a circulation of 670,000.
Southern Figure Weekly lives out its belief in “equality, tolerance, and human welfare.” The
magazine’s current circulation is about 360,000.
All these circulation numbers are from the publications’ online introduction. For readers’
reference, People’s Daily’s circulation is six million but the paper is mandatorily subscribed
by all levels of governments.
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Liu and Berkowitz
Public Servant Exam is annually hosted by Central Government to recruit new officers. It is
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Author biographies
Zhengjia Liu is a PhD Candidate (ABD) in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at
the University of Iowa. Her main research interests focus on field and constructionist approaches
to the study of social media from a cultural perspective. Some of her recent publications appear in
the International Journal of Sports Communication and the Journal of Magazine and New Media
Dan Berkowitz is a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and associate
dean in the Graduate College at the University of Iowa. His main research interests focus on cultural approaches to the study of news. Some of his recent work appears in this journal, Journalism
and Mass Communication Quarterly, and Memory Studies. He is also author/editor of Cultural
Meanings of News: A Text-Reader published by Sage.
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JOU0010.1177/1464884913511572JournalismVobič and Milojević
“What we do is not actually
journalism”: Role negotiations
in online departments of two
newspapers in Slovenia and
2014, Vol. 15(8) 1023­–1040
© The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1464884913511572
Igor Vobič
University of Ljubljana, Slovenia
Ana Milojević
University of Belgrade, Serbia
This study offers insights into articulations between the normative and the empirical
in online journalists’ self-negotiations concerning their roles in people’s assimilation
of information, the daily provision of news and their institutional status in online
departments. In-depth interviews with online journalists from two leading newspapers,
Delo in Slovenia and Novosti in Serbia, are used to investigate their negotiations with
respect to their societal role. The analysis reveals troubled negotiation processes
among interviewed online journalists when they consider what is regarded as “true”
journalism, news production requirements and their institutional status. This indicates
that rearrangements of political–economic relations in both post-socialist societies
have increased journalism’s responsibility to the media owners and power holders and
surpassed its normatively defined responsibility to the public. Both case subjects are
compared through the prism of the processes of negotiation of normative principles
of journalism in the social, national and institutional contexts of the two newspapers.
Online journalists, societal roles, identity, political relevance, institutional status, news
production, Slovenia, Serbia
Corresponding author:
Igor Vobič, Chair of Journalism, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Kardeljeva ploščad 5,
Ljubljana 1000, Slovenia.
Email: [email protected]
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Journalism 15(8)
The roles of journalists in society has been one of the core subjects of theoretical and
empirical explorations of journalism in the last two decades (e.g. Christians et al., 2009;
Hallin and Mancini, 2004; Hanitzsch et al., 2011; Schudson, 2011; Splichal and Sparks,
1994; Zelizer, 2004). By taking different epistemological positions and inquiry levels,
these studies have explored services that journalists offer to people in different media
cultures and social contexts. Journalists’ roles and their self-negotiations reflect articulations between the prevailing normative models of media and democracy and empirical
realities in which journalists try to connect people to political life. Various commonalities can be identified in transnational studies (e.g. Deuze, 2005; Donsbach and Klett,
1993; Hanitzsch et al., 2011; Weaver, 1996), but different media traditions are also
apparent. Scholarly work on journalists’ roles has tended to be dominated by studies
from Western Europe and the United States (Josephi, 2005), leaving journalism’s normative predispositions and empirical dynamics in other parts of the world under-theorized
and rarely explored (e.g. Jakubowicz, 2007). Therefore, this study attempts not only to
provide insights into journalists’ roles in often-neglected Slovenia and Serbia, where
relations between the media, civil society and the state have gone through profound
changes in the last two decades, but also to offer evidence of context-related contingencies in role negotiations among journalists in the two countries by focusing on a particular group: online journalists in traditional newspapers.
With the rise of the Internet and particularly the consolidation of social media in people’s lives, it has become more difficult to assess ideas about journalism and the roles of
journalists (e.g. Dahlgren, 2013; Deuze, 2007; Hermida, 2013; Papacharissi, 2009;
Singer et al., 2011; Zelizer, 2009). Journalists’ roles with regards to the Internet have
been explored through the prisms of media systems (Fortunati et al., 2009), the social
organization of the newsroom (Boczkowski, 2010), the culture of news making (Paterson
and Domingo, 2008), journalist–audience relations (Bruns, 2005) and professional identities (Weaver et al., 2006). These studies indicate that the Internet creates a sense of
discomfort among journalists when reassessing their roles in society, but at the same time
they indicate that journalism’s future lies online. However, these studies offer little
insight into the complexities and conflicts within the processes of role negotiation within
heterogeneous journalistic communities in terms of national traditions, technological
convergence and institutional particularities. In these contexts, there are indications that
online journalists in traditional media institutions face identity difficulties and often do
not perceive themselves as rightful members of the professional community. Some
researchers have superficially explored or theoretically debated the aforementioned
issues, but their primary research interests have been elsewhere (e.g. Colson and
Heinderyckx, 2008; Deuze and Paulussen, 2002; García, 2008; Quandt et al., 2006;
Singer, 2003; Vujnovic et al., 2010).
Thus, this study’s main aim is to identify how online journalists in specific contexts
perceive their roles in society and how they negotiate the normative predispositions of
journalism within the conditions of news work. The research objective is relevant in the
context of Slovenian and Serbian journalism, as the normative setting of journalism has
become ambiguous since the fall of socialism two decades ago. From this perspective,
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Vobič and Milojević
the study offers insights into articulations between the normative and the empirical in
online journalists’ self-negotiations concerning their roles in people’s ensemble of information, the requirements in daily provision of news, and their institutional status at
newspapers. In-depth interviews with online journalists from two leading newspapers,
Delo in Slovenia and Novosti in Serbia, are used to investigate their negotiations with
respect to their societal role. Both case subjects are compared through the prism of the
processes of negotiation of normative principles of journalism in the social, national and
institutional contexts of the two newspapers.
Conceptual background: Online journalists and their selfnegotiations
Debates on who counts as a journalist and who does not are becoming ever more complicated (Papacharissi, 2009; Lee-Wright et al., 2012; Zelizer, 2009), and people’s linkage to
political life is increasingly accompanied by a growing sense of cynicism and disempowerment (Dahlgren, 2009; McNair, 2006; Schudson, 2011). The self-negotiations of journalists with respect to their roles in society call for continuous scholarly attention. At the
same time, the growth of user-generated content on the web is significantly altering the
parameters of journalists’ self-negotiation. With non-journalists using social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs, to generate, share information and
interpret information, journalism is becoming more multifaceted, collaborative and
diverse, with different actors becoming actively involved in news production (Hermida,
2013; Papacharissi, 2009; Singer et al., 2011).
These dynamics have unquestionably deepened and broadened the public spheres of
democratic societies and helped to challenge the power structure in authoritarian ones.
However, they have simultaneously given rise to additional complexities to permanent
conceptual dilemmas in journalism and journalistic identity (e.g. Vobič and Dahlgren,
forthcoming), many of which arise because of the distinctive character of the journalistic
field: its foundation in explicit values and its identity as a set of unique practices guided
by ethical horizons. Journalists’ identities are being undercut as journalism is mixed with
other forms of media activities, such as advertising, public relations, entertainment,
political communication and marketing (Dahlgren, 2013; Friend and Singer, 2007;
Gitlin, 2009). In this setting, articulations between the normative and the empirical have
considerably reshaped journalism’s relevance to people’s assimilation of information,
the need for journalists in the daily production of news, and the structure and organization of news media institutions.
The occupational ideology of journalism serves to continuously reach a consensus
about who counts as a “true” journalist and what news providers can be considered to be
examples of “true” journalism (Deuze, 2005). Yet, this consensus is being continuously
refined. It varies in its tenacity and reflects specific societal configurations. Scholarly
works in the last decade indicate that online journalists, particularly in traditional media
institutions, find it very difficult to label themselves as “true” journalists (e.g. Boczkowski,
2004; Colson and Heinderyckx, 2008; Deuze, 2007; Deuze and Paulussen, 2002; García,
2008; Quandt, 2008; Robinson, 2011). According to these studies, online journalists are
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Journalism 15(8)
often self-deprecating when assessing their roles with regard to their (1) political relevance, (2) news production requirements and (3) institutional status.
With respect to their political relevance, journalists in online departments are somewhat ambivalent towards participatory ideals of online communication as they follow
notions of detached journalism, “notions that tend to exclude, rather than include”
(Deuze et al., 2007: 335). In this regard, many studies have shown that online journalism
in traditional media institutions tends to retain gatekeeping control over news making,
despite opening up somewhat to the audience (Domingo et al., 2008; Hermida and
Thurman, 2008; Singer et al., 2011). Online journalists continue to rate the disseminator
role as the most important (Weaver et al., 2006) and acknowledge the importance of
quick, neutral and accurate information production (Malik and Scholl, 2009). Yet, power
is moving away from journalists as gatekeepers of information towards the audience who
are assuming a more active role as assemblers, editors and even creators of their own
news (State of the Media, 2006). Some have acknowledged that journalists’ function in
society is being transformed, with their role now one of orienting people in the 24-hour
overpowering stream of news (e.g. Pöttker, 2012). Online journalists feel inadequate
because their news making rests mostly on already published information and interpretation of information available online, downsizing their relevance in political life to “second-hand” journalists (e.g. Quandt, 2008).
Regarding online journalists’ news production requirements, review articles (Kopper
et al., 2000; Mitchelstein and Boczkowski, 2009; Scott, 2005; Steensen, 2011) indicate
that online journalists are required to continuously gather, assemble and produce news
items throughout their work shifts to respond to the assumed needs of the “people formerly known as the audience” (Rosen, 2012). As a direct result, the Internet has introduced a “special breed of journalists” (Colson and Heinderyckx, 2008: 144) devoted to
preparing online editions of traditional media under tight deadlines (Fortunati et al.,
2009) and work minced into small processes (Quandt, 2008). To cope with the demands
for immediacy and the requirement to continuously make news, online journalists hardly
ever provide original content. Instead they “copy-paste” content from agencies or “monitor” other media and “mimic” their news (Boczkowski, 2009). Due to the constant time
constraints, online journalists hardly ever leave their desks and newsrooms, developing
almost an inferiority complex to the imagined “true” journalists that is reflected in
phrases such as “mouse monkeys” (Deuze, 2007: 142) or “desktop” journalism (Deuze
and Paulussen, 2002: 241).
In regards to online journalists’ institutional status, online departments are organized
separately from their print counterparts and tend to be populated by newcomers and less
experienced journalists (e.g. Jones and Salter, 2012; Meikele and Redden, 2011; Paterson
and Domingo, 2008). They produce their own “mini-cultures” and nurture specific values, practices and ideals distinct from those in print or broadcast journalism (Deuze,
2007). Despite trends of newsroom convergence and cross-media production, selfunderstanding among journalists from formerly distinct departments is increasingly a
problem (e.g. Dupange and Garrison, 2006; Fortunati et al., 2009; Singer, 2003). For
instance, in their transnational study, Fortunati et al. (2009: 935) acknowledge the danger
of the “demise of the reporter” and the rise of “new kinds of workers”, with less social
protection and fewer labour rights, who can be more accurately labelled news producers
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Vobič and Milojević
than journalists. Traditional media institution research has identified an ever-greater
division between “privileged professionals” who enjoy greater job security and career
development in print or broadcast and “a periphery of semi-affiliated professionals” in
subcontracted arrangements, often working in online departments (Deuze, 2009: 85).
Commenting on the institutional status and self-deprecation of online journalists, García
(2008: 73) noted that they regard themselves as “half stupid” and “minor brothers” of
print journalists.
Research in Slovenia also points to complex dynamics in role negotiations in the
journalistic community in the context of on-going transformations in media, culture and
society, but it has barely scratched the surface of the subject. For instance, Oblak Črnič
(2007) identifies “defenders” and “critics” of online journalism among Slovenian journalists and notes that online journalists are often not seen as “real” journalists but as
“assemblers of stories”, because they primarily make news by reassembling already published news. Similarly in Serbia, a recent study of Serbian journalists’ attitudes towards
the changes in journalism suggests that the professional community is deeply polarized
between the techno-sceptics, those who defend the traditional way of performing journalism, and the techno-enthusiasts, those who embrace new media technologies in their
everyday practice (Milojević and Ugrinić, 2011b). A comparative study indicates that
online journalists in Slovenia and Serbia nurture a rather detached relationship with their
audiences as they try to reproduce the traditional role of journalists as gatekeepers (Vobič
and Milojević, 2012).
Thus, research in Slovenia, Serbia and elsewhere implies that the rise of the Internet
has sparked a fierce debate among journalists and added a new dimension to negotiations
of journalists’ roles. Yet, the above review of studies indicates that negotiations about the
socially prescribed behaviour of online journalists in relation to other important actors
in journalistic conduct—audiences, journalistic colleagues and newsroom decision
makers—have been neglected. As these issues have been explored only partially in studies primarily dealing with other issues, this article tries to overcome this research gap and
provide insights into how online journalists in Slovenia and Serbia perceive themselves
within the institutional conditions of news work. The main research question of the study
is: How do online journalists negotiate their roles in terms of their political relevance,
news production requirements and institutional status?
Contextual background: Journalists’ roles in Slovenia and
The discussion on journalists’ roles in Slovenia and Serbia needs to be considered in the
specific context of the considerable shifts that the two nations have undergone in the last
two decades. After the fall of socialism in both countries, the media experienced major
normative changes, reshaping the idea, function and character of journalism. In Slovenia,
the media significantly contributed to the collapse of socialism and to the building of
Western-type democracy and market economy (e.g. Poler, 1996; Splichal, 2001; Vobič,
2009). In contrast, Serbian mainstream journalists played an integral part in the singleparty regime of Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s (Milivojević, 2006; Veljanovski, 2009).
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Journalism 15(8)
Research in the last decade indicates common patterns in terms of the position of journalists in Slovenian and Serbian societies. In Serbia (e.g. Milojević and Ugrinić, 2011a;
Veljanovski, 2006) and Slovenia (e.g. Volčič and Erjavec, 2012), they rarely established
themselves as independent forces, but rather as active actors in the reproduction of clientelistic social dynamics at systemic, interactional and actor levels.
In terms of the normative framework, the self-regulatory system in Slovenia requires
journalists to perform on behalf of the public while their fundamental obligation is “true
and genuine informing” (e.g. Poler, 1996). The normative shift from the advocacy character of socialist journalism to what Splichal (2000) labels “mediative journalism” has its
roots in the new social movements of the 1980s and was codified already in 1988 before
the disintegration of Yugoslavia (e.g. Poler, 1996). However, in Serbia, societal change
was more turbulent, with the shift towards a liberal conception of journalism more a matter of momentum in 1989 (Milivojević, 1993) than societal transformation after the fall
of socialism. After 2000, the Serbian media scene underwent a democratic and professional transformation (Veljanovski, 2009), leading the normative predispositions of
Serbian journalism to become increasingly similar to those in Slovenia.
These normative changes in Slovenia and Serbia imply a paradigmatic shift to highmodernism, where journalism serves as “an integrative force” and “a forum for debate”
(e.g. Vobič and Dahlgren, 2013). Despite stressing detachment, the separation of “facts”
from “opinions” and the balancing of claim and counterclaim in the conquest of the public good, journalism research implies doubt in the realization of the normatively grounded
and codified roles of journalists. Namely, the currents of the market economy, rearranged
political–economic relations and increasing responsibility to the media owners and
power holders have surpassed journalism’s normatively defined responsibility to the
public in Slovenia (e.g. Volčič and Erjavec, 2012) and Serbia (e.g. Milojević and Ugrinić,
2011a). On the one hand, the model of market-driven journalism has prevailed in
Slovenian journalism (e.g. Poler Kovačič, 2009; Poler Kovačič and Erjavec, 2008),
meaning that journalists do not offer what the public should know, but provide what the
audience (allegedly) wants. Sensationalism, dramatization and trivialization have
become the common denominators of journalism, which principally serves the “public
curiosity” of consumers rather than the “public interest” of citizens (Poler Kovačič,
2005). The most recent study of the media industry in Serbia shows that recent downsizing due to the economic crisis is lowering the quality of journalism, with even the state
media struggling to provide proper “public service” (Radojković, 2012; Ugrinić, 2012).
Despite ambiguous empirical realizations of normative predispositions of journalism,
the degeneration and the downsizing of journalists’ roles by expanding institutional goals
seem to be common in both Slovenia and Serbia. Insights into articulations between the
normative and the empirical in journalists’ self-negotiations have been rare in Slovenia
and Serbia, particularly in the context of the Internet. Thus, this study sheds light on
online journalists’ roles in two newspapers in Slovenia and Serbia. Their negotiations are
investigated through the prisms of online journalists’ relevance to people’s assembling of
information, their requirements in the daily provision of online news and their status in
the structure of news media institutions.
The study focuses on online journalists from two leading newspapers in Slovenia and
Serbia, taking into account the readership of their daily newspapers, the number of
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Vobič and Milojević
unique visitors to their news websites, the number of staff and the size of the news production department (Milosavljević and Vobič, 2009; Radojković, 2012). Historically,
Delo and Novosti were established as “societally owned” in the 1950s, but they were
privatized after the fall of socialism two decades ago. Delo1 and Novosti2 started their
news websites in the late 1990s. In the 2000s, they set up online departments, which were
separated from the print department in terms of space, processes and staff. In the last two
years, both started the process of integration of news work environments and reconsideration of the role of online journalists and online news. Delo has already built a common
newsroom for print and online journalists. At Novosti, they try to integrate the print and
online processes and content without a common workspace. To focus on aspects of specific cases and to deal with the main research questions, the in-depth interview method
was used. Delo has 15 online journalists, and Novosti has nine. The online departments
of both newspapers are populated by less experienced journalists, with mostly temporary
employment status.
This study focuses first on how online journalists gather, assemble and share news and
second on how the institutional context shapes their conduct. A case study research
approach was adopted to investigate the online journalists’ self-negotiations in the specific
institutional realities of the two newspapers. The case study approach can shed light on
specific cases rather than seeking empirical generalizations (Mabry, 2008; Stake, 1995;
Yin, 2003). The study does not attempt to generalize the findings to other modes of online
journalism in both countries. Instead, it aims to provide in-depth knowledge of the dynamics between the structure (i.e. the context in which online journalists work) and the subjectivity (i.e. what online journalists bring to their work) in online journalists’ negotiations.
In-depth interviews were adopted as the main research method. The interviews
focused on three areas: problem centring, object orientation and process orientation.
Problem centring refers to the researcher’s orientation to the relevant problem(s) (i.e. the
role negotiation processes among the online journalists in the traditional news media
institutions); object orientation refers to the development or the modification of the interviews with respect to the object of the research (i.e. the specific processes at Delo and
Novosti); and process orientation refers to the understanding of the object of the research
(i.e. the normative grounding of journalism and the dynamics of its negotiations in particular settings) (Flick, 2006: 161). The study departed from “focused” or “structured”
interviews in which the interviewer strictly follows an interview guide and adopted
instead a “semi-structured” or “semi-standardized” type of interview. The interview
guide was organized but not fixed and adopted as a tool for theoretically informed and
contextually grounded conversation.
More specifically, three types of questions were combined: open, content mapping
and nondirective (Flick, 2006; Legard et al., 2003). Each of the questions was intended
as a distinct stimulus with a particular purpose at a certain stage of the conversation.
The aim was to encourage conversation on a particular topic, and the questions were
answered based on the current knowledge of the interviewee (e.g. “How do you usually gather, assemble and produce online news items?”). The interviewer
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Journalism 15(8)
asked theory-driven (Flick, 2006: 156) questions based on the literature review and the
theoretical framework of the study (e.g. “Why is online journalism relevant to people’s
participation in political life?”). Finally, the third type of questions, which were confrontational (Flick, 2006: 157) or content mining (Legard et al., 2003: 150), responded to the
notions that the interviewee had presented up to that point to critically re-examine them
(e.g. “How do you explain the differences between your self-understanding of your role
as a journalist and those written in journalists’ code?”)
In January and February of 2011, five in-depth interviews were conducted with Delo
online journalists, and four online Novosti journalists were interviewed in July 2011. The
interviewed Delo online journalists were aged between 25 and 32 years, they were members of the online department, and they had temporary employment status. Editors were
not included. Three of the interviewees covered national affairs, one covered foreign
affairs and one reported on sport events. At Novosti, two of the interviewed journalists
were permanent employees, and all were under 35 years. One was the news editor,
another specialized in sport and the other two covered general news. The online journalists at Delo and Novosti are mostly employed in the newsroom where their role is to post
content from in-house print colleagues on the newspaper’s website, reassemble or copypaste press agency news and translate foreign media news. The interviews lasted an
average of one hour and 40 minutes and were held outside the newsroom in a quiet public
space, most often the cafeteria, to diminish the influence of organizational settings. They
were voice-recorded and later transcribed in full.
The analysis of the in-depth interviews with the online Delo and Novosti journalists
revealed discrepancies in how they negotiate their socially prescribed behaviour with
respect to other actors: audiences, print journalists and media management. On the one
hand, the interviewees from both online departments view their service as being in
accordance with normative predispositions of Slovenian and Serbian journalism, that is,
providing timely “objective” news to enable people to make competent decisions and
actively participate in political life. On the other hand, they do not regard themselves as
“true journalists” (Delo online journalist A) because they rarely make “original” news
due to speed requirements. Instead, they mainly shovel in-house print content online,
reassemble press agency news and translate foreign media news. Regarding their institutional status, differences were identified between the Delo and Novosti journalists. The
Delo online journalists stressed that they are “not regarded as equal” (Delo online journalist A) with their in-house print colleagues in terms of career opportunities and labour
relations. However, the Novosti interviewees did not acknowledge subordination, but
rather “isolation” of the online department (Novosti online journalist C) from the main
decision-making bodies at the newspaper.
Political relevance: “We deliver information that people need”
The Delo and Novosti online journalists said that they provide “fast news” (Delo online
journalist C), “credible information” (Delo online journalist B) and “direct news”
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Vobič and Milojević
(Novosti online journalist A). Their responses imply timeliness, truthiness and conciseness in their output and suggest that they see themselves as timely impartial mediators of
social reality. Delo online journalist D acknowledged the importance of online news in
the process of opinion making and political participation: “With the news we provide,
people can act not just like a flock of sheep, and they cannot be manipulated easily. They
can make better decisions”. Novosti online journalist B explained that they work “in the
service of citizens”, and that “we need to show the people that there is some kind of link
and that life is transmitted through news. News is what they live”. All the interviews
clearly had a modern view of journalism, which offers heterogeneous citizenry and a
public forum.
In addition, to a certain extent, the interviewees’ narratives indicate that besides gatekeeping, the online journalists at Delo and Novosti take on what can be labelled as an
orientation function. For instance, as noted by one of the Delo online journalists (journalist C), “we help people by providing fast and selected news. We narrow the frame of
importance, especially on the first page. We are, in a way, a filter”. This shift was particularly salient when the interviewees spoke about social media, particularly Facebook and
Twitter. For instance, one said, “we use social media to publish website links that lead to
our stories. In particular, the younger generation follows the news stream more closely
and clicks on the item that appears” (Novosti online journalist A). Both online departments use social media for promotional purposes, and they are ambivalent towards interactions with online users. However, the interviewees stressed that they follow what users
click, read and comment “to push a certain story” (Novosti online journalist C). At the
same time, they have no intention of interacting with them, let alone involving them in
news production. They “try to ignore them” (Delo online journalist A) or “get nervous
when they talk with us” (Novosti online journalist A). Therefore, the online journalists
appear to be aware that journalists’ roles in how people’s ensemble of information is
changing with always-on stream news. However, at the same time they retain traditional
detachment from the audience.
Most of the Delo and Novosti interviewees clearly expressed a willingness to act as
critical journalists, or as what Delo online journalist A called “critical watchdogs”, but
they have problems taking on this role for different reasons. The Novosti online journalists cited the apparent close relationship between media owners, editors and political
actors. For instance, “we do not perform as investigative journalists. It makes me sick to
work as a journalist taking into account so many personal interests of the powerful. /…/
Generally, we are in the service of politicians and others” (Novosti online journalist A).
At Delo, on the other hand, the interviewees acknowledged different news production
requirements. “We should reveal stuff and control the powerful. /…/ We can do stories in
our free time, but I am sorry—I do not feel like it. There is no motivation: that is the
problem. Then, I ask myself, why I would bother making an effort for 600 euros per
month” (Delo online journalist A).
Production requirements: “Need for speed”
As noted earlier, the Delo and Novosti online journalists do not produce news based on
active information seeking outside the newsroom but rather shovel the contents of
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in-house print colleagues onto the website, reassemble or copy-paste press agency
news and translate foreign media news. The members of both online departments
strongly emphasized the need for speed and the importance of timely news, reflecting
news production requirements aimed at immediacy and not authenticity, let alone
exclusivity. Some online journalists at Delo see themselves as gatekeepers of the second order in their attempts to provide “non-stop” news (Novosti online journalist C)
and fulfil the “need for speed” (Delo online journalist B). “I think it is terrible.
Somebody else makes all the decisions for you, gathers information and selects what
is important. Somebody else is a gatekeeper: it’s not me really. The quality of our news
cannot reach the level of the news from the field” (ibid.). The interviewees from
Novosti also explicated that “there is almost no author’s work” (Novosti online journalist B) and call the service they provide “copy-paste journalism” (Novosti online journalists A, B, C).
The interviewees stressed that the pace of work is so intensive that they cannot find
time for one of the fundamental principles of quality journalism: to verify information.
When asked if they verify the information they use, nobody replied with an affirmative
answer. Instead, they rely on the accuracy of other journalists, who are their primary
information resources. For instance, “often we do things without thinking. We have to do
everything almost immediately, which often results in mistakes, from spelling to factual
mistakes” (Delo online journalist B). In the process of routinization of their production,
the online journalists of both departments acknowledged the use of translating tools,
such as Google Translate, when reporting on foreign matters. For instance, Novosti
online journalist D who covers sports said she uses Google Translate to follow news
websites from other countries: “You cannot get information on player transfers from
football clubs directly. You read sites from their countries by using online translating
tools, and you know exactly what is happening”. Delo online journalist A uses online
translating tools to translate foreign media faster. “There is nothing wrong with that. I
just work much faster. I have to go through the text of course and get rid of mistakes
made by the tool”.
The interviewees’ answers indicate that they are not content with their highly routinized response to news production requirements. For instance, “what we do is not
actually journalism. We sit, skim the web looking for information and reassemble it”
(Delo online journalist B). Many other examples illustrate that the online journalists
at Delo and Novosti do not regard themselves as “true” journalists. Often-used phrases
such as “copy-pasters” (Delo online journalists A, B, D), “recyclers” (Delo online
journalist E) and “sitting job” (Novosti Journalist B) point to the notion of work alienation. “We are not the cognitive workers. I get the news items, reassemble them and
publish them online. I sit in the newsroom and write about events that I didn’t experience” (Delo online journalist C). When characterizing the online news work, the Delo
interviewees used metaphors such as “robots” (Delo online journalist E), “assembly
line” (Delo online journalist A) and “factory” (ibid.) to stress the monotony of their
practice. In this context, Novosti online journalist A acknowledged, “journalism is
pure economy. We hunt for clicks by following what is out there online and what
might get our readers’ attention. /…/ Maybe I was naive, but I pictured journalism
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Vobič and Milojević
Institutional status: “Not regarded as equal”
The interviewees from both newspapers acknowledged that online departments have a
peripheral institutional status at Delo and Novosti. Phrases such as “bunch of students”
(Delo online journalist C), “backup journalists” (Delo online journalist C) and “copypaste” journalists (Novosti online journalist D) are only some examples used by the interviewed online journalists when explaining their status within the structure and
organization of both newspapers with regards to their labour relations, cooperation with
print colleagues and roles in daily news production.
With regards to labour relations, the employment status of the online journalists at
Delo and Novosti is precarious, with the large majority engaged in short-term contractual, casual, temporary and freelance work. For instance, “I have graduated and have
been working at Delo for two years. The biggest problem is that you do not know what
is going to happen the next day” (Delo online journalist D). Delo online department staffers, except editors with a permanent contract, are not paid for sick leave. However, the
topic of labour relations did not stimulate a fierce debate among the Novosti online journalists, probably because two of them who used to work for printed newspapers now
have regular employment. In contrast, the Delo interviewees all work in risk-filled and
open job arrangements.
In terms of cooperation with print colleagues, according to the Delo and Novosti interviewees, cooperation among online and print journalists is primarily the result of collaboration grounded in the occasional common interests of individuals. The online
journalists otherwise portray the relationship with counterparts in print as often conflicting and full of misunderstandings. For example, “some print journalists are arrogant.
They regard us as a bunch of students. It is constantly implied that ‘old-school’ print
journalism is the real thing. Nothing will change until online journalists become older”
(Delo online journalist C). Similarly, “it seems that print journalists do not understand or
do not want to understand that speed is essential online. The mindset is ‘let’s take it
easy’” (Novosti online journalist B). In this sense, some of the interviewees also indicated that they are “underestimated” in relation to the print department members and
“not regarded as equal” by members of the newsroom (Delo online journalist A).
Regarding their roles in daily news production, the interviewed online journalists said
that the online department is “forgotten” at Delo (Delo online journalist A) and “isolated” or “alone” at Novosti (Novosti online journalist C). The interviewees acknowledged the business factor as the primary motivation for the online arm of the newspaper
being an institutionally peripheral department: the absence of a consolidated business
model for the Internet results in small revenue for online departments and minor financial investments in staff and technology. “It seems that at the company level, there is no
consensus and no institutionalized decision making for active cooperation in news making” (Delo online journalist B). The situation is similar at Novosti. “I have good cooperation with one print colleague. But it is completely individual. Otherwise, there is no
strategy of cooperation across the department”. At both newspapers, cross-department
cooperation is limited to morning and afternoon editorial meetings, and ad hoc encounters between online staffers and print editors-in-chief are rare. In addition, the Delo
online journalists stressed that the print editor-in-chief, who is formally also in charge of
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Journalism 15(8)
the online department, “does not care” about online news (Delo online journalist E). For
example, “she does not give a rat’s ass. She does not know us, she does not say hello. She
is terrible. She has her office really close to us and often passes by, but does not say anything. /…/ We probably do not even exist for her” (Delo online journalist A).
Discussion and conclusion
This study confirms the insights of previous works, which pointed to troubled negotiation processes among online journalists in traditional news media institutions when they
consider what is regarded as “true” journalism, news production requirements and their
institutional status (e.g. Boczkowski, 2004; Colson and Heinderyckx, 2008; Deuze,
2007, 2008; Deuze and Paulussen, 2002; García, 2008; Quandt, 2008; Robinson, 2011).
In addition, the study indicates that institutional set-up prevents online journalists at Delo
and Novosti newspapers offering some of the services they wish to offer to the public.
According to the interviewees from the Slovenian newspaper, online journalists cannot
perform as watchdogs because they are overwhelmed by constant time constraints. Their
Serbian counterparts also acknowledged political pressures. This indicates that rearrangements of political–economic relations in both post-socialist societies have increased
journalism’s responsibility to the media owners and power holders and surpassed its
normatively defined responsibility to the public (e.g. Milojević and Ugrinić, 2011a;
Splichal, 2001; Vobič, 2009). The department staffers in both online departments deprecated their socially prescribed behaviour compared with that of print journalists and key
decision makers in the newsroom. The Delo and Novosti online journalists have what
Deuze (2008: 206) calls “a perpetual in-between status”, that is, working for a prestigious news brand, yet not (self-) acknowledged as fully fledged members of the journalistic community.
The Delo and Novosti online journalists have clear and surprisingly similar problems
defining journalism and its public role, and they find it difficult to position themselves
inside or outside the “we” community. On the one hand, the dynamics reflected in the
online journalists’ self-perceptions reaffirm “a strong culture of separation between
insiders and outsiders” (Hartley, 2008: 43), despite the lines between journalism and
non-journalism becoming increasingly blurred (e.g. Dahlgren, 2013). On the other hand,
they point to what has been labelled “journalism’s crisis of authority” (e.g. Gitlin, 2009)
where the gap between actual journalism and its self-presentations appears to be increasingly hard to bridge in the contemporary media environment. The findings of this study
point to the corrosion of the journalistic characters of the online journalists at Delo and
Novosti where the “integrity of occupational ideology” (Deuze, 2005) is being degraded
due to, among other things, the workers’ contingent employment status, unsteady work
environments and flexible duties.
Despite paradoxes in the self-negotiations of the Delo and Novosti online journalists
and difficulties in positioning themselves within news media and in society at large, the
analysis of the interviews shows that they all cite five ideal-typical values when relating
themselves to other actors: public service, objectivity, autonomy, immediacy and ethics.
These values were referred to as occupational ideology by Deuze (2005). Therefore,
regardless of differences in the media environment shaping journalists’ identification
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Vobič and Milojević
processes and indications of a more porous “we” community of journalists (e.g. Deuze,
2008), this study of Delo and Novosti online journalists shows that “new” journalists in
terms of social self-positioning are not being invented within the news media. Instead,
some sort of adaptation of “old” models in “new” contexts and purposes is taking place.
According to the present study, the dynamics of adaptation are more exclusivist than
inclusivist, because online journalism has not been incorporated into the community, as
previous research in Slovenia (e.g. Oblak Črnič, 2007) and elsewhere (e.g. Singer, 2003)
shows. Research from the Netherlands (Deuze, 2007) and Greece (Spyridou and Veglis,
2008) also suggests a generation gap within traditional newspapers, where “younger”
and educated newcomers pose a serious threat as far as jobs, tasks and status are concerned, resulting in the “older” generation being sceptical about online journalism, which
is seen as unnecessary and a waste of money and time. The sense-making of the Delo and
Novosti online journalists also suggests a gap between the progressive “younger” journalists mostly populating the online departments and the conservative “older” journalists
primarily working for print. For instance, “print journalists are really scared because they
realize that the future is online. And it appears that personally, people just cannot accept
that” (Novosti online journalist A).
In these respects, by reflecting what Vecchi (2004: 11) labels as “eminently negotiable” identity, the study on Delo and Novosti online journalists’ self-negotiations points
towards what Bauman (2000) names “liquid identity” in his analyses of late modern
society. Not only socio-political, cultural, religious and sexual identities, but also occupational identities are in the process of constant transformation, where identities’ quality
of ambivalence is rooted in a nostalgia for the past, together with a complete compliance
with liquid modernity, resulting in the continual shifting of belonging (Bauman, 2000).
Further, turbulent changes and different transitional paths in the last two decades have
influenced cooperation among people in Slovenia and Serbia and the human condition.
Moreover, journalism’s development has been contingent on political, economic and
cultural factors (e.g. Veljanovski, 2009; Vobič, 2009). In this context, this study suggests
that parallels can be drawn between attempts to bridge online- and print-imposed identification insecurity and uncertainty among online journalists in the news media environment and what Deuze (2008: 206) calls “unfinished” identity and “typical migrant
experience”. “They do not feel like members of their ‘home country’ anymore, but at the
same time they are not fully accepted by their ‘host country’” (Deuze, 2008).
These problems, at least to a degree, correspond to Sennett’s (1998) acknowledgement of a “corrosion of character” in late modern society, where the integrity of the
moral dimensions of people’s identities is being degraded due to, among other things,
contingent work relations, unsteady work environments and flexible duties. From the
perspective of the corrosion of journalistic character, claims of common occupational
ideology (Deuze, 2005), which force journalism and journalists to continuously reinvent themselves, call for further critical attention. The paradoxes of the self-negotiation
by the Delo and Novosti online journalists indicate that the ideal-typical values of the
occupational ideology of journalists seem to be crucial qualifiers in articulating the
relationship between similar news making across the locales and their roles as “copypaste” journalists (Novosti online journalist D), “translators” (Delo online journalist E),
and “recyclers” (ibid.). Members of the online departments at Delo and Novosti are an
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Journalism 15(8)
example of how occupational ideology can be used as a tool not only to question or
eventually even resist imposed journalistic deskilling in the newsroom, but also, as
some other studies suggest (e.g. Deuze, 2009), to modify and counteract technologydriven innovation in news making, for instance, in cross-perspective, interactive and
multimedia journalism.
In terms of theoretical reasoning, future scholarly investigations might build on the
literature from self- and identity studies, not only drawing on their theoretical sources but
also bringing back to them on the basis of empirical findings. Issues pertaining to journalists’ self-negotiations will undoubtedly remain an important topic in the future
because journalism will continue to change (e.g. Lee-Wright et al., 2012). Whether news
making proceeds in accordance with the traditional mode or moves towards more participatory modes, news will remain in the terrain of “institutional difficulty”, “professional
uncertainty” and “political contention” (Dahlgren, 2009: 159). Methodological recoating
might be fruitful in this regard, most notably by incorporating the methodological tradition of analysis in at least two ways (e.g. Boczkowski, 2011). Firstly, undertaking quantitative analyses of data gathered through ethnographic methods might enable researchers
to attain an additional level of precision and to make differences or commonalities in
journalism more salient. Secondly, conducting complementary research using quantitative methods, for instance, surveys among (online) journalists, might enable scholars to
enhance the findings produced by qualitative investigation and gather data that could not
be collected and assembled through ethnographic examination.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or
not-for-profit sectors.
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Weaver D (1996) Journalists in comparative perspective. Javnost/The Public 3(4): 83–91.
Weaver DH, et al. (2006) The American Journalist in the 21st Century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence
Yin RK (2003) Case Study Research: Design and Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Zelizer B (2004) Taking Journalism Seriously. London: Sage.
Zelizer B (ed.) (2009) The Changing Faces of Journalism. London: Routledge.
Author biographies
Igor Vobič is an Assistant Professor at the Chair of Journalism and a Researcher at the Social
Communication Research Centre at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana,
Slovenia. His research interests are in transformations of newswork in contemporary media
environments, online and multimedia journalism, and journalism ethics. From 2004 to 2006
he worked as a journalist for the news programme 24ur at Slovenian television station POP
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Journalism 15(8)
Ana Milojević is a Teaching Assistant at the Journalism and Communication Department at the
Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade, Serbia. Her research interests are in transformation of the societal roles of professional communicators in the modern society and changes in
their professional praxis as well as working routines, induced by the development of new communication technologies.
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Journalistic quotation:
Reported speech in
newspapers from a semioticlinguistic perspective
2014, Vol. 15(8) 1041­–1058
© The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1464884913504258
Joseph C Harry
Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, USA
A qualitative sample of newspaper articles covering Israeli commandos’ killing of
passengers aboard a pro-Palestinian cargo ship was examined to discern how direct
and indirect quotation modes function as propositional re-assertion. Using a linguisticsemiotic perspective, journalistic quotation was conceptualized as a series of verbal
speech-act signs of three types: direct, free-indirect, and standard indirect quotation.
These three essential quotation modes are shown to conform to the semiotic icon,
index, and symbol, respectively, and at the linguistic level to entail either relatively
neutral, ‘non-subjectivized’ re-assertion, or evaluative, ‘subjectivized’ re-assertion
on the reporter’s part. Newspaper quotation segments are related to each variety
of quotation, drawing out these co-occurring semiotic and linguistic characteristics to
show how each quote mode performs as either a source or writer-centered doubleduty speech act, allowing journalists within the traditional objectivity norm to variously
provide relatively neutral or highly interpretive re-voicings of propositional assertions
originally uttered by news sources.
Semiotics, linguistics, quotation, sign, reported speech, objectivity, subjectivization
Journalists use direct quotation to mimic, reproduce, or resemble what others say, and varieties of indirect quotation to boil down, paraphrase, characterize, echo, or more distantly
represent what others say (Keizer, 2009; Li, 1986; Lucy, 1993; Sternberg, 1982; Vandelanotte,
Corresponding author:
Joseph C Harry, Department of Communication, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, 213 Eisenberg,
Slippery Rock, PA 16057, USA.
Email: [email protected]
from jou.sagepub.com at Baskent Universitesi on December 19, 2014
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Journalism 15(8)
2004). In either case the quoting reporter engages in a two-step compositional process, using
language that, from a linguistic/semiotic perspective, constructs verbal (i.e., linguistic) signs
interpretable as the immediate ‘voice’ or the more distant ‘re-voicing’ of what someone else
supposedly said. But all quotation, from direct to indirect, is a re-voicing. To quote someone
is always to re-voice previous speech at some temporal distance from its original utterance.
Journalistic quotation is restricted to only factual – and presumably truthful –
statements, but is nonetheless a highly interpretive compositional activity. As a means of
delivering putatively truthful information, quotation is the fundamental compositional
means of creating the multi-voiced narrative called the news ‘story.’ Quotations from
different sources, especially in newspaper stories, create the fundamental journalistic
narrative as an interwoven series of complementary and contrasting voices. Quotation is
fundamental in this sense because most news involves relatively little observational
description, instead centering mostly on repeating what others (sources) have already
said (Ericson et al., 1989) via either prepared or off-the-cuff interviews.1
Journalists using indirect quotation – which, in the present study, occurred much more
often than direct quotation in newspaper articles analyzed – act more like creative reanimators than, in the case of direct quotation, stenographers sticking to a script.
Journalists within the modern democratic tradition of reporting are occupationally constrained to remain objective, by keeping their own views out of the story, while freely
quoting, directly or indirectly, the raw opinion and openly persuasive, ideologically
fueled rhetoric voiced by news sources, who may be as subjective as they wish. This
article explores the way quotation performs this subjective/objective balancing act by
applying a combined linguistic and semiotic perspective to the complex interaction
between source and reporter voices in newspaper stories.
Article overview and research aims
What linguists have traditionally called reported speech allows newspaper reporters to
rhetorically craft their stories as verbal performances that, as objective discourse, must
convince readers that the story is a factual, truthful, accurate, verifiable representation
(van Dijk, 1988) of previous-speaker voices. This objective rehash of factual information
is just as much a rhetorical accomplishment as is the equally rhetorical success, in other
communicative contexts, of overtly persuading someone toward a certain viewpoint (van
Dijk, 1988). The overall rhetorical intent of news discourse lies in the journalist imaginatively constructing a quote-based narrative couched as plausibly disinterested (i.e.,
objective) toward the quoted facts and ideological perspectives (van Dijk, 1988: 82–88).
Quotation serves this purpose well, since it only attempts to faithfully re-assert primary
source assertions. In this regard, the reporter is operating within the professional bounds
of objectivity, having only limited liability for the truthfulness of the re-assertions.
Because journalism in all its forms is itself a powerful public-sphere institution
(Jensen, 1986) whose goal, in the sub-generic case of the straight news article, is to cull
and share the supposedly accurate views of news actors regarding a newsworthy event or
issue, then the journalist must define and constitute news as what happens from within
the operational logic and attendant rhetorical positioning of various other public and
private-sphere institutions (Fishman, 1980; Tuchman, 1972), most often by presenting
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the views of an array of officially sanctioned sources (Ericson et al., 1989). This is one
way journalists within a distinct professional field of factual, objective storytelling regulated by occupational norms (Schudson, 2001) and reporting ‘rituals,’ such as objectivity
(Tuchman, 1972), may also be seen as members of a distinct interpretive community
(Zelizer, 1993).
This study focuses on journalists’ use of reported speech in its compositional role, as
a distinctly semiotic/linguistic phenomenon. As both language use and sign process, factual reported speech will be conceptualized as fundamentally a semiotic speech act functioning logically as propositional assertion, or more appropriately to quotation,
re-assertion. This idea is explored with regard to the reporter’s informational role in the
semiotic/linguistic re-assertion process, and how factual quotation, whether direct or
indirect, can then be seen as a kind of justifying ritual of and for journalistic objectivity,
if the latter is considered a kind of complex subjectivity on the reporter’s part, as opposed
to the simple subjectivity offered by news sources.
To ground quotation within a theoretical framework, I combine perspectives from
contemporary linguistics, and from the tradition of pragmatic-semiotics founded by
Charles S Peirce (1839–1914). I demonstrate that different quote forms, depending on
their ‘writer-centered’ or ‘source-centered’ status, can be seen as performing relatively
lesser or greater degrees of informational sign complexity or, using linguistic terminology, subjectivization, and within a given quote, what can be understood as relatively
lesser or greater objectivity, if the latter is re-construed as subjectivized assertion, the
reporter’s own subjective but informed judgment.
Factual reported speech as language and sign
Journalistic reported speech in newspapers has been studied in different ways, for example, the role of direct quotation in news articles (Pan, 2010); as a discursive property
linked mainly with free-indirect quotation [a hybrid mode of direct and indirect] (Pietila,
1992); as revealing the journalist’s own ‘voice’ (Pounds, 2010; Sanders, 2010); its role
in constructing argumentative (i.e., opinion/editorial) discourse (Smirnova, 2009); how
quotation can construct a certain ideological stance (Sclafani, 2008); and how journalists
using quotation may cast different social actors into differing power roles (Calsamiglia
and Lopez Ferrero, 2003).
The current article complements previous research by focusing on journalistic quotation – specifically, direct, indirect, and the hybrid direct-indirect mode, free-indirect
(Li, 1986; Oltean, 1993; Schlenker, 2004; Sotirova, 2004; Sternberg, 1982;
Vandelanotte, 2004; Wierzbicka, 1974) – as a distinct semiotic/linguistic sign process,
a double-duty speech act rhetorically designed to persuade a news audience an original
speaker actually said what the reporter said the source said. In so doing, these quotational re-assertions perform their role as allegedly faithful renditions of previous
speech, with the quoting reporter, whether stenographer or ventriloquist (using direct
quotation) or re-animator (via indirect modes), having, at most, only limited liability
for the essential truthfulness, soundness, or even accuracy of the re-asserted claims.
With indirect quotation, the reporter is liable only for a relatively accurate paraphrasing and summary of an original quote by means of synonyms, re-phrasings and
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Journalism 15(8)
re-wordings, general analytical characterizations, and especially an endless variety of
verbs of speech (Bamgbose, 1986; Li, 1986; Wierzbicka, 1974), all of which recontextualize an original statement into something new and distinct. Indirect quotation
only loosely replicates, or generally represents and interpretively characterizes (Lucy,
1993) an original-speaker statement but is far from an exact replica of it, so questions of
truthfulness and accuracy arise in ways not nearly as pertinent to direct quotation.
Indirect quotation allows not only for both neutral (said) speech verbs, also known as
‘hear-say evidentials’ (Li, 1986), but also for ‘marked’ (Bamgbose, 1986) or ‘infused’
(Pounds, 2010) speech verbs, such as warned, claimed, complained, cautioned, and an
endless variety of others, and is a key element in the journalist’s evaluative intrusion into
source re-voicing.
Peirce’s notion of signs and assertion
All verbal language is, by definition, symbolic. Quotation of any kind is therefore a particular type of symbolic sign-making. Peirce divides all signs into three distinct but irreducibly connected categories, or predominant presentational modes, each with its own
rhetorical effect or ‘interpretant.’ These presentational modes and related rhetorical
effects are useful in characterizing how different quotation modes can function as specific verbal sign-types.
As a species of verbal-symbolic sign, I would suggest that quotation most predominantly qualifies as what Peirce would call asserted propositions, or an indexical (secondorder) sign quality (Hartshorne and Weiss, 1960 [eds] CP 4.38:26)2 – a verbal indication
that points out or to some pragmatic intention issued by an utterer. Since quotation, in
practice, re-asserts, directly or indirectly, what a current speaker or writer indicates a
previous speaker said, quotation qualifies pragmatically as a kind of second-order indexical/propositional semiotic speech act. The indexical sign, as proposition, is couched in
language, and language is, as noted, a symbolic (third-level) sign in that it is autonomous, general, and representational. As such, the factual-propositional assertion is what
Peirce variously called a ‘dicent symbol’ or ‘informational symbol’ – a general proposition (Hartshorne and Weiss, 1965 [eds] CP 2.271: 154) that, by asserting, claims to represent real-world states of affairs and is therefore open to questions of truth and falsity
by virtue of its providing real information (CP 2.315: 178) about those states of affairs.
This semiotic conceptualization in valuable ways defines much of what the quoting journalist attempts to convey, as well.
Peirce formulates the sign as consisting of three mutually interacting elements – firsts,
seconds, and thirds, or the icon, index, and symbol, respectively. Different modes of
quotation can be thought of in the same way. Any sign as representamen (Hartshorne and
Weiss, 1965 [eds] CP 5.72: 50), or representational object, always brings to mind, first,
in its most immediate unexamined state, an icon (picture, image, physical resemblance,
sound, or initial, immediate, fundamental thought) experienced as a simple ‘quality of
feeling’ (CP 5.66: 47), existing ‘by virtue of a character which it possesses in itself’ (CP
5.72: 50). A sign in its secondary quality, as a second, is an index, experientially connected and evolving from the icon and functioning ‘by virtue of a character which it
could not have if its object did not exist’ (CP 5.73: 50–51), the index being ‘a reactional
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sign, which is such by virtue of a real connection with its object’ (CP 5.75: 51). In logical
terminology, the icon and index perform different, but related, functions. The icon functions logically, at the level of rhetorical effect – in semiotic language, as interepretant –
as a ‘term,’ which in itself is neither true nor false – ‘it names something but asserts
nothing; a proposition asserts’ (Hartshorne and Weiss, 1960 [eds] CP 4.39: 27), while the
propositional sign is always connected to, but always extends or fleshes out, an icon. In
similar fashion, an indirect quote fleshes out and extends the verbatim thought embodied
in a direct quote.
Peirce explains this logical-extensional function of the index, the formally propositional sign, by stating that the proposition or ‘dicisign’ (a secondary sign) ‘is a further
determination of an already known sign of the same object’ (i.e., the icon) [Hartshorne
and Weiss, 1965 [eds] CP 2.320: 184]. If thought of as a linguistic speech act, the index
carries an indicative function, a proposition pointing to, but somewhat detached and thus
autonomous from, its generating icon, while retaining a ‘real connection’ with it.
The most completely developed and independently functioning sign – the third element in the sign matrix – is a symbol, at a still more distant remove from (but simultaneously incorporating into it) both the icon and index. However, the symbol works only
through social conventions of shared meaning, and ‘fulfills its function regardless of any
similarity or analogy with its object [i.e., with no necessary likeness to its icon] and
equally regardless of any factual connection therewith [i.e., to its index], but solely and
simply because it will be interpreted to be a representamen,’ another name Peirce sometimes uses for ‘sign’ (Hartshorne and Weiss, 1965 [eds] CP 5.73: 51, italic in original;
bracketed information added for clarity). As such, a symbol, as rhetorical ‘effect’ or
interpretant, functions as argumentative – that is, in informational terms, as an argument
extending and developing the indicative (indexical) and imagistic or impressionistic
(iconic) qualities to which it is attached. The symbol, as argument, is the most complex
and intellectually developed sign, what Peirce frequently calls the ‘most complete sign,’
and with respect to quotation modes can be associated with more reporter-involved, distanced modes of indirect quotation.
To summarize, as opposed to the simple and immediate quality of feeling inherent in
the iconic sign and the experiential, reactive, indicative quality of the indexical sign, the
symbolic sign qualifies as the most evolved, generalized thought-object.3 Seen in this
way, quotation as re-assertion can also be tied to its function of presenting supposedly
factual truths claims, or statements subject to some minimum standard of truth or falsity.
This is also a hallmark of objective discourse.
One of Peirce’s clearest indications that the indexical-propositional sign performs as
what later scholars, drawing on Peirce, would call a performative or illocutionary speech
act (Austin, 1965; Brock, 1981) can be seen in how he ties the act of assertion to subsequent potential acts of belief, assent, and even social condemnation should the assertion
be found false (Hartshorne and Weiss, 1965 [eds] CP 2.315):
For an act of assertion proposes that, a proposition being formulated, a person performs an act
which renders him liable to the penalties of the social law (or, at any rate, those of the moral
law) in case it should not be true, unless he has a definite and sufficient excuse; and an act of
assent is an act of the mind by which one endeavors to impress the meanings of the proposition
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Journalism 15(8)
upon his disposition, so that it shall govern his conduct, including thought under conduct, this
habit being ready to be broken in case reasons should appear for breaking it. (p.178)
Applied to quotational speech acts, this means that a primary asserter – a news source –
has full responsibility for propositional claims-making while the journalist, as propositional re-asserter, has only limited liability, restricted to the good-faith effort of accurately
reflecting previous-speaker commentary via quotation.
The subjectivization thesis
Within the context of quotation, to say and to warn (in addition to, in the latter case, a
long list of other marked/infused [Bamgbose, 1986; Pounds, 2010] speech verbs), both
perform different re-asserted propositions. In one case (to say, as in: he said) the reporting verb is neutral (Bamgbose, 1986), lacking overt evaluation of what someone else
said. But the reporter using a marked/infused (Pounds, 2010) verb of attribution (to warn,
to assert, to protest, to condemn, etc.) consciously infuses or marks the original speech
with an interpretive or, in recent linguistic terminology, ‘subjectivized’ (Company
Company, 2006; Vandelanotte, 2006) take, thus adding interpersonal/propositional
‘scope’ (Vandelanotte, 2006) to the original statement, or an ‘extra-propositional’ dimension (Company Company, 2006). This extra-propositional scope can then be contrasted
with the ‘intra-propositional’ and thus ‘non-subjectivized’ (Company Company, 2006)
language of the original speaker.
Within subjectification theory, as original, ‘innovative’ meaning is ‘paraphrased’ and
re-appropriated by a secondary speaker or writer, ‘the innovative meaning becomes less
and less dependent on the surrounding syntactic and semantic context, and, as a consequence, becomes more abstract and more polysemous’ (Company Company, 2006: 97).
The semantic transformation – from initial-speaker simple subjectivity to secondaryspeaker/reporter subjectivization – is, in propositional terms, a move from the
intra-propositional to extra-propositional viewpoint (Company Company, 2006). The
linguistic/semantic movement at work is ‘from forms conveying descriptive, textual, and
the [original] speaker’s external meanings toward the same forms conveying nondescriptive, text-independent and the [secondary] speaker’s internal meanings’ – thus the
‘intra-propositional to extra-propositional’ continuum (Company Company, 2006: 98,
bracketed information added).
Adapting this semantic and linguistic framework to journalistic quotation, direct quotation – requiring no substantial intervention from the reporter – can be assigned nonsubjectivized/intra-propositional status, or simple subjectivity. More indirect quotation
modes – usually involving a reporter’s significant interpretive intervention – can be categorized as veering increasingly toward extra-propositional/reporter-subjectivized
discourse, or a more complex objectivity. Intra-propositional meaning, as ‘non-subjectivized,’ is, in quotational terms, relatively reporter-neutral, while ‘subjectified’ extra-propositional meaning is highly interpretive, resulting in semantically transformed, or what
Peirce would label ‘modified’ (Hartshorne and Weiss, 1965 [eds] CP 1.339: 171) meaning, in the hands of a secondary speaker (Company Company, 2006; Vandelanotte,
2004). For quotation modes falling somewhere in between direct and indirect, it seemed
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necessary to create one more category – inter-propositional – to
better contrast these kind of mid-level quote modes with intra-propositional speech signs
at the direct-quote end and extra-propositional speech signs at the more distanced indirect pole.
Sampled news articles and quotation analysis
A sample of newspaper articles from 12 national or international papers, and one from
the Associated Press, producing 33 relevant stories on one topic (on either May 31 or
June 1, 2010), and 740 separate quote segments, was examined.4 Each story was read
closely by the author at least three times, then classified into one of the following
canonical reported-speech categories: direct quotation; free-indirect quotation; and
three varieties of indirect quotation, depending on whether marked or neutral speech
verbs were used.
The one-day, single-topic sample provided a journalistic snapshot or ‘critical discourse moment’ (Gamson, 1992), narrowly focused and discretely time-bound but a substantively rich topic area for exploratory analysis. The selected quote segments used
(below) as examples are reasonably representative of the different ideological positions
reflected in all 740 quotation segments within the 33 newspaper articles.
The news topic is Israeli commandos’ killing, on May 31, 2010, of nine passengers
aboard a Turkish-sponsored flotilla headed to the occupied Gaza territory. The articles were
chosen because they were certain to contain a wealth of ideologically rich, highly partisan
quotations from Israeli, pro-Palestinian and various diplomatic sources offering a range of
direct-through-indirect reported speech. The sample of US, British, and one Israeli paper
was chosen to offer a reasonably broad range of coverage for exploratory purposes.
Using representative quotation examples for linguistic/semiotic analysis revealed three
distinct, albeit unsurprising, ideological sides: the directly contrasting pro-Palestinian and
pro-Israeli sides, and more measured middle-ground commentary offered by diplomats or
scholars. An initial perusal of nearly 200 newspaper articles written in the first two days
of the Israeli commando raid, combined with repeated readings of articles in the focused
sample, revealed by-now standard opposing viewpoints familiar to anyone cognizant of
the long-standing Israeli–Palestinian conflict. A distinct tone of condemnation of Israel
emerged, although less so among diplomats.
Israel, along with Egypt, having enforced a blockade of cargo-ship transports into
Gaza since the pro-Palestinian, terrorist-connected Hamas faction took control of the
region in 2007, left Israel with suspicions that an allegedly peaceful flotilla, led by
the Mavi Marmara cargo ship carrying some 700 passengers and what news reports
routinely described as ‘humanitarian aid,’ might also contain bomb-making materials. This was the immediate socio-political context in which these articles were
The quotation examples presented below are in the following order: direct, freeindirect, and standard indirect, following each quote-type’s progressing linguistic/
semiotic categorization as generally either iconic/non-subjectivized/intra-propositional; indexical/moderately subjectivized/inter-propositional; or symbolic/fully
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Journalism 15(8)
Direct quotation
Jerusalem Post, May 31
‘Israel condemns the anti-Semitic chants that were publicized this morning,’ Ayalon said. ‘That
fact that participants on the flotilla would chant such things shows the true nature of some of
the participants’ real motivation. This amply demonstrates that many are not against a particular
policy of the Israeli government, but have very real and dangerous hatred for Jews and the
Jewish state.’
International Herald Tribune, June 1
‘What we saw this morning is a war crime,’ said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator
for the government in the West Bank. ‘These were civilian ships carrying civilian and civilian
goods – medicine, wheelchairs, food, construction materials.’
Washington Post, June 1
‘The E.U. does not accept the continued policy of closure,’ she [Catherine Ashton, European
Union foreign policy chief] said in a statement. ‘It is unacceptable and politically
counterproductive. We need to urgently achieve a durable solution to the situation in Gaza.’
(Bracketed information added for clarity).
In these direct quotation segments – direct quotation comprising 23% of all quote segments across articles – we encounter three distinct views: the first two are diametrically
opposed with regard to blame for the incident and the last is critical but measured and
diplomatic. One virtue of direct quotation is its rhetorical unboundedness, free of any
restrictions on objective balance or fairness. Direct quotes are almost always used to
embrace colorful and/or contentious views, and in this way add relevant drama and even
a theatrical (Larson, 1978; Wierzbicka, 1974) quality to a story.
The stark contrast in partisan positions related to the Israeli ship incident are most
clear: Israel’s spokesman accuses the other side of anti-Semitism and hatred for Jews; the
Palestinian negotiator accuses Israel of a war crime – a term that, by definition, is wide
open to interpretation, thus not immediately amenable to analysis of its objective truth or
falsity. However, anti-Semitism and hatred for Jews, by the same token, are equally matters of rancorous rhetoric, although not easily pinned-down as objective truth. Even the
EU policy chief’s more measured view of the incident being ‘unacceptable and politically counterproductive’ is contentious, because while the pro-Palestinians would certainly agree that the claim is objectively true, pro-Israelis would not.
Semiotically, direct quotation is an iconic first-level verbal sign, expressible as what
Peirce would call a ‘quality of feeling,’ and its corresponding rhetorical effect – its semiotic interpretant – interpretable as a ‘rheme’ or ‘term,’ which is ‘…any sign that is not
true or false,’ and which ‘is simply a class-name or proper-name’ (Burks, 1966: CP
8.336: 229).The sign-work of direct quotation, as the above examples show, is to bring
readers into the immediate mental orbit of a source and the source’s iconic ‘quality of
feeling,’ as an almost visual-pictorial-vocalized resemblance. The icon ‘is very perfect in
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respect to signification, bringing its interpreter face to face with the very character signified’ (Peirce, 1904: 7).
Peirce’s notion of the icon as a feeling, neither true nor false, captures well the nature
of direct quotation, so that it can be characterized as a terminological proposition, not
clearly discernible as true or false, and for which the ‘source-centered’ reporter, merely
reproducing verbatim statements, assumes essentially no content liability. Direct quotation, as such, is a very weak proposition, with any moral force behind its language residing purely in the source’s hands, as the verbatim-quoting reporter employs a neutral
avoidance of any interpretive responsibility.
This kind of neutrality – letting a source speak in his or her voice without the reporter
re-interpreting – results in a reader encountering what can be characterized as simple
subjectivity: the source’s raw, usually one-sided rhetoric. Linguistically, the ‘sourcecentered’ journalist deploying direct quotation is in a writer-neutral, non-subjectivized,
intra-propositional role.
Free-indirect quotation
LA Times, June 1
The raid is a public relations nightmare for Israel and has put the Obama administration in an
awkward position just as it hoped to put to rest a frosty period in their alliance.
Associated Press, June 1
And while Israel had hoped to defend its tight blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza with yesterday’s
high-seas raid, it instead appeared to be hastening the embargo’s demise, judging by initial
international condemnation.
Washington Post, June 1
Iran, whose nuclear ambitions deeply concern Israeli leaders, also is a beneficiary. Turkey
holds one of the rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council and was already deeply skeptical
of the U.S.-led push to impose new sanctions on the Islamic republic. But now the council’s
attention will be diverted by the Israeli assault.
Daily News, June 1
But even inside Israel, the country’s vaunted military was being blamed for bungling the
mission and handing the country’s many critics more ammunition.
The Times (London), June 1
The shockwaves from the Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara passenger ferry were
still reverberating around the world last night, as Israel scrambled to defend its battered
reputation. Already damaged after the Gaza war and a fumbled Mossad assassination of a Hamas
militant in Dubai, it faced even tougher scrutiny as it began to examine what happened, and why.
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Journalism 15(8)
Free-indirect quotation accounted for 23% (N = 170) of all quotation instances across
articles. It offers the reporter’s semantic gloss, without any direct quotation added, on
whatever might actually have been uttered originally. In every case in the above examples, reporters could have chosen a wide variety of other verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and
analytical phrases to creatively reformulate original-speaker content, as is the case with
all indirect quotation (Pietila, 1992). With indirect quotation modes – and unlike direct
quotation – the reader relies entirely on the reporter to do all of the speaking, the journalist re-casting what someone else supposedly said.
However, free-indirect quotation typically features an additional and uniquely interesting difference from any other indirect-quotation mode: usually, it lacks any clearly
marked or neutral speech verbs (Keizer, 2009; Oltean, 1993; Sotirova, 2004; Vandelanotte,
2004) – no he said (neutral) or she warned (marked) reporting clauses – rendering it a
psychological quality of tone, dramatically evoking the originating source’s discrete
mental perspective and innermost thoughts, but from the reporter’s functionally omniscient perspective.
Like direct quotation, free-indirect is dual-voiced (Keizer, 2009; Oltean, 1993;
Schlenker, 2004; Sotirova, 2004; Vandelanotte, 2004; Wierzbikca, 1974) – that is, we
still do encounter a source and a reporter voice, but much less clearly than with direct
quotation, since the voices in free-indirect speech are merged and blurred because of the
lack of any clear attribution. In this sense, free-indirect is probably the most distinctly
analytical mode of quotation, because of this blurring of source and reporter voices,
granting the reporter free rein to openly reinterpret, but still somewhat relatively, from
within a source’s perceived mental space that is reference or pointed back to,
As a narrative device, free-indirect quotation is roughly a half-way house between
primary and secondary utterances (Keizer, 2009; Oltean, 1993; Vandelanotte, 2006) or,
with respect to journalistic quotation, a narrative mid-point between source-focused and
writer-centered re-assertion.
The London-based newspaper, The Times (above), offers perhaps the clearest example
of this blurring of source and writer perspectives. Without any distinct attribution to
sources, The Times writer provides a highly evaluative perspective: asserting that ‘shockwaves’ were ‘still reverberating around the world’ following the raid; that Israel was
scrambling to defend its battered reputation, ‘already damaged’ due to a previously fumbled assassination attempt against terrorist-affiliated Hamas; that Israel now faces ‘even
tougher scrutiny’ as it examines how and why the raid went wrong. Here, it is almost as if
the reporter views Israel as a person rather than a country, and has conducted a sit-down
interview or even a bit of psychotherapy resulting in the patient, Israel, opening up, somewhat defensively, about its faults. Moreover, The Times reporter even individualizes ‘the
world’ itself as experiencing a kind of psychological trauma, with ‘shockwaves’ ‘reverberating’ globally. Readers will understand this kind of evaluative, analytical reporting as
just that, but as a narrative device – as a specific type of blurred quotation, half-way
between source and writer stances – we, as readers, nonetheless learn whatever we learn
about this particular slice of reality from within the reporter’s own assertional space.
We must take it on good faith that the reporter’s source-centered psychologistic insight
is, as an act of reported speech, a relatively accurate re-assertion of what more than a few
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people, fairly recently, supposedly said or implied. The reporter’s liability for the accuracy
of the repeated speech claims is more exposed, if only because he or she must work harder
to get it right, using their own words instead of the verbatim speech of an original source.
An interesting aspect, then, in all the examples of free-indirect quotation, is that countries are depicted as doing the speaking. Unlike with direct quotation, where the attribution clearly links, via distinct neutral or marked verbs of speech, to real individuals, the
free-indirect examples are more metaphorical, assigning psychological qualities to pluralized entities – Iran, Israel, Turkey, for example. The journalists’ resulting highly evaluative analysis and speculation about any number of conditions and consequences related
to the cargo-ship incident then functions as an all-seeing, all-knowingness. Israel, for
example, now finds itself in a ‘public relations nightmare,’ leaving the Obama administration feeling ‘awkward,’ as it was already experiencing a ‘frosty period’ with Israel (LA
Times); Israel ‘appeared to be hastening the embargo’s demise’ (its military plan of stopping ships from entering Gaza), ‘judging by’ the subsequent ‘condemnation’ from other
countries (Associated Press). Turkey ‘was already deeply skeptical’ about US intentions
toward Iran: ‘But now, the (UN Security Council’s) attention will be diverted by the
Israeli assault’ (Washington Post).
While some quotational sentences reveal analytical phrases alongside what can be
taken as observational fact or description, in other cases, such as the latter example, the
entire sentence is, in essence, quotationally analytical, as if the thought has been plucked
directly from ‘inside’ a source’s head. The Daily News of June 1 (see above) offers
another example of full-sentence quotational attribution, asserting that ‘even inside
Israel,’ the ‘vaunted military’ is ‘blamed for bungling’ things, thus ‘handing the country’s
many critics more ammunition.’ The Times (London) example, already referred to, also
carries this full-sentence attributional quality.
Free-indirect quotation, linguistically, moves somewhat further toward a reportersubjectivized (reporter-independent) stance and semiotically, as a sign property, toward
an indexical, more acutely propositional meaning – an indexical-iconic sign – mixing
iconic (first-level) source perspectives with indexically distanced (second-order) reporter
reassessment, the language now fully in the reporter’s interpretive hands. Here, the writer
must take on more ethical and epistemological responsibility, but not for the truth-claim
itself, which remains with the original speaker. Rather, the journalist is responsible for a
greater level of accuracy required – compared to direct quotation – in factual paraphrase
and summary. This can be considered free-indirect quotation’s inter-propositional quality, its half-way status, as verbal sign, between primary, iconic, imagistic original speech
and the reporter’s own analytical, second-order sign indexing and faithful reconstruction
of previous speech.
Standard indirect quotation
The final quotation examples, standard indirect of three varieties, comprising 38% of all
quotation segments (286 instances), were the single-most predominant type of quotation
across newspapers.
As a verbal-semiotic sign, the journalist using standard indirect quotation modes crafts
a third-level, symbolic re-animation of original-source commentary – linguistically, an
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Journalism 15(8)
extra-propositional gloss on original speech – having evolved past the moderately sourcecentered inter-propositional, mentalistic nature of free-indirect, as well as the strongly
source-centered intra-propositional, immediate impressions of the original speaker,
voiced within direct quotation. The semiotic symbol is the most evolved, conventionalized sign-type – and in linguistic terms, with regard to quotation, the most semantically
distanced-from-an-original utterance – and so fundamentally metaphoric in character,
any metaphoric sign, especially of a verbal kind, ‘representing a parallelism in something
else’ (Hartshorne and Weiss, 1965 [eds] CP 2.277: 157). This verbal-metaphoric parallelism – one set of comments standing in for previously asserted ones – seems to best characterize the three kinds of standard indirect-quote modes.
We no longer encounter the raw, unfettered, ideologically inspired, purely subjective
rhetoric of the original speaker. Nor are we exposed to a mostly psychologistic, source/
reporter hybrid speech evoked by free-indirect quotation. Rather, these standard indirectquotation modes can be seen as offering a more complex subjectivity, a newly subjectivized, writer-centered, discursively flattened out and objectified re-assertion more fully in
the reporter’s control, only distantly echoing whatever was originally uttered.
Other than positional differences in attribution placement, all three indirect-quote
varieties appear to pragmatically share more common semantic traits than any significant
differences – the differences being mainly in use of either marked or neutral speech
verbs. Each indirect-quote type allows for substantial source-distancing and the reporter’s interpretive autonomy, compared to the reporter’s relatively more restricted, more
source-focused role in crafting free-indirect as well as direct quotation. Linguistically,
with standard indirect quotation modes, the original speaker’s voice, prominent in earlier
quotation modes, is now glossed over and grammatically integrated, subdued, subordinated, and virtually eliminated. The original commentator’s voice is finally so enmeshed
within indirect quotation’s powers of creative reformulation and original-speaker distancing that there exists only a ‘singular’ (Keizer, 2009; Li, 1986; Vandelanotte, 2006:
141) narrative viewpoint – the reporter’s – as opposed to the ‘dual’ (Vandelanotte, 2006:
141) narrative viewpoints (the source’s and the reporter’s) evident via direct and freeindirect quotation.
The following examples are focused more on the journalist’s use of neutral, marked,
or a combination of neutral and marked speech verbs regardless of where the attribution
occurs, in addition to other analytical and interpretive qualities common to each.
Underlined words or phrases indicate speech attributions, while bold-faced words or
phrases indicate accompanying interpretive qualities.
Indirect quotation with marked-only speech verbs
Washington Times, June 1
Israel defended the raid and posted a video on the Internet showing Israeli soldiers during the
raid being attacked with metal pipes and knives by the Turkish ship’s crew.
Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, on Monday accused the IHH of being a front
for Hamas with ties to al Qaeda.
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New York Times, June 1
Turkey proposed a statement that would condemn Israel for violating international law, demand
a United Nations investigation and demand that Israel prosecute those responsible for the raid
and pay compensation to the victims. It also called for the end of the blockade.
These dramatically contrasted views regarding the cargo-ship incident reveal how even
a relatively brief indirect-quotation segment can encapsulate a country or speaker’s overall ideological stance.
The reporter, understanding a given source’s ideological position, then attributes it
with infused/marked speech verbs (defended, accused, condemn, demand, call for),
alongside any analytical and evaluative characterizations (paying compensation, prosecuting those responsible, being attacked, being a front for, etc.). Using only marked/
infused speech verbs makes this type of indirect quotation semantically similar to the
psychologistic, source-centered/writer-centered hybrid quality encountered in freeindirect quotation, although now with clearly attributed speech verbs providing, compositionally, some arm’s-length semantic distancing, compared to free-indirect quotation’s
even more source-centered mentalistic perspective. The next examples gain further
semantic distance, and are seemingly somewhat more objective in being still more
detached characterizations, by mixing neutral (said-based) reporting verbs with infused
speech verbs.
Indirect quotation with marked and neutral speech verbs
The Times (London), June 1
Accused by European leaders of using disproportionate force – a charge reminiscent of the
Gaza conflict and the subsequent UN inquiry – Israel rushed to defend its actions, saying that
IHH, the Turkish Islamic charity that chartered the ferry, had links to Hamas and even
The Mirror, June 1
And the partner of British peace worker Peter Venner, who is on the flotilla, said it was
ludicrous to suggest the activists could have been a threat to heavily-armed Israeli special
Christian Science Monitor, June 1
Despite the Israeli killing of nine pro-Palestinian activists, negotiator Saeb Erekat said on
Monday that the Palestinians would not abandon the negotiations, emphasizing that they are
speaking with the US only.
Although these examples mix neutral and marked speech verbs to objectify the originally
voiced source positions, somewhat flattening out the discourse, there is no loss of evaluative drama or emotional richness.
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Journalism 15(8)
In the example from The Times of London, the reporter uses neutral and marked verbs
with a range of evaluative characterizations to analytically make an ideological contrast
within a single quote segment. In this instance, central characteristics of indirect quotation are on display: paraphrasing, modifying, and extending original (intra-propositional)
voices into extra-propositional ones. In The Times’ single-sentence quote, the journalist
is able to cobble together otherwise disparate information into a remarkably unified,
multi-voiced quotation: European leaders are presented as ‘accusing’ Israel of ‘disproportionate force,’ reminiscent of a previous United Nations (UN) finding, while Israel
‘rushes’ to defend itself via a justification of protection from its terrorist-linked enemies
– ‘even’ al-Qaeda.
The last set of neutral-verb-only indirect quotations move perhaps furthest away from
any original-source voice, but are as unrestricted in evaluative/analytical opportunities as
either of its two predecessors.
Indirect quotation with neutral-only speech verbs
Jerusalem Post, May 31
Flotilla organizers said they detected three Israel Navy ships on the radar […] Mary Hughes,
one of the founders of the Free Gaza Movement, told the Jerusalem Post from Cyprus that the
group was determined to reach Gaza.
Jerusalem Post, June 1
Israel must be prepared to face the consequences and be held responsible for its crimes,
he [the Turkish foreign minister] said. [Bracketed information added for clarification.]
New York Times, June 1
Israel said the violence was instigated by pro-Palestinian activists who presented themselves
as humanitarians but had come ready for a fight […] The official said there was clearly an
intelligence failure in that the commandos were expecting to face passive resistance, and not
an angry, violent reaction.
Using only ‘neutral’ (Bamgbose, 1986), ‘hear-say evidential’ (Li, 1986) attributive verbs
(said and told), these last examples show how the reporter’s formal, occupational neutrality remains compositionally open to a wide range of evaluative, analytical paraphrasing – the difference now being, perhaps only slightly (compared to the other indirect
quote examples) some marginally extra semantic distance achieved by the predominance
of neutral-verb attribution.
While the Jerusalem Post’s May 31 quotation is semantically flat, sticking closest to
a just-the-facts kind of traditional attribution, the second example from this same newspaper (June 1) is dramatically different in its emotionally focused, distinctly ideological
commentary. In this second example, the commentary is issued as imperative command,
a moral indictment: Israel ‘must face consequences’ and ‘be held responsible for crimes.’
The neutral ‘said’ speech attribution contextualizes this otherwise strident comment,
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taming the ideological force of the moral declaration by the reporter’s attaching it to a
simple act of re-statement.
However, in the third example, we revisit Israel’s defensive posture: the violence
being ‘instigated’ by the activists, who were masquerading as ‘humanitarians’ but had
actually come ‘ready for a fight,’ the proof being the ‘angry, violent reaction’ Israeli
soldiers encountered. In this example, each of the two quotational sentences is introduced by neutral ‘said’ verbs, allowing the reporter, as is also clear from earlier examples, to issue highly evaluative ideological re-assertions tied to a given source. The
distancing at work here, really more of an echoing, is one in which the journalist prepositions his or her strict neutrality, then quickly defuses it with the metaphorical infusion of highly charged, re-animated, creatively reformulated original voices. The
journalist’s own complex subjectivity – functioning linguistically as extra-propositional
subjectivization, and, as sign-use, metaphoric symbolization – is in full force.
The creative reformulation at work in indirect quotation makes it ‘harder to distinguish the action that the utterance ‘originally’ performed’ (Holt, 2000: 429), thereby
placing epistemic responsibility for the assertion – occurring as re-assertion – most fully
into the reporter’s hands. We cannot know what words the original sources used, or how
accurate the re-characterized perspectives are to the original. Generally, with direct quotation, and with increasing specificity with regard to indirect quotation, we take it on
faith that the journalist’s subjectivizing voice, in the form of objectified double-duty
propositional re-assertions, is responsibly and ethically sufficient to the task.
While the value of traditional objective journalism has been questioned for some time,
especially since the emergence of online news-media formats, this article assumes mainstream newspaper journalism still follows an objectivity norm, ‘a set of routine and
unwritten rules’ that ‘include assuming the role of a political neutral, using standardized
formats for packaging stories, balancing competing opinions,’ and ‘focusing on officially
sanctioned events’ (Miraldi, 1989: 3). The objectivity norm, as a storytelling model of
interpretive constraint, also functions as the reporter’s own inherently ideological perspective (Schudson, 2001), a protective cover or ritual practice (Tuchman, 1972), thus a
general guideline of how news should be conceived of and produced, if only to keep the
reporter’s potential biases or overt evaluations in check.
I have tried to show how this sociological notion of objectivity reveals itself discursively, as a kind of textual imprint, through the fundamental narrative device of source
quotation, and how the variety of quotation modes, while constrained within the objectivity norm, also provide journalists an extremely wide range of interpretive options through
reporters’ use of iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs – direct, free-indirect, and standard
indirect quotation, respectively. These quotation modes, as linguistic sign-types, form a
perspectival continuum, from relatively neutral, non-subjectivized, source-centered viewpoints associated with direct quotation, to moderately and fully subjectivized, more
writer-centered propositional re-assertions, as direct speech is semantically transformed
into free and standard indirect modes. Just as Peirce’s icon/index/symbol triad assumes
indexical signs incorporate and extend icons, and that symbolic signs incorporate and
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Journalism 15(8)
extend iconic and indexical ones, free-indirect and standard indirect quotation modes
work the same way, appropriating an original source’s directly iconic, impressionistic
speech, discursively extending it into newer, more nuanced directions.
The first-day newspaper stories, all from mainstream papers covering the Israeli
cargo-ship incident, conformed to the above-listed characteristics of objective journalism by the reporters’ political neutrality – no real evidence of bias toward one side or
another – and by their general balancing of opinions focused on ‘officially sanctioned
events.’ Often, as was shown in one form of indirect quotation examined, opinionbalancing can occur in even a single-sentence indirect quotation merging pro, con, and
middle-ground sides, demonstrating quotation’s inherent economy of paraphrase. The
most ‘standardized format’ for ‘packaging stories’ was, in these news articles, reporters’
use of direct, free-indirect, and standard indirect quotation modes, which collectively
made up nearly the entire verbiage of any particular story.
The first-day articles revealed, in an immediate and somewhat impressionistic sense,
many of the convenient complaints, alleged violations and subsequent demands voiced
more broadly by both sides during the painful history of the Israeli–Palestinian crisis.
Further research into journalistic quotation might take a more extensive look at how
reported speech works within entire news articles, broadening the findings of the present
article’s more microscopic, clause-specific exploratory approach. An analysis of quotation practices in other news media, such as television, radio, and internet outlets, would
also be valuable in discerning similarities or differences.
Conceiving journalistic quotation as a type of objectivized, occupationally bound discourse, the focus has been to provisionally establish the discursive variety of quotation
modes filling the journalist’s linguistic-semiotic sketch book. If source-centered simple
subjectivity and a relative neutrality are given voice through direct quotation, a more autonomous, writer-centered, nuanced, openly interpretive and more complex subjectivity – as
subjectivized symbolic re-assertion – is echoed when the officially objective reporter shifts
from simple ventriloquist to creative re-animator.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.
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Author biography
Joseph C Harry (PhD, Michigan State University) is an associate professor in the Department of
Communication, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. His published research covers topics
of media ethics, the sociology of journalism, the nature of news sourcing, and the rhetorical and
semiotic analysis of mass-media texts.
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JOU0010.1177/1464884913513430JournalismBelair-Gagnon et al.
Reconstructing the Indian
public sphere: Newswork
and social media in the
Delhi gang rape case
2014, Vol. 15(8) 1059­–1075
© The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1464884913513430
Valerie Belair-Gagnon
Information Society Project, Yale Law School, USA
Smeeta Mishra
Centre for Culture, Media & Governance (CCMG), Jamia Millia Islamia, India
Colin Agur
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, USA
In recent years, a growing literature in journalism studies has discussed the increasing
importance of social media in European and American news production. Adding to
this body of work, we explore how Indian and foreign correspondents reporting from
India used social media during the coverage of the Delhi gang rape; how journalists
represented the public sphere in their social media usage; and, what this representation
says about the future of India’s public sphere. Throughout our analysis, Manuel Castells’
discussion of ‘space of flows’ informs our examination of journalists’ social media uses.
Our article reveals that while the coverage of the Delhi gang rape highlights an emerging,
participatory nature of storytelling by journalists, this new-found inclusiveness remains
exclusive to the urban, educated, connected middle and upper classes. We also find
that today in India, social media usage is rearticulated around pre-existing journalistic
practices and norms common to both Indian reporters working for English-language
media houses and foreign correspondents stationed in India.
Social media, news production, India, Delhi gang rape case, space of flows, networked
public sphere
Corresponding author:
Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Information Society Project, Yale Law School, 127 Wall Street, New Haven, CT
06511, USA.
Email: [email protected]
from jou.sagepub.com at FUDAN UNIV LIB on December 19, 2014
Downloaded fromDownloaded
Journalism 15(8)
On 16 December 2012, after boarding a bus in South Delhi with a male friend, a 23-yearold female physiotherapy intern was brutally attacked and gang raped by six men, including the driver, while the victim’s friend was beaten unconscious. The attackers threw the
pair from the bus onto a roadside, where they were discovered and taken to hospital. On 29
December, after being flown to Singapore for further medical treatment, the young woman
died from injuries that included severe internal bleeding, the loss of more than 90% of her
intestines, and brain damage (Human Rights Watch, 2012; Mandhana and Trivedi, 2013).
Although a large numbers of rapes occur in India every year — the National Crime Records
Bureau registered 24,206 reported rape cases in 2011 (Human Rights Watch, 2012) — “the
brutality of the attack and the scale of the protests brought international attention to India’s
problem of violence against women” (Belair-Gagnon et al., 2013). Women’s and human
rights groups, politicians of all stripes, and prominent figures inside and outside India condemned the attack (Gohain, 2013; The Economic Times, 2012).
In the days following the rape and the victim’s subsequent death, protesters staged
large demonstrations in Delhi, at the India Gate and outside government buildings, protesting the government’s failure to provide security for women and pass robust anti-rape
laws. These protests soon spread to other major cities of India (The Economic Times,
2013). Following the events, five out of the six men were accused of gang rape and tried
in a fast-track court (Mukherjee, 2013). The sixth accused was tried before the Juvenile
Justice Board (Mukherjee, 2013). On 11 March 2013, Ram Singh, the bus driver, died in
the Tihar Jail, South Asia’s largest prison, located in west Delhi. Debate continues as to
whether Singh died of murder or suicide (BBC, 2013; Pandey and Sikdar, 2013). As
Daniel Drache and Jennifer Velagic point out in their empirical analysis of leading Indian
English-language newspapers (The Hindu, India Today, Indian Express and Tehelka), the
number of articles about rapes in India increased approximately 30% after the events
(Drache and Velagic, 2013). During the protests, amid heightened news coverage of rape
cases in India, activists and journalists used social media to follow and report events
(Belair-Gagnon et al., 2013; Rao, 2013). Our research indicates that the principal social
media platforms used by journalists included Twitter, which offered a helpful tool for
journalists aggregating and disseminating content, and Facebook, which served as a venue
for discussion groups on the topic. According to Google Trend search volume index,
“Delhi Gang Rape”, “Rape in Delhi” and “gang-rape victim” were the top search phrases
in India in December 2012 (Prasad and Nandakumar, 2012). These developments demonstrate how, in a time of national and international crisis, social media contributed to Indian
news reporting (Belair-Gagnon and Agur, 2013; Belair-Gagnon et al., 2013).
In this article, we use the Delhi gang rape case to explore how social media have
added to and altered debates in India’s public sphere. Our study builds on the literature
on India’s changing public sphere and highlights the utility of Manuel Castells’ (2007)
concept of the ‘space of flows’ in national case studies of journalism. Our research is
based on in-depth interviews we conducted in early 2013. The article begins by conceptualizing India’s public sphere, developing Castells’ ‘spaces of flows’ discussion, presenting our research method, analyzing how journalists utilized social media during their
coverage of the events, and discussing how social media contributes to today’s public
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Belair-Gagnon et al.
sphere in India. Throughout, we explore how Indian and foreign journalists used social
media during coverage of the Delhi gang rape and protests, how journalists represented
the public sphere in their social media usage, and what this representation says about the
future of the Indian public sphere.
An Indian public sphere?
In this section, we summarize the literature on the public sphere in India and describe
how it helps us understand the relationship between current journalistic uses of social
media and the long-term potential of social media to extend public debates to wider
national audiences. The literature on the public sphere helps us understand changes in the
Indian public sphere during and after the Delhi gang rape. We identify limitations in the
literature and show how a discussion of social media updates and enriches the concept of
a public sphere in India.
The concept of a public sphere offers a framework of analysis that, while traditionally
put to use in Western European contexts, can also enrich our understanding of India. The
public sphere offers us what Peter Hohendahl calls “a paradigm for analyzing historical
change” and “a normative category for political critique” (Hohendahl, 1979: 92). We can
highlight the rise of a public in terms of evolving boundaries of public and private, a
changing relationship between government and citizens, and the rigor of rational-critical
discourse fostered by the rituals of public debate. And shifting from historical analysis to
the present, the public sphere may give us “an archaeology of the ideas and ideologies
that inform current practices and policies of the mass media” (Peters, 1993: 542). Indian
social theorists have remained lukewarm about the applicability of Habermas’ (1962)
theory to India. Rajeev Bhargava (2005) concedes that a Habermasian public sphere
helps us in a general sense, by offering an explanation of Indian public life. But he is
skeptical that specific aspects of Western European public sphere formation, such as
individuation and freedom, have the same importance in India. Instead of a public sphere
formed by autonomous individuals, Bhargava sees a more complex set of relations based
on social networks and historical forces. Amir Ali (2001) accepts the public sphere as a
concept applicable to India and charts a historical trajectory that follows the country’s
colonial and post-colonial history.
India’s colonial experience created a nascent public sphere with characteristics quite
different from those described by Habermas. Much of this was the result of different
modes of governance. Whereas the public spheres of Western Europe formed in relation
to (and in reaction to) the crown, India’s early public sphere grew out of its unique role
as an ‘empire-within-an-empire’ – a colony too diverse for Britain to govern as a unitary
entity. To deal with the scale and diversity of India, the British established a particular
type of colonial rule – Freitag calls it an intruding state – that relied on pre-existing ethnic, religious, linguistic, and geographical differences (Freitag, 1989). British officials
were especially reticent about intruding on the private sphere after the 1857 uprising
(Sarkar, 1993). The result was a nascent public sphere that reflected the divisions of the
country, its colonial power structure and its complex social relations. With a population
size and of diversity without parallel in Western European countries, India’s public
sphere was inevitably shaped by compromises and competition among the country’s
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different communities (Ali, 2001). As India’s bourgeoisie gained confidence, it began to
chip away British control of rational discourse (Bhattacharya, 2005). That new legitimacy was checked by Indians’ different relationship with their government and by their
different understanding of ‘the state’ than that of Western Europeans struggling under
absolute monarchy.
In the decades since independence, national and international forces have supplanted
the forces of community that had previously kept India’s public sphere weak. On the
surface this appears to foster national cohesion, it can also lead to a false sense of a
national public sphere (Tamir, 1993). Instead of encouraging representation, these forces
can produce a public sphere based on the cultural values and symbols of a dominant
group, to the detriment of groups less able to take advantage of the new economic and
technological context (Tamir, 1993; see also Ninan, 2007). Today, with a telecommunications revolution sweeping the country, India’s public sphere offers new possibilities for
national discourse at a distance; at the same time, it also faces the perennial challenges
of inclusion, representation, and overcoming weak rule of law (Singh, 2009).
This public sphere literature helps us understand the contributions and limitations of
social media in Indian journalism. Prasun Sonwalkar (2009) argues that in recent years,
journalism has provided additional voices to civil society than was the case in the 1990s,
with satellite television now an effective medium for journalists to transcend India’s
geography. Sonwalkar describes “the slow but sure rise of citizen participation in news
production, despite the limited infrastructure to practice citizen journalism beyond the
urban areas” (Sonwalkar, 2009: 12). Sevanti Ninan (2007; Robin, 2000) provides evidence of the interconnection between rising literacy, public participation, purchasing
power and technological development in rural Northern India. Ninan argues that these
changes are associated with the rise of Hindu nationalism and Dalit-focused parties as
political forces. To understand changes in journalistic practices, we explore the news
coverage of the Delhi gang rape, focusing on social media.
Manuel Castells’ concept of the ‘space of flows’ informs our examination of journalists’ uses of social media. Castells writes that “the diffusion of Internet, mobile communication, digital media, and a variety of tools of social software ... have prompted the
development of horizontal networks of interactive communication that connect local and
global in chosen time” (Castells, 2007: 246). The ‘space of flows’ thus refers to a reconceptualization of spatial arrangements in ways that allow distinct, synchronous, asynchronous, multimodal, and real-time information (Castells, 2007). Castells writes that, “a
new round of power making in the communication space is taking place, as power holders have understood the need to enter the battle in the horizontal communication networks” (Castells, 2007: 259). This concept allows us to explore the shift from traditional
institutions and hierarchy to a more horizontal communicative network in journalistic
sourcing practices (Atton and Wickenden, 2005; Bowman and Willis, 2003; Bruns,
2008). Today, India’s public sphere includes communicative aspects of the industrial
society (mass broadcasting and distribution of print media) as well as nascent aspects of
the network society (many-to-many communications via social media). News coverage
of the Delhi gang rape offers a glimpse of a future conflict between forces of tradition
and hierarchy in news production, and forces of modernity and horizontality in new
journalistic discourses.
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Belair-Gagnon et al.
Focused on structural changes and on corresponding shifts in power dynamics,
Castells’ concept of the ‘space of flows’ allows us to examine how India’s networked
public sphere is evolving. This concept also allows us to understand the role of social
media in the emerging contestations of that public sphere. For this reason we focus on the
features of a ‘networked public sphere’ evident in contemporary sourcing practices. We
ask: How did journalists use social media during the Delhi gang rape case? What factors
influenced their decisions regarding social media usage? Which groups were included or
excluded from conversations held on social media? What do journalists’ interactions
with their sources tells us about whether India’s public sphere has expanded? And what
does Castells’ ‘spaces of flows’ concept add to the historical literature on India’s public
This study seeks to answer the following research questions:
RQ1: How did Indian and foreign journalists use social media during their coverage
of the Delhi gang rape and protests?
RQ2: What does journalists’ social media usage reveal about changes in India’s public sphere?
To answer those research questions, we selected interviewees using the snowball
method. Our aim was to get journalists from diverse backgrounds so that we could
explore the ways in which journalists used social media during coverage of the rape and
associated protests. We included Indian and foreign journalists in our sample since the
Delhi gang rape received extensive coverage in Indian and international media. Including
foreign correspondents and Indian journalists also gave us an opportunity to identify
similarities and differences in their use of social media for coverage of the Delhi gang
rape case. Another purpose for getting perspectives from a multiplicity of sources was to
triangulate the data. While triangulation is often associated with multi-method research,
Norman Denzin (1970; Bryman, 2004) extended the idea of triangulation to include
other forms such as data, investigator, and theoretical triangulation apart from the commonly used methodological triangulation. In this study, we triangulated data by ensuring
that our sample included a diverse set of journalists with a variety of experiences. We
opted for investigator triangulation by involving three researchers in interviews and
interpretation of data.
We began our study by soliciting interviews from Indian and foreign journalists who
had written about the Delhi gang rape, and continued to solicit more interviews using
word of mouth in Delhi’s journalistic community. We gathered interview data until we
had a broad and diverse set. Our sample included six Indian journalists, eight foreign
correspondents working in India, and two freelance journalists who write for foreign and
Indian media. All 16 journalists in our sample reported on the Delhi gang rape. In addition to these 16 journalists, we also interviewed another Indian journalist, Pierre Fitter,
who used social media extensively to post updates on the Delhi gang rape. At the time of
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Journalism 15(8)
our interview with Fritter, he worked as an assistant editor with the India Today Group.
While selecting our purposive sample, we kept in mind the need to interview a diverse
set of journalists with different backgrounds and experiences. Thus, we included journalists from different media, including several who worked in converged settings: nine
print/online journalists (newspapers and magazines, including their online versions and
blogs) and eight broadcast journalists (TV and radio). These journalists held a diverse
array of job titles: our sample included reporters, senior reporters, correspondents, foreign correspondents, freelance journalists and a social media editor. While all the Indian
journalists interviewed for this study worked for English-language media in India, our
foreign correspondents wrote in Dutch, French, German and English. Due to constraints
of language and scope, we did not include journalists from vernacular Indian media outlets. In total, we interviewed 11 male and six female journalists.
We conducted semi-structured interviews with these journalists between February
and May 2013, with sessions lasting an average of 40 minutes. Most respondents were
willing to speak on the record; for those who requested anonymity, we have protected
their identity. We conducted the open-ended interviews by telephone and Skype. In some
cases we interviewed journalists in several sessions as the case evolved. Telephone interviews present distinct advantages as they allow respondents to talk in a relaxed atmosphere that may help them disclose more information than they would in surveys or email
communications (Novick, 2008). The journalists in our sample preferred telephone interviews due to the pressure of their work deadlines. In all interviews, our questions
explored journalists’ media platform, organization, usage of social media, motivations,
influences, and perceptions of the opportunities and drawbacks of social media in reporting events. Questions guiding our interviews included: ‘how did you use social media?’
and ‘where did you get information on social media?’
With our data set of interviews, our next task was to code the responses journalists
gave us. As Thomas R. Lindlof writes, because qualitative analyses rely on researcher
reflexivity, the goal of qualitative coding is to tag segments of interest in the data and
categorize speech in order to simplify the evidence inductively (Lindlof, 1995).
Therefore, once transcribed, we read the interviews several times. First we read the interviews beginning to end without coding. Then, as Juliet Corbin and Anselm Strauss
(2007) suggest, we identified themes in relation to our object of interest. Following
Lindlof’s (1995) recommendation, we constantly reevaluated our categories in relation
to our data. We looked for tag segments related to themes discussed in the literature section above. In this article we do not claim to answer all questions in our case study;
instead we add to the literature by focusing on the emergence of social media in Indian
journalism (Hannerz, 2003; Manchin, 2002).
Emerging spaces in India’s networked public sphere
Our empirical data shows that Indian and foreign journalists used Twitter as their primary social media platform during the Delhi gang rape coverage, more than other social
media platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest, Storify or LinkedIn. We also found that
journalists put to use new flows of communication on social media, and did so within
pre-existing boundaries and expectations of their daily work. In that regard, our results
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Belair-Gagnon et al.
are consistent with the literature on news production in new media environments from
the mid-2000s onward (Carlson, 2007; Lasorsa et al., 2012; Singer, 2005). In addition,
our analysis shows that journalists utilized social media for background information and
social discovery, as a Rolodex of potential sources, as an aggregator of updates on rapidly changing events, and as a tool to explore new beats. We found that journalists used
social media primarily in ways that reflected the ideas and interests of the urban middle
class, which includes members of city-based women’s groups, activists, university students and intellectuals. This research provides further insights on how Indian and foreign
reporters used social media in their coverage of the Delhi gang rape case and what kind
of representation of the public sphere this coverage fosters. Our research also lays a
foundation for future work mapping the use of social media by journalists through big
data and network analysis.
Background information
Many times, interviewees pointed to the importance of social media for finding background information. Among the journalists we interviewed, Twitter was the most popular
source of background information, because the major events were city-based and
involved middle-class professionals, university students and mobile users. We did not
find significant differences between foreign and Indian journalists in our sample, possibly because the Indian journalists we interviewed worked for English-language media in
the national capital of the country. Had our sample included journalists working in vernacular languages from rural areas in India where Internet penetration is marginal and
literacy levels are much lower, differences in social media usage among Indian and foreign journalists would have been more likely. For example, Michael Edward, South Asia
correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, told us:
Our coverage was more concentrated on Twitter than other stories because it was a city-based
story and that it was in the hot of things for the middle class, university students, mobile
professionals. Since December, we have continued to look at social media sources for any
Casper Thomas, foreign correspondent and editor at De Groene Amsterdamme, stated
that he used Twitter to find reports and other information on the social causes of rape
cases in India. Similarly, Indian journalists discussed social media as a “story discovery
tool” (Pierre Mario Fitter, Assistant Editor at the India Today Group). Journalists felt that
Twitter offered easy and immediate access for background information. As Drache and
Velagic write, “The attention granted by other sources such as newswire, independent
journalists, social media, and civil society organizations also brings fresh perspective to
bear on gender justice” (Drache and Velagic, 2013).
Sourcing information
Interviewees mentioned that they used social media to find sources for stories. Foreign
and Indian journalists alike used the term ‘Rolodex’ to describe the role social media had
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come to play in their research and reporting. Speaking about Facebook, Fitter said: “it’s
basically a list of people I met and a good way to keep in touch. I don’t use it for newsgathering. I do have a few things up on Storify but don’t use it much.” A number of
interviewees said they had used social media to track down individuals relevant to a
story. Some did this by following other journalists on Twitter. A journalist from The
Hindu told us:
I look at tweets by our own editor, editors from other newspapers, well-known journalists such
as Pritish Nandy (Columnist with The Times of India and the Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar),
Abhijit Majumder (Editor, Delhi edition of the Hindustan Times), and Saikat Dutta (Delhibased editor, DNA newspaper). I also look up tweets by television journalists such as Shiv
Aroor. (Deputy Editor, Headlines Today)
Interviewees told us how they looked for newswires, reputable journalists and civil
society organizations on Twitter. Several also mentioned that social media has allowed
would-be sources to initiate contact. Jaskirat Singh Bawa, correspondent with NewsX,
said that people often contact him through Twitter and suggest stories and
Most Indian news organizations have limited digital features at present, and few have
immediate plans to make social media a high priority for reporting or for news distribution in hard news (Belair-Gagnon and Agur, 2013). Many Indian journalists shared this
sentiment. Rohini Mohan, a freelance journalist who has worked for The Hindu, CNNIBN and Tehelka, said that although social media gives access to an emerging network
of sources, it plays a small part in her reporting:
I watch the Twitter accounts of some politicians and others in power (many of their
accounts – except those of Sushma Swaraj [Member of Parliament and Leader of the
Opposition], Subramaniam Swamy [President, Janata Party] and Omar Abdullah [Chief
Minister, Jammu & Kashmir] are updated by interns, so they’re useless). However, unless
desperate, I don’t think I will ever use social media as a networking or contact-making tool.
It has worked only rarely, and it has the danger of making me seem frivolous or lazy. It is
only in the last 5–6 years that politicians even respond to email, and yes, some of the
younger politicians and PAs do respond to personal Twitter/Facebook messages sometimes,
but this is only with those I have already met first in person. The actual contacts are still
made in the old way – calling incessantly, or grabbing their elbow at a press conference, or
waiting weeks/months for a 10-minute interview where you get little information but
ensure you make an impression.
Many interviewees expressed concerns similar to those raised by Mohan. Some worried
that social media foster speed over accuracy and verification, and wanted to avoid
becoming dependent on fast but ultimately unreliable information. Mohan spoke about
the broad challenge of accuracy in social media:
While social media in India helps reporters access people in diverse corners of the country and
be aware of their concerns and moods while sitting at our desks, journalists need to apply the
caution and professionalism they do offline.
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A significant limitation of social media in India’s public sphere is in inclusion and representation (Singh, 2009). Journalists we interviewed were quick to point out that whatever
their merits as tools for background information, updates or sources, social media remain
unrepresentative of the country. Indian citizens who use social media are more likely to
live in cities, hold a passport, and share values with social media users in the West. Both
Indian and foreign reporters we interviewed stated that if they relied too heavily on social
media, their coverage would be skewed toward a narrow readership. Speaking about the
coverage of the Delhi gang rape case, a reporter for Neue Zürcher Zeitung said:
It is easy to share ideas and read articles of colleagues or see what intellectuals think ...
Television, newspapers, and talking to people on the streets were much more important [in
newsgathering]. Only a very small part of society has access to social media, but everyone
watches television. … If you read social media you would think everyone was extremely
shocked and devastated. But if you talked to people on the streets, in slums you would get an
idea that many Indians are having extremely backward and conservative idea about women and
how they had to behave. Social media cannot replace doing research on the ground, in slums
and villages. That’s the most important thing of working in India.
Yet journalists said that Twitter helped them to be in contact with the urban middle class.
Fitter indicated that he uses Twitter to communicate with contacts who live outside the
capital: “Twitter helps me connect with voices I do not get exposed to sitting at a news
center in Delhi. Twitter has replaced my RSS Feeds and makes up 90% of my social
media usage.” On Twitter, many journalists followed hashtags (including #delhigangrape, #iamhayat and #amanet), @PMOIndia (the official Twitter account of the Indian
Prime Minister), several prominent women’s groups, other lobby organizations, political
parties, and Indian media covering the protests. A foreign correspondent said that:
“Twitter was really helpful to get a sense of the public sentiment.” Twitter was used for
sourcing to cover a particular segment of India. Intentionally or not, this gave priority to
the voices of the urban middle class, intellectuals, city-based women’s groups, social
organizations, and political elites. Julien Bouissou from Le Monde said: “I don’t need
real-time. My work is to explain the movement. Twitter is not going to give me information on feminism. I am going to understand that by talking to people for hours.” Reflecting
the majority of journalists we interviewed, Bouissou added that:
It’s more interesting to go to a chai shop in the streets. Twitter has a skewed vision of reality:
it’s rich people, English-speaking and those who have access to a computer. I am wary of this
skewed vision of India. … The danger with Twitter is what we lose touch with reality. I could
have covered the demonstrations on Twitter, but while we are not in the field we don’t see
Similarly, a senior reporter with The Hindu told us:
I don’t depend on social media for sources. I rely on what I see when I am on the ground. We
really don’t have the time to look for sources on Twitter. Twitter just helps me know various
perspectives on news offered by well-known journalists. I don’t interact with readers on Twitter.
That is for senior journalists, famous personalities, whom readers recognize on Twitter. Also, I
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don’t have time to spare for finding out what people say on Twitter. I am not a 24-hour social
media person. There’s so much clutter on Twitter that really don’t help you in any way.
While social media offer instant information, they also reflect the priorities of their participants. In their efforts to get the best out of social media while avoiding the drawbacks,
the journalists we spoke to followed the ‘boundary maintenance’ discussed in journalism
studies (Carlson, 2007; Hallin, 1986; Lewis, 2012; Revers, 2013). It was striking how
much time our interviewees (even those who followed, tweeted and sourced enthusiastically) spent discussing the limitations of social media in Indian journalism. We nevertheless found that social media have enhanced storytelling and political dissent in India
because social media have become a space for journalists to engage with their audiences,
and offer a new window on a small but growing part of India’s public sphere.
An aggregator of updates
Most journalists we interviewed said that they used Twitter to monitor updates and get
immediate responses from activists at events. To a greater extent than in previous protests, the journalists we interviewed felt that social media helped them keep a finger on
the pulse of the Indian urban middle class, and get immediate feedback on events as they
unfolded. Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, Senior Reporter and Editorial Writer at Mail
Today said:
Social media evolved in India during the Anna Hazare and Delhi gang rape protests. … These
days I see more journalists and editors go to social media in response to a major event. You have
to use social media because the conversation online is way ahead of what’s in the paper.
Michael Edward, whose public service media organization is committed to social media
uses, told us that he and colleagues turned to Twitter to find the latest on the case: “[When
one of the accused was found dead in his jail cell], we found out about it on social media.
Students tweeted it, and from there, the Indian media pick-up and we called sources and
confirmed the story.” Similarly, Ruchira Singh, social media editor at Network 18, said
that during the protests, social media played a critical role in reporting:
Our editors and reporters were tweeting individually – we had very hectic social media activity
during the case. We were inviting opinions on the goings on in the case; we were asking
questions, we were asking people what they think are the solutions to the problems. We were
interacting with people, asking them if they are joining a protest and how they are reaching the
protest grounds. We promoted certain petitions by change.org. We asked people if they felt
certain provisions should be incorporated in these petitions.
As the Delhi gang rape story played out, journalists used social media to aggregate
updates from protests, press conferences and media outlets, allowing them to compare
and scrutinize fast-flowing information before deciding what to accept as fact. While
many journalists were concerned with accuracy in social media postings, some also
pointed out the risks journalists face when they depend on mobile devices for coverage.
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Some of these are ethical matters. To preserve his independence as a journalist, Jaskirat
Singh Bawa, a reporter for NewsX made a point of following strict procedures while
tweeting about the Delhi gang rape protests:
When the scene got crazy during the protests at India Gate, I tweeted a picture of the area.
When the government stopped public transportation in certain areas, I tweeted about it. Of
course, I did not tweet information about where people were gathering for the protests. I am a
journalist, not an activist. I always maintained that boundary line. But once the police allocated
a certain area for the protests, I tweeted about that too.
In addition to the problem of being seen as biased, journalists we interviewed stated that
they were at risk from hackers who want to scoop, monitor or intimidate journalists. Ridhima
Tomar told us that hacking was one of biggest challenges to journalists’ use of social media.
Not all journalists focused on public commentary on social media. A senior reporter with
The Hindu said that during the case he focused mainly on what journalists posted:
I was reading what other journalists were saying. I was on vacation during the protests in Delhi.
If I had been in Delhi, I would have done a couple of stories on the protests. I started covering
the case when it went to the court in January. I would read what other journalists are posting
about the case during this. I did not really look up what readers or ordinary people were posting.
The Hindu journalist’s remark shows that social media allow inward reporting among
journalists; while the public may participate in discussions, this is no guarantee that journalists will pay attention. Rather than enlarging the public sphere, social media can lead
to a reinforcement of practices that exclude the public and minimize public debate.
New beats for journalists
When asked about the wider implications of social media in Indian journalism, several
journalists described the creation of new beats for reporters and new narrative spaces in
India’s public sphere. The networked nature of the protests, based largely on communication by mobile phone, enabled large gatherings of like-minded protesters. Mohammad Ali,
a reporter at The Hindu covering the “Religious Minorities and Social Movements” beat,
said it was impossible to ignore social media in the coverage of the Delhi gang rape case:
In order to understand the sense of popular outrage, it was important to see how people were
expressing themselves on social media. People poured their emotions out on social media. I
also posted stories on the case on Facebook. There were several Facebook pages formed within
a day or two of the gang rape demanding justice.
Ali followed the events highlighted on these Facebook pages and kept track of the multiple ways in which the protests against the Delhi gang rape were shaping up in both
online and offline spaces. With events unfolding in physical spaces and updates and
analysis arriving online in real time, journalists gained a new and more complex understanding of what constituted a beat in their reporting. Ridhima Tomar, a reporter with
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NewsX, a 24-hour English-language news channel in India, realized the extent of online
audiences when she was injured while reporting the Delhi gang rape protests:
I was standing at India Gate when they imposed Section 144.1 Suddenly, they started firing tear
gas shells at the protesters. It was horrible. I started running to the outer circle of India Gate.
Just as I was describing the situation on camera, a tear gas exploded on my right leg. I did not
realize it at first and we continued shooting. Then I must have fainted. I was taken to the
hospital. A journalist friend of mine tweeted about my injury when I was in hospital. After just
one tweet about my injury, the number of people following me dramatically increased in a
matter of a few hours. International journalists started calling me up probably because I was the
only journalist who was injured.
Shivam Vij, blogger at kafila.org and freelance writer for The Daily Beast, said that
social media helped him follow the protests. He described how he covered the events
from the streets of Delhi, posting updates as events unfolded and issuing corrections
when he thought that mainstream coverage was inaccurate or missing information. With
social media at their disposal, some journalists were able to change the spatial dynamic
of reporting, by simultaneously reporting a media event, disseminating directly to audiences, and interacting with those audiences.
Reporters have previously reported from live events and at a distance. What is new in
India’s contemporary public sphere is the speed with which events can be reported, the
accountability provided by related technologies (e.g. cameras in phones), and the ability
for more people (inside and outside India, including Non-Resident Indians) to participate
in discussions related to the news. These changes highlighted in the Delhi gang rape case
news coverage reveal how social media have enabled wider conversations with audiences across India and, increasingly, worldwide. Our data suggest that conversations are
transforming the traditional gatekeeping process of journalism and making it more collaborative, but to what extent? At the same time, social media offer a shortcut to journalists who lack the time or inclination to go into the streets to report events. Several of our
interviewees suggested that excessive use of social media for sourcing was ‘frivolous’ or
‘lazy.’ This point will be discussed in more detail in the following section.
We found that journalists’ uses of social media varied more between types of news
organizations than between Indian and foreign correspondents. For example, in our sample, television broadcast foreign journalists used social media to a greater extent than
foreign correspondents using print. Ali spoke about this tendency:
I think print journalists are not as much on social media as broadcast journalists. I think that’s
because broadcast is live and has continuous deadlines while print usually has just one deadline.
But it’s also true that high-flying print journalists, the decision makers, are more on social
media than the foot soldiers, the news reporters. The latter have to be more out in the field.
Social media beats have a spatial and social dimension (Broersma and Graham, 2012).
As Marcel Broersma and Todd Graham write: “Twitter has turned into a beat: a virtual
network of social relations of which the journalist is a part with the purpose of gathering
news and information on specific topics” (Broersma and Graham, 2012: 405). Our
research substantiates these claims: today in Indian journalism, social media is adding
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new complexities, new points of inquiry and new accountability in the networked public
sphere. The following section will discuss how Castells’ concept of the ‘space of flows’
enables us to understand India’s networked public sphere using national and international reporting of the Delhi gang rape.
Social media is still marginal in India’s public sphere. Our interviews documented journalists’ relationship with social media during coverage of the Delhi gang rape and protests. These interviews showed the emergence of a networked public sphere based on new
‘spaces of flows’ in India, transcending geographical distances between posh neighborhoods in a handful of Indian cities, while simultaneously following pre-existing social
divisions. We found that social media coverage of the Delhi gang rape reveals new spaces
of storytelling and a new participatory culture of networked online conversations that has
emerged in India thanks to social media. As Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, Senior Reporter
and Editorial Writer at Mail Today, highlighted, the protests have been incubators for
social media sophistication in India: “following the Anna Hazare case and the Delhi gang
rape case, social media began to achieve a critical mass.” Journalists used social media for
background information, beat reporting, and sources of information. Yet these practices,
both for foreign and Indian reporters, were managed and rearranged around pre-existing
journalistic norms and practices including reputation of sources, balance between social
media and non-social media users, time constraints, accountability, and accuracy.
These new spaces of storytelling remain exclusive in terms of social media skills,
types of news organization, and access to social media. In their efforts at social media
participation, journalists have so far reached an unrepresentative segment of India’s people. Today, social media are being put to increasingly active and sophisticated uses within
niche populations. While social media offer possibilities of greater participation in public
debates, they also reveal limitations in India’s contemporary public sphere. In the case of
the Delhi gang rape, social media presented journalists with questions of representation,
inclusion and national interest in a fragmented society. In India, social media play a more
limited role than in Western journalism and generate a discourse limited mostly to young
members of the middle and upper classes. Socialbakers (2013) indicates that in India,
48% of users on Facebook are between 18 and 24 years old. The second largest user
group (with 28% of users) is between 24 and 35 years old. Together these two groups
make up for 76% of the total users of Facebook in India. Journalists told us that social
media provide a narrative space for a small but growing percentage of the country.
In the coverage of the Delhi gang rape, journalists often struggled with the lack of inclusivity in India’s social media. This shows the persistence of India’s diversity, as well as the
social and communicative legacy of India’s colonial divisions (Freitag, 1989; Sarkar,
1993). To gain access to the vast majority of Indians not on social media, journalists realized that they had to “go in the slums” and “spend time in chai shops.” Conversely, within
Delhi, several journalists we spoke to were able to get multiple voices on social media.
According to Michael Edwards, “social media is city-based and at the center of the life of
the middle class, university students, and mobile professionals.” While social media are
subject to limitations, we can identify changes in the scale of public discourse on social
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Journalism 15(8)
media. Among those groups who use social media, the past few years have seen noticeable
changes: social media have provided a window into India’s middle class and youth, and
provided a medium on which previously taboo subjects have gained attention.
From the perspective of journalists, despite significant limitations, social media interactions with sources have added value to news coverage in India. We see this value in
journalists’ enhanced ability to do background research, follow updates and find new
sources. We also see it in the time-space expansion of news coverage. We found that in
this case, journalistic uses of social media reflected a complex, and at times conflicting,
set of changes: the growth of a networked public sphere in India, the maintenance of
existing divisions (linguistic, economic and social) in access to public discourse, and
new relationships with time and space for the country’s small but growing number of
social media users.
In this article we have analyzed how Indian and foreign journalists used social media
during the coverage of the Delhi gang rape and protests, how journalists represented the
public sphere in their social media usage, and what this representation says about the
future of the Indian public sphere. Our study highlights how emerging networks add new
complexity to a public sphere characterized by historical divisions and diversity. We
found a set of remarkable possibilities for Indian journalism: symbolically and materially, the Delhi gang rape case shows a new ‘space of flows’ in Indian journalism, as well
as a growing mix of traditional journalistic reporting and contributions from ordinary
citizens in times of crisis. At the same time, social media remain a niche element in news
production in India. We have noted the importance of the urban middle class in India’s
development of social media, as well as the omission of vast swaths of the country’s
population in the new communicative space.
While this article provides revealing data on social media usage in Indian journalism,
there are limits to what the data can tell us. First, a larger sample of interview subjects
would offer greater external validity and reliability. Second, our research leaves room for
further study: this could include in-depth social network analysis and mapping. Current
trends in usage of mobile phones and social media suggest that emerging communication
networks will play a growing role in India’s public sphere. With fiber optic networks still
limited and computer ownership rare outside urban elite and middle-class populations,
mobile phones are the most common means of social media access (TRAI, 2012). The
divergence in technological access suggests that urban and rural India will have different
experiences with social media. As India’s social media networks continue to develop, a
major question for researchers will be what effects these networks will have on India’s
public sphere.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.
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Author biographies
Valerie Belair-Gagnon is a Resident Fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.
She tweets @vbelairgagnon and blogs at www.valeriebelairgagnon.com.
Smeeta Mishra is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia
Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin.
Colin Agur is a PhD candidate in Communications at Columbia University’s Graduate School of
Journalism, New York, USA. Since 2011, he has been a Visiting Fellow at Yale Law School’s
Information Society Project. He tweets @colinagur and blogs at www.colinagur.com.
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Media production in a
transnational setting:
Three models of immigrant
2014, Vol. 15(8) 1076­–1093
© The Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1464884914521581
Moses Shumow
Florida International University, USA
This study presents an empirical, qualitative investigation into the practices of
Venezuelan journalists in South Florida. The Venezuelan population in the United States
has more than doubled in the past decade, making it the fastest growing sub-population
of Latinos in the country, and a majority of these new arrivals have settled in South
Florida. Given the rapid changes this community has undergone in the previous 10 years,
the results of this investigation provide a more complete picture of global journalism
and transnational migration in the digital media era through the recognition of the
complexities inherent in the work of immigrant journalists, offering new contributions
to conceptualizations of immigrant assimilation as non-linear and providing an updated
framework for understanding the production of Spanish-language, immigrant media in
the United States. Three models of immigrant journalism are presented and discussed
as a final result of the research.
Journalism, transnationalism, Venezuela, immigration, community media
In South Florida, the counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach have some of
the largest immigrant populations in the United States, as a percentage of their overall
population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). When combined with the international diversity
Corresponding author:
Moses Shumow, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Florida International University, 3000 NE
151st Street, BBC ACII-317, North Miami, FL 33181, USA.
Email: [email protected]
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from http://www.elearnica.ir
of these communities, the region presents an amalgam of cultures, languages, food, and
national symbols – and, as a result, the landscape is dotted with community media outlets
providing these communities with news and information that is culturally relevant to
their communities and provides important connections to both home and host countries
(Shumow, 2010, 2012). Among those immigrant groups in South Florida that have grown
most rapidly in recent years is the Venezuelan community, whose numbers increased
significantly after the election of Hugo Chávez in 1999 (Census: South Americans more
than double Florida presence, 2011; Semple, 2008). Alongside this growth has been the
parallel growth of Venezuelan community media in South Florida (Ocando, 2009). While
these media are focused on local issues, the mediated communication being produced
and distributed among its members is also transnational in scope (Shumow, 2012).
There are myriad and complex social processes at work when immigrant audiences,
buffeted by the forces of modernity and globalization, produce and consume mediated
communication (Appadurai, 1996; Christiansen, 2004; Georgiou, 2006, 2007; Karim,
2003; King and Wood, 2001; Soruco, 1996). Among the theoretical outcomes that emerge
from these processes is “glocalization” – a complex merging of what would traditionally
be considered “local” with that which is “global” – which often manifests in the identity
of these deterritorialized communities (Kraidy, 1999; Morley, 2000; Ong, 1999; Robins
and Aksoy, 2005). Additionally, there is a wide body of literature dedicated to the role
that ethnic minority media play in the development of community identity (Deuze, 2006;
Hollander, Stappers and Jankowski, 2002; Riggins, 1992; Tsagarousianou, 2002). One of
the areas that remain under-investigated, however, is an attempt to describe and explain
more clearly the motivations and professional guidelines that help to shape the work of
the producers of this media. As has been put forth by other scholars working with this
field (Benson, 2006; Deuze, 2005; Hughes, 2006; McNair, 1998), these are essential
sociological elements that must remain as the center of focus for researchers of journalistic practices.
Guided by the methods of grounded theory, this study addresses this gap through
an empirical, qualitative investigation into the practices of Venezuelan journalists in
South Florida. The results of this inquiry provide a more complete picture of global
journalism in transnational contexts in the digital media era through the recognition
of the complexities inherent in the work of immigrant journalists. It also offers new
contributions to theories of immigrant assimilation and provides an updated framework for understanding the production of Spanish-language immigrant media in the
United States.
Three distinct models of immigrant journalism – Oppositional, Market-driven/hybrid,
and Immigrant/community – are conceptualized as the outcomes of the work of the journalists interviewed for this study. These models are presented as a heuristic tool for drawing out the most important variables that inform and shape the work of these journalists
and their production of transnational media spaces, a concept that builds on the idea of
the social spaces connecting populations across borders, but focuses particularly on how
these spaces are produced and modified through media and communication. In this
sense, while the models themselves describe journalistic practices, they also help to
inform and better conceptualize the different forms that immigrant media can take on as
immigrant communities develop over time.
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Journalism 15(8)
Table 1. Media outlets, formats and language(s) used by the participants in their work.
Media outlet
Agenda Latina
Venezuela Sin Mordaza
Venezuela en la Mira
Miami en la Mira
Venezuela al Día
El Venezolano
Actualidad 1020
Ciudad Doral Newspaper
Doral News
Internet radio
Karim (2003: 5) has written that the places where migration and global media meet
are the “diasporic site(s)” that form the “cultural border between the country of origin
and the country of residence.” Understanding these cultural sites and how they are created is a key outcome of this investigation. The variables that shape the work of these
journalists include the context of departure and arrival, the unique role that ideology
plays in the formation of their work, and the inherent transnational nature of these media
outlets that allows them to shift their focus depending on the demands of international
events and the needs of local audiences. The discussion of these models of the work of
immigrant journalists and the resulting media spaces also helps to uncover some of the
complexities inherent in transnational migration that challenge traditional, linear notions
of immigrant assimilation and acculturation and recognizes the distinct role that mediated communication plays in the lives of 21st century immigrants.
This investigation and the resulting analysis and theoretical conclusions emerged out of
a larger, long-term study looking at the production and consumption of immigrant media
among Venezuelans in South Florida, based around a series of in-person interviews conducted between 2009 and 2010. In order to gather a sufficient number of participants (see
Table 1 for a complete list of media outlets, language, and formats), snowball sampling
was used to make primary and secondary contacts, an effort that resulted in 34 in-depth,
semi-structured interviews and over 500 pages of transcripts. Because there is a scarcity
of similar research, a grounded theory inquiry, defined as “a systemic, inductive, and
comparative approach for conducting inquiry for the purpose of constructing theory”
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(Bryant and Charmaz, 2007a: 1), was used to investigate the work of Venezuelan journalists in South Florida.
An axial qualitative coding approach was used to analyze the interviews in order to
create the models outlined below, with the assistance of the qualitative software package
NVivo as an organizational, analytical and modeling tool. This process took on a fluid
nature throughout the analysis, as the constant comparison method (Bryant and Charmaz,
2007b: 607) of moving back and forth between data, categories, and findings, along with
a continuing interaction and dialogue with existing literature, led to an evolution of theoretical findings. A peer reviewer was asked to read a sampling of transcripts as well as
the written description of these models in order to peer-check the findings, which led to
new insights as well as slight adjustments to the models to account for differences in
Three models of immigrant journalism
These models are presented with the recognition that while this group shares elements in
common – profession, nationality, culture, geography – there are key differences in their
backgrounds and how they approach their work as journalists within an immigrant community. It is these differences that lend themselves to the creation of three distinct models
of journalistic practice. The models also represent a spectrum regarding levels of connectivity to Venezuela versus connections to their community in South Florida; occupational ideologies that range from a balanced approach to journalism, to one that is
politically driven; and the varying immigration experiences of the participants regarding
their context of departure from Venezuela, whether they were forced from the country
either as a direct outcome of their work or an ideological opposition to Chávez versus a
voluntary departure for reasons unrelated to politics, such as economic motivations, family ties, job relocation, etc. It is important to note that these models should not be seen as
representing separate silos; there is in fact considerable overlap between the models, as
will be seen in the analysis below. The three models of immigrant journalism are conceptualized as follows:
•• Oppositional model: Journalists in this model remain heavily focused on events in
Venezuela and firm in their opposition to Chávez; the reasons they give for pursuing journalism are politically driven as well as transnational in scope, as their
work is often aimed directly at, and followed closely by, audiences in Venezuela.
There is also a political-economy to their work illustrated by the difficulties these
media producers have had in finding advertisers who are not scared away by their
anti-Chávez rhetoric.
•• Market-driven/hybrid model: These journalists continue to draw on events in
Venezuela as part of their work, aware that many in their audience still have family and business connections to the country. There is also recognition of the information needs of the community as a group of newly arrived immigrants and a
desire to help their fellow Venezuelans adjust to life in a new country. Additionally,
they perceive that in order to create an economic model for their content, a wider,
Latin American immigrant, and even Hispanic American, audience must be
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Journalism 15(8)
reached, reflecting the political economy of producing mediated communication
in a city where ideas of nationality must be weighed against the dangers of focusing too narrowly on individual groups of immigrants and thereby possibly ignoring potential audiences.
•• Immigrant/community model: This model closely resembles older definitions of
community and ethnic/minority media found in the literature on the topic (e.g.
Deuze, 2006; Hollander, Stappers and Jankowski, 2002; Howley, 2005; Jankowski,
2002) with an emphasis on covering local events, the importance of understanding
the information needs of the audience, an effort to provide coverage not found in
the mainstream media, and the development of a circular relationship between the
producer and the audience. However, this model is also distinguished by its
emphasis on issues relevant to immigrants (addressed first and foremost by the
fact that these outlets are almost entirely in Spanish1) and the national and cultural
identity the producers draw on as a guiding reference in their day-to-day work as
immigrant journalists.
“A burning candle”: Oppositional model
In 2004, Paul Sfeir, who moved to the United States from Venezuela in 2001, decided to
launch an Internet radio station called RadioNEXX. Sfeir’s family had emigrated from
Chile to Venezuela during the presidency of Salvador Allende, and he grew up hearing
about what his family had lost under that government. By the time he moved to the
United States, three years after the election of Hugo Chávez, Sfeir had already become
ideologically opposed to the direction in which he believed the country was headed.
“Look, first we left a communist government in Chile,” he said. “And now I have to
leave because of a communist government in Venezuela” (personal communication with
the author).2
Sfeir had worked in the broadcast media in Venezuela and felt there was a dearth of
coverage on the situation in Venezuela among media in South Florida. Looking for an
outlet, Sfeir launched RadioNEXX. The radio station quickly became popular among
the exile community as well as for Internet listeners inside Venezuela, especially during moments of political and social unrest, such as the constitutional referendum in
December of 2007 to abolish presidential term limits. According to Sfeir, during that
vote, RadioNEXX received 4000 phone calls and eight million website hits in a
24-hour period.
The reach and impact of RadioNEXX, because it used the Internet as its platform and
opened up a phone line for reports from Venezuela as well as callers in South Florida,
became completely transnational in scope. This media phenomenon was reflected in the
seamless transitions that Sfeir and others made in referring to Venezuelans that were both
here and there. RadioNEXX’s programming and audience represented a blurring of borders that vexed Venezuelan government monitors, who were very interested in finding
the source of these vehement opposition voices but whose powers are territorially bound.
Other oppositional journalists echoed this transnational experience. Patricia Poleo, a
prominent exiled journalist who continues to publish her column in Venezuela, often
used information from highly placed contacts in the military and government:
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Oppositional Market-driven/hybridImmigrant/community
Connections to Venezuela
Forced departure
Subjective ideology
Connections to community
Voluntary departure
Objective ideology
Figure 1. Spectrum of influences shaping models of immigrant journalism.
I write about things in Venezuela that are so up to the minute that they still think I’m there and
continue to look for me…I think this has been, of all my professional successes, the most
important. That they keep recognizing me there in Venezuela…even though I’m not physically
The simultaneity inherent in the work of Poleo and the hosts on RadioNEXX is illustrative of the time–space compression that is a defining hallmark of globalization.
It was also a key element in the mental models of the work of these immigrant
journalists, especially those within the oppositional model of journalism. These connections appeared to create an audience in the minds of these producers that exists
simultaneously in Venezuela and the United States, a phenomenon reflected repeatedly in the comments offered up during the interviews. As Luis Ortíz, who had a
political program on RadioNEXX, explained, in the case of their media outlet, technology had facilitated these connections: “Why the Internet? Well, first because it is
important to us that the majority of people who listen to us are in Venezuela. And
those of us who are creating the programming, the majority can’t go to Venezuela for
political reasons.”
However, RadioNEXX often had to negotiate a complex political economy, efforts
that are a defining characteristic of the oppositional model of immigrant journalism.
Despite the station’s popularity during moments of crisis in Venezuela, Sfeir and his supporters were unable to find a sustainable economic model to keep the station functioning.
Often, advertisers were wary of aligning themselves with journalists who had such an
ideological bent to their programming, conscious of the sensitivities of cross-national
implications that could hurt their interests either in the United States, Venezuela, or both.
Many of the media outlets in the oppositional model went through moments of popularity but were unable to sustain their audiences over the long term. Edgard Paredes, a
radio announcer who for a time published a weekly newspaper in Miami called Venezuela
Sin Mordaza (Venezuela Ungagged), an oppositional, politically oriented outlet, had a
similar experience: “…there were clients that were telling me, ‘Hey, what a good newspaper. I like it, you are doing good work, but I have businesses in Venezuela and they
might be affected if I support you.’”
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Journalism 15(8)
Downing (2003: 628) has noted this problem of economic sustainability in his writing
on alternative media and their audiences: “…public support is unmistakably tangible
during a period of acute political contention, but misleads the activists into seeing it as
more widespread and durable than it is, so that they take it for granted beyond the point
they should.” This often appeared to be the case in the oppositional model, particularly
with RadioNEXX, where the producers saw a real explosion of popularity and attention
to their efforts. The producers came away with a sense of being an important source of
alternative information, but were not able to develop a long-term strategy for audiencebuilding and economic stability.
There were elements of personal sacrifice in nearly all of the stories told by oppositional journalists, from having to flee the country, as in the case of Poleo; economic
sacrifice, as with Sfeir, who sold his house to keep RadioNEXX running; or the experience of Roger Vivas, an exiled politician and AM Radio host, who, as he explained,
made very little for his work: “I really have to struggle here. I make 10 dollars an hour
and my checks are never more than $500. I live in an efficiency apartment.” Another
member of this group had recently been evicted from his apartment and was sleeping on
a friend’s sofa; yet another interviewee’s marriage fell apart during the process of seeking exile in the United States. These personal experiences combined with the underlying political elements inherent in the work of the oppositional journalists helped to
create the anti-Chávez rhetoric that was the defining political characteristic binding this
group together.
Finally, within a larger historical and societal context, even though this group’s rhetoric focused on the Chávez government, this model should not be seen as unique to this
particular immigrant group and their circumstances. In the United States, some of the
earliest examples of Spanish-language immigrant media were produced by political
exiles. In New York City, early Puerto Rican newspapers called for independence from
Spain (Fitzpatrick, 1987), while Cuban journalist Felix Varela begin pressing for Cuban
independence from Spain in the mid-1800s in the pages of El Habanero, which was
published in Philadelphia but circulated in Cuba. This was followed by the work of José
Martí and the publication of La Patria in New York (Kanellos, 2000). There is also the
case of Mexicans writing about the Mexican revolution from Texas and California
(Cortés, 1987; Kanellos, 2000), which eventually led to the founding of one of the country’s oldest Spanish-Language newspapers, La Opinión in Los Angeles. Contemporarily,
Hamid Naficy (1993) has written eloquently about the media produced by and for the
Iranian diaspora, while similar scholarship on exile media has been produced on Tibetans
in exile (Dukes, 2006), Burmese democratic efforts in Sweden (Pidduck, 2012), and, of
most significance to this inquiry, the use and production of exilic media by Cubans living
in South Florida (e.g. Bardach, 2002; Larson, 2006; Soruco, 1996).
“Finding a balance”: Market-driven/hybrid model
Following on the oppositional model, and drawing on similar elements, the marketdriven/hybrid model is defined by these journalists’ search for a balance between focusing on Venezuela when necessary, especially during moments of crisis, but also making
sure that events in Venezuela do not become their sole focus. This was an economic
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decision as much as a professional one, with the recognition that focusing too intently on
the Venezuelan community would limit their reach among wider immigrant groups.
There was an effort among the members of this group, not to avoid Venezuela politics or
Chávez completely, but to place more of an emphasis on life in their new country, on
what it means to be an Hispanic immigrant in the United States, and to reach out to the
other Spanish-speaking immigrant groups that make up their audiences – whether they
are Colombian, Ecuadoran, or Panamanian.
Actualidad 1020 is the Miami outlet of one of Venezuela’s largest national radio
chains. The station launched in 2008 and has grown rapidly ever since. Three of the
journalists that work there were interviewed during this research: Eli Bravo, Julio Cesar
Camacho, and Lourdes Ubieta, each of them respected by other Venezuelan journalists
as well as familiar to Venezuelan immigrant audiences. This background helped them
establish solid, successful careers in the United States, securing a space among immigrant audiences that was both influential and economically sustainable. The insights they
offered about working as an immigrant journalist, all of which were connected through
the theme of finding a balance,3 were emblematic of the kind of immigrant journalism
that the market driven/hybrid model represents. There was a general reflection of the
realities of working in a multicultural market with its own particular form of political
economy. In this context, given the influence of the Cuban community and the global
nature of commerce in Miami and the transnational business connections that exist, political considerations must constantly be weighed against the multinational, multicultural
nature of the audiences that exist for Spanish-language media.
This group recognized that Chávez and events in Venezuela are newsworthy, and therefore an unavoidable topic for Latin American journalists working in Miami. However, an
even treatment of this topic remained important for this group, as Eli Bravo pointed out:
…when I have something that I really want to share, I’ll write about Chávez. But I don’t feel
that I have to slam Chávez in the face because that’s the way I think we should do it. … There
are spaces, media, and outlets for that, but I don’t think that’s our work.
Although he did not mention them directly, Bravo was acknowledging the existence of
the oppositional journalists outlined in the previous section, and appeared to be trying to
put some distance between their form of strident journalism and the role that he envisions
for his work within the community. Camacho, the station’s news director and former
manager, reached a similar conclusion, acknowledging the influence of the Venezuelan
community in the station’s programming, but pointing to his colleagues’ and his own
efforts to move beyond this group:
… (Actualidad 1020) even though it was founded by Venezuelan businessmen, concerns itself
with all of the communities. The Venezuelans are one of the communities that we serve.
Because we want to serve all of the communities represented here, in Miami, in South Florida,
that are Latin American. From the Caribbean, from Central America.
Despite the rhetoric of providing an important service, there are clearly economic implications behind the decision to focus the station beyond the Venezuelan community, in
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trying to break out of the mold of being seen as a “Venezuelan station.” Bravo and
Camacho, as well as other journalists whose work fell within the definition of this model,
emphasized their efforts at reaching wider audiences; this is a calculated decision that is
an outcome of the financial pressures placed on all media outlets as they seek out economic models that lead to long-term sustainability.
For Lourdes Ubieta, the decision to focus on local information was an obvious one:
I’m focusing my show in the news…So this means finances, jobs, local laws, local things.
That’s because even though you are from Puerto Rico, or Colombia, you live here, you will
have to pay taxes, and we will have to take care of our families, etcetera. So I’m focused on
what is important for us as residents, as people who live here, as immigrants.
However, at the same time, Ubieta was clearly conscious of her connections to the
Venezuelan community and the importance of their support: “…people know that I’m
not on the side of President Chávez, not because of President Chávez but because of the
way he’s behaving and the things that he is doing.”
Ubieta said she avoided joining up with the multiple exile Venezuelan groups that
have been formed in South Florida in recent years, which she saw as problematic from a
professional perspective. At the same time, “…when they phone me and say, We’re
gonna have this meeting, I air it. And when they say we’re going to do this collection of
money, for whatever, I go (on air) and say it.” Again, inherent in the experiences of working as an immigrant journalist shared by Ubieta, and key to the conceptualization of the
hybrid model, is the idea that a balance must be found between maintaining a cultural
connection with the Venezuelan community while at the same time reaching out to larger
immigrant audiences that share similar information needs. Connecting too closely with
the more politically oriented opposition-exile groups might not only alienate Ubieta’s
non-Venezuelan listeners, but her station’s continued business connections to Venezuela
would also temper the ideologies that might emerge in her work.
A transnational existence is a foundational element in the work of these immigrant journalist, but the fact that these media models modulate between a focus entirely on Venezuela
to, as will be seen in the community model, an alignment with local realities and information needs, confirms what Alba and Nee (1997: 827) have written about the continued relevance of theories of assimilation for understanding the lives of immigrants:
…we hold that this social science concept offers the best way to understand and describe the
integration into the mainstream experienced across generations by many individuals and ethnic
groups, even if it cannot be regarded as a universal outcome of American life.
The role of mediated communication as an important element in the creation of these
interactions has been theorized as following a similar course. In their research on ethnic
media production and consumption among Turkish immigrants in Germany, Arnold and
Schneider (2007: 133), have reached very similar conclusions, noting that:
Ethnic media do not communicate separation nor is this the intention of ethnic journalists. We
did, however, find specific functions of ethnic media that point to a specific role for integration
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and matters of cultural identity…On one hand, the audience is looking for orientation in
everyday life; on the other, emotional aspects play a crucial role.
This is a key insight, as emotional motivations and the underlying connections and conflicting tension with ideologies of journalistic professionalism remained a defining issue
throughout the interviews conducted during this research.
However, also relevant to the conceptualization of these models of immigrant
media are those scholars on the other side of the assimilation versus pluralism debate
surrounding immigration. Their theories question the linearity of historical conceptualizations of assimilation, many of which date back to the first waves of immigrants to the United States at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.
Immigration scholar Rumbaut (1997: 924) has criticized these views as assigning
assimilation with a “certain passivity and one-wayness.” Scholars on this side of the
immigration debate between assimilation and pluralism question overly broad definitions of the “mainstream culture” that immigrants are supposed to assimilate into,
and see the process of adjusting and adapting to life in a new country as happening
much more in fits and starts, particularly in a global city like Miami. Studies of transnationalism are an attempt to bridge this divide, recognizing that while not linear, the
process of adaptation to a new culture by immigrants is multi-faceted, shaped by
“historical contexts” (Rumbaut, 1997: 943), and often pulled in more than one
Along with the material drawn from the interviewees at Actualidad 1020, it is also
helpful here to look at the interviews with Manuel Corao, publisher and editor of
Venezuela al Día, and Oswaldo Muñoz, publisher and CEO of El Venezolano, as a way
to further define the hybrid model. Together, these two newspapers represent the oldest
Venezuelan media outlets in the study. Both are emblematic of this second model, with
a clear focus on Venezuela, particularly from a political, analytical standpoint. At the
same time, both newspapers, according to their publishers, have become key information sources not only for the Venezuelan community in South Florida, but for other
Latin American immigrant groups as well. As Muñoz saw it, his newspaper has “a wider
vision of what we consider to be important for Venezuelans that live here,” but at the
same time, despite efforts to focus on the local, the goals of El Venezolano remain distinctly transnational in nature. “We are interested in what happens here and what happens there,” said Muñoz.
Corao pursues a similar model with his newspaper. During an interview in his
office, as a demonstration, Corao pulled an archived edition of Venezuela al Día from
the shelf, and encouraged the interviewer to do the same. Both issues were opened to
the same page. In one edition, there was a story about efforts by the government to
expropriate businesses in Venezuela in the name of the Bolivarian Revolution; in the
other, there was a story about a health clinic opening in Miami aimed at serving the
Venezuelan community. For Corao, this was a clear example of the balancing act that
he performs with his publication: “…so this means that for this edition, there was
more weight given to community news than national news. And in this edition, the
events of the country (Venezuela) meant that there was more news nationally than
from the community.”
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Journalism 15(8)
There should be no question about the editorial line that El Venezolano and Venezuela
al Día took when it came to the situation in Venezuela. As Biaggio Correale, a Venezuelan
photographer who has worked for Muñoz at El Venezolano, pointed out:
Yes, perhaps there is a partiality that is political, but that’s how it is…Let’s analyze the context:
What is the name of the newspaper? “El Venezolano.” And where is it? In the United States…
So this immediately gives you the idea that it’s not going to speak well of Chávez.
This statement recognized the political leanings of the Venezuelan immigrant community that has exploded in size in the United States in the past decade; while there may
be various levels of opposition and attachment to Venezuela, this was a community that
remained nearly 100% opposed to the government currently in power.
Similar to the oppositional model, the journalists within the hybrid model also performed a balancing act when it came to the fundamentally political nature of their editorial line and the need to keep attracting sponsors who may have still had business interests
in Venezuela. This often meant putting distance between themselves and the more vocal
exile community. As Muñoz pointed out, the United States:
…maintains commercial and diplomatic relations with Venezuela; and very good commercial
relations, because it is the largest buyer, and the truth is that we can’t talk about exile. Ninety to
95% [of Venezuelans in Miami] are against the Chávez regime, but in no way can we say that
we are exiled.
However, despite claims to the contrary, even Muñoz was not immune to the influence that the Venezuelan government is still able to exert on his operations. Yolanda
Medina, a journalist who worked at El Venezolano and was interviewed several months
after Muñoz, revealed that Muñoz had recently run into trouble with the government
there for material published in his newspaper and had to curtail his visits: “No, recently
he hasn’t gone…Because right now Oswaldo is being persecuted there and his friends
have advised him not to go because he could be detained for no reason.” Muñoz’s experience illustrated the fluidity inherent in the political balancing act of these journalists as
they maintained a defiant stance toward the Venezuelan government and at the same time
drew on the economic connections and support of the Venezuelan community to keep
their operations afloat.
“Turn off the switch”: Immigrant/community model
Finally, at the other end of the spectrum from the oppositional model, there is the immigrant/community model. The elements that define this model are a strong emphasis on
connections with local audiences, particularly the Spanish-speaking, Latino community, and the issues that are important to them both as an ethnic group and as immigrants. There was a stated effort by these journalists to disconnect from Venezuela. This
often meant complete avoidance of Venezuelan politics and even the mention of Chávez;
however, as indicated in the definition provided above, this did not mean that the
Venezuelan identity of these media professionals did not have an impact on the final
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product. As Biaggio Correale, who along with his wife, Militza Rodríguez, launched a
monthly magazine aimed at Hispanic audiences called Veintiseven, put it: “Those of us
that come to this country know how to ‘turn off the switch,’ as we say. We understand
the situation and that the reality… is different. And that we have to, you know, move
The case of Ciudad Doral Newspaper, published by Luis Alcala, and Doral News,
published by Carlos Herrádez, were both illustrative of the immigrant/community model.
For Herrádez, there was an interesting connection between the founding of Ciudad Doral
Newspaper and the political campaign to incorporate Doral as a city with the county of
Miami-Dade,4 both of which occurred in 2002. Ciudad Doral Newspaper championed
the cause of the incorporation campaign, which was called “One Doral.” “We used the
name of the newspaper as the name of the city,” Herrádez said, “and we started covering
events and we wrote about the community on topics that had to do with family, religion,
culture, society, businesses, commerce, students.” Herrádez saw this relationship with
his fellow “Doralinos” as being at the heart of his work as a journalist, calling himself a
cronista de la comunidad (chronicler of the community). He said it is this relationship to
the community that makes this model work: “So, people began to care about the newspaper, because they had a newspaper that reflected in its pages the events of the city. And
beyond that, it was in Spanish.”
Alcala saw a similar formula for the success of these community media outlets, connecting their growth with larger societal changes. “The importance of community media
has been a growth based practically in the necessity for local information,” he said.
Alcala also recognized the political challenges inherent in a Spanish-language newspaper that wants to be useful to a community where not everyone speaks the language:
“The first six editions (of Ciudad Doral Newspaper) were totally in Spanish. And we got
an avalanche of emails, because there is an important population of Anglos here, that
don’t speak Spanish.” Given the historic tensions that have existed between Anglos and
Hispanics in Miami (Grenier and Portes, 1992; Portes and Rumbaut, 2006; Portes and
Stepick, 1994), the decision to include English on the part of Alcala, and later by
Herrádez, was astute, both politically and economically. They saw the potential to expand
the size of their audience by including two languages, while at the same time avoiding
ethnic and racial divisions that could in the end actually harm their distribution and
standing within the community.
This emphasis on trying not to alienate certain segments of the audience ties in with a
final component of the production decisions made on the part of the journalists in the
immigrant/community model, which was a complete avoidance of anything having to do
with Chávez or the political situation in Venezuela. This did not necessarily affect their
readership among Venezuelans, as Herrádez pointed out: “I would say that all of the
Venezuelans that come to Doral see this newspaper, all of them, even though here there
is no news from Venezuela…Absolutely none. Here the news is about Doral.” There was
the perception among these producers that, especially among Latin American immigrant
groups in South Florida, many of whom arrive from situations of political instability,
there was a fatigue that had set in when it comes to political discussions. According to
Militza Rodríguez, of Veintiseven, this recognition was a key component in their editorial
discussions prior to launching the magazine:
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First of all, we all agreed that we wouldn’t have any political content in the magazine and the
main reason for that is that we have so many nationalities here, and our countries are so in
conflict because of politics, that we said, “Ok, people are sick of politics. Let’s try to do
something different.”
The decision to stay away from politics also translated into an avoidance of being
overly focused on the Venezuelan immigrant community as well. Nataly Salaz, a television reporter in Venezuela who now works with Luis Alcala at Ciudad Doral Newspaper,
saw the emphasis on the community as the most important function of the newspaper:
We never touch on it, at least in Ciudad Doral Newspaper, focusing directly on the Venezuelan
community, because even if they are a majority in Doral,5 they are not the only population. And
that’s something that I agree with. I feel that a community newspaper has to be aimed at the
community, not at just one segment…We’re going to see what affects the community, it doesn’t
matter if it’s Cuban, Venezuelan, Panamanian, or Brazilian.
It should be noted here that although Salaz was talking about “community,” she was still
focused on Latin American immigrants. This is an important clue to the mental model that
drives the work of the producers operating within this model, as well as a fascinating
insight into the global nature of Miami-Dade County. For Salaz, the wider community did
not signify English-speaking Anglos but rather her fellow Latin American immigrants.
Salaz also emphasized the fact that what separates these outlets from those serving only
the Venezuelan community is their focus on the information needs of immigrants:
You look at a Venezuelan newspaper focusing on the Venezuelan community and they’re
constantly coming back to repeat the things that Chávez did, or what he said, what the ministers
said, what is happening there…but no. For this, I have the Internet, if I want to know what is
happening in Venezuela.
Ultimately, according to the interviews with these journalists, these key decisions about
content and the emphasis on a wider immigrant audience served to ingratiate and connect
them with the wider Hispanic community.
Conclusion and future directions
The three models of immigrant journalism that have been presented here are an attempt
to not only explain the motivations and professional ideologies of these journalists and
where they fit within a larger, theoretical framework, but to offer conceptualizations of
concrete outcomes that recognize the complexities inherent in this form of mediated
communication and that the multiplicity of influences and processes shaping the work of
these journalists result in distinct forms of journalistic production. Within a larger contextual framework, there are also implications from this type of media production for
understanding processes of immigrant assimilation and acculturation and how these
more traditional theories contrast and interact with newer conceptualizations of transnational migration. This is especially true when considering a geographic context such as
the once presented by the heavily globalized city of Miami. Since this research was
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conducted, there has also been a significant development in the political situation in
Venezuela: the death of President Hugo Chávez. There are, of course, larger implications
for the future of the country contained within this event; however, for the community of
Venezuelans living in South Florida, given that Chávez’s handpicked successor Nicolas
Maduro was recently elected and promises to continue the “Bolivarian Revolution”
(Neuman, 2013), it is difficult to imagine that it will have a significant impact on the
oppositional nature of the diaspora, who will continue to rally not against Chávez, but the
larger framework of chavismo and all that it entails.6
In the course of their work, the journalists in this study go about the process of narrating the experience of migration within their community. They maintain a focus that is
bi-national in scope and that varies in degree and intensity on either the home or host
country. Because of this particular journalistic formulation, their work must be viewed as
playing a role in the process of adaptation and assimilation for their audience. Nearly all
of the interviewees saw at least part of their job as helping to make the process of adjusting to life in a new country smoother and less jarring for their fellow immigrants, while
at the same time allowing them to remain connected to events at home. Given the growing influence, scope, and impact of new communication technologies worldwide, it is
worth asking whether or not these changes are also going to impact the ways in which
migration is both studied and conceptualized by researchers from multiple disciplines.
At the same time, these models build on, as well as move beyond, older theories of
ethnic/minority media. This work is a continuation of research that regards these types of
media outlets as providing a voice to communities that may be left out of the discourse
found in mainstream, national media (Husband, 2005; Riggins, 1992) – after all, the
specific focus brought to bear on Venezuela and Venezuelan immigrants, given the background of these journalists, is not coverage that would be found necessarily in The New
York Times or broadcast on ABC News. At the same time, these models, taken together as
a whole, can also be seen as an extension of the “dual role” for ethnic media theorized by
Subervi-Vélez (1986), in which he sees opportunities in the consumption of ethnic/
minority media for both cultural pluralism and steps towards assimilation and acculturation regarding political orientation. These models show that within the larger framework
that has been illustrated in prior work on ethnic/minority media, the motivations, ideologies, and contextual variables that influence the producers of ethnic/minority and community media lead to very particular forms of communication.
The contribution from Subervi-Vélez underscores the wider need to recognize the
multi-faceted nature of immigration and how it is a constantly evolving and changing
phenomenon, dependent on factors of geography, technology, socio-economic status,
contexts of departure and arrival, legal status, length of time as an émigré, etc. To confine
these processes to one or two defining characteristics is an exercise in futility. As Portes
(1997: 800) has written, immigration theory “in the contemporary world” has involved
“describing the novelty and complexity of contemporary immigration, culling concepts
and insights from the classic literature on the subject and, simultaneously, getting rid of
the dead weight of irrelevant debates.” It is the contention here that this research into the
production of immigrant journalism contributes new insights into immigration theory by
focusing on the role of mediated communication in the processes and social phenomena
that are created through the confluence of media and migration.
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It is also the hope on the part of the author that these models will lead to further
elaboration and testing. This effort could be approached through content analyses,
which could be used to test whether the insights gained from the interviews match up
with the reality of what is finally produced within these three models (some of this work
has already been initiated; see Fernandes and Shumow, 2012, and Shumow and Pinto,
2013). Of even greater significance would be to test whether or not these findings can
be applied to the media produced by journalists within other immigrant groups, an effort
from which truly valuable insights might emerge, as they could be seen as helping to
explain the wider social phenomena that emerge from the connections between migration and media.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.
1. Two of the outlets studied, Doral News and Ciudad Doral Newspaper, are bilingual.
2. Unless otherwise indicated, all interviews were conducted by the author in Spanish and translated into English.
3. Husband (2005) has written about this tension between professionalism and identity among
ethnic media producers, noting that “for media workers within minority ethnic media the
defensive carapace of ‘professionalism’ may be fractured by other strong and possibly contradictory claims; namely, a personal identity politics that commands an allegiance to an ethnic
community” (462).
4. As of the 2010 census, the city Doral had the largest percentage of Venezuelans of all cities
in the United States at 13.3%. Anecdotally, it is worth mentioning that of the 34 interviews
conducted for this research, nearly half took place in Doral.
5. As of 2010, Venezuelans were not the majority in Doral, although of the nearly 50% of the
population in Doral that is from Latin America, Venezuelans represent the largest sub-group
of that immigrant community; however, given their influence in Doral politics, media, and
business, this is often the perception. It is no accident that, in the past few years, Doral has
come to be known as “Doralzuela” (Ocando, 2009).
6. As an anecdotal example, the Facebook page for El Venezolano bears the headline “No somos
la oposición; somos la solución [We are not the opposition; we are the solution].”
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spaces. Media, Culture & Society 34(7): 815–831.
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Washington, D.C., May 30–June 1, 2013.
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Tsagarousianou R (2002) Ethnic community media, community idenity, and citizenship in contemporary Britain. In: Jankowski NW (ed.) Community Media in the Information Age. Cresskill,
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17 March 2011).
Author biography
Moses Shumow is an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Broadcasting in the School of
Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. His current research is
on mediated geographies, transnationalism, and the production and consumption of immigrant and
Spanish-language media in South Florida and nationally and his work has been published in the
International Journal of Communication, Taiwan Journal of Democracy, Interdisciplinary Journal
of Research in Business, Media, Culture and Society, Journalism and Mass Communication
Educator, and the edited volume, News Literacy: Global Perspectives for the Newsroom and the
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The online audience as
gatekeeper: The influence
of reader metrics on news
editorial selection
2014, Vol. 15(8) 1094­–1110
© The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1464884913504259
Hong Tien Vu
University of Texas at Austin, USA
This study provides a snapshot of the hierarchy-of-influences model in the new media
environment through examining the effects of audience web metrics on editors.
Surveying 318 gatekeepers, the study found that audience metrics influence editors in
gatekeeping. Editors’ likelihood to monitor web metrics is affected by their journalism
training. Gatekeepers who attach the importance of high readership to economic
benefits are more likely to have different news decisions based on web metrics. The
study suggests a revision of the hierarchy-of-influences model with more emphasis
being placed on the role of the audience.
Web metrics, audience, gatekeepers, hierarchy of influences, online newsroom
In the highly technological world of today, at any given time journalists can easily pull
out figures on such audience behaviors as how many web cruisers are reading a story,
what stories they prefer, or whether they comment, email, “Facebook,” or Tweet a story.
At The Washington Post, for example, detailed web metrics are displayed on a television
screen for the entire newsroom. Editorial staff at The Post also receive emails everyday
with specific data on web traffic. In other news organizations, web metrics have become
important indicators of how well newsrooms perform (Peters, 2010). Indeed, the Internet
has afforded journalists and news audiences an unprecedented interactivity, which did
not exist in the traditional print media context.
Corresponding author:
Hong Tien Vu, Doctoral Student, School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin, 300 W. Dean Keeton,
Austin, Texas 78712, USA.
Email: [email protected]
from jou.sagepub.com at NATL TAIWAN UNIV of Sci and Tech on December 20, 2014
from http://www.elearnica.ir
A number of studies have found evidence of audience influence on the gatekeeping
process. For example, scholars have discovered that it is becoming common for online
journalists or gatekeepers to monitor web metrics and track readers’ behaviors, hoping to
learn more about their audiences (MacGregor, 2007; McKenzie et al., 2011). However,
little is known about how much the availability of such data affects editorial decisions in
newsrooms or whether journalists are willing to accommodate readers’ content preferences, or what kinds of editorial adjustment to news selection gatekeepers are willing to
adopt to get more subsequent online traffic. Unveiling these issues is the aim of this
Surveying news editors across the United States, this study examines the extent to
which web metrics affect online news editors’ decision-making, and ultimately, news
coverage. It investigates factors that lead online editors to monitor online traffic and
other web analytics. Most importantly, using quantitative data, this study revisits the
hierarchy-of-influences theory (Reese, 2011; Shoemaker and Reese, 1996), a model created in the traditional media environment, when gatekeepers had limited access to information about readers’ news preferences, through comparing the importance of audience
against other factors in influencing editorial decision-making in newsroom today.
Because the gatekeeping role is occupationally journalistic, the study provides an analysis of how technology has fueled the repositioning or sharing of this role by professional
gatekeepers who increasingly allow some audience influence on their editorial responsibility. In doing so, the study is expected to also provide some real-world implications by
shedding light on how editorial practices have evolved in the new media environment to
adapt to audience tastes.
Gatekeeping and hierarchy of influences
Traditional gatekeeping research has focused largely on the role of gatekeepers in controlling what should be presented to audiences and what should not. In the original study,
gatekeeping was described as “highly subjective,” with the gatekeeper exercising his
control with biases (White, 1950: 386). Although this whole process of selection or
rejection of news stories was based on the gatekeeper’s judgment and experience, news
decisions are considered intuitive. Responding to the question: “What is news?” David
Brinkley, a well-known TV journalist said news is “What I say it is,” (Rowe, 2005). For
Arthur McEwen, an editor of the San Francisco Chronicle “News is anything that makes
a reader say ‘Gee Whiz!’” (Boorstin, 1961). These two examples illustrate that there is
no absolute rule in determining what make a news story, and thus confirming White’s
conjecture about the gatekeeping process.
Communication scholars contended that White’s original assumption of the media
gatekeeping was too simplistic. Gatekeeping has been shown to also include “writing,
editing, positioning, scheduling, repeating, and otherwise massaging information to
become news” (Shoemaker et al., 2008: 73). Along with this process many other factors
can come into play. For example, Sylvie and Huang (2008) found that an editor’s decision on passing or rejecting a piece of news can be influenced by his or her own background and the organization he or she represents. Shoemaker and Reese (1991) argued
that apart from the common newsworthiness’ constituents, social significance,
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Journalism 15(8)
complexity, and personal relevance, other factors, either being intrinsic or coming from
outside to the communication workers, could also affect the process of transforming
information from news sources to media messages.
Shoemaker and Reese (1996) delineated a five-level model of micro and macro influences on gatekeepers, arguing that gatekeeping no longer happens at only one gate of an
individual communication worker as White did, but at multiple gates. The first level – the
lowest – focuses on the individual factors of the communicator (e.g., personal background, experiences, attitudes, beliefs, etc.). The second level is media routines (e.g.,
audience orientation, newsroom routines). The third level of the model concentrates on
the organizational influences (e.g., internal structure, ownership, goal, and policy).
Extramedia forces or factors extrinsic to media organizations constitute the fourth level
(e.g., sources, advertisers, audience, government control, market competition, technology). The last level –– is media ideology.
Shoemaker and Reese (1996) posited that although each level in the concentric model
has its own range of influences, the lower is subsumed by the higher one(s), which must
take the lower ones into account. In the original model the audience factor, however, did
not receive adequate attention, and thus impressionably deemphasizing the weight of
such influence on the gatekeeping process.
Contextually, the hierarchy-of-influences model was created in the traditional media
environment with journalists being notably distant from their audience. Yet a question
still exists about the extent to which the influence of factors in this model exerted on
gatekeeping work in the new media era, especially when declining readership, tough
competition, fragmented audiences, plummeting advertising revenues, and downsizing
newsrooms are darkening the picture of the journalism industry (Lowrey and Woo,
2010). Scholars have begun to explore possible changes of professional journalistic gatekeeping (McKenzie et al., 2011; Shoemaker et al., 2011; Singer, 2011). What is missing
from the literature are the ways online audiences may have affected those newsroom
Audience role
Journalists have often been accused of being aloof from their audiences in the context of
traditional media (MacGregor, 2007). Gieber asserts (1960: 204) that “news selection
has no direct relationship to the wants of readers.” Gans (1979) supports this view, arguing that journalists pay little to no attention to audience feedback, but mainly put together
content based on what they think would interest their audiences. One of journalists’
excuses was technological constraints.
In order to learn about their audiences, news organizations used to rely on marketing
companies (e.g., Nielsen) for audience research, which provided them with information
on readers’ general interests. However, this kind of research did not “come often enough
to help” news producers and editors adjust their daily editorial decision-making
(Shoemaker and Reese, 1996: 105). Consequently, news became a product of a top-down,
centralized model, with stories produced independently of news audiences (Schultz,
1999). With the Internet and two of its key elements –interactivity and immediacy (Chung,
2008) –learning sooner about audiences and their news consumption experiences is no
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longer a problem for journalists and news organizations. Interactivity, according to Chung
(2008: 660), is a unique feature of digital technology that facilitates medium-to-human
(e.g., commenting system, customizability of web pages) and human-to-human interactions (e.g., emailing links, reposting on social media sites). Immediacy allows for “publishing stories as quickly as possible” (Domingo, 2008: 692) and also encourages
immediate communication with and among audiences (Chung and Yoo, 2008).
Technologies have made it possible for news organizations to record, in quantifiable
details, audience news consumption – through keeping track of numbers of clicks,
amount of viewing time, number of shares, or degree of engagement (e.g., commenting
and “like”) – to gather a better view of audience preferences (Napoli, 2010). In a qualitative study, MacGregor (2007) interviewed online journalists and found that gatekeepers
monitor audience data to re-weigh their editorial priorities. According to this study, in
response to a story with more clicks, some journalists would expand the coverage of it,
provide additional analysis for it, or publish stories of the same type.
Other research on the issue has found mixed results. Lowrey and Woo (2010), for
example, discovered that uncertainties in newsrooms caused by recent financial woes
within the industry have driven journalists’ attention to audience information. Boczkowski
and Peer (2011), comparing placement of stories on news sites with most-viewed articles
on these web pages, found that journalists’ and audience members’ choices of news do
not intersect. Through a time-lag analysis of stories on the most-viewed lists and news
sites’ agendas, Lee and Lewis (2012) argued that audience preferences are influencing
editorial judgments of news stories more than the other way around. Other studies also
found abundant evidence of journalists monitoring traffic to their news sites (Domingo,
2008; Lowrey and Woo, 2010; McKenzie et al., 2011). However, what is not well understood is why journalists are adopting this new routine of monitoring web metrics. Thus,
it would be necessary to ask:
RQ1: What are the primary reasons an editor monitors online traffic to his/her news
For decades, newspapers have depended greatly on audience and advertisers for revenue
generation. Also, the latter source often requires “sufficiently sizable readership”
(Gabszewicz et al., 2002: 319). The competition for advertisements to appease that readership becomes tougher as news websites face a large number of competitors such as
Craigslist offering no-cost advertisements. It is undeniable that newspapers or news
sites, especially major metro dailies, play an important role in covering news in local
communities and setting the agenda for other media from local TV news sites to blogs.
However, statistics on page views and numbers of visitors are also important for these
sites to sustain themselves financially. These statistics can be monetized by attracting
more advertisements to news sites (Benbunan-Fich and Fich, 2004; Napoli, 2010). Now,
more than ever, being able to keep and engage audiences is seen as an important way to
salvage the in-peril news industry.
From reader standpoints, technologies have provided audiences with ample choices
for selecting what kinds of news they want in a borderless world of abundant news providers. Audiences today are not mere recipients of news. Some have become active
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Journalism 15(8)
participants in news production and distribution (Shoemaker et al., 2011; Singer, 2006,
2011). Besides consuming news, audiences now contribute to content production of
news sites (Kperogi, 2011; Lewis et al., 2010), or help spread the news (Baek et al., 2011;
Baresch et al., 2011).
Under pressures of driving more traffic to their sites, online news organizations have
found different ways to attract and engage their audiences. Professional gatekeepers now
are more willing to give up their autonomy by passing off some of their tasks to audience
members (Singer, 2011). Besides allowing audiences to personalize settings such as creating profiles, tracking stories of their interests, or changing layouts of the websites
(Bucy, 2004; Singer, 2011), news sites also offer web applications that enable readers to
leave feedback and engage in news production and delivery through emailing journalists.
Site applications also allow participation and feedback with the reader capabilities of
generating news on their own, commenting, sharing, and customizing content to their
needs (Singer, 2011). In the increasingly interactive media environment, news has
become more of a socially shared experience according to the Pew Project For Excellence
in Journalism (2010a). Singer (2011: 4) argued that as news media become more interactive, for any news story to emerge from the vast pool of online articles, “the gatekeeping
role must necessarily be shared far more broadly than in a traditional media environment.” According to Boczkowski (2004: 183), digitizing news is somewhat equal to
moving it from “being mostly journalist-centered, communicated as a monologue … to
also being increasingly audience-centered, part of multiple conversations.”
Theoretically, this new phenomenon of sharing the gatekeeping role is clear evidence
of a transformation in journalism practices, blurring the line between gatekeepers and
audience members, challenging the notion of journalistic professionalism (Singer, 2003).
Any influence these statistics might have on news production is, therefore, economically
and journalistically important. That influence demonstrates a possible reconfiguration of
the relationship between audiences and journalists (Bucy, 2004), altering “the sociology
of news production,” which suggests changes in the gatekeeping process (Hoffman,
2006: 59). It shows new tensions that arise from the negotiation between journalism
professional control and open participation, challenging the boundaries of the profession
(Lewis, 2012). This change has drawn significant attention from media scholars. From
an audience perspective, studies have focused on the increasing choices offered by news
sites (Chung, 2008; Shoemaker et al., 2011; Singer, 2011). Envisioning the change from
news workers’ standpoints, scholars have found that this evolution does have an impact
on journalists (Cassidy, 2008; Lee and Lewis, 2012; McKenzie et al., 2011). What is
unclear here is the importance of the audience among other factors proposed in Shoemaker
and Reese’s model, in exerting influences on the gatekeeping process, especially by
using quantitative data. Therefore, RQ2 asks:
RQ2: Compared to other factors involved in editorial decision-making, how strong is
audience appeal?
Empirical gatekeeping studies have found evidence of online audience metrics influencing journalists (MacGregor, 2007; McKenzie et al., 2011). For example, in an ethnographic study, Anderson (2011: 561) reported that at Philly.com audience metrics are
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“primary ingredients” for news judgment. However, like MacGregor’s (2007) and
Domingo’s (2008) studies, the qualitative nature of the study made its results ungeneralizable to a larger population. More importantly, what gatekeeping tasks journalists are
willing to compromise to audience choice remain a myth. Thus, it is relevant to ask:
RQ3: Based on audience content preferences, what kinds of editorial adjustments
regarding article selection are editors more likely to make?
Recent economic woes have hit journalism hard, with newsrooms across the country
reporting declining advertising revenues and layoffs (Kirchhoff, 2010; Napoli, 2010;
Perez-Pena, 2008; Seelye, 2006). Of different types of news media, newspapers
experienced the biggest economic problem and did not see any promising trend since
the beginning of the last decade. In 2010, for example, newspaper circulation in the
United States declined by 10.6% compared to a year earlier. Other media sectors
being in the same boat were magazines, local TV, and network TV news (Pew Project
for Excellence in Journalism, 2010b). However, local, cable, and network TV news
saw recovery signs with viewership in 2011 increasing by 1.4%, 1%, and 4.5% for
each of the sectors, respectively. The picture was not any brighter for newspapers
and magazines (Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2012). The growing online
readership may be the salvation. Pew estimated that, in 2012, about 100 news websites have moved to digital subscription as a matter of survival. Uncertain about
which directions to go in order to increase readership, journalists tend to check
whether their editorial decisions resonate with audiences’ preferences (Lowrey and
Woo, 2010). In addition, according to Shoemaker and Reese’s model, economic,
organizational, and market competition pressures can influence journalists.
Therefore, assessing economic influences on gatekeepers’ routines, including monitoring traffic and changing editorial decisions on news selection, is the focus of the
following research questions:
RQ4: Does editors’ perception of economic benefits of getting high readership predict
their adoption of new routines including (4a) monitoring web traffic and (4b) making
editorial adjustments to article selection?
Sample and instruments
This study employed a survey not only to collect data but also to assess views of editors
of daily American newspapers and news sites on the influence of reader metrics on news
selection. A list of newspaper editors across the United States, including their contact
details, was provided by the media relations division of a public university. Editors from
daily newspapers with a circulation of less than 10,000 were excluded from the population, because those editors are more likely to have tasks other than editorial as a result of
recent financial cutbacks and technological changes (Anderson, 2011). Compared to the
2009 edition of Editors & Publisher, which lists 770 daily newspapers in the United
States with a circulation of 10,000 and above, the database used in this study consists of
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Journalism 15(8)
720 daily newspapers. The database was chosen because it provides direct contact to editors, who are directly involved in content production and placement across the country
rather than just managing editors.
One of the goals of this research is to look at how declining readership and dwindling revenues have stricken the news organizations, forcing them to find better way to
draw in audiences. This study chose to survey only newspapers’ editors, not online
broadcast news sites, for the reason that for most broadcast institutions, television
channels still play the major role in generating revenues. According to the Pew Project
for Excellence in Journalism (2012), revenues generated from circulation and advertising for newspapers had fallen sharply, reaching a loss of 43% in 2011 compared to
2000. Advertising revenues for broadcast had posted a gradual increase for cable news,
a fluctuation for local TV news, and a decline for network TV. The economic pressure
for TV news sites’ gatekeepers may presumably be different from that for their online
and print fellows.
Because the purpose of the study is to look at editorial decision-making on news articles, journalists with titles like photo editor, editor of photography, columnist, or editorial assistants were also excluded. The sampling frame consisted of 7012 editors of
online news sites or newspapers. A systematic random sampling, which takes every other
subject on the list, was conducted to select 3506 editors to participate in a web-based
The survey questionnaire, containing 31 questions, was pretested several times online
and offline on current and former editors before going through a standard institutional
review board (IRB) process. The survey was administered online through Qualtrics, an
online site. An invitation to participate in the survey was sent to 3506 editors in the list.
Thirty-three emails were no longer valid as the recipients had either changed their
jobs, or retired. The final sample included 3473 editors. After three weeks, a total of 396
editors completed the survey, yielding a response rate of 11.4%. Although this response
rate was low, it is not uncommon for web-based surveys. For example, when conducting
a meta-analysis of organizational research in 17 refereed management and behavioral
sciences journals in 2000 and 2005, Baruch and Holtom (2008) recorded web surveys
with a response rate of as low as 10.6%. When using online methods to survey medical
practitioners in Australia, Aitken et al.’s study (2008) on pharmacotherapy prescription
posted an overall response rate of 8.7%. Mass communication research has also experienced the problem of declining response rate. Gibbs et al. (2006) received a response rate
of 14.3% for their study on self-presentation in Internet dating. The rate seems to be even
lower when surveying news workers. Aiming for a national sample of sport journalists,
Wigley and Meirik (2008) had 13% out of 3021 subjects complete their survey. The present study adopted measures that are found to boost survey response rates, such as limiting the time to complete the survey to less than 15 minutes, keeping the questionnaire
format simple, sending email reminders, emphasizing the academic benefits of the study
to journalism research, guaranteeing confidentiality of respondents, and offering an
incentive (Andrews et al., 2003). Out of 396 editors who responded to the survey, 78 of
them skipped too many questions and were excluded from the analysis. The final sample
size for analysis was 318. It was, however, large enough for analysis (Dillman, 2007;
Keeter et al., 2000).
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The survey asked respondents how much they were involved in editorial decisionmaking with regard to assignment of articles, selection of articles for sections, placement
of articles on the homepage or the front page of the print newspaper, and/or selection of
such additional elements as videos, photos, or audio. This filter question allowed for
exclusion of those who were not involved in editorial decision-making. The survey also
asked editors whether they monitor online traffic and how they did so.
Control variables. Demographics: editors were also asked to provide information on their
age and journalism training. The age of respondents was assessed using five categories
(18–25; 26–35; 36–45; 46–55; and 56 or older). Journalism education was measured
using four categories (no training; short courses; undergraduate college training; and
graduate training). The database used for sampling contained editors’ newspapers’ circulations. Previous research has found, in many cases, influence on journalists in their
day-to-day work comes from various demographic factors such as their age, education,
or their publication’s circulation (Herscovitz, 2004; Lowrey and Woo, 2010; McKenzie
et al., 2011; Meyer, 2011; Schultz, 2002, Sylvie and Huang, 2008).
Major variables. Reasons to monitor traffic: editors’ reasons for monitoring traffic were
measured through an open-ended question on why they monitor online traffic. Answers
were then coded into five different categories based on what respondents had explicitly
stated, including (1) audience scrutiny (e.g., “To see what people are looking at and
what is keeping them on our site,” “to gauge the stories that interest and involve readers,” “to see what kinds of stories, videos, databases draw traffic and readers’ preferences”); (2) content adjustment (e.g., “to help in constantly adjusting mix and display
on site,” “to help determine coverage; how to allocate our resources,” “to get an idea of
how to play future stories; to pursue follows that have high readership; to decide what
kinds of stories to cover”); (3) audience resonation (e.g., “just try to get all the feedback
I can to make sure we’re doing what we should,” “to make sure that what we assign
resonates with readers”); (4) corporate pressure (e.g., “Corporate wants us to,” “to
please corporate”); and (5) advertising and/or marketing purpose (e.g., “to compile data
for advertising”).
Two coders, who were graduate students, coded 40 (22.1%) of the answers for the
intercoder reliability test. The Cohen Kappa result was .96, showing a strong
Factors of influences were measured by asking editors nine questions corresponding
to the five levels of influences in Shoemaker and Reese’s (1996) model. The questions
were on a four-point scale range: “not likely,” “somewhat likely,” “likely,” and “very
likely.” For these questions, editors were asked about their likelihood of running an article if: (1) “Many readers might read it”; (2) “You believe readers need to know about it”;
(3) “The sources are newsworthy”; (4) “Your newspaper/site usually covers it,” (5) “You
think your competitor is going to run something similar”; (6) “It would get your organization more advertisement”; (7) “It promotes democracy or the greater good”; (8) “Your
boss likes it”; and (9) “It’s in line with your personal values.”1
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Journalism 15(8)
Editorial adjustments are identified in this study as changes in editorial work according to audience appeals. Examples of adjustments are changing the placement of stories
(e.g., increase or decrease the prominence of stories on their sites based on audience
preferences), or updating most-viewed/most-read stories more frequently. Editorial
adjustments were measured through seven four-point scale questions: “not likely,”
“somewhat likely,” “likely,” and “very likely.” The question asked editors about what
they would do based on audience metrics. Scenarios included (1) “Running articles of
the same kinds as the most-viewed/ most-read;” (2) “Look for possible follow-up articles
for the most-viewed/most-read ones;” (3) “Try to update most-viewed/most-read articles
more often to attract audiences;” (4) “Try to look for possible editorials for most-viewed/
most-read articles;” and (5) “Look for possible additional elements (video, pictures,
sounds, etc.) for most-viewed/most-read articles.” Two items were about placement of
articles: (1) “Make articles that drive more traffic more prominent on the homepage or
on the front page;” and (2) “Make articles with low hits less prominent.”
These scenarios were partially adapted from Cox (2010). Choices ranged from “not
likely,” to “somewhat likely,” “likely,” and “very likely.” The responses for these seven
items were then summed to form an interval index to make it a dependent variable on
editorial adjustments. The index showed a Cronbach’s Alpha coefficient of .84.
Traffic monitoring routines were measured by the question: “How often do you monitor traffic to your new site?” Answer choices comprised: (1) daily, (2) two to three times
a week; (3) once a week; (4) two to three times a month; (5) less than once a month; and
(6) never. Those who picked the first choice were asked how many times a day they
monitored the traffic. These responses were then turned into numerals for analysis.
Editors’ perceived economic benefits were measured by asking them to rate their
agreement on a seven-point scale statement: “Getting more readers is necessary because
more readers mean high revenues,” with one meaning strongly disagree and seven mean
strongly agree.
The sample size was 318 editors across the United States. Most editors (60%) were
responsible for both online and print content. About one-fifth (22%) worked only for the
print version, while only a small number (2%) were online editors. In addition, 17% of
respondents said their job titles were more specific (e.g., editorial page editor, features
editor, travel editor, etc.). The inclusion of these respondents was based on whether they
were involved in content decision-making (e.g., assignment of articles, selection of articles for sections, homepage article placement, etc.).
In terms of age, the largest were those in the 46–55 age group (38%). More than onethird of the respondents (35%) were 56 or older. One-fifth of the editors (20%) were
between 36 and 45 years of age, whereas 7% were between 26 and 35. Only 1% was
younger than 25.
Of the 312 respondents who answered the question about journalism training, 68%
held an undergraduate in journalism. Nearly one-fifth (17%) had graduate training in
journalism. Some editors (8%) did not receive any journalism training. A small number
of editors (6%) took short courses in journalism.
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In comparison to the characteristics of American journalists in a national survey by
Weaver et al. (2007), the sample of this study was similar with regards to gender with
66% online and 66.4% print journalists being male. In this study 64% of the respondents
were male and 36% were female. The median age for online and print journalists in
Weaver et al.’s study was 39 and 41, respectively. The majority of American journalists
(63%) did not major in journalism. In this study, the largest age group was between 46
and 55 (38%), and most respondents (85.3%) majored in journalism. Our sample skewed
high in terms of age and education. A possible explanation is while Weaver et al. looked
at all journalists without differentiating their positions, this study aimed at editors, who
are more senior and experienced in news organizations.
Regarding circulation, the largest circulation was over 2 million, while the smallest
was 10,274. The mean was 130,236 (SD = 212,728). The median was 52,510.
Of the 248 who were responsible for online or both online and print content, 84% said
they monitored web traffic on a regular basis. Among those who monitored web traffic,
more than half (52%) said they did so daily. Some said they checked online metrics
hourly, whereas others did so either once or several times a day.
RQ1 asked about the reasons editors monitor web traffic. Responses to an open-ended
question reveal: Almost three-fifth of editors (58%) monitor web traffic to scrutinize
readers’ behavior; nearly one-third (31%) of editors said they use online metrics to plan
content production. The remaining editors use online metrics (1) to check their news
judgment against audience preferences (2%), (2) to follow corporate requests (6%), or
(3) to prepare reports for advertising and marketing (3%).
To answer RQ2, which focused on comparing influences of different factors on the
gatekeeping process, the study reported descriptive data on editors’ likelihood of running
an article. We also used repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) with
Greenhouse–Geisser and Bonferroni corrections. Because this study tested nine factors
and compared them pairwise, the use of these two statistical correction procedures would
help minimize problems with sphericity violation and family-wise errors. Results of the
ANOVA test with Greenhouse–Geisser correction showed that the mean of editors’ likelihood differed significantly between the nine scenarios (F(6.24, 1529.54) = 197.1,
p<.001, ŋ2 = .45). Post hoc tests using Bonferroni correction showed that editors’ likelihood to run an article because many readers might read it, M = 3.7, is significantly higher
than how likely it is that they would publish a story based on the assumptions that (a)
“The sources are newsworthy,” M = 3.4, p < .001; (b) “Your newspaper/site usually covers it,” M = 3.3, p < .001; (c) “You think a competitor is about to run something similar,”
M = 2.8, p < .001; (d) “It would get your organization more advertisement;” M = 1.7, p
< .001; (e) “It promotes democracy of the greater good,” M = 3.0, p < .001; (f) “Your
boss likes it,” M = 2.7, p < .001; and (g) “It’s in line with your values,” M = 2.4, p < .001.
The only comparison that was not statistically significant was between the two scenarios
“Many readers might read it” and “Readers need to know about it,” M = 3.7, p = 1. This
means when deciding on whether or not to run an article, editors are most influenced by
the two assumptions about readers: “Many readers might read it” and “Readers need to
know about it.”
RQ3 was concerned with the kinds of editorial adjustments that gatekeepers are more
likely to make based on audience appeals. Of the seven practices included in the survey,
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Journalism 15(8)
editors are most likely to “make articles that drive more traffic more prominent (on the
homepage or on the front page of the newspaper)” (M = 2.9, SD = .92) (see Table 1).
Looking for “possible editorials for most-viewed/most-read articles” is the least likely
change that editors would make (M = 2.0, SD = .98).
RQ4 is about the relationships between editors’ perceived economic benefits and two
of their routines adopted as part of online newsroom practices, including monitoring traffic (RQ4a) and making editorial adjustments to news selection and placement (RQ4b;
see Table 2). Control variables were age, journalism training, and newspaper circulation.
In terms of predicting editors’ monitoring traffic, results of a multiple regression indicated that only journalism training was a negatively significant predictor of respondents’
attention to web traffic (β = –.14, p < .05). This means that those with journalism training
will be less likely to monitor traffic. Perceived economic benefits, however, was not a
statistically significant predictor for monitoring traffic.
In assessing the relationship between editors’ perceived economic benefits and
their likelihood of making editorial adjustments based on audience appeal, regression
results showed that none of the demographics saw significant association with the
variable. However, editors’ perceived economic benefit of getting high readership
was a significant predictor of their willingness to change their decisions on content production and/or presentation based on audience metrics (β = .23, p < .001). This demonstrates that the more editors feel that getting high readership brings economic benefits to
the organizations, the more likely they are to make editorial changes based on online
audience web analytics. In the last model (Model 2a2 in Table 2), R2 is significant at .06,
p < .001, indicating that the model accounts for 6% of the variance.
Discussion and conclusion
This study investigated the influence of online audience metrics on editorial decisionmaking. It found that to some extent, editors are willing to adjust their editorial decisionmaking based on web metrics. This willingness is influenced by their perceived economic
benefits of getting readership.
Table 1. Editors’ likelihood of making editorial changes.
“Make articles that drive more traffic more prominent on the homepage
or on the front page.”
“Look for possible follow-up articles for the most-viewed/most-read ones.”
“Look for possible additional elements (video, pictures, sounds etc., for
most-viewed/most-read articles.”
“Try to update most-viewed/most-read articles more often to attract
“Run articles of the same kind as the most-viewed/most-read ones.”
“Make articles with low hit less prominent.”
“Try to look for possible editorials for most-viewed/most-read articles.”
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Table 2. Editors’ perceived economic benefits as a predictor for monitoring traffic and making
editorial adjustments.
Block 1
Journalism training
Newspaper circulation
Block 2
Economic benefits
Traffic monitoring
Editorial changes
Model 1a1
Model 2a1
Model 1a2
Model 2a2
Notes: *p < .05, *** p < .001.
In further examining this tendency of audience influence on newsroom practices,
this research offered preliminary information on different reasons for editors to monitor
web traffic. Still, most editors said that they monitor web metrics to only scrutinize
audience behavior. However, nearly one-third also explicitly said that online metrics
helps them plan future content production and/or placement. This, perhaps, is because
the journalistic occupational pride of sustaining autonomy against any kind of nonprofessional influences made it harder for editors to admit that their editorial decisionmaking is affected by audience metrics. It is important to note that those who said they
monitor web metrics only to learn about audience did not elaborate on the reason why
they check online traffic statistics to scrutinize audience behavior. But just like an editor
wrote about his motivation to track audience content preferences – “To judge what readers want, which is then balanced against what readers need” – this new routine in newsroom does raise a question on whether following web metrics would eventually affect
editorial decision-making.
Findings of this study have theoretical implications. It provides an update of the hierarchy-of-influences model, comparing the importance of each factor in the model on the
gatekeeping process in the new media environment. Specifically, the study found that
gatekeeping today is very much audience-centric, with editors saying their decision to
run an article is most affected by audience factors, either they think “readers need to
know,” or “many readers might read it.” In the original hierarchy-of-influences model,
audience is just one of many other extramedia factors including advertisers, sources,
competing media, government controls, and economics. However, in the context of
greater audience fragmentation coupled with the instantly available readers’ metrics, the
audience factor has become more influential to online gatekeepers.
Findings of this study suggest a revision of the model with more emphasis being
placed on the audience role when journalists practice gatekeeping. Perhaps, because of
its importance to newsroom practice, audience factor should be given a separate level for
how influential readers are to gatekeepers.
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Journalism 15(8)
Another important contribution of this study is that it went a step further in explicating what sort of gatekeeping tasks in terms of news selection and placement journalists
are willing to compromise to the audience’s wants manifested through the number of
clicks on stories. Previous research mostly concentrated on investigating what affects
gatekeepers in doing their job (McKenzie et al., 2011), or whether online audience
behaviors have an impact on editorial decision-making (Lowrey and Woo, 2010).
Knowledge on the degree to which audiences are involved in shaping news content today
is generally short, especially in terms of quantitatively generalizable results. An insightful finding of this research shows most editors reported a relatively strong likelihood of
making editorial changes based on web metrics ranging from “somewhat likely” to
“likely.” This finding is in line with a stream of qualitative research on changes in newsroom practices. It demonstrates that, to a certain degree, journalists in digital newsrooms
are increasingly exercising their gatekeeping selection-based audience interests. New
tasks range from changing placement, adding extra editing or analysis, seeking additional web elements to running similar stories to what readers want to read.
Statistical analyses show associations between editors’ perceived economic benefits
and their willingness to make editorial adjustments based on audience web metrics. A
rather confounded finding is that there was a difference in the predictability of the economic pressure variable. It was found that editors’ perceived economic benefits of getting high readership do not drive them to monitor web metrics. However, this perception
was a predictor of editors’ likelihood to make editorial changes. Perhaps this finding
shows such an uncertainty in newsrooms today: journalists are trying to cope with rampant financial problems that have hit the industry, but are still unsure whether allowing
deeper audience interference on their professional turf is the solution.
A similar complication was also seen with editors’ demographics. Results from this
study show that journalism training does have influence on what new routines editors
have adopted. However, there was an inconsistency in its predictive power. Editors with
less journalism training tend to attend to web metrics more than those with higher journalism degrees. However, this tendency was not detected in its relation with editors’
willingness to change their decisions on content production and/or presentation. These
relationships (i.e., between journalism education and economic benefits with the dependent variable) are therefore open for further exploration. As Lowrey and Woo (2010) point
out, when having economic uncertainty, journalists tend to monitor traffic more. It is
logical to believe that gatekeepers with journalism training would be more confident in
making editorial judgment than those who did not gain the expertise through formal
training. In terms of the relationship between economic pressure and editorial changes, a
possible explanation is that occupational pride might, perhaps, have made it harder for
journalists to admit that news content is increasingly becoming more like other products:
catered to the tastes of consumers. Thus, they tend to downplay the importance of economics when self-reporting the influences on their decision-making.
This research supports the findings of previous studies such as Lee and Lewis (2012),
Anderson (2011) and Domingo (2008), which stipulate that in the digital newsroom today,
audiences have a significant role influencing editorial practices. Methodologically, this
study found strong evidence on this influence by providing quantitative results through surveying current editors in newsrooms across the United States. The study proposes an update
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to the theory of influences in the new media environment with an increasingly important
audience role. Also, findings of this study suggest that it is necessary to assess whether what
online gatekeepers are willing to concede would match with what audience wants.
This study is not without limitations. Most notably, its response rate was low, weakening its representation of editors in the United States. Secondly, it uses only quantitative
data, which might not help capture all the nuances of such a complex issue. However, it
suggests several directions for future research. For example, studies should look deeper
at factors that motivate editors to monitor traffic. As said, because of their occupational
pride, some journalists might not admit economic influences when they do self-reporting
about influences on their work. Another research study in the form of an experiment
might help to discern such issues when these factors are manipulated.
This study offers insights into ongoing changes to the journalism industry, which
eventually affect the quality of news. It explores an emerging issue within newsrooms
across the United States, or perhaps the globe. That is, the tension between news users as
content consumers and journalists as content producers in repositioning the gatekeeping
control in the new media environment. Continuing efforts in examining such tension is
important to journalism to help redefine journalism identity in the age of increasingly
blurring boundaries between news users and producers.
The author would like to thank Renita Coleman, Thomas Johnson, George Sylvie, Iris Chyi, Paula
Poindexter, and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of
this article.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.
1. This is the wording given to journalists regarding the nine items corresponding to the five
levels of the hierarchy-of-influences model:
1. media ideology: it promotes democracy or the greater good;
2. extramedia: many readers might read it; the sources are newsworthy; it would get your
organization more advertisement; you think that your competitor is going to run something similar;
3. organizational influences: your boss likes it;
4. media routine: your newspaper/site usually covers it; readers need to know about it;
5. individual: it’s in line with your personal values.
Note: The questions were composed based on the hierarchy-of-influences model suggested by
Shoemaker and Reese (1996) and were tested multiple times with editors who were still in or who
had just left the newsroom. Editors were consulted for both language (e.g., common terms use in
newsrooms) and all possible tasks performed by gatekeepers. After getting the pretest results, the
author would make changes according to feedback received from the editors.
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Author biography
Hong Tien Vu is a doctoral student at the School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin. His
research focuses on international/intercultural communication, agenda setting theory, and changes
in the newsroom in the new media environment. He has published articles in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly and the Asian Journal of
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News sourcing and gender
on Twitter
2014, Vol. 15(8) 1111­–1127
© The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1464884913505030
Claudette G Artwick
Washington and Lee University, USA
Traditional news sourcing practices that favor official, male voices have been widely
documented over time and across media. But do these patterns persist in today’s social
media environment, where women outnumber and spend more time than men? This
study explores news sourcing and gender on Twitter by analyzing more than 2700
tweets from reporters at 51 US newspapers. Guided by hegemony and set within the
framework of social networking technology, the research examines quoting practices
and interaction with sources by gender, beat, newspaper size, and live coverage. The
analyzed tweets show a severe underrepresentation of women in quotes, indicating
perpetuation of the status quo. The data also suggest a conformity mechanism may be
at work in larger newspapers, where female reporters quoted fewer women than their
counterparts in smaller news organizations. But at the same time, the research offers
evidence that both male and female reporters are using the technology to engage with
a more diverse community via @mentions and to share conversations by retweeting
those messages to their networks.
Source, Twitter, hegemony, gender, reporter, conformity, quote
News sourcing and gender on Twitter
From police chief to politician, official sources dominate the quotes and sound bites in
mainstream news media coverage. “One study after another produces essentially the
same observation… Journalism, on a day-to-day basis, is the story of the interaction of
reporters and government officials…” (Schudson, 2011: 142). And, in study after study,
findings show that the overwhelming majority of sources in traditional news have been
Corresponding author:
Claudette G Artwick, Department of Journalism & Mass Communications, Washington and Lee University,
304 Reid Hall, Lexington, VA 24450, USA.
Email: [email protected]
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from http://www.elearnica.ir
Journalism 15(8)
men (Armstrong, 2004; Global Media Monitoring Project, 2010; Zoch and Turk, 1998).
While reporter gender appears related to sourcing (Armstrong, 2004; Correa and Harp,
2011; Zeldes and Fico, 2005, 2010), women are less likely to be used as news sources
overall (Poindexter, 2008). For decades, scholars have questioned how the press can
serve democracy if it underrepresents women and minority voices in the news (Silver,
1986), and some have even described the absence of women in the media as ‘symbolic
annihilation’ (Gerbner, 1972; Tuchman, 1978a).
But in today’s social networking environment, where women outnumber men, and
also spend more time than men (Blakley, 2011; Brenner, 2012), will male news sourcing
patterns persist? And specifically on Twitter, with its majority of female users (Beevolve,
2013) and its power to facilitate connections among journalists, sources, and readers
(Hacker and Seshagiri, 2011), will journalists’ reliance on elite male voices prevail?
Hermida et al. (2012) suggest that social media technology could enhance pluralism in
media discourse. On Twitter, where the networked audience can take part in ‘many-tomany’ communication (Marwick and boyd, 2011: 16), opportunities for alternative
sourcing are emerging (Hermida et al., 2012).
Despite the promise of diversity offered through Twitter, this technology exists within
the hegemony of social, political, and institutional arenas. And in this real-time environment where news breaks, the dominant forces may dictate which voices are carried on
reporters’ live Twitter feeds. The process of normalization, which carries traditional
practices to the new medium (Lasorsa et al., 2012), would suggest that official, male
voices in mainstream media would also dominate on Twitter. Guided by hegemony and
set within the framework of social networking technology, the research examines newspaper reporter quoting practices and interaction with sources on Twitter by gender, beat,
newspaper size, and live coverage.
Sources in journalism
Without sources, contemporary news is “unimaginable” (Carlson and Franklin, 2011: 1).
Sources bring credibility (Reich, 2011) and authority (Schudson, 2011) to news reports,
and have been called the reporter’s “life blood” (Mencher, 1977: 218). And sourcing can
define news, as it is not necessarily what happens, but “what a news source says has happened…” (Turk, 1985: 48).
Reliance on official and elite sources
This paradigm tends toward a reliance on elite and official sources. Tuchman (1978b:
210) argues that news sourcing is related to institutional structures, where journalists are
wedded to beats and bureaus that are “objectified” as appropriate information sites. This
official framework can marginalize the voices that fall outside elite circles and can establish social norms (Reese, 1997).
From Sigal’s (1973) study of The New York Times and The Washington Post to contemporary scholarship, research shows mainstream news media rely heavily on official
and elite sources. Livingston and Bennett (2003: 363) concluded from their study of
1200 CNN news stories that despite advances in technology and live coverage that could
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liberate journalists from highly managed institutional settings, “…officials seem to be as
much a part of the news as ever.” And their prevalence as sources may be increasing over
time. Research on newspaper coverage of social protests set three decades apart found
journalists in 1999 relied on authorities more than their counterparts covering antiVietnam war protests in 1967 (Jha, 2007).
Sourcing patterns favoring official voices can be found in both general and topicspecific news coverage. A study of front-page stories from six newspapers showed that
the majority of sources cited were from the government (Brown et al., 1987). Similarly,
more than half the sources in network television news on Alzheimer’s disease over a
25-year period were doctors, researchers, and politicians (Kang et al., 2010). These patterns extend beyond US borders. In Canadian newspapers, more than three-quarters of
the quotes in stories about homelessness were from experts, not from those living in
poverty (Schneider, 2011), and Danish journalists initiated contact with experts in a large
percent of cases (Albaek, 2011).
Male source dominance
The Global Media Monitoring Project (2010) studied nearly 1300 newspapers, television and
radio stations in 108 countries and found fewer than one in four news subjects were women.
Results from the Project for Excellence in Journalism (2005) found similar results. In 45 US
news outlets and nearly 17,000 stories, more than three-quarters included male sources, while
only a third contained even one woman’s voice. A few years earlier researchers found an even
smaller representation of female voices in newspapers—just over one-fifth of sources (Zoch
and Turk, 1998) and just over 16 percent in network television news (Liebler and Smith,
1997). A decade before that, the findings were even more extreme, showing that only 10
percent of sources in newspaper front-page stories were women (Brown et al., 1987).
Armstrong (2004: 148) cites a “mirror” explanation for the male sourcing practice.
Women, she argues, appear in newspapers less frequently than men because they do not
hold positions that represent their agencies. Others have documented a relationship
between occupation and coverage (Silver, 1986) and attribute low numbers of women in
news stories to their underrepresentation in the institutions reporters often turn to for
sources (Brown et al., 1987).
Statistics show relatively few women hold political office and serve in the judiciary.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics (2012), women held about 17
percent of the seats in the 112th US Congress. About the same percent of mayors in US
cities with populations over 30,000 were women, and among state legislators, just over
one-fifth were women. Among judges, women held 27 percent of federal and state
benches in 2012 (Refki et al., 2012), and only 20 Chief Executive Officers in the Fortune
500 were women (Leahey, 2012). If the mirror concept holds, we would expect to find a
similar representation of women in today’s news on Twitter.
Reporter gender and sourcing
Numerous studies point to a relationship between reporter and source gender, with
female reporters using more female sources (Armstrong, 2004; Rodgers and Thorson,
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Journalism 15(8)
2003; Zeldes and Fico, 2005, 2010; Zoch and Turk, 1998). But this gendered pattern has
not been supported universally (Ross, 2007). Instead, others argue that organizational
and institutional factors relate to the sources journalists use in their stories.
Socialization and hegemony
Soon after her appointment as The New York Times Executive Editor, Jill Abramson said,
“The idea that women journalists bring a different taste in stories or sensibility isn’t true”
(Brisbane, 2011). Several months later, the paper’s incoming public editor, Margaret
Sullivan (2012), tweeted:
Margaret Sullivan @Sulliview
18 Jul
As editor (or public editor), does being a woman matter? Of
course http://blogs.buffalonews.com/sulliview/2012 … via
While anecdotal, the comments illustrate varying perspectives among women in the
news industry. To explain such differences, scholars have drawn from socialization theory
and hegemony to guide their research. Rodgers and Thorson (2003) applied job and gender
socialization models to sourcing in news organizations of various sizes. In the job model,
journalists are socialized to newsroom norms and organizational factors—including
both size and demographic structure. The gender model argues that women will bring
differences to the newsroom based on their lifelong socialization, which could influence
their sourcing practices (Rodgers and Thorson, 2003). Their analysis of a small, medium,
and large newspaper showed fewer gender differences in sourcing at the larger organization. This pointed to a possible ‘conformity mechanism’ in larger newspapers, where
newsroom norms may, perhaps implicitly, dictate the use of sources (Rodgers and
Thorson, 2003: 670).
Correa and Harp (2011: 312) also found gendered differences in sourcing between
news organizations in their coverage of the HPV vaccine. While female reporters in a
male-dominated newsroom used more official and male sources, this was less likely in
stories produced by women in a more ‘gender-balanced environment.’
Thus, the masculine order of the newsroom, and in the larger socio-political perspective, the dominance of elite, official, men in power, may play a role in how mainstream
news reporters use sources in their stories. The concept of hegemony has guided media
scholarship in various contexts (Burch and Harry, 2004; Correa and Harp, 2011; Gitlin,
1980; Reese, 1997). Describing hegemony, Gramsci (1971: 12) wrote that consent is
given “to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental
group…because of its position and function in the world of production.”
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The news paradigm operates within the larger ideological sphere, helping the system
maintain control through routines that perpetuate conceptions of authority (Reese, 1997).
From the newsroom through the social and political spheres, hegemony—encompassing
the mirror concept and conformity mechanisms—would predict maintenance of the status quo in social media. But, might Twitter’s networked environment and interactivity
through @mentions make a difference in diversifying sources in news reporting?
Twitter, journalism, gender, and sourcing
More than 200 million people use Twitter (What is Twitter? 2013), accounting for 15
percent of women on the Internet, and 17 percent of male Internet users (Duggan and
Brenner, 2013). These figures include 10,000-plus journalists (Sreenivasan, 2012) and
mainstream news media whose followings often exceed their circulation many times
over (nytimes on Twitter, 2012). The majority of journalists use this information network
on the job (Cision, 2010; Oriella, 2011), sending out links to their stories, live-tweeting
breaking news, engaging with their communities, and more, all within the 140-character
tweet format (Twitter for Newsrooms, 2012). And as journalists and their organizations
integrate social media into their daily routines, a body of research on Twitter and news is
At the organizational level, research shows Twitter functioning as a distribution platform for traditional news, with mainstream media tweeting links to their own content
(Holcomb et al., 2011). Individual journalists use Twitter to monitor and research news
(Sherwood and Nicholson, 2012) and have been found to ‘normalize’ Twitter to fit existing professional norms and practices (Lasorsa et al., 2012), similar to journalist bloggers
(Singer, 2005). Deuze (2008: 11) argues that new technology “amplifies existing ways of
doing things” and supplements existing practices, taking time to seep into the organizational culture. Earlier studies of technology and news work support these ideas. In their
examination of newspapers with electronic news libraries, Hansen et al. (1994) found the
technology supported established male sourcing practices. And Livingston and Bennett
(2003) found the continued reliance on official sources in live, breaking news, despite
opportunities for diversity afforded by the technology.
A study of Twitter accounts from six newspapers and three television stations found
men were much more likely than women to be mentioned in tweets (Armstrong and Gao,
2011: 500). This appeared to track the gender disparity of the mainstream news content.
The study did not, however, examine individual reporters’ Twitter feeds.
Lasorsa (2012) examined gender differences among 500 journalists on Twitter, but
did not study sourcing. The findings showed female reporters to be more transparent than
males in terms of sharing about their personal lives, jobs, and everyday activities.
Hermida et al. (2012) argue that social media have the potential to disrupt hierarchical
structures. Their case study of sources used by NPR’s Andy Carvin on Twitter during the
Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings found that non-elite sources accounted for more than half
of the 3623 messages in their sample (Hermida et al., 2012). This was the case even
though institutional elites and mainstream media made up a greater percent of sources.
While this appears to break with established norms, it may reflect Carvin’s real-time
reporting practices (Hermida et al., 2012). For example, Carvin has sent 879 tweets in one
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Journalism 15(8)
day (Sonderman, 2011), which is more than other journalists may tweet in an entire year.
And his job as senior digital strategist allowed him to take risks and explore new tools
while covering the Arab Spring on Twitter (Ingram, 2012). Hermida et al. (2012) suggest
looking beyond the Carvin case to include other journalists and sourcing on social media.
The present study does so by analyzing Twitter content from a range of US newspaper
reporters, examining quotes as well as interactions with followers through @mentions.
News sourcing on Twitter: Hypotheses and research
Several hypotheses follow from the literature synthesized above. Hegemony (Burch and
Harry, 2004; Correa and Harp, 2011; Gramsci, 1971; Gitlin, 1980; Reese, 1997), socialization, and the conformity mechanism (Rodgers and Thorson, 2003) would predict a
replication of mainstream news sourcing patterns on Twitter.
Mainstream media journalists’ reliance on official sources leads this study to predict
finding similar patterns on Twitter:
H1: Reporters will quote official sources more than they quote other sources in their
The literature on gendered sourcing by journalists in traditional media and by media
organizations on Twitter predicts a similar gendered pattern among reporters on Twitter.
H2: Reporters will quote male sources more than they quote female sources in their
H3: Female reporters will quote women in their tweets more than their male counterparts do.
Assuming the conformity mechanism in large newspapers, a similar pattern would be
expected on Twitter.
H4: Reporters at large newspapers will quote fewer women in their tweets than reporters at small newspapers.
H5: Female reporters at large newspapers will quote fewer women in their tweets than
female reporters at small newspapers.
Three research questions follow from the scholarship on news work and technology in
According to Hermida et al. (2012), social media could provide for increased news
source diversity, finding evidence for greater reporter/source interaction on Twitter
through @mentions. The following research question explores reporters’ engagement
with sources on Twitter via @mentions.
RQ1: How do reporters interact with sources through @mentions on Twitter, and
what role might gender play?
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Guided by writings on sources and institutional structures (Tuchman, 1978b), technology (Deuze, 2008), sourcing and technology (Hansen et al., 1994), live news coverage
(Hermida et al., 2012; Livingston and Bennett, 2003), and the normalization of Twitter
(Lasorsa et al., 2012), this study asks:
RQ2: How do beats relate to sourcing and gender on Twitter?
RQ3: How does live tweeting relate to sourcing and gender on Twitter?
Using constructed-week sampling, the study analyzed 2733 tweets from newspaper
reporters on Twitter. Reporters were drawn from 51 US metro daily newspapers listed on
MuckRack (2011). MuckRack has served as a resource in previous scholarly research for
sampling journalists who use Twitter (Lasorsa, 2012; Lasorsa et al., 2012). The account
of the news reporter with the highest number of Twitter followers for each paper (excluding sports and entertainment journalists) was selected for the study. Number of followers
was used to help ensure the sample would yield sufficient tweets for analysis. While
having more followers does not guarantee level of tweeting, it does indicate the likelihood of tweeting and the potential to reach the greatest number of people. Those with
fewer followers may tweet less frequently or their use may vary. And, because the site
includes many types of journalists, those eligible for inclusion had to be identified as a
reporter. The work practices of columnists, editors, critics, etc., may be distinct from
reporters’ routines, so non-reporters were excluded. The same holds for sports and entertainment journalists; while they may be prolific Twitter users and are often the mostfollowed journalists in their markets, their role in society may differ from that of the
metro reporter. Also, the mix of fans and celebrities in their Twitter accounts may fall
outside the parameters of this study.
The period of analysis spanned April 1 through June 30, 2011, with the sample week
constructed by randomly selecting one Sunday from all available Sundays in that period,
one Monday, and so on. Constructed-week sampling has been tested and used as a reliable method for sampling media content (Riffe et al., 1993). All tweets from each reporter’s Twitter account were collected for June 25, June 15, June 5, May 26, May 6, April
25, and April 5, 2011. To collect the tweets, the researchers accessed the selected reporters’ Twitter accounts, copied all tweets from the sampled dates, and pasted them into a
Word document for numbering and coding.
The principal investigator and one research assistant coded the tweets after pretesting
the coding categories on a separate collection of tweets.
The study measured sourcing by examining quotes in tweets and by exploring @mentions as a means to gauge interactions with followers.
Reporter gender – The reporter is coded as male or female for each tweet.
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Journalism 15(8)
Quote – The variable measures who is quoted or paraphrased in the tweets. Categories
include: no quote, the reporter, staff in the reporter’s news organization, another news
organization, politician, public employee, business, academic/scientist, lobby/interest
group, attorney, citizen, journalism industry, entertainment, other, can’t tell, and multiple. Further grouping includes politicians, public employees, academics/scientists, and
attorneys as official sources, and all others as unofficial sources.
Quote gender – The person quoted is coded as male, female, or entity (such as police,
the FDA, etc.).
@mention – Reporters can communicate with Twitter account holders semi-privately
beginning the message with the @ symbol. The @mention indicates a conversation is
taking place between the reporter and the person to whom the message has been sent.
Including text before the @, adding a hashtag (#) in the message, or retweeting it ([email protected])
would make it public, allowing the reporter to address a specific follower publicly. This
variable measures to whom reporters are sending these messages. It categorizes recipients of the @mention as listed above for quote. Simple mentions using @ are excluded—
for example, a tweet such as: “On Air Force One with @barackobama.”
@mention gender – The recipient of each @mention is coded as male, female, or
entity (such as ‘police’ or ‘the government’).
Beat – Ten beats are included in this variable, based on the reporter’s Twitter profile
and byline. They include: government/politics, education, business, technology, crime,
health/medicine/science, courts, environment, investigative, and general.
Size – This variable categorizes the circulation of the reporter’s newspaper as either
small (less than 200,000) or large (200,000 or more), based on data from the Audit
Bureau of Circulations (2012).
Live tweet – Categories include breaking news (such as a fire or natural disaster),
planned event, (such as a news conference or speech), and tweets unrelated to live coverage. The live event offers potential for quoting or @mentioning the newsmakers related
to events, and others who may be witnesses or participants.
Type – The tweet either pertains to reporting or it does not. For example, tweeting a
photo of kitty on the sofa would not be considered a reporting tweet unless the story was
about a cat virus.
Cohen’s Kappa values on a sample of the tweets showed more than acceptable
intercoder reliability: quote=.949, quote gender=.943, @mention=.906, @mention
gender=.975, live tweet=.93, and type=.786. The researcher determined gender and beat
using the MuckRack and Twitter profiles. Newspaper size was based on circulation data
from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (2012).
The 2731 tweets analyzed came from 26 men 25 women. Of the 51 reporters, 14 men and
14 women worked for small newspapers (under 200,000 circulation), and 12 men and 11
women worked for large papers (200,000 and above).
Men tweeted more than women, generating 58 percent of the 2731 tweets. Reporters
quoted sources in 18.6 percent of their tweets (507 quotes).
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Table 1. Percent of quotes by reporter gender and newspaper size.
Small paper, male reporter
Small paper, female reporter
Large paper, male reporter
Large paper, female reporter
Men quoted
Women quoted
Entity quoted
X2=6.797=17.498, N=444, p<.001.
H1: The first hypothesis predicted that reporters would quote official sources more
than other sources on Twitter, and was supported. A paired samples t-test showed a significant difference between official (M=.80, SD=0.40) and unofficial sources (M=.20,
SD=0.40); t=17.922, df=506, p<.001. The largest percent of quotes came from politicians (57.4 percent), followed by public employees (18.3 percent), and citizens (4.5
H2: The data supported previous findings on gendered sourcing in mainstream media.
Of all the sources quoted in reporters’ tweets, men accounted for 80.6 percent, women,
11.3 percent, and entities, 8.1 percent—supporting H2. A chi-square test shows a relationship between reporter gender and quoting (X2=6.797, N=444, p<.05).
H3: As predicted, female reporters quoted women more than their male counterparts
did, albeit a small difference (11.8 versus 10.6 percent, respectively). They also quoted
more men.
H4: As predicted by previous findings that argued for the conformity mechanism in
large newspapers, fewer women were quoted by reporters at large newspapers (5.7 percent), than at small papers (13.9 percent), supporting H4.
H5: The female reporters at small papers quoted women more than twice as often as
their counterparts at large papers, supporting H5. See details in Table 1, which also
shows that the male reporters at the large papers quoted no women in their 539 tweets.
Unidentifiable quotes, such as ‘rookie reporter,’ may have been women, but because the
gender was not evident in the tweet, the quote was coded as ‘entity.’ And several male
reporters referenced women in their tweets, but did not quote them. For example: “Oh
#Florida! 85-year-old woman starts fighting & biting her 59-year-old dentist...over illfitting dentures” (Pittman, 2011).
RQ1 asked how reporters would interact with sources through @mentions on Twitter.
The reporters sent 571 @mentions, or 21 percent of their tweets. One-third were related
to reporting on their beats, while two-thirds were unrelated to reporting. This was consistent for male and female reporters. Overall, 55.9 percent of @mentions were directed
at men, 35.5 percent at women, and 8.6 percent at entities. See Table 2 for a breakdown
of @mentions by newspaper size and gender.
As a proportion of their total tweets, male reporters used @mentions slightly more
than their female counterparts—22 percent of the men’s tweets versus 19 percent of the
women’s tweets. Men showed little difference across markets. But women differed
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Journalism 15(8)
Table 2. Percent of @mentions sent by reporter gender and newspaper size.
Small paper, male reporter
Small paper, female reporter
Large paper, male reporter
Large paper, female reporter
Men @
Women @
Entity @
X2=14.396=17.498, N=487, p</=.001.
dramatically. In small markets, they used @mentions in only 12.1 percent of their tweets,
while female reporters in large papers did so at more than twice the rate (25.6 percent).
For reporting-related tweets, the men and women directed their @mentions most
often to citizens. But the percent was greater for male reporters (42.4) than for female
reporters (26.4). The next highest percent of reporting-related @mentions for men (14.4)
and women (23.6) was other news organizations.
Reporters extended the conversations they were having by retweeting 15 percent of
their @mentions (N=88), making them publicly available and sending them to their followers. Source gender was more evenly distributed in these tweets, with 46.6 percent
male, 37.5 percent female, and 15.9 percent entity @mentions. The bulk of these retweets
came from reporters in large newspapers (85 percent), with a chi-square test showing a
significant relationship between newspaper size and retweeting @mentions (X2=127.36,
N=88, p<.001). In addition, male reporters retweeted a greater percent of female @mentions (35.7) than their female counterparts (34.4). The female reporters retweeted a
greater percent of male @mentions (59.4) than their male counterparts (44.6). Official
sources accounted for a small percent of these retweets (11.3), while more than a third
were citizen @mentions (34.1) and another third came from their own or other news
organizations (35.2).
RQ2 asked how beats relate to sourcing and gender on Twitter. Of all the quotes,
nearly two-thirds came from the politics/government beat, and on that beat both male
and female reporters quoted men more than 8 out of 10 times. On the courts beat, female
reporters quoted no women (there were no men covering courts).
A male education reporter quoted the largest percent of women, 28.6 percent (excluding female general assignment and health reporters whose single quote was a woman).
For female reporters, the government beat yielded the greatest percent of women quoted,
14.6 percent (again, excluding the single quotes noted above). This beat generated twothirds of women reporters’ quotes, with many coming out of live coverage during legislative sessions and elections. Details follow below in the section on RQ3 and live
Both male and female politics reporters sent about two-thirds of their @mentions to
men. Male business reporters sent a greater percent of their @mentions to women than
their female counterparts. Table 3 offers detail by beat and gender for quoting and sending @mentions.
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Table 3. Quotes and @mentions as percent of total tweets by beat and reporter gender.
Male reporter Male reporter Female reporter Female reporter
RQ3 asked how live tweeting related to sourcing and gender. Of the identifiable
quotes, 68.7 percent were live-tweeted. A chi-square test showed a significant relationship between live tweeting and quoting (X2=47.79, N=444, p<.001). During live
planned events, reporters quoted men 86.6 percent of the time, women, 11.4 percent,
and entities, 2 percent. These included speeches by President Obama, the Rod
Blagojevich trial, elections, and state legislative sessions. As noted above in the findings for RQ2, the politics beat generated a substantial percent of the live tweets while
reporting on state government. One of the most active tweet streams featured live
coverage of the Wisconsin state legislature. The female reporter’s live tweets quoted
female legislators as they participated in sessions addressing the 2011 budget crisis.
The women were clearly identified, as this tweet illustrates, “Democratic Rep. Tamara
Grigsby: Today’s decisions will haunt you for the rest of your careers,” (Spicuzza,
2011). Interestingly, the percentage of that reporter’s live tweets mirrored perfectly the
percent of women who held seats in the Wisconsin state legislature at that time—25
percent (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2011). The pattern was remarkably
similar for the other two female political reporters who live-tweeted for smaller newspapers. In Pittsburgh, 25 percent of live quotes featured women, which is actually
higher than the 17 percent of state seats held by women in Pennsylvania. In Sacramento,
California, where women hold 28 percent of the seats, one-third of the live-tweeted
quotes featured women. And, as hegemony and the conformity mechanism would predict, the female reporters at the larger newspapers who live-tweeted quotes on the
government beat quoted fewer women. In Indianapolis, 3 percent of the quotes featured women, and in Minneapolis, 20 percent. These figures came nowhere close to
mirroring the 21 and 32 percent of women holding seats in those legislatures (National
Conference of State Legislatures, 2011).
Breaking news accounted for only 1.4 percent of quotes. And for tweets that were not
generated during live coverage, men accounted for 69.1 percent of quotes, women, 10.8
percent, and entities, 20.1 percent.
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Journalism 15(8)
Post-hoc analysis: Exploring tweets containing quotes and links
To further explore the quotes that reporters tweeted, a post-hoc analysis was conducted
that examined their relationship to the news organizations’ mainstream content. This
analysis was guided by the Armstrong and Gao (2011) findings, which showed the gender in tweeted quotes predicted the gender in linked stories. They suggested that news
organizations were sending their mainstream content through Twitter as another distribution tool. For the present study, evidence of this practice would illustrate maintenance of
the status quo in organizational practices.
The analysis examined tweets that contained both links and quotes, comparing them
between large and small newspapers. The data showed that reporters at the larger papers
linked heavily to their own news organizations’ content. About two-thirds of their tweets
that contained both links and quotes linked to their own newspapers’ stories. These
tweets accounted for about 27 percent of their quotes. The equivalent at the small papers
represented only 8 percent of their quotes. So, it appears that the larger papers drew
quotes from their mainstream content at more than triple the rate of the smaller papers.
Mainstream media quoting practices that favor official male voices and severely underrepresent women appear to have migrated to the reporters’ Twitter streams examined in
this study. The data suggest a conformity mechanism (Rodgers and Thorson, 2003) may
be at work, as female reporters at the larger newspapers quoted fewer women than their
counterparts at smaller papers, and reflected more closely the large papers’ male reporters, whose tweets did not include a single quote from a woman. But, this did not mean
their Twitter streams were devoid of women’s voices.
Overall, the reporters were engaging with a more diverse community via @mentions,
and sharing conversations by retweeting them to their networks. Twitter’s function as
both an interactive communication tool and dissemination platform stands out as a key
distinction from mainstream media. By taking into account both quoting and engagement with sources, this study offers a more concise picture of reporters’ use of Twitter.
While the findings replicate conventional elite sourcing patterns (Schudson, 2011), and
male dominance in quotes (Armstrong, 2004; Global Monitoring Project, 2010; Zoch
and Turk, 1998), they also build on the Hermida et al. (2012) findings of alternative
voices through @mentions. So, while technology appears to amplify the mainstream
media practice (Deuze, 2008) of quoting elite male sources, Twitter’s networked environment also facilitates new journalistic methods—namely, communicating using @
But, as social, political, and newsroom hegemony would predict, quotes featured primarily elite sources, such as politicians and government authorities. And, the percent of
women quoted was even smaller than many recent mainstream news studies have found.
Just 11 percent of all the quotes cited women. Given the mirror concept (Armstrong,
2004), that argues news sources reflect those in positions to provide information, these
numbers fall short. Considering that women hold 17 percent of seats in the US Congress
and account for 17 percent of mayors in cities with populations over 30,000 and one-fifth
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of state legislators (Center for American Women and Politics, 2012), women’s voices
were relatively silent in the quotes on these reporters’ Twitter streams.
The rate was slightly better at smaller papers, where women quoted women in 16
percent of quotes—exceeding that of their male counterparts by three percentage points.
But at the larger papers, the findings indicate a possible conformity mechanism (Rodgers
and Thorson, 2003), where less than 8 percent of female reporters’ quotes featured
women, and male reporters quoted no women at all. The men’s quotes largely referenced
entities, such as ‘police,’ or other authorities, nearly half the time. And, while women
who hold public relations or spokesperson roles within those organizations may have
served as sources, this was not evident in the attributions.
During live tweeting, female political reporters from smaller newspapers quoted more
women than their female counterparts at the larger papers. The percent of quotes at the
smaller papers more closely matched the percent of women holding legislative seats in
those states.
However, when it came to interacting with followers through @mentions, the reporters’ Twitter streams were clearly more diverse. Nearly four in 10 @mentions were
directed to women. But even though the female reporters in larger newspapers were
engaging with other women on Twitter, quotes in their tweets did not reflect those conversations. This conformed with the male reporters at the larger newspapers, who also
communicated with women in @mentions, but chose to quote no women at all in their
This appears to resonate with the larger papers’ hegemonic quoting practices in their
mainstream content. A post-hoc analysis showed that the larger papers were drawing
quotes from their own linked stories at more than three times the rate of the smaller
papers. Given the relationship between gender in Twitter quotes and gender in linked
stories (Armstrong and Gao, 2011), it appears that the underrepresentation and even
absence of women in the mainstream content was being carried over to Twitter in quotes.
Tuchman (1978b) argued more than three decades ago that institutional structures and
the journalistic beat system are related to news sourcing. The findings suggest that these
practices may have migrated to Twitter. The politics/government beat generated the
majority of quotes, which featured men 80 percent of the time. Many of those tweets
came from live election coverage and reporting on state legislatures. Considering that
women held about 24 percent of the state legislative seats during this period (National
Conference of State Legislatures, 2011), the finding appears in line with the mirror concept, which argues sources reflect those in positions to provide information (Armstrong,
2004). And in an environment where Twitter technology offers journalists the means to
cover news as it unfolds, the newsmakers giving the speeches, holding the press conferences, and garnering the spotlight also featured heavily in reporter quotes on Twitter.
This resonates with what Livingston and Bennett (2003: 363) found with live reporting
on CNN, “…the one predictable component of coverage remains official sources.”
Another is quoting primarily men during live tweeting, as the data suggest.
Overall, the study advances past research on gender and news sourcing through its
findings of mainstream quoting practices among newspaper reporters on Twitter, while
also offering evidence for increased diversity through @mentions. It is distinct from others that have included news organizations’ Twitter accounts and other types of journalists
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Journalism 15(8)
in their analyses. This strength may also be considered a limitation, as broadcast, magazine, web-only, or other journalists—including those with fewer followers—may use the
network differently. And while the content analysis method documents significant differences and relationships, it does not reveal what causes them or measure their effects. Nor
does it answer questions about the impact of exposure to the voices in a rapid stream of
brief tweets compared to those in legacy media forms. Future studies await further exploration in these directions.
The nearly-absent female voice in the quotes on reporter Twitter feeds might appear to
ring of ‘symbolic annihilation’ (Gerbner, 1972; Tuchman, 1978a), especially in today’s
world of social media, where women outnumber and spend more time than men (Blakley,
2011; Brenner, 2012). However, delving deeper than quotes into Twitter’s networked
environment reveals enhanced pluralism in reporters’ discourse through @mentions. The
research suggests that in navigating social media technology, reporters are increasing
diversity by communicating with women via @mentions and retweeting messages to
their entire community of followers. But at the same time, the hegemony of reporters’
social, political, and institutional realms appears to perpetuate the status quo of the official, male voice in the quotes that make their way onto Twitter. Examples include livetweeting events featuring male elites, replicating the organization’s male-dominated
legacy content on the Twitter stream, and conforming to the masculine order, from the
newsroom to political office. Continuing toward pluralism will mean striking a balance
between traditional quoting for story generation, and public discourse through @mentions and retweets. And while the technology provides innovation, such as live tweeting,
the reporters who use it do not operate within a vacuum. Reshaping the old rules and
hegemonic structures that dominate story content and push-through onto Twitter may be
needed to make way for the diversity of voices that can better serve democracy.
The author gratefully acknowledges Washington and Lee University for its support of this research
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Author biography
Claudette G Artwick (Ph.D. University of Washington) is Associate Professor of Journalism and
Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University. Her research examines the role of digital media in society, from journalists and their work practices to information consumption and the
construction of meaning.
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