In the past decade, academic and professional debates about media accountability have spread around the globe – but have done so in a fundamentally different framework. In many Western democracies, trust in media – along with trust in politics and trust in institutions – as eroded dramatically. Fundamental shifts regarding the patterns of media use and the structure of media and revenue markets have made media and journalism more exposed to criticism from various stakeholders, and more vulnerable to the strategic influence of national and international actors. While many “Western” media professionals have reacted to these challenges to its credibility by new initiatives to demonstrate accountability and transparency, policy makers in other countries even in the “Global North” have tightened their grip on independent media and gradually weakened the concept of self-control. At the same time, an ongoing democratization in many parts of the world, along with a de-regulation of media markets, has created a growing demand for self-regulation and media accountability in countries formerly characterized by rigid press control.
Claude-Jean Bertrand defined the development and current structures of accountability in journalism as “any non-State means of making media responsible towards the public.” Key aims of media accountability are “to improve the services of the media to the public; restore the prestige of media in the eyes of the population; diversely protect freedom of speech and press; obtain, for the profession, the autonomy that it needs to play its part in the expansion of democracy and the betterment of the fate of mankind.” Journalists and news outlets have a wide array of responses to professional, public, and political criticisms via press councils, ombudsmen, media criticism, and digital forms of media accountability, while online and offline media accountability instruments have distinct traditions in different media systems and journalism cultures.
Accuracy is a central norm in journalism and at the heart of the journalistic practice. As a norm, accuracy developed out of objectivity, and has therefore an Anglo-American origin. Nevertheless, the commitment to the rule of getting it right is shared among journalists across different journalistic cultures. The history of accuracy is closely related to other central concepts in journalism like truthfulness, factuality and credibility, because it raises epistemological questions of whether and how journalism is capable of depicting reality accurately, truthfully and based on fact. Accuracy plays a particularly important role with regard to the factuality of the journalistic discourse, as it forces journalists not only to ground their reporting on facts, but to check whether presented facts are true or not—which is reflected both in the description of the journalistic profession as the discipline of verification as well as the central relevance of accuracy for instruments of media self-regulation like press councils and codes of ethics.
Accuracy is an important standard to determine the quality of the news reporting. In fact, many studies, most of them carried out Western democracies, have investigated the accuracy of journalistic reporting based on the number of errors that sources mentioned in the articles perceived. As journalism moved online and the immediacy of the news cycle requested a faster pace of publication, news outlets often adopted the strategy to publish first and to verify second, although research has shown that the accuracy of journalistic reporting and trustfulness are related. Especially in the current debate on disinformation, many online fact-checking and verification services have thus seen a global rise of attention and importance.
Melanie Magin and Peter Maurer
Beat reporting refers to thematic specialization and routines (places to go, people to see) in journalism. The term reflects the distinction between general assignment reporters and specialized (beat) reporters covering a specific area (beat) as well as the subject-matter or geographic divisions between areas of reporting by which media organizations seek to structure the social environment they cover. Beat reporting marks the beginning of modern journalism. It was invented at the end of the 19th century in the United States with the aim to increase the efficiency of journalistic work. Thus it relates to the professionalization and rationalization of newspaper journalism and the transformation of newspapers into a mass product. In everyday work, beat reporting has undeniable advantages. It saves resources since beat reporters are very experienced on their beat and know well where and how to get exactly the information they need. Due to their long-term relationship of trust with relevant sources, beat reporters obtain exclusive, trustworthy, and newsworthy information. Along with this specialization come, however, several challenges; for example, the diversity of views represented in a beat might be limited, which can also affect the diversity of news coverage. At the extreme, this can even lead to pack journalism as a form of groupthink. Concerning the reporter–source relationship, there are three risks of losing professional distance: (a) If beat reporters become too loyal toward their sources, they can be instrumentalized; (b) being too adversarial toward their sources might entail a loss of trust and an increasing cynicism of the audience; (c) if beat reporters start feeling like advocates of their own interests, they might behave as activists rather than detached observers. Most recently, online journalism has changed the understanding of beat journalism (e.g., data journalism, local online beat) compared to the traditional understanding. Research on beat journalism has so far focused on stable, high-income democracies and on the political beat as the most fundamental and prominent beat.
The emergence of citizen journalism has prompted the journalism field and scholars to readdress what constitutes journalism and who is a journalist. Citizen journalists have disrupted news-media ecosystems by challenging the veracity and representativeness of information flowing from mainstream news-media newsrooms. However, the controversy related to the desired level of citizen involvement in the news process is a historical debate that began before the citizen-journalism phenomenon. As early as the 1920s, journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman and American philosopher John Dewey debated the role of journalism in democracy, including the extent that the public should participate in the news-gathering and production processes.
This questioning of citizen involvement in news reemerged as an issue with the citizen journalism phenomenon around the late 1990s. People with no news-media organizational ties have taken advantage of the convenience and low cost of social computing technologies by publishing their own stories and content. These people are referred to as citizen journalists. Scholars have assessed the quality and credibility of citizen-journalism content, finding that citizen journalists have performed well on several standards of traditional news-content quality. Levels of quality differ dependent upon citizen journalists’ goals and motivations, such as serving the public interest, increasing self-status, or expressing their creative selves.
As it is an emerging area of study, unarticulated theoretical boundaries of citizen journalism exist. Citizen-journalism publications emphasize community over conflict, advocacy over objectivity, and interpretation over fact-based reporting. In general, citizen journalists have historically acted when existing news-media journalists were not fully meeting their community’s informational needs. Scholars, however, vary in how they label citizen journalists and how they conceptually and empirically define citizen journalism. For example, researchers have shifted their definitional focus on citizen journalists from one of active agents of democratic change to people who create a piece of news content. The mapping of the citizen-journalism literature revealed four types of citizen journalists based on their levels of editorial control and contribution type: (1) participatory, (2) para, (3) news-media watchdog, and (4) community. Taken together, these concepts describe the breadth of citizen-journalist types. For those of us interested in journalism studies, a more targeted approach in the field of citizen journalism can help us build community around scholarship, understand citizen journalists’ contributions to society and practice, and create a more a stable foundation of knowledge concerning people who create and comment on news content.
The 20th century was defined by violent conflict: war, genocide, and military occupation. World War I left approximately 10 million dead and World War II had a death toll estimated at 55 million. It has been conservatively calculated that the total number of dead killed in wars during the century was 108 million, as the casualties shifted from armed combatants to victims of mass extermination in civil wars and wars of colonization. Civilian collateral damage and the targeting of civilians by ethnicity and religion became tragically common.
Journalists have witnessed and chronicled the seismic military, social, cultural, and political transformations, as well as providing a vital democratic function. Paralleling this age of devastation was the ascendant power of legacy media and its golden age in the West. The combination of technological advancement, the professionalization of the industry, greater literacy and expanded newspaper readerships, and mass culture brought the press to the frontline in unprecedented numbers and in a new and intimate relationship. Journalists functioned and continue to operate as witnesses, communicators, recorders, and interpreters, on both the battlefield and the home front, as well as negotiating the competing demands of their media organizations, the public, political, and military elites, and their professional lives.
This century had barely dawned when armies and a largely jingoistic press were marshalled in Afghanistan and Iraq after the attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The nature of warfare had evolved—from limited wars with clearly identified armies on demarcated fronts to non-conventional wars and wars of insurgency—and, with it, changes in the relations between the state, military, and media. The conflicts in this millennium provoked both long-standing and new debates surrounding the role of the press and how it actively mediates conflict, censorship, and patriotism in a hostile media environment.
Journalism also experienced profound change technologically and industrially. With the fragmentation of the media business model and editorial gatekeeping, and liberated by new media, the legacy media’s relationship with conflict has changed. New voices have gained prominence. Non-Western journalists have been accorded greater recognition when reporting invasion and conflict from a local perspective. Civilians also became both an important conduit and problematic source of news, there has been an upsurge of government and military propaganda, and terrorists have become chilling media producers. For other state media organizations in the East, their global footprint has expanded rather than diminished. Nevertheless, the debates about the image and role of journalism during armed conflict; censorship; media power, technology, and mediatization; and the physical and psychological dangers experienced by journalists when witnessing and reporting conflict, prevail.
Editorial journalism and newspapers’ editorial opinions represent an area of research that can make an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship between the press and politics. Editorials are a distinctive format and are the only place in a newspaper where the opinions of a paper as an organization are explicitly represented. Newspapers and the journalists who write editorials play a powerful role in constructing political debate in the public sphere. They use their editorial voice to attempt to influence politics either indirectly, through reaching public opinion, or directly, by targeting politicians. Editorial journalism is at its most persuasive during elections, when newspapers traditionally declare support for candidates and political parties. Despite the potential of editorial opinions to influence democratic debate, and controversy over the way newspapers and their proprietors use editorials to intervene in politics, editorial journalism is under-researched. Our understanding of the significance of this distinctive form of journalism can be better understood by exploring four key themes.
First, asking “What is editorial journalism?” establishes the context of editorial journalism as a unique practice with opinion-leading intentions. Several characteristics of editorial journalism distinguish it from other formats and genres. Editorials (also known as leading articles) require a distinctive style and form of expression, occupy a special place in the physical geography of a newspaper, represent the collective institutional voice of a newspaper rather than that of an individual, have no bylines in the majority of countries, and are written with differing aims and motivations to news reports. The historical development of journalism explains the status of editorials as a distinctive form of journalism. Professional ideals and practices evolved to demand objectivity in news reporting and the separation of fact from opinion. Historically, editorial and advocacy journalism share an ethos for journalism that endeavors to effect social or political change, yet editorial journalism is distinctive from other advocacy journalism practices in significant ways. Editorials are also an integral part of the campaign journalism practiced by some newspapers.
Second, research and approaches in the field of political communication have attributed a particularly powerful role to editorial journalism. Rooted in the effects tradition, researchers have attributed an important role to editorials in informing and shaping debate in the public sphere in four ways: (1) as an influence on readers, voters, and/or public opinion; (2) as an influence on the internal news agendas and coverage of newspapers; (3) as an influence on the agendas and coverage in other news media; and (4) as an influence on political or policy agendas. Theorizing newspapers as active and independent political actors in the political process further underpins the need to research editorial journalism. Third, editorial journalism has been overlooked by sociological studies of journalism practices. Research provides a limited understanding of the routines and practices of editorial journalists and the organization of editorial opinion at newspapers. Although rare, studies focusing on editorial journalism show that editorial opinion does not simply reflect the influence of proprietors, as has often been assumed. Rather, editorial opinions are shaped by a complex range of factors. Finally, existing research trajectories and current developments point to new challenges and opportunities for editorial journalism. These challenges relate to how professional norms respond to age-old questions about objectivity, bias, and partisanship in the digital age.
Amid the rise of atypical and casual employment across economic sectors and the decline in profits taking place in media organizations internationally, the conditions under which journalists work are changing and, for many, worsening. The number of employed journalists has declined significantly since the late 20th century, and the real salaries of the remaining journalists have decreased or remained mostly stagnant. Female journalists, freelancers, and online journalists are paid (often significantly) less than male employees working for traditional media. These trends are particularly well documented for the United States, but they are international in scope. Although job satisfaction is traditionally robust among journalists, it is starting to decline, as some studies have indicated, together with the perceived level of autonomy over the labor process.
Although those who continue to hold permanent jobs in news organizations do journalism from a position of having a steady income and social security, a growing number of freelancers work for multiple clients, experience fluctuating incomes, and must shoulder greater risks (such as legal challenges potentially arising from their reporting). Staff journalists encounter increased workloads in newsrooms as they take on the tasks of laid-off colleagues. Freelancers, on the other hand, find it increasingly difficult to earn enough from doing journalism alone and take on secondary jobs or assignments, including in public relations. Their stress is more related to ensuring that they have ongoing work; juggling multiple jobs; and doing self-promotion, administrative work, and budget planning on top of journalism. Despite this, freelancers consistently report enjoying the flexibility and autonomy their employment status affords, pointing to a complex interlinking of freedom and constraint at the core of their work experience.
It is not yet clear whether emerging ways of organizing and financing journalistic labor, such as journalism cooperatives, news start-ups, and crowdfunding, offer sustainable alternatives to the waning employment opportunities in the big news organizations or to the model of the lone freelancer. So-called entrepreneurial journalism does not only tend to emphasize teamwork across professional boundaries; it also assigns a defining importance to digital technologies. The impact of the latter on journalistic labor overall varies; some research foregrounds the increased mobility and autonomy of multiskilled reporters, and other research mentions deskilling, labor rationalization, and the increased monitoring and measuring of journalistic performance.
Mel Bunce, Martin Scott, and Kate Wright
Humanitarian journalism can be defined, very broadly, as the production of factual accounts about crises and issues that affect human welfare. This can be broken down into two broad approaches: “traditional” reporting about humanitarian crises and issues, and advocacy journalism that aims to improve humanitarian outcomes. In practice, there is overlap between the two approaches. Mainstream journalists have long helped to raise awareness and funds for humanitarian crises, as well as provide early emergency warnings and monitor the treatment of citizens. Meanwhile, aid agencies and humanitarian campaigners frequently subsidize or directly provide journalistic content.
There is a large research literature on humanitarian journalism. The most common focus of this research is the content of international reporting about humanitarian crises. These studies show that a small number of “high-profile” crises take up the vast majority of news coverage, leaving others marginalized and hidden. The quantity of coverage is not strongly correlated to the severity of a crisis or the number of people affected but, rather, its geopolitical significance and cultural proximity to the audience. Humanitarian journalism also tends to highlight international rescue efforts, fails to provide context about the causes of a crisis, and operates to erase the agency of local response teams and victims. Communication theorists have argued that this reporting prevents an empathetic and equal encounter between the audience and those affected by distant suffering. However, there are few empirical studies of the mechanisms through which news content influences audiences or policymakers. There are also very few production studies of the news organizations and journalists who produce humanitarian journalism. The research that does exist focuses heavily on news organizations based in the Global North/West.
Many national news agencies (press associations) are facing significant transformations and some of these longstanding institutions, which we once thought would last forever, may even cease to operate. Most academic research concentrates on the biggest Western agencies, with very little research done on agencies outside the West. News agencies have also been studied either without a theoretical lens, or with a theoretical lens that does not necessarily help us to understand the essentially transnational character of news agencies, many of them operating both nationally and internationally.
Joshua A. Braun
Media distribution plays a key role in defining publics by determining which groups are able to access and share news. Put more broadly, decisions about how content circulates, whether they are made by corporations, platforms, street vendors, or file sharers, are central to the question of who has access to cultural resources and on what terms. This is significant for scholars of journalism insofar as a central concern of journalism studies is the role that news media play in public life. As media distribution has become increasingly dependent on digital intermediaries like search engines and social media, responsibility for media circulation has become an increasingly significant aspect of news work, shifting journalistic routines in the process. Though journalism studies researchers have typically paid less attention to distribution than to news production, news content, and audience reception, the disruptive changes wrought by the widespread adoption of digital media have begun to inspire renewed interest in distribution across media industry studies. And while various industries and regulatory regimes define distribution differently, it is important for scholarship on distribution to forge its own conception of the subject matter, both to avoid industry capture and to grapple with a changing media landscape in which formerly distinct professional boundaries between distribution and other media practices like production and marketing are rapidly blurring and shifting.
A variety of scholars have argued that news distribution plays an important role in creating the imaginaries that sustain public life by enabling the conceit that media are addressed to the same audience over an extended period of time. It is true, too, that distribution networks can sow social divisions by extending the reach of messages and images beyond their intended contexts. The impact of the Internet on these dynamics has drawn a great deal of attention.
Distribution platforms—even digital ones—should also be understood as having material underpinnings that can constrain their form and functionality, and arguably favor particular organizational forms. The resulting dynamics can dramatically impact news providers’ access to distribution networks and, by extension, audiences. This is true for physical distribution networks and also, mutatis mutandis, in online space, where news providers have become highly dependent on a small set of companies—Google, Facebook, and their ilk—for access to audiences. At the same time, many media organizations pay substantial amounts to vendors for access to white-label technologies and infrastructures to maintain their own distribution channels.
The changing distribution landscape has led to changes in production dynamics at news organizations. In particular, the online advertising industry has now built its own distribution systems for ads, fundamentally changing the relationship between advertisers and the commercial news organizations on which they once relied for access to consumers. This, in turn, has led to changes in editorial logics at many news organizations aimed at preserving rapidly diminishing advertising revenues. Simultaneously, news distribution has become an increasing part of the work that goes on in news rooms, as optimizing the news for circulation via search and social media has become an editorial responsibility. These changes across media industries have generated a surge of interest in media distribution within academia.