Actor-Network Theory and Journalism
- Victor WiardVictor WiardDepartment of Information and Communication, Université Libre de Bruxelles
Actor-network theory (ANT) is a sociological approach to the world that treats social phenomena as network effects. This approach focuses on the evolution of interactions within networks over time and is useful for studying situations of change, unsettled groups, and evolving practices such as current developments in the world of journalism. Journalism is a messy and complex social practice involving various actors, institutions, and technologies, some of which are in a state of crisis or are undergoing rapid change due to digitization. ANT has gained momentum in journalism studies among researchers analyzing journalists’ relationships with the diverse agents they in contact with on a daily basis (e.g., technologies, institutions, audiences, other news producers) and the relationships between news production, circulation, and usage.
ANT practitioners use a set of simple concepts referred to as an infra-language, which allows them to exchange ideas and compare interpretations while letting the actors they are studying develop their own range of concepts (i.e., to speak in their own words). These concepts include actants, actor networks, obligatory passage points, and translation. ANT also proposes a set of principles for researchers to follow. These include considering all entities as participants in a phenomenon (e.g., people can make other people do things, and objects, such as computers or institutions, can as well) and following actors as they trace associations with others. Therefore, journalism scholars who use this approach conduct qualitative studies focusing on the place of a particular technology within a network or situation by following who and what is involved and how entities connect. They collect data such as the content produced, direct observations of news production, or statements from interviews during or after the case is over.
Using ANT, journalism scholars have extended their comprehension of news production by highlighting technology’s role in journalistic networks. Although journalists naturalize technologies through daily use (e.g., search engines, content management systems, cell phones, cameras, email), these tools still influence journalistic practices and outputs. ANT practitioners also consider the diversity of agents participating in news production and circulation: professional journalists, politicians, activists, and diverse commercial and noncommercial organizations. If this diversity is becoming more active and connected in this networked environment, it seems that legacy media is still an obligatory passage point for anyone willing to bring information to the general public. Recent societal changes, such as the generalization of news consumption on smartphones and the rise of platform journalism on multiple apps, indicate that ANT may be useful in the collective endeavor to provide a clear picture of what journalism is and what it will become.
- Communication Studies