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date: 15 January 2021

Systems Theory and Journalismlocked

  • Armin SchollArmin SchollDepartment of Communication, University of Münster
  •  and Maja MalikMaja MalikDepartment of Communication, University of Münster

Summary

Observing, describing, and analyzing journalism as part of society requires theories on a macro level. Unlike normative theories, which criticize journalism with respect to its achievements and failures within society, systems theory operates with the concept of function in a non-normative sense. Based on the groundwork of Talcott Parsons’ theory of social systems, Niklas Luhmann developed systems theory further and radicalized it by strictly avoiding any kind of structural conservatism. His approach is built on the assumption that social systems operate autonomously on the basis of the functional differentiation to their environment. Macro-level systems, i.e., societal systems, fulfill unique functions for and within society. Functional autonomy and singularity make a modern society highly efficient but force each system to rely on the functional performances of all other societal systems. Hence, societal systems are structurally coupled and interdependent. Epistemologically, systems do not exist as ontological units but are strictly observer-related, be the observer the system itself or an external observer, such as the scientific community is.

In journalism research, Luhmann’s systems theory has been applied to journalism as a societal system. Several competing approaches with different perspectives on the system observed (journalism, the mass media, or the public sphere) have been developed with respect to identifying the basic characteristics on which the system operates. Despite their differences they have this in common: journalism is not considered the sum of individual journalists and their (individual) way of working, instead, the systems-theoretical perspective is holistic. However, compared to theories of professionalism, which is also a holistic concept, systems theory neither identifies journalism with the profession of journalism, nor commits it to professional journalism. Instead, the structure of journalism is flexible, i.e., functionally equivalent, as long as its function is fulfilled. This function can be specified: journalism provides society periodically with current, independent, factual, and relevant information.

Empirically, systems theory helps defining the population of journalists by deducing it from its function. Unlike mere empirical approaches, which arbitrarily draw samples from an unknown population, it is possible to clearly draw distinctions between journalism and other forms of public communication, such as public relations, advertising, propaganda, or lay communication. Still, it is challenging to operationalize such an abstract theory, as it is not specially made for hypothesis-driven research.

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