People use the news media to learn about the world beyond their family, neighborhood, and workplace. As news consumers, we depend on what television, social media, websites, radio stations, and newspapers decide to inform us about. This is because all news media, whether through journalists or digital algorithms, select, process, and filter information to their users. Over time, the aspects that are prominent in the news media usually become prominent in public opinion. The ability of journalists to influence which issues, aspects of these issues, and persons related to these issues, are perceived as the most salient has come to be called the agenda-setting effect of journalism.
First described by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in a seminal study conducted during the 1968 elections in the United States, agenda-setting theory has expanded to include several other aspects beyond the transfer of salience of issues from the media agenda to the public agenda. These aspects include: the influence of journalism on the attributes of issues and people that make news; the networks between the different elements in the media and public agendas; the determinants of the news media agenda; the psychological mechanisms that regulate agenda-setting effects; and the consequences of agenda setting on both citizens’ and policymakers’ attitudes and behaviors. As one of the most comprehensive and international theories of journalism studies available, agenda setting continues to evolve in the expanding digital media landscape.
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.
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.
Lucas Graves and Michelle A. Amazeen
Fact-checking has a traditional meaning in journalism that relates to internal procedures for verifying facts prior to publication, as well as a newer sense denoting stories that publicly evaluate the truth of statements from politicians, journalists, or other public figures. Internal fact-checking first emerged as a distinct role in U.S. newsmagazines in the 1920s and 1930s, decades in which the objectivity norm became established among American journalists. While newspapers have not typically employed dedicated fact-checkers, the term also refers more broadly to verification routines and the professional concern with factual accuracy. Both scholars and journalists have been concerned with a decline of internal fact-checking resources and routines in the face of accelerated publishing cycles and the economic crisis faced by news organizations in many parts of the world.
External fact-checking consists of publishing an evidence-based analysis of the accuracy of a political claim, news report, or other public text. Organizations specializing in such “political” fact-checking have been established in scores of countries around the world since the first sites appeared in the United States in the early 2000s. These outlets may be based in established news organizations but also “good government” groups, universities, and other areas of civil society; practitioners generally share the broad goals of helping people become better informed and promoting fact-based public discourse. A burgeoning area of research has tried to measure the effectiveness of various kinds of external fact-checking interventions in countering misinformation and promoting accurate beliefs. This literature generally finds that fact-checking can be effective in experimental settings, though the influence of corrections is limited by the familiar mechanisms of motivated reasoning.
The role of foreign correspondent has long been prominent in journalism but is undergoing considerable change. While many in this role are considered elite, and have a very high profile, others practice their reporting in anonymous and sometimes precarious conditions. Prominent types of foreign correspondent are the capital correspondent, bureau chief, and conflict correspondent. Conflict correspondents can, in turn, be categorized into three main types depending on how they perceive their role: the propagandist; the recorder of history; and the moralist. The role of foreign correspondent has been the subject of a great deal of research, including analyses of news content focused on the nature of bias and story selection and framing in international reporting, and observational and interview-based studies of practitioners of the role. Research has sought to shift the focus from elite correspondents for international media organizations to the myriad local media professionals who play an increasing role in shaping international news stories; to the move toward social media as a newsgathering and news-dissemination tool; to the safety of journalists—as their work becomes increasingly imperiled around the world; and to the vital but largely hidden role of news agencies in shaping international news.
In the past 50 years, there has been a burgeoning literature on the role of journalism in promoting governance and supporting anti-corruption efforts. Much of this comes from the work of economists and political scientists, and there is a lot for journalism studies scholars to learn from. The three disciplines grapple with many of the same questions; including the effects of journalism on society and journalists’ role as watchdogs and scarecrows. Economists are the boldest about establishing causality between journalism and governance, arguing that a free and open press can curb corruption and promote accountability. However, this is not always borne out in practice as modern technological and political developments have threatened journalism’s business model, especially in regions without a historically robust free press. Media capture continues to be a growing problem in places where government and business interests are aligned and seek to instrumentalize the media.
Further quantitative research and exploration of the impediments to the functioning of a free media will help our understanding of the contemporary problems facing journalists and how they can be solved in order to improve governance across the world. There is much more to be learned about the impact of journalism on governance and studies on this topic should not only cross disciplines but must also be decolonialized so that the field has more information on how the media contributes, or not, to governance in the Global South and in the different media systems outlined by Hallin and Mancini as well as the updated analysis of Efrat Nechushtai.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not-for-profit groups, which are independent of commercial businesses and government agencies. They claim to serve various notions of the public good, including advocacy and service delivery. So the definition of an “NGO” is broad, including many different kinds of organizations, such as aid agencies, human rights, indigenous, feminist and environmental lobby groups.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the predecessors of NGOs—pressure groups—tried to advance their cause by cultivating close relations with the mainstream press, and/or publishing their own periodicals. But from the late 20th century onward, many NGOs started routinely producing their own news content, including written text but also photojournalism, video, and sophisticated interactive projects. Some of this material is disseminated through “alternative” outlets, social media and activist hubs. But it is difficult for NGOs to gain a mass audience in these ways, so most major NGOs recruit or commission experienced journalists to carry out this work for them.
Much of the research in this area has focused on either journalists’ increased dependence on NGOs, or on the restructuring of NGOs’ resources, priorities and working cultures in accordance with news norms. Most scholars have also focused on the work of international aid agencies and/or human rights organizations, as well as particular kinds of crises, such as famines, hurricanes and conflicts. The extant literature is heavily weighted toward organizations which are based in North America or Europe. However, a small but growing number of scholars are challenging this, exploring the news work of other NGOs and/or news outlets, in other countries, and during other kinds of news-making periods, including conferences, summits and “quiet” news weeks.
These more diverse approaches to studying NGOs as news organizations have led to the theorization of NGO journalism becoming more nuanced. Researchers have shifted away from polarized, and somewhat over-generalized, assessments of the effects of NGO news-making, toward a greater awareness of complexity and heterogeneity. This has involved them using theory about organizations, institutions, fields and moral economies. However, the kinds of power which NGO workers are able to acquire by becoming news reporters is still under-theorized, and scholars still tend to avoid examining the frameworks they use as a basis for normative evaluation. Finally, changing media practices (including social media practices) and NGOs’ adoption of new communication technology (including satellite and drone imagery) means that this area of news work is still evolving very rapidly.
Jesper Strömbäck and Adam Shehata
Political journalism constitutes one of the most prominent domains of journalism, and is essential for the functioning of democracy. Ideally, political journalism should function as an information provider, watchdog, and forum for political discussions, thereby helping citizens understand political matters and help prevent abuses of power. The extent to which it does is, however, debated. Apart from normative ideals, political journalism is shaped by factors at several levels of analysis, including the system level, the media organizational level, and the individual level. Not least important for political journalism is the close, interdependent, and contentious relationship with political actors, shaping both the processes and the content of political journalism.
In terms of content, four key concepts in research on political journalism in Western democratic systems are the framing of politics as a strategic game, interpretive versus straight news, conflict framing and media negativity, and political or partisan bias. A review of research related to these four concepts suggests that political journalism has a strong tendency to frame politics as a strategic game rather than as issues, particularly during election campaigns; that interpretive journalism has become more common; that political journalism has a penchant for conflict framing and media negativity; and that there is only limited evidence that political journalism is influenced by political or partisan bias. Significantly more important than political or partisan bias are different structural and situational biases. In all these and other respects, there are important differences across countries and media systems, which follows from the notion that political journalism is always influenced by the media systems in which it is produced and consumed.
Afonso de Albuquerque
Political parallelism refers to a pattern or relationship where the structure of the political parties is somewhat reflected by the media organizations. A concept introduced by Seymour-Ure and Blumler and Gurevitch in the 1970s, political parallelism became widespread after Hallin and Mancini made it one of the four basic analytical categories of their masterpiece Comparing Media Systems, three decades later. Since then, political parallelism has been often taken as a category with a potentially universal applicability. There are some reasons for cautiousness in this respect, however, as the premise that the political parties are the core organizers of the dynamics of politics makes sense in circumstances existing in Western Europe, especially from the 1950s until very recently, but not at every moment or even everywhere. Otherwise, it is possible to think about political parallelism as one specific pattern of media/politics relations among several others either already existing or possible. The fact that this model in particular receives so much attention does not result necessarily from its intrinsic value, but it may be related to asymmetries existing in the international landscape of the academic research in journalism and political communication, which privileges Western-based standpoints over others. Arguably, taking political parallelism from a broader outlook, considering both Western and non-Western views may provide a richer perspective about it.
The public sphere is a social entity with an important function and powerful effects in modern, democratic societies. The idea of the public sphere rests on the conviction that people living in a society, regardless of their age, gender, religion, economic or social status, professional position, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or nationality, should be able to publicly express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about issues that matter to them and impact their lives. This expression should be as free as possible in form and function and should operate through means and methods that people themselves deem suitable, so not via channels that are official or state-sanctioned. The classic Habermasian idea of the public sphere is that it is used by private individuals (not officials or politicians) who should be able to converse with each other in a public-spirited way to develop opinions that impact state or public-body decisions and policies. Also contained within this classic idea is the conviction that public sphere conversations should be rational (i.e., logical, evidence-based, and properly motivated and argued using an acceptable set of rhetorical devices) in order to convince others of the usefulness of a position, statement, or opinion. In commonsensical, political, and journalistic understandings, the public sphere is a critical component of a democracy that enables ordinary citizens to act as interlocutors to those who hold power and thereby hold them to account. As such it is one of the elements whereby democracy as a system is able to claim legitimacy as the “rule of the people.”
Journalism’s imbrication in the social imaginary of the public sphere dates back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe when venues like coffee houses, clubs, and private homes, and media like newspapers and newsletters were being used by a mixture of gentry, nobility, and an emerging middle class of traders and merchants and other educated thinkers to disseminate information and express ideas. The conviction that journalism was the key vehicle for the conveyance of information and ideas of public import was then imbedded in the foundations of the practice of modern journalism and in the form exported from Western Europe to the rest of the world. Journalism’s role as a key institution within and vehicle of the public sphere was thus born. Allied to this was the conviction that journalism, via this public sphere role and working on behalf of the public interest (roughly understood as the consensus of opinions formed in the public sphere), should hold political, social, and economic powers to account. Journalists are therefore understood to be crucial proxies for the millions of people in a democracy who cannot easily wield on their own the collective voices that journalism with its institutional bases can produce.