The notion of journalistic autonomy is the idea that journalism as a societal institution, as well as individual journalists in their workplace (the newsroom), should be free from undue influence from other societal institutions and actors. The term “independence” is frequently used as synonymous with autonomy. Journalistic autonomy is commonly seen as normatively desirable as it is linked to two of journalism’s core democratic functions: information provision (journalists who are not autonomous may produce biased information) and the watchdog function (non-autonomous journalists may act in the interests of other actors when fulfilling the watchdog function rather than in the public interest). Autonomy exists on three distinct analytical levels: first, the institutional level (referring to journalism as a whole, being independent from other societal institutions like the state and the market); second, the individual level (referring to individual journalists having discretionary decision-making power in their own work); and third, the organizational level (referring to the workplace level, where individual preferences frequently are mediated by institutional constrains). In general, journalism research has focused mostly on analyzing autonomy on the institutional and individual levels and less on the organizational level. Research on journalistic autonomy on the institutional level focuses on the autonomy of journalism from the state (or, more broadly, the political sphere in general) and the market. The key instrument for both state and market actors seeking to influence journalism (thereby decreasing journalistic autonomy) is information subsidies, that is, information resources of different types that conform to journalistic genre demands and professional norms but which also advance the agenda of the actors who produce them. Research on journalistic autonomy on the individual level focuses on so-called perceived influences on journalistic work, that is, the factors that journalists themselves see as limiting their autonomy. There are broad cross-national patterns to such perceptions. The political system is the most important determinant of perceived political influence, as journalists in more authoritarian countries perceive more political interference than journalists in democratic countries. Another broad pattern is that nation-level and individual-level influences are perceived as more important than organizational-level influences. Almost regardless of country, most journalists actually see themselves as having a high degree of workplace autonomy. This is in contrast to the research on organizational-level autonomy (as well as much of the research on autonomy on the institutional level), which demonstrates that journalists’ workplace autonomy is constrained in many important ways. Tacit rules, implicit policies, and norms of professionalism all combine to make journalists obedient employees who generally voluntarily accept many constraints on their autonomy without perceiving them as such. Only overt and explicit attempts from political and commercial actors to control reporting are perceived as interference, whereas informal norms of story selection that favor resource-rich actors are seen as “natural” or “normal.” Thus in many ways, journalistic autonomy is a rhetorical construct as much as a normative ideal.
Henrik Örnebring and Michael Karlsson
Merryn Sherwood, Timothy Marjoribanks, and Matthew Nicholson
The relationship between journalism and public relations in the 21st century has been mostly marked by tension, at least publicly. Many journalists’ accounts of public relations portray it as “the dark side” and characterize public relations practitioners as purveyors of “spin.” However, extensive research examining the input of public relations practitioners into the news has found that the products of their work—such as media releases or media conferences—are crucial in facilitating the news cycle. As one of the classic studies of news production identified, “News is, after all, not what journalists think, but what their sources say.” Decades of research have established that news sources are often likely to be public relations practitioners, with anywhere between 40% and 75% of news originating from public relations practitioners or the products of their work. Public relations is, therefore, critical to the work of journalism; however, journalists often deny this as part of publicly upholding the standards of their profession and building and maintaining boundaries of control over their work. However, the symbiotic relationship that formed the basis of news production in the 20th century is being upended in the 21st century as organizations become their own media producers. This means the lines continue to blur between journalism and public relations, both for individuals working across once clear occupational and professional boundary lines and for organizations adopting the functions of both.
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.