The study of journalists’ professional roles is a principal avenue to understand journalism’s identity and place in society. From the perspective of discursive institutionalism, one could argue that journalistic roles have no true “essence”; they exist as part of a wider framework of meaning—of a discourse. At the core of this discourse is journalism’s identity and locus in society. As structures of meaning, journalistic roles set the parameters of what is desirable in the institutional context of journalism: they are subject to discursive (re)creation, (re)interpretation, appropriation, and contestation. In other words, the discourse of journalistic roles is the central arena where journalistic culture and identity is reproduced and contested; it is the place where the struggle over the preservation or transformation of journalism’s identity takes place.
Journalists articulate and enact journalistic roles on two analytically distinct levels: role orientations (normative and cognitive) and role performance (practiced and narrated). The four categories of journalistic roles—normative, cognitive, practiced, and narrated roles—correspond to conceptually distinct ideas: what journalists ought to do, what they want to do, what they really do in practice, and what they think they do.
Normative roles encompass generalized and aggregate expectations that journalists believe are deemed desirable in society. Most normative roles of journalists are derived from a view that emphasizes journalism’s (potential) contribution to the proper workings of democracy.
Cognitive role orientations comprise the institutional values, attitudes and beliefs individual journalists embrace as a result of their occupational socialization. These roles tend to appear as evident, natural, and self-explaining to the journalists. They index their individual aspirations and ambitions and the communicative goals they want to achieve through their work. Practiced role performance captures the roles of journalists as they are executed in practice; narrated roles, finally, denominate subjective perceptions of and reflections on the roles that journalists carry out in practice.
Comparative research has demonstrated that journalists tend to subscribe to a variety of cognitive roles, largely depending on the political and social contexts they work in. Here, journalistic roles address six elementary needs of political life: informational-instructive, analytical-deliberative, critical-monitorial, advocative-radical, developmental-educative, and collaborative-facilitative needs. In a time, however, when traditional social institutions cease to provide a normative framework, journalism increasingly provides collective orientation in a multi-optional society. In the domain of everyday life, journalism’s normative roles therefore extend to the contexts of consumption, identity, and emotion.
Over time, researchers have shifted their focus from the analysis of journalists’ occupational values, attitudes, and beliefs to the study of journalistic performance and the way professional orientations are enacted in the world of practice. Studies of this type so far produced seemingly contradictory evidence: one the one hand, there seems to be a gap between the roles journalists aspire to and the roles they execute in practice, but at the same time, many studies also found a robust correlation between cognitive and performed roles of journalists.