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date: 20 January 2020

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: autonomy, independence, information subsidies, perceived influences, social control, journalism studies

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