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date: 02 October 2022

Professional Identity and Roles of Journalistsfree

Professional Identity and Roles of Journalistsfree

  • Thomas HanitzschThomas HanitzschDepartment of Media and Communication, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München


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.


  • Journalism Studies


Research into the roles of journalists is central to the understanding of journalism’s identity and place in society. Journalists define their service to society in various ways, which ultimately helps them give meaning to their work (Aldridge & Evetts, 2003). The study of journalistic roles is more relevant than ever: in the 21st century, journalism’s identity is existentially shaken, and journalistic ideals have become more ambivalent and liquid after the turn of the century (Koljonen, 2013). It is therefore not surprising that the inquiry into journalists’ roles and identity has a long tradition in the larger area of journalism and (mass) communication research.

Journalistic Identity and Roles as Discursive Framework

Professional identity and journalistic roles can be meaningfully studied from within the perspective of discursive institutionalism (Schmidt, 2008, 2010). Journalistic roles have no true “essence”; they exist because and as we talk about them (Hanitzsch & Vos, 2016, 2017). In order to be intelligible, they exist as part of a wider framework of meaning—of a discourse. In other words, journalistic roles—and professional identity by extension—are discursively constituted. As structures of meaning, they set the parameters of what is desirable in a given institutional context. Understood from within a discursive perspective, journalistic roles are never static; they are subject to discursive (re)creation, (re)interpretation, appropriation, and contestation. As expressive value set, journalistic roles are indicative of a certain journalism culture (Hanitzsch, 2007).

At the core of this discourse is journalism’s identity and locus in society. Here, journalistic roles represent and articulate discursive positions that compete in a relational structure—the discursive field. This field is the site where journalistic actors struggle over discursive authority in conversations about the meaning and role of journalism in society. In other words, the discourse of journalistic roles is the central arena where journalistic culture and identity is reproduced and contested, and it is the place where the struggle over the preservation or transformation of journalism’s identity takes place. As a result of this contest, dominant positions in the discourse of journalism crystallize as institutional norms and practices. The institution of journalism as it exists today therefore represents the “state of play” in an ongoing struggle over discursive authority.

Ultimately, the discourse of journalistic roles legitimizes and delegitimizes certain norms, ideas and practices. Although journalists are the central discursive agents in the articulation of roles (Zelizer, 1993), they do so in an exchange with interlocutors in the broader society and by using a discursive toolkit that the broader society recognizes as legitimate (Carlson, 2016). The discourse of journalistic identity and roles therefore extends well beyond the boundaries of journalism as a field of practice and journalism studies as academic subject. In this sense, journalistic roles perform a double duty—they act as a source of institutional legitimacy relative to the broader society, and through a process of socialization they inform the cognitive toolkit that journalists use to think about their work.

In other words, journalists think of their work as meaningful to themselves and others in a discursive construction. The discourse of journalistic roles is a major site of reproduction and contestation within the institution of journalism. As Christians, Glasser, McQuail, Nordenstreng, and White (2009) noted, journalistic roles are widely recognizable and have a fairly stable and enduring form. Journalistic roles most generally allude to a set of normative and cognitive beliefs as well as real-world and perceived practices of journalists situated and understood within the institutional framework of journalism. Journalists articulate and enact journalistic roles on two analytically distinct levels: role orientations (normative and cognitive) and role performance (practiced and narrated).

Role orientations refer to discursive constructions of the institutional values, attitudes, and beliefs with regard to the position of journalism in society and, consequently, to the communicative ideals journalists are embracing in their work. These orientations can be normative and cognitive. Despite sharing attitudinal features, normative and cognitive roles differ in important respects. Normative roles indicate what is generally desirable to think or do in a given context, while cognitive ideas provide the recipes, guidelines, and maps for concrete action (Schmidt, 2008).

Practiced and narrated roles belong to the level of role performance (Mellado, 2015); they capture the behavioral dimension of journalists’ roles. Role performance refers to the roles of journalists as executed in practice, or as practice as observed and narrated by the journalists. Practiced and narrated roles need to be distinguished simply, and importantly, because what journalists do, and what they think they do is not necessarily the same thing.

The four categories of journalistic roles—normative, cognitive, practiced, and narrated roles—tend to be confused in much of present research. In fact, they correspond to conceptually distinct ideas: what journalists ought to do, what they want to do, what journalists really do in practice, and what they think they do. The four categories of roles, and the analytical distinction between orientations and performance, are connected through the processes of internalization, enactment, reflection, normalization, and negotiation in what Hanitzsch and Vos (2017) proposed as the “process model” of journalistic roles.

Normative Roles

Norms are commonly defined as “the rules and standards that are understood by members of a group, and that guide and/or constrain social behavior without the force of laws” (Cialdini & Trost, 1998, p. 152). Normative role orientations appear external to individual journalists; they encompass generalized and aggregate expectations that are deemed desirable in society (Donsbach, 2012). They speak to how journalists are expected to meet the aspirations and ideals of the general public.

Normative roles of journalists are socially negotiated and sensitive to context—they are in a constant flux. Being confronted with journalists’ actual performance, these roles are subject to discursive reproduction and conservation, as well as to contestation and struggle. It is here where the distinction between “injunctive” and “descriptive norms” becomes most useful (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005, p. 130): Injunctive norms refer to journalists’ beliefs about desirable practice in a given context, while descriptive norms refer to their beliefs about what is actually done by most other journalists.

The context-sensitive nature of norms also explains why some journalistic roles (e.g., the watchdog or “Fourth Estate”) are socially desirable in some contexts (e.g., in democracies) more than in others (e.g., in authoritarian societies). Ultimately, journalism’s normative roles are discursively constructed through legitimizing these roles by borrowing ideas, scripts and memes from legitimate fields, such as law, science, diplomacy, education (Schudson, 2001; Vos, 2012). Roles such as the analyst, detective, missionary, or educator speak to the ways in which journalism is discursively indexed to other social fields or institutions.

Most normative roles of journalists are derived from a view that emphasizes journalism’s (potential) contribution to the proper workings of democracy. It comes as no surprise, then, that most of the roles advocated in the literature bear a close connection to citizenship and democratic participation. The news media is expected to provide surveillance of and information about potentially relevant events and their contexts, as well as commentary, guidance and advice, and the means for access, expression, and political participation. The media is also expected to contribute to shared consciousness and to act as critic or watchdog to hold the government to account (Christians et al., 2009; McQuail, 2000).

Normative perspectives gained momentum shortly after the Second World War when politicians and academics began to recognize the power of the media to shape public conversation. In the United States, it was the Commission on Freedom of the Press that pointed out in its 1947 report that democracy essentially depends on a free flow of information and a diversity of viewpoints. Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm’s (1956) bestselling book “Four Theories of the Press” became a milestone in the discourse of normative theories of the media. Based on the premise that “the press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates” (p. 1), the authors identified four models of the press—authoritarian, libertarian, Communist, and the social responsibility model. In all these models, journalists were expected to act in different capacities and embrace different normative ideals. Despite its fairly ethnocentric appeal, Siebert and colleagues’ premise still finds traction today: journalism’s role needs to be understood within the constraints of the relevant political, economic, and sociocultural contexts.

Even after many decades of studying journalistic roles, there is a remarkable consensus about the essential tasks of journalism in society: observation and information; participation in public life through commentary, advice, and advocacy; as well as the provision of access for a diversity of voices. Journalists are charged with acting in four principal roles (Christians et al., 2009):

The monitorial role entails the collection, publication, and distribution of information of interest to audiences.

The facilitative role promotes dialogue between different stakeholders in society and inspires the public to actively participate in political life.

The radical role is about providing a platform for views and voices critical of authority with the aim to support change and reform.

The collaborative role calls journalists to support authorities in defense of the social order against threats of crime, conflict, and natural emergencies.

These roles, however (with the possible exception of the collaborative role), were all articulated from within Western perspectives and Western notions of democracy. Such a view emphasizes individual liberties and freedom, while other societies may prioritize collective needs and social harmony. Traditional western accounts of media functions in political life do therefore not sufficiently account for the variation in political cultures and socio-cultural value systems around the world. Distinct sets of normative ideas may be at work in many non-western contexts. As developing and transitional societies are facing a number of unique challenges with regard to political, economic, and social development, journalists are often expected to act in the capacity of nation builders, partners of the government, and agents of empowerment (Romano, 2005). Development journalism as a normative approach calls for a more collaborative and constructive role of journalists in the public domain, and it places greater emphasis on the idea of social responsibility.

By acknowledging a revolutionary and developmental role for journalists, Hachten (1981) was one of the first to recognize the need for alternative concepts that are better suited to many countries in the non-Western world. Several scholars from Asia, for instance, link the media’s responsibility to the preservation of social harmony and respect for leadership, which urges journalists to restrain from coverage that could potentially disrupt social order (Masterton, 1996; Xiaoge, 2005). The discomfort that many scholars in the Global South felt with the adoption of Western normative ideas was perhaps best articulated by Mehra (1989, p. 3), who argued that “unlike the individualistic, democratic, egalitarian and liberal tradition of Western political theory, some societies value their consensual and communal traditions with their emphasis on duties and obligations to the collective and social harmony.”

Cognitive Roles

Cognitive role orientations can be defined as the institutional values, attitudes, and beliefs individual journalists embrace as a result of their occupational socialization. Although normative roles are in many ways imposed on journalists, cognitive roles capture their individual aspirations and ambitions, as well as the communicative goals they want to achieve through their work. These ambitions mostly work in the subconscious and largely emerge from journalists’ internalization of normative expectations. Cognitive role orientations, therefore, tend to appear as evident, natural and self-explaining to the journalists (Schultz, 2007). A discourse shared by journalists as discursive community, these roles belong to a collective repertoire that is selectively activated by journalists, both in context-specific situations and as a marker of their professional identity (Aldridge & Evetts, 2003).

Normative roles do not directly translate into cognitive roles, however; they are selectively internalized by the journalists. In this process, journalists learn about the institutional norms, values, and roles through occupational socialization that can take place either within the news organization or during vocational education and training (Gravengaard & Rimestad, 2014; Singer, 2004; Tandoc & Takahashi, 2014). This way, journalists develop specific idealized expectations about work and news organizations that remain a pervasive standard against which daily practices are compared (Russo, 1998).

The socialization of journalists takes place in a specific community of practice in which the professional veterans have common goals and share a repertoire of myths and tales (Gravengaard & Rimestad, 2014). Here, occupational socialization works toward the preservation of an “institutional mythology”: the prescription that “the way we do” things becomes “the way one should do” things (Schudson, 2001; Singer, 2004). Forms of ritual solidarity that call on journalists to celebrate themselves as a professional community invigorate the articulation of institutional norms. Shared interpretations of and narratives about journalism’s key moments, such as the exposure of the Watergate scandal, feed well into the collective imaginary of journalists and serve to reinforce professional identity (Zelizer, 1993).

Cohen (1963) is usually credited to have proposed the first systematic classification of journalists’ cognitive roles by distinguishing between a “neutral” and a “participant” role. Janowitz (1975) a few years later identified two similar role concepts, the “gatekeeper” and the “advocate.” The first large-scale empirical study was undertaken by Johnstone, Slawski, and Bowman (1972), who surveyed 1,313 journalists in the United States. Their pioneering work was later continued by Weaver and Wilhoit (1986, 1996; Weaver et al., 2007). According to the results, journalists tended to embrace a participant role more than a neutral role. However, despite the antithetical nature of the two value sets, most journalists also held patterns of beliefs that combined elements from each of the two perspectives.

Johnstone, Slawski and Bowman’s pioneering work was later continued by Weaver and Wilhoit (1986, 1996; Weaver et al., 2007). In their first study, Weaver and Wilhoit (1986) identified three, rather than two, distinct sets of journalists’ professional attitudes: “disseminator,” “interpreter,” and “adversarial” roles. Ten years later, Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) added another role, the “populist mobilizer.” In the United States, the interpretive function remained the strongest perception among American journalists after the millennium, while the importance of the disseminator function had dramatically declined over time. The adversarial function remains a minority attitude among American journalists, whereas the populist mobilizer role seems to have increased its appeal (Weaver et al., 2007).

The work of Weaver and Wilhoit has notably become a blueprint for a number of studies outside the United States that largely followed their original questionnaire. Many of these surveys culminated in two seminal collections, Weaver (1998a) and Weaver and Willnat (2012). The first book, The Global Journalist (Weaver, 1998a) has become a milestone in the comparative analysis of journalists’ roles, as the volume documents survey evidence about altogether 20,280 journalists from 21 countries. In his analysis, Weaver (1998b) found a remarkable consensus among journalists regarding the importance of reporting the news quickly and some agreement on the importance of providing access for the people to express their views. There was much less support, however, for providing analysis and being a watchdog of the government. Journalists largely disagreed over the importance of providing entertainment, as well as accurate and objective reporting. Overall, strong national differences clearly override any universal professional values of journalism around the world. Much of this variation seems to reflect societal influences, especially differences in political systems, more than influences of media organizations, journalism education and professional norms.

The second volume, edited by Weaver and Willnat (2012), largely echoed these conclusions. Journalists often disagreed over the relative importance of journalistic roles across societies, which seems to speak against the idea of a universal set of occupational standards institutionalized in journalism globally. It is hard to say, however, to what extent these survey results reflect real-world differences between national journalistic cultures. The surveys reported in both books were not based on a common methodological framework. Rather, substantive variation in interview methods, sampling strategies, questionnaire wordings and research periods makes this kind of comparison a “game of guesswork at best,” as Weaver (1998b, p. 455) himself admitted.

Many of these methodological issues were addressed in a large and growing number of comparative studies, notably driven by European scholars. Donsbach (1981) and Köcher (1986) were among the first to look into the cognitive roles of journalists on a considerably large and cross-national scale. Based on a survey of 450 German and 405 British journalists, their findings confirmed the initial expectation that German and British journalists differed substantially with regard to their professional roles. German journalists were more in favor of an active role of advocacy, whereas their British counterparts embraced a more neutral reporter role. The values of criticizing abuses and being a spokesman for the underdog, which stand for partisanship and advocacy, were more pronounced among German journalists than among their British colleagues. At the same time, however, journalists in Great Britain tended to claim political influence more than their German counterparts, and they were also more in favor of an instructor or educator role.

These findings led Köcher (1986, p. 63) to conclude that British journalists resembled more the ideal type of a “bloodhound” or “hunter of news,” while their German colleagues perceived themselves in terms of “missionaries” acting on behalf of certain ideological positions in the political spectrum. Köcher, however, admitted that the differences between journalists from the two countries were not always as clear-cut as her somewhat catchy conclusion suggested. In practice, German and British journalists interpreted their roles more as a conglomerate of neutrality and advocacy. Patterson and Donsbach (1996) came to similar conclusions, comparing journalists from Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Sweden, and the United States. Based on interviews with 1,361 working journalists, they found, for instance, Germans and Italians to be keenest to champion values and ideas in their reporting. Journalists’ partisanship most strongly related to their news decisions in Germany and the lowest in the United States and Sweden.

These and other studies ultimately challenged assumptions about a universal journalism culture even for Western societies. In the largest concerted research effort of journalism researchers to date, the Worlds of Journalism Study looked into journalists’ cognitive roles on a global scale. A collaboration between researchers from 21 countries, the study administered identical survey questionnaires to 2,100 journalists in Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Uganda, and the United States. The project identified a number of traits that seemed to have universal appeal, including detachment and non-involvement as well as the watchdog role and the delivery of political information (Hanitzsch et al., 2011). At the same time, the study established interventionism—that is, journalists’ willingness to actively involve themselves in social development—as a main denominator of cross-national differences in journalists’ professional views. Western journalists were generally less supportive of any active promotion of particular values, ideas and social change, while their colleagues from non-Western countries tended to be more interventionist in their professional views. On a global level, the surveyed journalists were classified into four global professional milieus a preferred set of role orientations (Hanitzsch, 2011):

Populist disseminators see themselves as detached observers who provide the audience with news that is most interesting to them.

Detached watchdogs are detached observers, too, but they primarily act in the capacity of watchdogs by holding powers to account.

Critical change agents drive social reform and political participation out of a critical attitude toward the government.

Opportunist facilitators see themselves as constructive partners, helping the government to bring about economic well-being and social development.

For the Pan-European context, comparative research yielded rather inconclusive results. Based on qualitative interviews with senior journalists in 12 European countries, Preston (2009, p. 165) found journalists embrace a “strikingly similar set of professional values” across the continent. Likewise, Statham (2008, p. 418) concluded from a comparison of European newspaper journalists that “journalism over Europe is emerging as a common transnational experience and practice.” Heikkilä and Kunelius (2006, p. 63), on the other hand, did not find “much ground to assume that a European public sphere would emerge out of national journalistic cultures.”

In addition, a growing number of studies looks at journalists’ roles beyond the Western world. In a series of surveys, Arab journalists, for instance, conceived of their mission as that of driving political and social reform, thus acting as, “change agents” in the political arena (Pintak, 2014, p. 494). Pakistani journalists found it most important to defend national sovereignty, preserve national unity, and foster societal development (Pintak & Nazir, 2013)—a trait that was also pronounced among Indonesian journalists (Romano, 2003). These values correspond to the idea of “development journalism” identified in several countries that broadly belong to the “global South,” including Bangladesh, Nepal and Nigeria (Edeani, 1993; Ramaprasad & Kelly, 2003; Ramaprasad & Rahman, 2006).

A considerable number of studies point to remarkable similarities between journalists from Western countries and their “counterparts” in other world regions (e.g., Mwesige, 2004; Ramaprasad, 2001; Zhu et al., 1997). One might take this as evidence for a growing global professional awareness, or as proof of a transfer of occupational ideology from the West to countries in the Global South (Golding, 1977). At the same time, however, these similarities may well be an academic artifact, especially when the normative expectations of the Western model mold the questionnaires and in turn shape the journalists’ answers (Josephi, 2006). In some parts of the non-Western world, the idea of what Western journalism represents may even undermine the cultural code of the profession, as it has been demonstrated for Russian journalists (Lowrey & Erzikova, 2013).

The study of cognitive roles of journalists has been relatively thin on theory for a long time. One of the first attempts to extract a theoretical classification of roles from the literature and empirical work was undertaken by Donsbach and Patterson (2004), who identified two major dimensions of roles for Western democracies: passive vs. active roles and neutral vs. advocate roles. A globally more inclusive approach was suggested by Hanitzsch (2007), who distinguishes between three major dimensions:

Interventionism reflects the extent to which journalists pursue a particular mission and promote certain values. The distinction tracks along a divide between two types of journalist: the one involved, socially committed, assertive and motivated, the other detached and uninvolved, dedicated to objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality.

Power distance denominates the journalist’s position towards loci of power in society. One pole of the continuum captures classic “watchdog” journalism that holds the powers to account, while “loyal” or opportunist journalists, on the other hand, tend to see themselves more as collaborators, or “partners”, of the ruling elites.

Market orientation refers to the extent to which members of the audience are addressed primarily in their role as citizens or as consumers. Here, the division falls between journalistic cultures that subordinate their goals to the logic of the market and those that emphasize political information and mobilization, and the creation of an informed citizenry.

Practiced Roles

Most of the aforementioned studies have focused on journalists’ normative and cognitive ideas, and researchers are just starting to pay more attention to the way these roles are enacted in practice (e.g., Carpenter, Boehmer, & Fico, 2016; Mellado & Van Dalen, 2014; Tandoc, Hellmueller, & Vos, 2013). Practiced role performance as analytical concept captures the roles of journalists as they are executed in practice. They are indicated through the tangible behavior and performance of journalists when doing their work. Just like the other three types of journalistic roles discussed here, practiced roles also have discursive properties. They can be understood as behavioral expression—as a practical form by which journalists articulate their position in discourses of journalism’s identity and locus in society. In other words, by enacting a specific journalistic role, or a bundle of roles, journalists—often inadvertently—take position in the discursive construction of journalism’s identity.

Cognitive roles of journalists—and normative roles by extension—translate into practiced roles through a process commonly referred to as role enactment. Individuals tend to seek consistency between role orientations and role performance, which is why journalists are likely to enact roles that are in line with the cognitive roles they embrace (Tandoc, Hellmueller, & Vos, 2013). However, the process of role enactment is highly contingent on the contextual conditions of news work. Journalists are not always—or perhaps even rarely—able to fully enact their occupational ideas when external constraints impose limits on their editorial autonomy (Reich & Hanitzsch, 2013; Shoemaker & Reese, 2013). Little surprisingly, a number of studies do indeed point to a “gap” between the roles journalists aspire to and the roles they execute in practice (Mellado & Van Dalen, 2014; Tandoc, Hellmueller, & Vos, 2013).

Practiced roles of journalists can be most meaningfully studied through means of observation and ethnography. Most of the times, however, these roles are extracted from news content—an approach that gained popularity in recent years (Mellado & Van Dalen, 2014; Skovsgaard et al., 2013; van Dalen, de Vreese, & Albæk, 2012). Early research discovered that journalism students included more analysis and interpretation in their articles when they believed that journalism should play an active role (Starck & Soloski, 1977). In the United States, journalists’ self-reported roles correlated only modestly with the roles present in what they considered their best work (Weaver et al., 2007). In a comparison of five Western countries, journalists’ partisanship was found to be significantly—but weakly—related to their practice when the journalists’ survey responses were confronted with their news decisions in four hypothetical situations (Patterson & Donsbach, 1996).

Studies in the 21st century do not seem to bring much clarity to this issue: surveys of journalists in Denmark, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom point to a robust relationship between journalists’ role perceptions and journalistic practice (van Dalen, de Vreese, & Albæk, 2012), while studies in Chile and the United States point to a gap between professional role perceptions and role enactment (Tandoc, Hellmueller, & Vos, 2013)—or as Mellado and van Dalen (2014) put it, to a gap between journalists’ “rhetoric and practice.” However, as discussed above, an inconsistency between occupational aspirations and professional practice is not surprising at all. The practice of journalists is likely to deviate from their occupational attitudes given the many constraints on their work, but there is little doubt that professional orientations substantively correlate with performance. Consistent with evidence from social psychology research (e.g., Bardi & Schwartz, 2003), the relationship between professional orientations and performance should be construed as one of correlation rather than correspondence. Future empirical research should focus on the strength of this relationship in a variety of situations and contexts. Van Dalen, de Vreese, and Albæk (2017) provide a comprehensive overview of the various techniques of studying the nexus between professional attitudes and practices of journalists.

Recently, researchers have started theorizing the roles of journalists as they materialize in news content. Esser (2008) has identified “journalistic intervention”—here understood as the extent to which journalists report in their own words, scenarios, assessments—as major denominator of cross-national differences. Mellado (2015) suggested distinguishing between three dimensions of journalistic performance: presence of the journalistic voice, power relations, and audience approach. These concepts nicely reproduce the three dimensions—interventionism, power distance, and market orientation—Hanitzsch (2007) had identified earlier (see above).

Narrated Roles

The last category in this fourfold distinction of journalistic roles is narrated roles, which denominate subjective perceptions of and reflections on the roles that journalists carry out in practice. To be clear, it makes a difference whether we look at the real practices of journalists, or if we study journalists’ recollections of and reflections on their own performance in retrospect. Narrated roles are filtered through journalists’ cognitive apparatuses and are ultimately reinterpreted against normative expectations and cognitive aspirations. In many Western societies, the omnipresent professional ideology of objectivity, detachment, and neutrality, for instance, makes it hard for journalists to admit that they are actually not able, or unwilling, to cater to what they conceive of being the highest normative expectations. In this sense, it is helpful to think of narrated role performance in terms of a discursive relationship between journalists and their audiences. Paradigm repair is a classic example of this, since it suggests that journalists reimagine their work based on how their role performance is perceived by the interlocutor-public (Berkowitz, 2000). It follows from the above that self-reports of journalists on their performance are little more than an approximation to journalists’ real practice.

One common research strategy to get hold of narrated roles is by asking journalists about the extent to which they think they are able to enact their cognitive roles in practice. Culbertson (1983) was one of the first scholars to look into the self-reported role performance of journalists. He found journalists’ role conceptions to be correlated with perceived practice. Also, from a survey of Danish journalists, Skovsgaard et al. (2013) concluded that journalists’ cognitive roles have substantial explanatory power with regard to how journalists implement the objectivity norm. Ramaprasad and Rahman (2006), however, discovered a substantial gap between perceived importance and performance for some roles. German journalists found it particularly difficult to enact a critical and monitorial role (Weischenberg, Löffelholz, & Scholl, 1993).

The process by which practiced roles of journalists translate into narrated role can be understood as role reflection. Reflection is a retrospective mechanism that puts journalistic practices—as well as their observation, interpretation, and categorization—into a coherent narrative. The reporting practices through which Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward famously exposed the Watergate scandal, for instance, were later framed in terms of “investigative journalism,” with journalists acting as detectives and watchdogs. Other narratives, such as the idea of objectivity, were used for strategic reasons to shield journalists from public critique (Tuchman, 1971). This way, the process of role reflection generates myths and tales about “good journalists,” or about practices that have led to professional failure. Some of the emerging narratives can become powerful tools that instigate introspection and may occasionally transform journalistic culture.

In the process of role reflection, journalists tend to reinterpret their practice so that it neatly maps onto the standard set of journalistic roles provided by an orthodox repertoire of collectively shared exemplars. Nowhere does this become more evident than in interviews with journalists when researchers find, sometimes to their great surprise, that people in the news business more or less resort to the same categories when interviewers ask for role perceptions and professional performance, no matter how they actually practice the trade.

The journalists’ imagery of their professional practice feeds back into discourses on normative and cognitive role orientations. In a routine setting, perceptions of journalistic practice serve to consolidate and reinforce established norms. Beliefs about what is actually done by most other journalists, which Lapinski and Rimal (2005) referred to as descriptive norms, work toward the normalization—or legitimation—of certain professional standards and ultimately lead to the preservation of journalistic cultures in which professional values are constituted as compelling objects of belief (Bogaerts, 2011). At the same time, certain perceived roles may also challenge—or delegitimize—the tacit professional consensus in the journalists’ community of practice and therefore contribute to destabilization of hegemonic journalistic norms. A popular example is the idea of “peace journalism,” which former BBC reporter Annabel McGoldrick (2000, p. 20) advocated as a new form of journalism that looks “at how journalists could be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.” These and other discourses are continuously trying to destabilize predominant newsroom cultures by challenging the normative core of journalism.

Furthermore, the way journalists perceive and frame their own practice may also have consequences for the cognitive roles they embrace. Narrated roles may assimilate journalists into newsroom culture, or journalism culture more generally; they make journalists to become members of a social group with shared ideas about what it takes to be good journalists (Tandoc & Takahashi, 2014). Especially young journalists feel a strong push toward streamlining their practices to presumed expectations of their seniors (“the-way-we-do-things”) in order to become fully accepted members of a professional community. This way, journalists develop a professional identity that gives them a sense of self that is constantly reiterated and reinforced by the professional community (Aldridge & Evetts, 2003).

At the same time, journalists may eventually realize that their practice does not live up to the desired standards set by their cognitive roles. A young reporter might enthusiastically embrace the watchdog role when he or she graduates from a journalism school. But once confronted with the realities on the ground, that reporter might realize that various constraints keep him or her from carrying out this role in a way consistent with his aspirations. One way to resolve this dissonance is by appropriation (i.e., by adjusting one’s professional aspirations and bringing them in line with—actual or narrated—practice). Exit is just another option to resolve this conflict: journalists may come to conclude that their professional aspirations are fundamentally incompatible with real-existing practice and, thus, decide to leave the field of journalism.

Two Catalogues of Journalistic Roles

The above strands of research resulted in a notable variety of, partly overlapping and often disparate, catalogues of journalistic roles. Hanitzsch and Vos (2016) recently proposed to systematize these roles across national contexts and journalistic beats by organizing them along two major domains of people’s lives: political life and everyday life. For the purpose of this entry, I will treat these two domains as analytically distinct, although in reality, the news often caters to the needs of audiences in both the political and everyday life simultaneously.

In the first domain, political life, journalism addresses the audience in its capacity as citizenry. Here, the social contribution of journalism lies in providing citizens with the information they need to act and participate in political life and, if given a chance, to be free and self-governing (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001). The universe of politically oriented roles of journalists can further organized into 18 specific roles that map onto a higher-order structure of six elementary functions of journalism, each addressing specific needs of political life (see Figure 1):

The informational-instructive function pertains to the idea that citizens need to have the relevant information at hand to act and participate in political life. Central to this function is the understanding of journalism as an exercise of information transmission, information (re-)packaging and storytelling.

The analytical-deliberative dimension encompasses journalistic roles that are politically more active and assertive either by making a direct intervention in a political discourse (e.g., by news commentary), by engaging the audience in public conversation, by empowering citizens, or by providing means for political participation.

The critical-monitorial function, sitting at the heart of journalism’s normative core in the West, is grounded in the ideal of journalism acting as “Fourth Estate,” with journalists voicing criticism, holding powers to account and, in so doing, creating a critically minded citizenry.

Roles that belong to the advocative-radical function compel journalists to conceive of themselves as “participants” in political life rather than as objective bystanders. Participation, however, is limited to the discursive realm, with journalists acting as missionaries of values and ideologies, as advocates of groups and causes, and as adversaries of the powerful.

The developmental-educative, by way of contrast, takes this intervention beyond political discourse into the real world, with journalists actively contributing to public education, enlightenment, social change, and social harmony.

The collaborative-facilitative dimension, finally, entails an understanding of journalists acting as partners of the government and supporting it in its efforts to bring about development and social well-being. In this capacity, journalists may serve as facilitators, collaborators, or mouthpieces of the government.

Figure 1. Roles of Journalists in Political Life

(Source: Hanitzsch & Vos, 2016, p. 8)

Most of the abovementioned roles rather exclusively pertain to journalism’s contribution to political life. However, modernity continues to extend the locus of journalism from the political arena to the domain of everyday life. In a time and in places where traditional social institutions cease to provide a normative framework, the media have to some extent taken over this role, filling the void through providing collective orientation in an increasingly multi-optional society (Hanusch & Hanitzsch, 2013). Journalism has, for a long time, provided help, advice, guidance, and information about the management of self and everyday life through consumer news and “news-you-can-use” content (Eide & Knight, 1999; Underwood, 2001). Given the historical, discursive toolkit available to them, however, journalists have been slow to articulate this role within journalism’s institutional framework.

It is therefore sensible to extend the existing set of journalistic roles—and journalism’s identity by extension—to the domain of everyday life. Here, Hanitzsch and Vos (2016) have suggested a separate set of journalistic roles that serve the public’s needs in the domain of everyday life. Seven additional roles map onto three interrelated spaces of everyday needs (see Figure 2):

In the area of consumption, journalism is addressing audience members in their capacity as consumers by featuring various kinds of purchasable products and patterns of leisure-time activities, thus contributing to the construction of consumer lifestyles (Chaney, 2001). Consumption is closely related to performative aspects of lifestyles that engender a great deal of consistency and authenticity in individuals’ behaviors (Taylor, 2002).

The area of identity becomes relevant for journalists as identity work in modern society is more than ever an individual exercise. Individuals are no more “born into” their identities; identity is transformed from a “given” into a “task”, charging the actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the consequences (Bauman, 2000, p. 31). People are not only confronted with an increased plurality of options, they also have more flexibility in choosing between them. This is where they need orientation for the management of self and everyday life, and for developing as sense of identification and belonging.

The area of emotion is concerned with the affective, emotional, and mood-related experience of news consumption, which is established as a major determinant of selective exposure to media content (Zillmann & Bryant, 1985). In this view, journalism contributes to affect regulation by helping individuals regulate mood and arousal and can stimulate rewarding social and cognitive experiences that contribute to emotional well-being in more complex and sustainable ways (for instance, by fostering a sense of insight, meaning, and social connectedness; Bartsch & Schneider, 2014).

Figure 2. Roles of Journalists in Everyday Life

(Source: Hanitzsch & Vos, 2016, p. 13)

Issues and Challenges in the Study of Journalistic Roles

Research on professional identity and journalists’ roles has always been at the heart of journalism scholarship. Despite a long tradition and a truly impressive number of studies, the area suffers from several shortcomings that are especially critical to the area of theorizing journalistic roles. Terminology varies considerably across publications and over time. Researchers refer to a wide range of concepts to denote roles of journalists as “press functions,” “media roles,” “role perceptions,” “role conceptions” or “journalistic paradigms” (e.g., Cohen, 1963; Janowitz, 1975; Pan & Chan, 2003; Donsbach & Patterson, 2004; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1986). An array of seeming synonyms, such as “ideology,” “perspectives,” “philosophy,” “orientations,” “school,” “belief-sets” and “mission,” add to a lack of conceptual clarity (Culbertson, 1983; Johnstone, Slawski, & Bowman, 1972; Starck & Soloski, 1977; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1986; Zhu, Weaver, Lo, Chen, & Wu, 1997).

More importantly, the area is still remarkably thin on theory. The study of professional identity and journalists’ roles lack a general theoretical framework that links journalists’ individual attitudes to the analysis of journalism as a social institution or field. Much of what we know about journalism builds on a methodological individualism: we try and arrive at conclusions about “journalism” by aggregating survey responses of journalists. At the same time, normative approaches and much of political communication research often treat journalism as “black box”; they are little grounded in journalists’ views, practices, and experience.

Perhaps as a consequence of the above two shortcomings, scholars until around the early 21st century tended to conflate the attitudinal and performative aspects of journalists’ roles, as well as their normative and empirical dimensions. As previously argued, journalists’ roles can be studied with regard to normative ideas (what journalists should do), cognitive orientations (what they want to do), professional practice (what journalists really do), and narrated performance (what they think they do). Not only are these dimensions often confused in much 21st-century work, journalists also find it difficult to respond to survey questions when it is not clear whether they are asked to report on normative, cognitive, practiced, or narrated roles.

Furthermore, it seems that both the normative and analytical traditions of conceptualizing journalistic roles have come to a point where they increasingly disconnect with journalism’s realities in a global world. The focus on journalists’ roles in democratic contexts, together with a concentration of scholarly resources in the northern hemisphere, has produced a Western bias that tends to pin journalism to the idea of democracy—despite overwhelming evidence for alternative roles exercised by journalists in non-Western contexts (Pintak & Ginges, 2008; Romano, 2005). To be sure, few would deny journalism’s centrality to democratic processes, but democracy is arguably not necessarily a prerequisite for journalism (Josephi, 2013). For a long time, journalism research has privileged a journalistic world that is narrower than that which exists in practice. Journalism has always extended beyond democracies—in fact, journalism within democracy is enjoyed only by a minority of the world’s population. The centrality of democracy has generated undemocratic journalism scholarship, by which variants of journalisms most germane to the core of democratic theory have been privileged over those that are not (Zelizer, 2013).

The global political economy of research and uneven distribution of scholarly resources has contributed to a normalization of Western ideals and practices of journalism as the “professional” standard against which journalism in the non-Western world was gauged. As scholarly doctrine, journalism’s existential relationship with democracy is hardly challenged. James Carey famously argued in 1996: “Journalism is another name for democracy or, better, you cannot have journalism without democracy.” The Western model of journalism assumes that news media are relatively autonomous from the state and that journalists are independent agents engaged in an antagonistic relationship to power while representing the people (Nerone, 2013). The model was exported to the developing world along with many other Western beliefs and practices—a transfer of occupational ideology from the West to countries in the Global South (Golding, 1977).

In addition, journalism scholarship has been preoccupied for decades with studying the roles of journalists in the political context. Other forms of journalism, such as service or lifestyle news, have been marginalized in scholarly discourse and occasionally discredited as an unworthy other. In a world, however, where working on one’s identity is increasingly an individual exercise (Bauman, 2000), journalism is not just about providing orientation in the political arena. As discussed above, journalists are also expected to perform in the domain of everyday life by providing help, advice, guidance, and information about the management of self and everyday life.

Discussion of the Literature

Research into the professional identity and roles of journalists has a long and rich tradition in the broader field of communication and media studies. Early approaches were primarily normative, with the central roles of the press identified as surveillance, correlation, transmission, and entertainment (Lasswell, 1948; Wright, 1960). These early conceptualizations continue to serve as a backbone to normative discussions. The idea that democracy essentially depends on a free flow of information and a diversity of viewpoints achieved paradigmatic status after it was enshrined in the 1947 report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press in the United States. In the subsequent years, Siebert, Peterson and Schramm’s (1956) “Four Theories of the Press” deeply influenced normative discourse in large parts of the West at least until the end of the Cold War. Normative approaches continue to thrive in the field until today (see Christians et al., 2009 for a recent account), though they seem to have lost some of their steam in the late 1980s.

Empirical-analytical approaches to the study of journalistic roles gained importance with Cohen (1963), which distinguished between a “neutral” and a “participant” role. In the United States, Cohen’s work was followed up upon through a series of large-scale representative surveys of journalists starting in the early 1970 (Johnstone, Slawski, & Bowman, 1972; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1986, 1996; Weaver et al., 2007). Scholars in other countries followed suit, though research tended to be concentrated in the West.

Comparative studies of journalistic roles gained importance in the 1990s, most notably with a five-nation study by Patterson and Donsbach (1996). Until the turn of the century, most comparative work was based on collections of surveys based on rather idiosyncratic methodological designs and procedures (Deuze, 2002; Weaver, 1998b; Weaver & Willnat, 2012). These limitations were overcome by newer studies that were based on a common methodological framework specifically tailored to the purpose of tight cross-sectional comparison. One major example is the Worlds of Journalism Study, which in its second wave carried out surveys in 67 countries (

Recently, researchers are shifting their attention from the study of cognitive roles to the investigation of role performance. While early studies of role perceptions simply presumed that journalists’ professional views had some impact on their practice, 21st-century research tests such assumptions by comparing journalists’ survey responses to the content they produce or to journalists’ self-assessments of their enacted roles (Mellado, Hellmüller, & Donsbach, 2017; Mellado & Van Dalen, 2014; Tandoc, Hellmueller, & Vos, 2013; Weaver et al., 2007). Studies of this type so far produced seemingly contradictory evidence: on the one hand, there seems to be a gap between the roles journalists aspire to and the roles they execute in practice. But on the other hand, many studies also found a robust correlation between cognitive and performed roles of journalists.

Further Reading


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