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History and Structure of American Journalism

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Hallin and Giles, “Presses and Democracies”
  • Entman, “The Nature and Sources of News”
  • Commission on Freedom of the Press, “The Requirements”

The independent nature of the press — particularly the American press — defies a system of classification so tidy as biology’s mechanism for placing each specimen in a fully describable and quantifiable category. But that won’t stop scholars from trying.

And with good reason. There is much to be learned from the exercise of correlating media systems with the geo-political characteristics of the societies where they emerged, as Hallin and Giles to do in their chapter “Presses and Democracies.” Likewise, “The Requirements” put forward by the Commission on Freedom of the Press were an important normalizing benchmark in the changing professional standards of American journalism in the mid-20th century. And although the system for distinguishing among media, as laid out by Entman in “The Nature and Sources of News,” is admittedly far from precise, it is nonetheless a useful measuring stick to compare how the ever-increasing number and types of news forms stack up.

The analyses within all three of these articles are geared toward a dual measurement: how different forms of journalism compare with one another as they strive for (or ignore) the ideal of service to democracy.

That ideal can look very different in different places, as we learn in “Presses and Democracies.” By placing global media systems in the context of their political and cultural environments, Hallin and Giles find that they emerge along a parallel with comparative politics (a field of study from which the authors borrow heavily in their analyses and descriptions of the press, primarily in Europe and North America).

The authors propose that journalism’s “liberal,” “polarized pluralist” and “democratic corporatist” models (gauged according to their characteristics of mass circulation, state involvement, “political parallelism” or the alignment of mass media with political agendas, and professionalization) are very much reflections of the political realities and cultural values of the societies they serve.

Being such true reflections of societies, whose history and governance is a complex matrix of trends, there is an exception to every rule and more than a little overlap and oversimplification in the resulting classification system, but the authors nonetheless describe the general characteristics of these different media models and explain where, approximately, different countries fall along the spectrum.

“Presses and Democracies” is an international and largely historical study, but shares a basic premise with Entman’s “The Nature and Sources of News,” which is implicitly U.S.-focused. Rather than continue to analyze what journalism “should be,” both articles are framed to describe journalism as it actually is. With this understanding, both authors assert, one can better assess the true condition of the profession today. Only then can journalists hope to direct the field’s functional reality going forward.

Entman’s example provides an important lesson on perspective regarding the function of news. He gauges whether or not something is “news” based on how it’s received by audiences — not how it’s branded or intended by its producers. Therefore not only traditional, mainstream news sources, but also advocacy journalism, tabloid journalism, and even outright entertainment media all have a place along his news spectrum. And that place tends to be fluid for every news source described.

Regardless the source, he finds news recognizable based on its effect of “illuminating four areas of knowledge vital to effective democratic citizenship”: policy, power, ideology and an audience’s own self-interest in the topic being covered.

In contrast, “The Requirements” is a document that sets forth a definition of journalism for media to strive for — not a description of media in its contemporary form. Framing the discussion from the audience’s point of view, and assuming that it’s the press’s responsibility to provide “the current intelligence needed by a free society,” the Commission on Freedom of the Press delineates what audiences require of the press.

The impossibility of any single media to provide all of these requirements is fully recognized. All serving as parts of the collective whole, each media provides a unique set of functions in service to the ideal. The fallibility of the classification systems described by Entman and by Hallin and Giles are also duly acknowledged.

Despite the imperfections of each of these measuring sticks — or maybe precisely because they include so much grey area — these analyses are helpful in understanding the nuances and implications of how and why various media deliver their content they way they do. The rubrics are also helpful descriptions of the landscape for teasing out where you want your own contributions to journalism to live.

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