In Western traditions of news gathering, journalists are seen as being objective and impartial. Often they are complimented for doing investigative work or castigated for not challenging politicians enough. Ultimately, what comes across is that media consumers have some idea of what they think journalism is. When blogging platforms became easy to use and news creation costs were effectively slashed, a split began to appear between bloggers and professional journalists. Various issues rose to prominence — PR became indistinguishable from reporting and ads started to appear as straight copy. There are still stories of bloggers asking for free food in exchange for positive coverage, for example.
The key question that came up was who is or isn’t a journalist. To answer that and in the process link it back to citizen journalists, the first thing to do is look at the roles of journalism.
Roles of Journalism
A taxonomy of the four normative roles of journalism is provided by Christians et al. Those four are:
Tanja Aitamurto and Anita Varma (2018) add a fifth role:
Constructive journalism is a type of journalism where a solution for how to solve a societal problem is added to the text. It is also called solutions journalism.
“A constructive role encompasses a wide breadth of journalisms, such as advocacy journalism, impact journalism, heartening journalism, future-focused journalism, transformation journalism, development journalism, and emancipatory journalism” (as cited in: Aitamurto and Varma (2018). Carpentier 2005, 206–207; Hanitzsch 2007, 381; Krüger 2017, 405–406), and has precedents in public journalism, peace journalism, and activist journalism.”
I include a table below from TA & AV about the roles of journalism. In what the authors call the Anglo-Saxon context of the media, journalism is more often thought of as monitorial–it monitors the actions of power; it observes and documents routine and unexpected events, and places a check on power. Its ideals are objectivity, accuracy and transparency. Monitorial journalism provides a watchdog function. The journalist is seen as a neutral observer ‘just reporting’ what they see.
Facilitative journalism provides a conversation about public issues. Its role is one of moderator between different political actors who want to resolve public issues.
Collaborative journalism is the PR/public relations branch of communication. It’s about giving institutions outside the media, a megaphone to advance their interests.
Radical journalism provides scrutiny of power and criticism of existing power structures. Its role is one of a critic and it advocates for change.
Internalising your role as a journalist
The four typical normative roles of journalism are usually embedded within organisations. By joining a PR company, for example, you learn a collaborative mode of communication. You embody and get taught a role by those around you. You report to an editor or a PR boss and are guided to what you can write. Journalists are hired because of their pre-existing outlooks and the type of work they do.
With advocacy journalism, however, not only does it go against the Anglo-Saxon leanings of ‘impartiality’ but it is also more likely to be found in citizen journalism. Citizen journalists are more likely to work as individuals without the top-down guidance on where their roles fit in the media and with their audience.
The lack of structure about which role to take up and the already established advocacy, which is seemingly in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon model favouring impartiality, could make it difficult for citizen journalists to feel they are an authoritative journalistic voice.
Advocacy, however, has never been far from journalism. Choosing who to interview and to whose voice to give prominence, are choices that can promote one perspective over another.
Tom Mills, in his book and research on the BBC, outlined a process of shift where instead of workers’ views being promoted, the voices of business and capital began to take prominence.
In the US, the same phenomenon has taken place according to research published by On the Media.
!The labor beat was sidelined in the ’70s in favor of business and money verticals, in pursuit of wealthier readers. The working class was left without mainstream outlets that spoke about — or to — them.”
Advocacy in journalism is inescapable because, in Fisher’s (2016) terms, “even unwittingly, the simple inclusion of a comment or perspective from a source by the reporter may inject a degree of advocacy to a story … The stronger and more passionately the sources advocate, the stronger the story” (722).
Media Lens have written about the process of how journalism works in practice by structuring the constraints of writers from the top-down. American political writer and media critic Michael Parenti explained powerfully how journalism works in practice. There are five stages of getting from an enthusiastic journalist to one who conforms to a media organisation’s needs. By the fifth stage, the lessons have been internalised to such an extent that you don’t even notice you’ve done it.
As a citizen journalist, however, the constraints are more horizontal than vertical. There isn’t necessarily a boss to tell you not to write something; you see that other people don’t write about certain topics, or you get no response when you do write about them so you don’t continue down that path.
If the ‘impartial’, objective and monitorial role is seen as the standard one, then this constrains the journalists who came to their roles in the media from a world of advocacy.
Starting to see constructive or solutions journalism as an actual journalistic role can help support citizen journalists in finding their own authority. The practice has been identified in the US since 1948 so it’s not new.
Tanja Aitamurto & Anita Varma (2018): The Constructive Role of Journalism, Journalism Practice, DOI: 10.1080/17512786.2018.1473041
Christians, Clifford G., Theodore L. Glasser, Denis McQuail, Kaarle Nordenstreng, and Robert A. White. 2009. Normative Theories of the Media: Journalism in Democratic Societies. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Fisher, Caroline. 2016. “The Advocacy Continuum: Towards a Theory of Advocacy in Journalism.” Journalism 17 (6): 711–726.
Chalmers, David M. 1959. “The Muckrakers and the Growth of Corporate Power: A Study in Constructive Journalism.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 18 (3): 295–311.
Carpentier, Nico. 2005. “Identity, Contingency and Rigidity: The (Counter-) Hegemonic Constructions of the Identity of the Media Professional.” Journalism 6 (2): 199–219.
Hanitzsch, Thomas. 2007. “Deconstructing Journalism Culture: Toward a Universal Theory.” Communication Theory 17 (4): 367–385.
Krüger, Uwe. 2017. “Constructive News: A New Journalistic Genre Emerging in a Time of Multiple
Crises.” In The Future Information Society: Social and Technological Problems, edited by
Wolfgang Hofkirchner and Mark Burgin, 403–422. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co