ISOJ Special Issue: Introduction
By Alfred Hermida
Writing back in the seventies, the renowned scholar Herbert Gans remarked “the news reflects a white male order” (1979, p. 61). A predominantly white and male approach has greatly shaped understandings of who is journalism for and who benefits. From his study of the news media in 1970s America, Gans noted that news was for and supported “the social order of public, business and professional, upper-middle-class, middle-aged, and white male sectors of society,” (1979, p. 61). Journalism, then, can be seen as a form of elite discourse that promotes, maintains and reifies political, ideological and economic hierarchies, enacted by journalists working under editorial, professional, managerial and financial constraints.
In the intervening four decades since the publication of Gans’ book, the white male order of news has been challenged and contested, while at the same time, it has also persisted and resisted. The normative fundamentals and professional ideology of journalism are often taken as the default lens for practice and research. Such a normative approach has tended to be rooted in a U.S.-centric view of journalism, intrinsically linking journalism and democracy. The study and understanding of journalism and its purpose has been refracted through by a U.S. lens, at the expense of acknowledging and recognising diverse kinds of journalism in different political systems (Zelizer, 2017).
This themed issue of #ISOJ takes as its premise the core question of who is journalism for and who benefits against a background of multiple journalisms in conversation with diverse, global publics (Callison & Young, 2020). Who does the news serve, who it excludes, misrepresents or marginalizes are at the core of the purpose of journalism. The simple answer is that journalism is a public good that is essential for the functioning of a democratic society. In their influential and widely-cited book, Kovach and Rosenstiel (2007) say that “the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing,” (p. 12). But which citizens has journalism served and with what kind of information? Recent twenty-first century social movements, from #OccupyWallStreet to #BlackLivesMatter to #metoo, have highlighted limitations in mainstream media, leveraged social media to connect marginalized communities and articulate counter narratives that challenge prevailing narratives of representation in the mainstream media.
As Callison and Young (2020) ask, why have journalism studies scholars ignored critiques of the media from intersectional scholars, “despite decades of evidence of racism, gendered media coverage, and bias in journalism coverage and the overwhelming whiteness of mainstream media” (p. 7). And that whiteness extends beyond the newsroom to the classroom (Alemán, 2014), let alone questions around decolonialising journalism education (Todorova, 2016). This special issue of #ISOJ aims to contribute to journalism studies by taking a critical look at issues of power, privilege and patriarchy. The five papers in this themed issue take up the challenge, asking difficult questions and advancing fresh insights into what journalism could be.
The first two papers in this issue look at alternatives to mainstream journalism in two very distinct contexts. Ryan Wallace examines mitú, a digital native publication that produces culturally-relevant content for Latino audiences born in the U.S. The research article is a fascinating case study of an outlet that reaches 90 million readers a month through novel approaches to journalism that contest traditional, ideological values in Latino culture about race, gender, and sexual orientation. Through an analysis of mitú’s content on its website and social media channels, Wallace investigates the construction of a Latino American identity, seeking to find out how far its journalism questions patriarchy and other ideological notions of hegemony. He surfaces how mitú’s journalism presents an alternative to legacy media in the United States, both through the choice of, and approach to, issues such as machismo and LGBTQ+ identity in Latin American communities.
A complementary but different form of media is the focus for Olga Lazitski. She tracks the emergence of alternative forms journalism in a non-democratic and non-liberal media system, in this case, Russia. Lazitski writes about “alternative professional journalism” to capture how professional journalists in Russia are trying to contest intimidation and censorship. Through participant observation, in-depth interviews and discourse analysis, she finds journalists attached to a prevailing norm of objectivity as defined by the U.S. normative tradition, and who reject being labeled as critics of Putin’s government. The research article avoids presenting a binary choice of a state-controlled or free press and instead presents a nuanced theoretical contribution of the role of journalism in non-democratic societies.
The next two papers switch the lens from the newsroom to the public and consider the intervention of audiences via social media in the sourcing and framing of the news. Kirsi Cheas, Maiju Kannisto and Noora Juvonen consider the student movment, #MarchForOurLives, that emerged following the mass shooting in February 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. What stands out in the research article is how they unpack the intergenerational power hierarchies between teens taking to social media and the mediating role of the news media. Through a content analysis of online news articles in five news outlets in the U.S., the researchers reveal how tweets by Parkland students appreciably influenced media coverage. At the same time, though, the liberal or conservative ideological bent of news outlets mediate the message, with divergent representations of the youth voices.
Narratives in news media also come under scrutiny in Carolyn Nielsen’s research article on the coverage of President Donald Trump’s tweets on four women of color, newly elected to Congress. Trump’s tweets telling the Congresswomen to “go back” to the countries they came from prompted extensive coverage. Nielsen draws on critical race theory and intersectionality to analyze how three national outlets in the U.S.—Vox, Buzzfeed and The Washington Post—reported the story. While her findings reveal how coverage labeled Trump’s comments racist, they also showed the limitations of reporting on racism as an everyday occurrence, let alone including intersectional perspectives to explain how different forms of prejudices come together.
The fifth research article offers an invigorating take on potential and limitations of participatory journalism to address patriarchal structures in journalism. For the article, Mark Poepsel draws on Critical Studies on Men, and specifically the concept of the hegemony of men, to unpack the power and authority of men as an institutional group. He goes on to discuss how participatory journalism in and of itself does not provide an antidote to gender inequities. But he adopts an optimistic outlook to consider the potential for boundary work and/or reciprocity in journalism to challenge the hegemony of men. Poepsel raises significant and overlooked research questions for journalism scholars, surfacing the importance of addresses gender and power in the study of participatory journalism projects.
Taken together, the research articles in this special issue highlight the persistence of power structures within the practice and study of journalism. They unpack evolving multiple journalisms for diverse publics, in the case of this issue—Latino Americans, Russian journalists, teens, women of color, and journalism practitioners and scholars. The hope of this issue is to advance the conversation about how ideas of power, privilege and patriarchy intersect and shape journalism’s institutional forms, practices, and epistemologies.
Alemán, S. M. (2014). Locating whiteness in journalism pedagogy. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 31(1), 72-88.
Callison, C., & Young, M. L. (2020). Reckoning: Journalism’s limits and possibilities. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Gans, H. J. (2004). Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS evening news, NBC nightly news, Newsweek, and Time. Northwestern University Press.
Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2007) . The elements of journalism: What newspeople should know and the public should expect. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Todorova, M. S. (2016). Co-created learning: Decolonizing journalism education in Canada. Canadian Journal of Communication, 41(4), 673-692.
Zelizer, B. (2017). What journalism could be. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Alfred Hermida, Ph.D., is Professor and Director of the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media at the University of British Columbia, and co-founder of The Conversation Canada. With more than two decades of experience in digital journalism, his research addresses the transformation of media, emergent news practices, media innovation, social media and data journalism. His most recent book, co-authored with Mary Lynn Young, is Data Journalism and the Regeneration of News (Routledge 2019). He is author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters (DoubleDay, 2014), winner of the 2015 National Business Book Award, co-author of Participatory Journalism: Guarding Open Gates at Online Newspapers (Wiley Blackwell, 2011), and co-editor of The Sage Handbook of Digital Journalism (Sage, 2016). Dr. Hermida was a BBC TV, radio and online journalist for 16 years, including four in North Africa and the Middle East, before going on to be a founding news editor of the BBC News website in 1997.