Participatory journalism and the hegemony of men

By Mark Poepsel

[Citation: Poepsel, M. (2020). Participatory journalism and the hegemony of men. #ISOJ Journal, 10(1), 109-126.]

This study takes a Critical Studies on Men (CSM) approach to review digital participatory journalism literature in the interest of improving the ways people of different gender categories relate to one another in the industry. The concepts of boundary work and reciprocity are unpacked to see how they might foster challenges to the hegemony of men. Merely introducing participatory projects is not enough to bring gender balance, but herein are identified ways in which norms of male dominance might be broken down and where they might be given up freely if it means protecting other more useful journalistic norms.

This paper takes a Critical Studies on Men (CSM) approach to a review of the journalism studies literature on participatory journalism to pursue in a somewhat broad, exploratory manner the following theoretical question: If participatory journalism practices continue along current trajectories, do they offer opportunities to build alternatives to structural patriarchy in global journalism, or might we expect them more so to reify white, male, Western and Northern dominance? The specific concept under CSM applied here is that of the hegemony of men—the idea that men as a social category within a system of socially constructed genders use the position afforded them by assumptions associated with this category to wield power over people in other gender categories (Hearn, 2017). There are different types of hegemony, of course, but what makes the hegemony of men most interesting in an international perspective is its pervasiveness. It cuts across all sorts
of other social categories and boundaries. If alternatives to the hegemony of men can be found in digital participatory journalism, a set of relatively new structures of meaning making being developed around the world, perhaps there is hope for finding better balances of power between gendered categories. On the other hand, opening up journalism routines and norms to participatory practices in digital spaces may merely expose more citizens to the patriarchy of the news media systems already in place, and the journalistic field may open itself up to even more influence from misogynist trolls.

Planned participatory journalism projects often promise to include the views of subaltern communities, those who are “otherized” in reference to the dominant patriarchy because of race, class, gender, and geography, but these projects do not always accomplish what they have promised, and there exist forms of “dark participation” that spread misinformation and disinformation in service to the worst elements of the patriarchy to mass audiences (Quandt, 2018, p. 36). For participatory journalism to reach its promise of serving inclusive communities (Ayerdi, 2005), it must serve to challenge and provide balance against the established news patriarchy, which fails in many ways to provide socially responsible information to mass audiences.

Participatory journalism as it is most often discussed in the journalism studies literature is deeply intertwined with digital communication technologies. Physical world collaborations between professional journalists and audiences exist, of course, but what is possible in digital networks is potentially exponentially larger and more complex (Robinson, 2011). Whether users engage with already published news content, which is more common, or they participate in the production of news, most of the interactions are in the digital realm. “In common usage in many corners of the industry, ‘engagement’ signifies using digital tools to track audience interactions and push out content to them” (Lawrence, Radcliffe, & Schmidt, 2018, p. 1220). From this surface level of digital engagement to the more collaborative projects on the other end of the participatory journalism spectrum (Nip, 2009), most of the points of contact where the news industry and the rest of society interact are in online spaces.

This paper focuses on the potential for using digitally networked connections between citizens and journalists to push back on the established patriarchy in the news business. Additionally, suggestions are made for future research in the context of critical feminist theory via an application of this relatively obscure concept of the hegemony of men, which places most of the responsibility of change on men down to the individual (Messerschmidt, 2018, p. 68).

The Patriarchy

All around the world there are examples of patriarchies at work in the field of journalism (Edstrom, 2013; Lobo, Silveirinha, Torres da Silva, & Subtil, 2017; van Zoonen, 1998). Edstrom (2013) found that gender parity in newsrooms in Nordic countries did not translate to content (p. 48). Lobo et al. (2017) noted that normative concepts of masculinity continue to dominate newsroom culture in Portugal. “Despite the increasing number of female journalists in newsrooms, women are still seen as outsiders by their male colleagues. This happens because journalism practices are deeply rooted in a male-centered professional culture” (p. 1149). Adding some nuance, van Zoonen (1998) notes that the hiring of more women in newsrooms, particularly in the United States, has created a numerical balance between gender categories; however, during the same time frame changes in news norms followed trends associated with a switch to “market-driven journalism” (p. 46). This is described as a perversion of the hopes and expectations many women had for the field in previous decades when they fought to make it more gender balanced. Thus, van Zoonen (1998) explains:

As is clear, most traditional news journalists, women and men alike, despise the consumer orientation and look down on its practitioners with ill-concealed contempt. In this they are in the good company of other political and intellectual elites. Partly, this contempt has good reasons; the increasing popularization of news and information certainly has its problematic aspects and one can indeed wonder—with the critics—what the democratic merits of human interest and sensationalism are. Moreover, female journalists who expressed a need for more ‘human interest’ and compassion or emotions in the news a decade ago will not in their wildest nightmares have thought it would come to this. On the other hand, it is not only the popularization of news that is on trial in these debates; implicitly it is women and femininity as crucial components of this popularization as well. In our patriarchal societies most things women do and like are not valued very highly, and the contempt for market-driven journalism should surely be seen as part of this general patriarchal scheme. (p. 46)

In this way, women journalists, and women as a gender category in general, are be-
ing made scapegoats for sensationalism and trends toward market orientation. It is a hallmark of Western patriarchy to suggest that the decline of ethics in one of its key institutions is related to the feminization of the field rather than the destruction of a moral compass in light of myriad variables. Even when they outnumber men and see deep changes taking place in newsmaking spaces that were once hostile to them, it is as though women cannot “win.”

What would an ideal newsroom with balance between gendered categories look like? Inferring from the authors cited above (Edstrom, 2013; Lobo et al., 2017; van Zoonen, 1998) as well as Allan, Branston, & Carter (2002), there would be equal representation in newsrooms as relates to gender groups in a given population. Those newsrooms would be free to reflect the local, regional, and national culture in ways that are congruent with all types of gender groups. Those newsrooms would also be free from sexual harassment and other forms of patriarchal degradation that have forced women to act as “one of the boys” to get along in the workplace, and news content would be socially responsible (van Zoonen, 1998, p. 33), engaging and human-interest-oriented without being sensationalistic or cloying.

Looking for potential pathways to build these types of news systems, it makes sense, out of all aspects of journalism studies research, to focus on participatory journalism because participatory practices have been shown to be disruptive forces in the field (Carlson & Lewis, 2015). Many of the stated goals of participatory journalism mirror those listed above (Singer et al., 2011), although this is not to say that participatory practices are necessarily disruptive or effectual. Suffice it to say if structural change is going to happen in the global news field, digital spaces made for participatory collaboration are potential points of influence. On the other hand, continuing to invite citizens to participate in journalism in deeper ways might create an opportunity for the patriarchy established in the journalistic field to be transferred to participants, and it may create a nexus where patriarchies in broader society and in journalism join forces. This has already been seen where gender-based troll crusades on social media were picked up by mainstream, or malestream, news organizations via the appropriation of social media trends. As the adoption of extreme, reactionary male-dominated agendas becomes more commonplace in the mass media, the tendency of mass market news to give voice to anti-social and anti-feminist elements of the patriarchy online is observed (Chess & Shaw, 2015; Mortensen, 2018).

As research into participatory journalism continues, in any given case study that takes critical feminist theory and the hegemony of men into account, much will depend on the newsroom, the community, and the participatory practice in question. Thus, this discussion proceeds with equal parts trepidation and cautious optimism. If the line of inquiry into “dark participation” has taught us anything it is to mistrust the blind optimism we had about participatory journalism in practice in the early 2000s (Madrigal, Alexis, 2012; Quandt, 2018; Westlund & Ekström, 2018). The discussion in this paper centers on two core concepts in the participatory journalism studies literature: Included are boundary studies (Carlson & Lewis, 2015; Coddington, 2012; Lewis, 2012; Singer, 2015; Wolfgang, 2018) and reciprocity in participatory practice (Carlson & Usher, 2015; Lewis, Holton, & Coddington, 2014) a defining feature of social life that has long been considered a key component in the formation and perpetuation of vibrant communities. In recent years, scholars have applied the concept to improve our understanding of the social dynamics of online communities and social media. Much has been written. Still, the function of and potential for reciprocity in digital news is only beginning to be realized.

This study seeks to explore these questions: Where might the hegemony of men in the practice of journalism be vulnerable to changes brought on through the establishment of regular participatory practices in digital spaces? Where might patriarchies in journalism and in society be reified? And what might this mean for participatory journalism practice and scholarship?

After an explication of the concept of the hegemony of men under the Critical Studies on Men framework, this article briefly examines these questions.

Hegemony of Men

The concept of the hegemony of men comes from the CSM theoretical framework. Critical Studies on Men falls into a group of gender studies approaches including, “Feminist scholarship … as a general critique of gender relations,” “Gay scholarship … [which] may or may not provide a critique of men,” and “Men’s responses to feminism … usually distinct from gay scholarship … varying from anti-feminist to pro-feminist” (Hearn, 1997, p. 49). CSM stands a bit apart from these other approaches. It falls in the pro-feminist camp and seeks to counter the habit in the social sciences of taking men as a gendered category for granted except in cases where the men are othered in relation to race (e.g. research on Black men may separate these men for criticism) or social class (e.g. research on homeless men may incorporate gendered critiques) (Hearn, 1997). Men, particularly white men, are often presumed to have and exercise agency, and though men are often the subjects of critical scholarship, the criticism does not usually come in terms of their gender category (Hearn, 1997, 2004, 2017). Men are critiqued as powerbrokers, professionals, communicators, key players in institutions but not simply as men, members of a group whose power and authority need to be interrogated. “Thus each of the existing conventional academic disciplines can be subject to a process of critically studying men there” (Hearn, 2017, p. 57). “CSM thus refers to that range of studies that critically address men in the context of gendered power relations” (Hearn, 2004, p. 50).

Narrowing that range to the concept of the hegemony of men is relatively straightforward. Previously referred to as “hegemonic masculinity,” it had to do with the power men wield and the power of masculinity to establish and enforce social norms broadly as well as internally in the minds of men (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 829).

A culturally idealized form, it [hegemonic masculinity] is both a personal and a collective project and is the common sense about breadwinning and manhood. It is exclusive, anxiety-provoking, internally and hierarchically differentiated, brutal, and violent. It is pseudo-natural, tough, contradictory, crisis-prone, rich, and socially sustained. While centrally connected with the institutions of male dominance, not all men practice it though most benefit from it. (Donaldson, 1993, p. 645)

Donaldson notes how hegemonic masculinity tends to be normalized in mass media (1993, p. 644). For example, it shows up in sports journalism textbooks, which may explain in part why this subsection of the journalistic field has been so fraught (Hardin, Dodd, & Lauffer, 2006). At any rate, the focus on “hegemonic masculinity” has faded for some scholars in favor of discussing the “hegemony of men” because of the limitations of the disembodied concept of masculinity (Hearn, 2004). As a cultural ideal “masculinity” is powerful, but it is an abstraction without human agency, faults, failings or responsibility.

Men (as a social category), on the other hand, hold and wield power and grapple internally with the expectations of masculinity. Hearn (2004, 2017) is a major proponent of the study of the “hegemony of men” and states: “The hegemony of men seeks to address the double complexity that men are both a social category formed by the gender system and dominant collective and individual agents of social practices” (Hearn, 2004, p. 59, emphasis in original). Thus when we critique the hegemony of men, it allows us to ques- tion individual choices and thought processes. It is fair and just to question those with social agency about how they wield it.

Masculinity is defined differently across cultures, but men in various socio-cultural contexts almost all benefit from the hegemony of their gender group. Hearn (2004) writes that this forces us to reconceptualize cultural hegemony: “[A]ny rigid, monocultural notion of hegemony is now, rather paradoxically, to be treated with great caution, indeed probably dismissed” (p. 64). Let us not debate which type of hegemonic power matters most but instead recognize that the ubiquity of the hegemony of men makes it a worthwhile framework particularly when we are discussing what to do about the patriarchy in journalism. As a branch of feminist critical theory that puts much of the responsibility on men to answer for and to alter the direction of their gender group, the concept of the hegemony of men is a useful complement to contemporary feminisms.

Each subsection that follows begins with a description of a concept from the participatory journalism literature. Then, the concept of the hegemony of men is introduced as a problem that might be lessened or worsened by the practices and phenomena associated with each participatory journalism concept. It is possible to challenge normative patriarchal structures and practices in newsrooms because they are not essential for getting socially responsible journalism done. The goal of this paper and the ultimate application of theory here is not to blow up the already fragile institution of socially responsible journalism but to ask if participatory practices might open opportunities to challenge the harmful tendencies of patriarchies in mainstream news observed the world over.


The study of “boundary work” in the journalistic field in the context of participatory journalism deals with ways that news professionals negotiate their power to set news agendas (Carlson & Lewis, 2015; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2014). At question is who is a “real” journalist, what should that mean, and how might participatory journalism threaten, or enhance, the authority, control, and responsibilities that professional journalists hold dear (Carlson, 2015). Boundary studies also provide terms for understanding how power might be shared through networked participation (Carlson, 2015), but hope for these opportunities must be tempered by knowledge of the history of the profession.

In Boundaries of Journalism (Carlson & Lewis, 2015), Carlson notes that there are two ways of conceiving boundaries in any professional field (2015). One is as demarcation between those with knowledge, authority, and jurisdiction to police the space from within versus those without, and the other describes a boundary more as a membrane with locations where interactions can take place (Carlson, 2015, pp. 5-7). Carlson draws attention to “boundary objects”—objects that can carry different meanings for different subjects depending on which side of a boundary they are on (2015, pp. 6-7).

For example, digital social networks are boundary objects for journalists working to engage with audiences. For journalists, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are most often used as information gathering tools (Weaver & Willnat, 2016). There may be a collaboration of sorts when journalists co-opt amateur content, but the primary use of social media fits into well-established norms. For web users, social media platforms could be a means to bypass traditional news outlets and interact directly with newsmakers, or users might take to social media to attempt to shape how news topics are framed (Lewis & Molyneux, 2018). For consumers, social networks can also be their primary way of learning about the news (Hermida, Fletcher, Korell, & Logan, 2012), which undercuts journalists’ ability to place news items in context. As boundary objects, social media platforms are perceived differently by professional journalists as opposed to consumers.

This concept of boundary objects can extend to participatory journalism projects. For news organizations, these can be outreach tools, performative exhibitions of community concern, but they may also be sincere efforts to seek out citizen agendas, citizen input, crowdsourcing help, and/or ideas for social solutions (Rosenberry & St John, 2009). For citizen participants, these projects can be an opportunity to be heard and to try to leverage the reach of journalism to influence those with institutional power. As Borger and van Hoof (2014) put it, “In short, participants in Project Hyperlocal considered themselves Public Relations (PR) agents who generated exposure for a cause or interest in their immediate context” (pp. 717-718). In other words, journalists often prefer to use the news merely to inform while citizens may expect to use participatory news to persuade. In the examples Borger and van Hoof studied (2014), these two definitions of the boundary object were so much at odds that the projects failed. Journalists in at least one case approached the relationship as “transactional, while participants expected it to be interactive” (Borger & van Hoof, 2014, p. 722). If change is to come in the patriarchal structures of news at its boundaries through participatory projects, more interactive, i.e. reciprocal projects will likely have to be built/sought out.

There is more to come on reciprocity below, but first, a prescription: To disrupt patriarchies in journalism, network connections, as points of influence, should be strategically targeted to increase the influence of women on both sides of the perceived boundary. The role of men in this regard is to assist and encourage women on the professional side of the boundary as well as amateurs seeking to influence news agendas. Additionally, men on social media need to get out of the way. They need to curtail the kinds of practices in social media that would have them chastised in in-person settings such as interrupting women or co-opting their ideas. In practice this requires vigilance in looking for opportunities to influence news agendas, and it means, on the amateur side, having messages and messengers available at a moment’s notice to speak on the issue or issues of the day. Digital social networks are spaces of constant churn. In terms of participatory projects, citizens should seek to influence the nature of projects and not accept those that are primarily transactional.

It will not be easy to work across boundaries. The other half of Carlson’s (2015, p. 5) thesis is that professionals police their borders and enforce their authority. Professional journalists have bound up their ethical standards with practices that tend to benefit status quo patriarchies (North, 2009). Journalists express concern that digital participatory platforms undermine their efforts to carefully gather information, verify it, and present it in ways that are interesting, meaningful, and as accurate as possible (Singer, 2015). Unlike other boundary threats to the field, e.g. from pseudo-journalists who present opinion as though it were fact, from corporate pressures on news agendas, and from political actors who subvert longstanding news structures (Gutsche Jr., 2018), most participatory practices in news organizations are subject to journalists’ influence (Carlson, 2015). Journalists have the power to appropriate and/or amplify citizen news content (Usher, 2016). Journalists craft participatory projects and can institute training programs for citizens to engage with (Rosenberry & St John, 2009; Wall, 2017). In these contexts, journalists are careful to define and maintain boundaries between what they do and what citizen contributors do.

Though it will not be easy to influence the nature of participatory projects, there is a potential paradox that might make men in journalism more willing to rethink gender norms the more tightly they attempt to control the boundaries of participation. At the same time many men are fighting to preserve patriarchal structures in journalism they must also work to defend other news norms. If they are forced to choose between fighting for the power to hold authorities accountable and the ability to shape public opinion in the era of social media incursions, the time may be ripe to strike at the root of patriarchal structures and behaviors in newsrooms.

Though many journalists are reluctant, often journalists working on participatory projects are have demonstrated an openness to change and a willingness to negotiate boundaries (Rosenberry & St. John, 2009). If negotiations about gender norms in newsrooms take place on their “turf” in a setting where individual men may feel less inclined to be defensive about their authority, we may see change. Men who show openness to questioning patriarchies may be sought out and contacted through participatory projects as a way of working across boundaries rather than attempting to break through barriers.

A good test of this in practice would be to introduce the expectation that participatory journalism projects treat organized women’s groups as co-equal participants in newsmaking. Many participatory journalism projects involve community collaborations and partnerships with organized groups (“Gather,” n.d.). A push to treat women’s organizations not as radical partisans but as real partners would test journalists’ commitment to the ethic of participation (Lewis, 2012). One problem with participatory projects is that often citizens are not as interested in civic participation as journalists had hoped (Borger, van Hoof, Costera Meijer, & Sanders, 2012; Domingo et al., 2008; Poepsel, 2017), but this is not an issue for many women’s groups who are well organized, constantly fighting for recognition and fair, contextualized, issues-based coverage. Perhaps holding news organizations to the standards they claim to espouse about openness in projects where they feel their boundaries are relatively safe would help make better gender balance possible.

The downside of this idealistic approach is that it grants journalists a mechanism to maintain their hegemony. Actor-network theory suggests that individuals acting as agents within networks will create “obligatory points of passage” that deeply influence who may engage with the network and how they must engage (Domingo & Le Cam, 2015). In the case described in depth by Domingo and Le Cam (2015), journalists tended to favor polarizing voices and those who play by the rules, so to speak. The ethic of participation is still under negotiation. Terms such as “engagement” are still being defined in the academic literature (Nelson, 2018). If anything, research findings, across more than 120 studies of participatory journalism, according to Engelke (2019), show a 50/50 split between studies showing journalists remain in control over news production versus those that show shared power or mixed results. The responsibility then lies with individual men in positions of power as actors in journalistic networks to accept greater levels of participation and to change the normative rules of mainstream news organizations so that the input and context provided by participatory partners is not lost to ritual, habitual hegemony.


Journalism studies scholars (Borger et al., 2014; Lewis et al., 2014) introduced reciprocity theory to this research field in order to provide a framework for discussing the inherent value of news participation in digital social networks (see also Holton, Coddington, Lewis, & De Zúñiga, 2015). If journalists and editors in positions of power ask what the point of participatory projects and platforms might be, some answers can be found in real-world social networks. Lewis et al. (2014) identified direct and indirect reciprocity as well as short-term and sustained forms as essential to understand. Direct reciprocity is similar to a quid pro quo. Two people or groups share goods, work, or information in trade. Indirect reciprocity is arguably more interesting because it is based on trust.

In a group with sustained reciprocity, an individual might contribute something to the group with the expectation that the contribution will be reciprocated in some other form at some future date. Inherent is a more general sense that members of the group care for one another. Establishing a sustained form of indirect information reciprocity is a goal (stated or not) of many participatory journalism projects. To foster this type of reciprocity is to foster deep community connections (Lewis et al., 2014). Done right, it literally builds communities around shared news. In this instance the only onus on men in news is that they recognize and take part in normalizing reciprocal sharing of information in communities. It is easier said than done, though, because exclusivity is often used as a marker of added value in news and as an example of journalistic prowess. Getting the “scoop” is baked into the culture of news reporting and is easily connected to expectations of masculinity norms that men should be competitors striving always to win. Sustained reciprocity will become more plausible in participatory journalism settings when men are empowered to see news as a service through which trust is built between them and their communities and less so as a competition between them and other journalists.

Research on reciprocity in news has looked at how journalists and audiences can connect to crowdsource the news or to disseminate stories via Twitter (Lewis et al., 2014). Crowdsourcing is an interesting form of reciprocity because participants contribute time and knowhow often with little more than the expectation that a meaningful well contextualized story might be published. Reciprocity may be used to challenge established news norms. The Change Makers’ Project in Australia, developed by college journalism students, employed innovative approaches to reciprocity to counter fake news and build sustainable community relationships:

A demonstration of how this kind of reciprocity is applied in the Change Makers’ Project rests in the use of informed consent. Under the guidelines set up by the community and the journalists, no story is published in the Change Makers’ Project without the informed consent of the community partner participants. This approach challenges traditional journalistic practice but is part of growing trend in journalism to give story participants agency over their own stories. (Downman, 2017, p. 9)

In sharing agency, we can see potential for countervailing the historic tendencies of the hegemony of men in news. Is it accurate to argue that all circumstances of shared agency in mainstream news reflect the potential for gender balance countervailing the hegemony of men? Arguably yes if only because that hegemony is so widespread and baked into the structures of newsmaking and meaning making in societies. It is not the existence of reciprocity but the focus on it that offers a potential means to disrupt the hegemony of men.

Again, perhaps it is overly optimistic to express hope, but when reciprocity can serve as a goal and thus a force pulling journalists to change how they relate to news users in order to build sustained systems of trust, it shows promise for influencing other norms. Purposeful, applied reciprocity can be used to foster the preservation of other journalistic norms besides patriarchal ones such as adherence to verification practices and the commitment to providing communities with news they need to make democratic decisions. Thus, it can be conceived of that men in positions of power in the journalistic field might trade gender-based norms of authority, influence, and control over women in exchange for the preservation of other more essential norms. Scholars, journalists, and students need more examples and more deeply articulated arguments for this type of normative triage. If the most successful approaches to sustained reciprocity in participatory news, in any context, not just gender balance, were more widely understood, it might be easier to conceive of ways to displace structures of male hegemony and replace them with systems of communication that value different gender groups more equally.

This is not to say that men in places of power in the field of journalism deserve deference or to be gently persuaded rather than forcefully persuaded. After years of sexual harassment, gender-category based favoritism in the workplace, and routinely taking higher salaries than women with equal or greater talents and responsibilities, men might expect a workplace revolution. Hegemony is not often relinquished without the use of force, but perhaps individual men (including all those who identify as men) in all sorts of roles in the news industry will see that a trade-off of norms done in the context of promoting reciprocity and negotiating the boundaries of digital journalism might be in everyone’s best interests. Locations of digital participation may be good candidates for engaging with men who are willing to negotiate improved gender norms in the field. They may be persuaded to relinquish gender-based hegemonic power to preserve more socially responsible, viable, trust-securing norms. This much is posited in the context of boundary studies and reciprocity in participatory journalism. Responses, critiques, and challenges are welcome. After all, journalism is nothing if not an exchange of ideas.


This paper asks if a better gender balance might be struck in the field of professional journalism in part through avenues established by digital participatory journalism, known as a disruptive force in the industry. Patriarchal structures in place in the journalistic field do not serve women as a gender category well (Allan et al., 2002). Women who work in the industry and who rely on it for accurate and fair representation in politics and other fields that rely on public opinion are right to challenge the hegemony of men in the industry. Under male dominated communication structures too many awful things have gone on for too long within the industry and without. Participatory journalism in digital networks puts news users in direct contact with journalists and opens up the potential for deeper levels of mutual influence. Recent history has shown that this influence can be quite negative (Quandt, 2018), but there are hopes that men will take individual responsibility for their roles in patriarchal structures and that they may be influenced to change the journalistic field. Boundary studies tells us where that might happen. Reciprocity theory tells us how it might happen and be sustained.

This paper argues in both theoretical contexts that the field of journalism is undergoing such substantial changes in normative structures and practices that men may be persuaded to drop their defenses of gender-based norms in favor of fighting to preserve other norms. This paper also argues that those other core, substantial and socially responsible norms such as covering news accurately, taking multiple stakeholders’ view- points into account in every story, challenging those in power so they be held to account, and collaborating meaningfully in digital spaces might be aided by dropping norms tied to male hegemony. If the greatest challenge in the future of digital journalism is building and maintaining trust, it makes sense to do away with patriarchal structures that have proven to shatter people’s faith in the field.

Globally, men benefit from powerful social structures that privilege their work, their opinions, their bodies, and their approaches to building societies and attempting to solve social problems. The large-scale, corporate news media generally privilege those who are already privileged (Braithwaite, Ferrier, Sinha, & Outrich, 2016). That is to say they uphold the status quo. This benefits men as a category and as individuals, which makes it more insidious when the patriarchy defends horrible men behaving horribly. By the same token though Messerschmidt (2018) indicates that individual men have the agency and authority to choose to promote masculinities that are not detrimental to society. Redefining the balance in power between men and women in the news industry is also about redefining the discourse about men and women. It matters for those who work in the journalistic field and for public opinion shaped by it. The power of men must be questioned, and the news industry is an essential locus of power (Allan et al., 2002; Hearn, 2017).

What this paper argues is that the concept of boundary objects gives us a frame for thinking about places where individual men might be engaged with to refute the hegemony of men (Carlson, 2015). They might engage with women’s groups in a fair manner. They might refuse to allow women to be paid less than men for the same work in the journalism industry. Why would they do so? Reciprocity theory explains how it is conceivable that men must do this in order to create systems of sustainable reciprocity and trust in the field (Ardèvol-Abreu, Diehl, & Gil de Zúñiga, 2018; Borger et al., 2014; Lewis et al., 2014). We do not know all there is to know about the future of the business of news but we do expect that maintaining and re-establishing trust with audiences will be essential (Belair-Gagnon, Nelson, & Lewis, 2019; Nelson, 2019). Men could be persuaded to drop patriarchal power structures if it is shown that it helps sustain industry viability, again with the added benefit that it allows us to focus on fighting the myriad other attacks on professional values.

Critiquing patriarchies “from a male perspective” is potentially quite powerful because it can turn the agency of male privilege against itself (Allan et al., 2002, p. 123, emphasis in original). It also gives men actions to take in terms of self-assessment, change, and behavior modeling. Hegemony is a synonym of “power,” and it takes power to disassemble structures built to house, wield, and protect privilege. What makes it so important that the hegemony of men be countered in the news industry, to reiterate, is the ripple effect. This is the idea that by changing the news industry one can change the dynamic where those in power and those meant to hold them to account are, in terms of gender, following the same set of rules, privileging the same groups and endangering the future of civilization for all of the broad social ills that continue to go unaddressed or that are addressed only after the damage to people, the global economy, the planet has already been done.

Limitations and Future Research

A major limitation of this study is that it only identifies in very general terms opportunities for reshaping gender balance in the news field. The news industry is undergoing a massive paradigm shift (Vos & Moore, 2018). Changing news patriarchies through limited participatory projects in the hopes of reshaping society seems like a longshot if the goal is to have a lasting global impact on how the news industry is shaped and how it frames global policy discussions about gender issues and everything else. That being said, we are not always aware of social tipping points when we are living through them and it makes sense to continue to develop a rhetoric of change and to look for tangible opportunities to affect change. The problems wrought by the hegemony of men are too great not to seek every opportunity for substantial, sustainable change possible.

Another more practical limitation is that participatory projects are not happening in every news organization. They are particularly limited if they are being done at all in major mainstream news outlets (Wall, 2017, p. 139). Sustainable reciprocity and trust will likely need to be demonstrated in participatory projects before they are adopted in the largest and most powerful news organizations. This does not mean that there are no opportunities to leverage digital participation with global news organizations in the interest of seeking gender balance in the news industry, but it will take much more than finding sympathetic men in existing participatory news projects and working with them to change the way women are treated and talked about in newsrooms and by newsmakers. Rather, existing global women’s groups may seek to influence participatory journalism via its tendency to co-opt social media content. One could argue that this amounts to attempting to beat social media and message board trolls at their own game. In this area, enlisting men to engage in these platforms and to fight rhetorical battles may be helpful. Men seem to have a way of “winning” internet discussions that seem pointless but that are taken by male-dominated news organizations to be important. To influence the men who are not apt to join the fight against male hegemony, rhetoric and persistent dialog could bring success. If this type of influence is possible, it will have been done at the social media boundary object, and it will be up to journalists engaged in the cause of replacing patriarchies to create dynamic, sustained discursive forces.

The opportunities for future research in the area of the intersection of critical feminist theory and participatory journalism are numerous. First we need further study of boundary objects as points where the journalistic field may be influenced by outside pressures. It is established that these are areas ripe for influence, but how and to what extent the news industry can be influenced is an open question. We also need research that takes into account the influence of financial structures, which are also usually patriarchal in nature and which can greatly limit change in the journalistic field. Scholars also need to identify successful ways in which women have been empowered in the news industry so that those conditions and routine practices can be enhanced and implemented around the world. We need future studies of boundary maintenance and reciprocity in participatory journalism studies to incorporate questions about the power and role of gender identity. In other words, gender balance issues can factor into all sorts of studies on reciprocity in participatory journalism if it is made a priority for leaders in the research field.


Generally speaking, gender has not been identified as an important variable in the success or failure of participatory journalism projects. How much does the gender identity of journalists, of citizen participants, of news managers, etc. influence the nature and success of participatory projects? This is a good question to ask at the intersection of critical feminist theory and participatory journalism. And it may be essential to ask in the context of creating sustained reciprocity in news outlets of all sizes. If participatory projects do not aid in sustaining the field, it may not matter how useful they are in fostering better gender balance. On the other hand, sustainable reciprocity, trust, audience engagement, and the financial future of the industry seem bound together. “Solving” any piece of this puzzle puts us that much closer to creating a journalistic field that works for and that represents all of society, not just those privileged by patriarchies.


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Mark Poepsel is an Associate Professor of Mass Communication at SIU-Edwardsville. Poepsel’s research areas are participatory and entrepreneurial journalism as well as the application of critical theory in these areas. He teaches media entrepreneurship, communicating science and sustainability (BIOWIRE), publication design, advanced broadcast writing, introductory mass comm theory, introductory media writing, and feature writing as well as graduate research methods. In 2019 Mark led a travel study program in Buenos Aires with SIUE students.