The WJS 2012-2015 Study

Conceptual framework

Journalism as Discursive Institution

The conceptual framework of the Worlds of Journalism Study is grounded in the idea of discursive institutionalism. We argue that journalism (1) is a social institution that (2) is discursively (re)created.

Social institutions are understood as humanly devised constraints to create order and reduce uncertainty. Journalism’s institutional framework is made up of rules, conventions and practices that are both limiting and enabling, constraining and constitutive. They include formal structures (e.g., press laws or work contracts) as well as informal rules and procedures, such as customs, traditions, taboos, and codes of conduct. Young journalists mostly learn and understand these rules in terms of a cultural consensus as to “how we do journalism” rather than as explicit rules of conduct. In other words, the institution of journalism is the shortcut through which journalists navigate the complexities and uncertainties of news making.

Like other social institutions, journalism does not exist independently of human cognitive and communicative faculties. Journalism exists because and as we talk about it. In order to be intelligible, the norms, values and practices of journalism are part of a wider framework of meaning – of a discourse. At the core of this discourse is journalism’s identity and locus in society. Thus, we believe that journalism as an institution and its relationship with larger society is never static; it is subject to discursive (re)creation, (re)interpretation, appropriation, and contestation. It is exactly this ongoing discourse that produces different variants of journalism – within and across countries and news organizations.

Journalistic Culture as Discursive Articulation

The above variants populate the universe of journalism; they make up the “worlds of journalism” – an idea that has obviously contributed to the very name of the study. We use the notion of journalistic culture to denominate the differential articulations and manifestations of forms of journalism. Journalistic cultures become discernable in the way journalists think and act; they can be defined as particular sets of ideas and practices by which journalists legitimate their role in society and render their work meaningful for themselves and others.

As any other culture, journalistic culture exists in three general states of manifestation: as sets of ideas (values, attitudes and beliefs), as practices (of doing news), and as artifacts (news content). For the purpose of the Worlds of Journalism Study, we have selected five themes in order to make meaningful cross-cultural comparisons: journalistic roles, journalistic ethics, and journalistic trust (intrinsic dimensions) as well as perceived influences and editorial autonomy (extrinsic dimensions; see Figure).

  • Journalistic roles articulate journalism’s identity and position vis-à-vis society and broader public expectations.
  • Journalistic ethics is relate to journalists' reporting practices, which hark back to a broader social consensus about what is generally believed to be morally desired and justifiable practice.
  • Journalistic trust tells a story about journalism's relationship with social institutions, as journalists act as intermediaries between institutions and the public.
  • Perceived influences refer to journalists’ individual perceptions of the various forces that shape the process of news production.
  • Editorial autonomy is conceptualized as the self-perceived latitude journalists have in carrying out their occupational duties.

Determinants of Journalistic Culture

It has been a fundamental premise of the Worlds of Journalism Study that the discourse of journalism cannot be understood in isolation from its very contexts. In order to systematically assess these contextual forces in a consistent manner, we defined three hierarchical layers of influence – the individual, organizational and societal levels. We feel that such a model neatly maps onto the hierarchical organization of news work. Journalists work within newsrooms, and newsrooms are “nested” within countries.

The individual level matters because journalists constantly have to make perceptional decisions. Potential determinants on this level originate from journalists’ personal and professional backgrounds, their occupational and political orientations, as well as from their specific roles and position within the news organization.

The organizational level is relevant because despite the growing presence of freelancers, most news is still produced within highly organized contexts, notably within the newsroom and media organization. Known sources of organizational influence are media ownership, revenue structures, profit expectations, editorial policy, the allocation of time and editorial resources, and newsroom culture.

The societal level has long been recognized as a force that substantially shapes journalism culture in a variety of ways, most notably with regards to the relevant social, cultural and ideological contexts within which journalists work.  

The empirical locus of a journalistic culture depends on the corresponding level of aggregation: groups of journalists sharing similar occupational views represent journalistic milieus; journalists working in the same newsroom often share and produce a specific organizational journalistic culture; and disparities between journalists from different countries engender national journalistic cultures.