The Dissolving of Journalistic Autonomy

Media must constantly evolve to adapt to the world around it. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

There are certain values that journalism always has to be.

In Mark Deuze’s article What is Journalism?: Professional Identity and Ideology of Journalists Reconsidered, several of these standards are discussed and examined. Citing other like-minded scholars, Deuze was able to make a list of what he felt journalists relate to in a sense of the most ideal form of self, in other words, what traits the perfect self-described journalist should have. This list consists of; the purpose of public service, impartiality, autonomy, immediacy, and a sense of ethics and/or validity.

I think, in an objective sense, these are all correct and a more than apt checklist for any novice and seasoned reporter. However, as the news cycle changes and evolves, so too does the sense of values.

It is with this progression, I feel one key value of journalism, above all the others, is dissolving the most rapidly: the sense of autonomy.

In the article Journalistic Autonomy: Between Structure, Agency and Institution, Helle Sjøvaag explores the very idea of sovereignty in media news and how it is, in reality, restricted at the “political, economic and organizational levels of news production.”

As Sjøvaag explains, in a daily news sense, autonomy can be understood as what journalists are free to decide. This is in terms of story angles, sources and narrative framing. But there is some difference in definition and in practice.

Sjøvaag explains that the reporter must bend to the will of its more powerful bearer: business.

“Hierarchical autonomy…keeps reporters out of decision-making positions in management,” Sjøvaag says. “There is a limit in the degree to which autonomy in the daily practice of journalism can be attained, and this is primarily attributed to the individual reporter’s news discretion, access to sources and position in the professional hierarchy.”

A separate, but related sector of this hierarchy is through corporate buyouts and media mergers. For example, Sinclair is a media conglomerate that has been purchasing many small and local news stations.

As of 2018, Sinclair has 193 outlets in almost 90 markets, according to Vox. From a business standpoint, this seems completely ethical, but Sinclair has created something called “forced reads.” These are scripts from the corporation that the anchor must read whatever the business has told them to.

“On local news stations across the United States last month (March 2018), dozens of anchors gave the same speech to their combined millions of viewers,” The New York Times reports. “It included a warning about fake news, a promise to report fairly and accurately…It may not have seemed strange to individual viewers. But Timothy Burke, the video director at Deadspin, had read a report last month from CNN, which quoted local station anchors who were uncomfortable with the speech.”

Also, it is widely accepted knowledge, major 24-hour news networks have leaning biases towards one political side.

Once hailed as unthinkable in the early years of mainstream, televised journalism, these political sides have become more profitable than other, nonpartisan news networks.

In Deadline’s 2019 Cable Ratings, it is shown that polarizing journalists had high success in viewership.

“Fox News…reported its highest-rated prime time in history with an average of 2.5 million viewers,” Deadline reports. “Hannity was the top-rated program in cable news for a third year in a row with 3.3 million viewers.”

Perhaps this trend is more because of a devoted fan base that the other news outlets do not seem to have.

As reported in Forbes magazine, through an investigation of a digital news report from the Reuters Institute, “While 51% of left-leaning Americans trust the news, only 20% of conservatives say the same. Right-leaning Americans are far more likely to say they avoid the news because ‘I can’t rely on news to be true,’” Forbes says. “Conservatives’ skepticism is nurtured by their deep, almost exclusive, commitment to Fox News. Two-thirds of conservatives watch Fox News, and an increasing number, 19%, visit the ultra-right-wing site Breitbart.com.”

This idea of autonomy is fleeting because now networks that have become the biggest, and most powerful names in news, must appease their devoted fans, making them vulnerable to what the viewers want to hear and not to what the truth is.

But, as news and media moves onward, never stopping, so too does it grow with technology and a growing idea of self-sustaining autonomy through content creators and viewers becoming one.

As Snapchat journalism — as the New York Guild looks at it — becomes popular, the idea of autonomy is becoming easier to grasp.

Sjøvaag understood this is a topical point saying, “advances in technology have been seen to enable autonomy. It has been suggested that technology could particularly facilitate more freedom in war reporting — a practice historically burdened with heavy propaganda efforts — allowing reporters to break free from the official narrative.”

While the use of personal devices and viewer-created content seems like a wild west situation it is actually a principle value of what journalism should be.

This would also be selfish to say that this is all journalism will be. There is this idea that news is vanishing and become obsolete — which is a chaotic idea.

For one, public radio stations are growing.

“Between 2011 and 2018, the 264 independent local NPR stations (plus 150 unaffiliated) added 1,000 full-time and part-time journalists, having started that timeframe with just over 2,000 journalists,” the Poynter Institute reports. “At the same time, newspaper newsrooms were shrinking to half their peak size and local digital startups, with a few exceptions, are making do with well-focused but tiny staffs.”

And two, media does not die, it merely evolves.

Take for instance television. From simple broadcast to basic cable, to on-demand viewing to streaming services media lives and breathes in an ever-changing environment, and it could only die if it were to stop adapting and stop sharing its principles with the world it serves.

The answer does not have to be solely independent, and individualized reporting.

It can also be the idea of localized news sources reaching an audience in an unexpected way- showing the community’s voice independently, and not through corporate rigs or deeply rooted fanbases.

Bibliography

Deuze, Mark. What Is Journalism?: Professional Identity and Ideology of Journalists Reconsidered. Sage Publications, 2005.

Sablich, Justin. “Who We Are.” The NewsGuild of New York — The Union for Journalists — Raising the Standards of Journalism, 2019, www.nyguild.org/front-page-details/a-beginners-guide-to-snapchat-for-journalists.

Andreeva, Nellie, and Ted Johnson. “Cable Ratings 2019: Fox News Tops Total Viewers, ESPN Wins 18–49 Demo As Entertainment Networks Slide.” Deadline, 27 Dec. 2019, deadline.com/2019/12/cable-ratings-2019-list-fox-news-total-viewers-espn-18–49-demo-1202817561/.

Chang, Alvin. “Sinclair’s Takeover of Local News, in One Striking Map.” Vox, Vox, 6 Apr. 2018, www.vox.com/2018/4/6/17202824/sinclair-tribune-map.

Edkins, Brett. “Report: U.S. Media Among Most Polarized In The World.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 27 June 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/brettedkins/2017/06/27/u-s-media-among-most-polarized-in-the-world-study-finds/#311103cf2546.

Edmonds, Rick. “As Other Local News Outlets Struggle, NPR Affiliates Are Growing — and Quickly.” Poynter, 4 Nov. 2019, www.poynter.org/business-work/2019/as-other-local-news-outlets-struggle-npr-affiliates-are-growing-and-quickly/.

Fortin, Jacey, and Jonah Engel Bromwich. “Sinclair Made Dozens of Local News Anchors Recite the Same Script.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Apr. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/04/02/business/media/sinclair-news-anchors-script.html.

Sjøvaag, Helle. Journalistic Autonomy Between Structure, Agency and Institution. Nordicom Review, 2013.

Adam Bakst is a full-time journalist, part-time comedy writer and all around decent guy. @AdamBakst_WUSF

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