In recent decades, there has been an unfortunate split between core social sciences and media studies. While journalism has virtually disappeared from the agenda of academic sociology, a massive new discipline has emerged around mass communication, sporting its own journals, paradigms, global meetings, and graduate schools. Tens of thousands of teachers and students in this new global discipline certainly constitute a potentially huge audience for innovative contributions to the field. But an inward-looking quality to debates in “media studies” makes much of its scholarly activity orthogonal to social theorizing and empirical sociology in their contemporary forms. The challenge for contemporary sociology is to find a way of speaking to the crisis of contemporary journalism in a language that is relevant to the vast and still-expanding discipline of media studies.
The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered aims to accomplish this feat by speaking in two languages – the widely understood language of fundamental social theory/sociology, on the one hand, and the discourse of “disciplinary journalism,” on the other. The authors in this book are trained in sociology departments or in the handful of sociologically-oriented journalism schools, such as the Columbia School of Journalism, and most are housed in departments of journalism inside schools of media studies. Among such rare two-legged creatures, we have selected those most sophisticated in contemporary social theory and empirically based social science. Our volume's master theme addresses a contemporary crisis to which every media student is attuned, but does so in a theoretical manner that bridges social science and media studies.
Among both the popular and academic media-studies books that address the current crisis in journalism, explanations have been one-sidedly focused on technology and economics – and, as a result, decidedly gloomy in their predictions: Meyer, The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age (University of Missouri Press, 2009, 2nd edition); Jones, Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Mersey, Can Journalism be Saved? Rediscovering America's Appetite for News (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010); and McChesney and Pickard, Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done to Fix It (New York: The New Press, 2011).
For most members of the civil sphere, and even for members of its institutional elites, the news is the only source of firsthand experience they will ever have about the vast majority of their follow citizens, about their motives for acting the way they do, the kinds of relationships they form, and the nature of the institutions they create. Journalistic judgments thus possess an outsized power to affect the shape-shifting currents of contemporary social life, from people's movements to legal investigations, foreign policy, public opinion, and affairs of state. The reputation of news media – their ability to represent the public to itself – depends on the belief by their audiences that they are truly reporting on the social world, not making stuff up, that they are describing news factually rather than representing it aesthetically or morally.
Conceptualizing news media in this manner provides a dramatically different perspective on the contemporary “crisis in journalism.” Most social commentators, and journalists themselves, understand this crisis in economic and technological terms – as the challenge to the economic viability of newspapers triggered by the digital revolution in publishing and news distribution. Many leading journalistic institutions in the West have experienced great economic upheaval, cutting staff and undergoing deep, often radical, reorganization – in efforts to meet the digital challenge. Rather than seeing technological and economic changes as the primary causes of current anxieties, however, I wish to draw attention to the role played by the cultural commitments of journalism itself. Linking these professional ethics to the democratic aspirations of the broader societies in which journalists ply their craft, I will suggest that the new technologies can be, and are being, shaped to sustain value commitments, not only undermine them.
Recent technological change and the economic upheaval it has produced are coded by social meanings. It is this cultural framework that has transformed material innovation into social crisis – for the profession, the market, and for society at large. But cultural codes not only trigger sharp anxiety about technological and economic changes; they also provide pathways to control them, so that the democratic practices of independent journalism, rather than being destroyed, can be sustained in new forms.
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