On the Worlds of Journalism (from Remaking the News)

The following is an excerpt from an essay appearing in Pablo J. Boczkowski’s and C. W. Anderson’s new collected volume, “Remaking the News: Essays on the Future of Journalism Scholarship in the Digital Age”  from the MIT Press.

This chapter makes a broad conceptual provocation about what we call the “worlds” of journalism. We argue that, to fully understand the nature of technological change in journalism, it is important to adopt a sociological lens that brings into focus the collective nature of journalism—its interconnected people, processes, and products—as well as the relative status, or valuation, afforded to certain actors and activities. Drawing on symbolic interactionism as a theoretical framework, and in particular Howard Becker’s (1982/2008) application of its ideas to the study of “art worlds,” we call for considering journalism—and specifically ambient, data, and algorithmic journalism—as a series of distinct but intersecting “worlds.” These worlds represent networks of social actors, labor activities, material infrastructures, and patterns of production that collectively enable and legitimize particular forms of journalism. Put another way, particular and constantly changing configurations of actors, conventions, and cooperative activities permit and constrain particular forms of journalism, and confer upon those individuals, processes, and products a certain status that may not fully translate across the flexible and porous borders of those arrangements, or worlds.

Seeing journalism in light of worlds, we argue, helps accentuate at least three things: (1) the heterogeneity that exists among social actors (humans) and technological actants (machines) and their activities; (2) the development and negotiation of various conventions that give shape to certain creative works; and (3) the resulting arrangements that, while constantly in flux, lend distinctive value (and thus status) to certain people, practices, and products. Such valuations matter ultimately in shaping understandings of and expectations for journalism as a social enterprise that is increasingly technological in orientation.

Central to Becker’s analytic framework is the concept of collective activity, or the notion that art is the result of cooperation by multiple individuals. He contends that there are a series of activities that “must be carried out for any work of art to appear as it finally does” (Becker 2008, 2). Put differently, if certain activities were not executed, the work might occur in some other fashion, but it would not be the same work. Becker offers a provisional list of regular activities in the production of art, from the development of an idea, to the securement of supporting activities (e.g., copy editing), to winning the appreciation of an audience. This process culminates with the generation and maintenance of the rationale that those activities make sense and are worth doing. It is this final activity that yields the justification for why something is art, perhaps even good art, and explains its value to society. Ultimately, such a series of activities establishes cooperative links that are central to the production of notable work.

In order to facilitate the requisite interdependence, conventions must be developed. Becker defines conventions as “earlier agreements now become customary” that “cover all the decisions that must be made with respect to works produced” (2008, 29), or “the ideas and understandings people hold in common through which they effect cooperative activity” (2008, 30). Conventions, which may be likened to norms, are important because they “dictate” the materials and abstractions to be used as well as the form in which those materials and abstractions will be combined, and they “regulate” the relations between the creator of notable work and his/her audience (Becker 2008, 29). Actors within a particular world, such as artists, may, and often do, break convention in order to stand apart or feel less constrained. However, in setting themselves apart, those actors run the risk of becoming marginalized, seeing the circulation of their works limited, or having the valorization of their talents decreased.

A final concept central to Becker’s analysis is that of reputation. Reputations arise from consensus-building within the relevant world. That is, an individual’s reputation is not something created by that individual, but rather by agreement among the various members of that world. Becker writes that, for works, makers, schools, genres, and media, reputations serve as “a shorthand for how good the individual work is as one of its kind, how gifted the artist is, whether or not a school is on a fruitful track, and whether genres and media are art at all” (2008, 362). Put differently, individuals’ reputations are of import because they are central to the value accorded to them and their output.

The concept of reputation offers a useful starting point, but it is perhaps prudent to adopt the broader lens of status. Specifically, reputation is an important part of setting oneself apart from peers. However, the function that a person plays within a cooperative network is also important to determining that value. Within a given network, for example, the value accorded to an ordinary cellist and his abilities may exceed that of a renowned sound engineer. Status is therefore conferred as members of a given network classify certain forms of work as being more valuable than others—and, in turn, deem certain practitioners and their talents as more essential than others. Although the production of notable work requires cooperative effort around shared conventions, making everyone and everything important, the concept of status reinforces that not all jobs and functions are created equal: members of a given world place different valuations on different forms of work and the actors associated with them.

Status, in turn, influences the all-important allocation and management of resources. This is true both of material resources (e.g., funding, equipment, and physical space) and social resources (e.g., delineating core and support personnel, and valuations of expertise). It determines who has access to what kind of resources, how such resources may be expended to produce and distribute ‘noteworthy works,’ and in what manner future resources are likely to be gained by pursuing a particular course. Ultimately, status gives shape not only to what the work looks like, but if it is to be considered exceptional at all (i.e., as art). Notably, and consistent with the core tenets of symbolic interactionism and Becker’s application of art worlds, status is not singularly possessed but rather is a persistent negotiation among various parties to the production, exhibition, and reception of things that come to be viewed as exceptional.

Even in their hypothesized form, however, these conceptions serve as provocations for a new way of thinking about the journalism–technology intersection. Namely, they orient attention to the shaping influence of (and influences shaped by) distinct but interlocking domains of collective activity, conventions, and status-conferral. In this way, a “worlds” view brings at least three key considerations in the study of journalism into greater focus:

  1. that journalistic products, including its exemplary works, are the result of the combined labor of a large set of social actors and technological actants that is more heterogeneous than typically is acknowledged in the literature;
  2. that such cooperation is enabled by conventions, which both facilitate and constrain the creation of particular works; and
  3. that the resulting arrangements are constantly in flux, with the valuation of particular actors, works, and forms of labor differing between worlds, even as they contribute to the general understanding of what we call journalism.

One of Becker’s (2008) key contributions in Art Worlds is to puncture the myth of the artist toiling alone. As he shows, the artist benefits from a wide ensemble of social and material forms of support, including (and crucially so for this chapter) technicians and the technologies they manage in the service of objects deemed to be art.

In addition to highlighting the inherently collaborative nature of the production of artistic products, Becker (2008) emphasizes the role of conventions—agreements on how things should be done, which emerge from the interactions among the actors within a given world. While scholars have long called attention to the importance of routines in engaging in journalistic production (e.g., Tuchman 1978), a worlds perspective highlights the fact that conventions may not translate across worlds, or be decided by the same ensemble of actors and actants to fit the same set of activities. Indeed, as Lewis and Usher (2013; 2014) have indicated, many of the entrants into technologically oriented worlds follow logics that emphasize iteration and “tinkering,” thereby promoting rapid development, fluidity, and experimentation rather than careful consideration toward a static, polished product. […] Crucially, as we emphasize below, it is those individuals—many of whom have little, if any, background in journalism—who are increasingly developing the systems and best practices, and in turn shaping the conventions, that guide technologically oriented worlds.

Finally, Becker (2008) points to the very fluid nature of such arrangements, and the discrepancies in the reputational cachet accorded to a given individual and product across segments of journalism. This, we argue, is key for understanding certain developments in journalism, especially when the observation is extended to account for the different roles involved in particular arrangements. Applying these insights to journalism and its increasing technological orientation, it could be argued that changes in media technologies (e.g., the rise of algorithms and automation, and the development of sophisticated Web frameworks) and the personnel connected with them (e.g., the need for technologists to maximize the utility of such technologies) may lead to new perspectives about what counts as a distinguished form of creativity and who counts as a distinguished creator.

Of course, this development need not be a displacement. […] However, as many news institutions reorganize themselves with an eye toward information technology, actors and activities once seen dismissively as “support” or “technical”—on the margins of journalism—increasingly move closer to the core enterprise of producing news. These moves strengthen the economic and symbolic resources that are available to such individuals, especially as the worlds of ambient, data, algorithmic, and related forms of technologically oriented journalism gain popularity and credibility. Such moves also simultaneously make a claim to other worlds of journalism about the relative esteem and aesthetic appreciation that ought to be afforded to technologically oriented actors and their “technical” work.

A worlds perspective therefore highlights that such determinations—of values and evaluations, of aesthetic acclaim and authority—are in constant negotiation and result from the interactions among the members of particular worlds. […] However, such negotiation, it must be noted, also occurs beyond this immediate group, encompassing the symbolic interactions among actors ranging from the server administrators at content delivery networks to those who consume news. This larger negotiation is the continual struggle to define journalism, to shape the social boundaries around what counts as news and who counts as a journalist, as well as why such an occupation may be democratically useful.

Thus, valuations arising from worlds of journalism, while localized in their own right, matter by association. In the aggregate, in the network of distinct but interconnected worlds, meaning-making and shared interpretations established in one world both influence and are influenced by similar processes playing out in another. The broad character of this thing called journalism, we might say, is a bricolage of multiple worlds within it, each developing particular forms of collective activity, conventions, and status-giving that work in relation to (though not necessarily in harmony with) one another. In this way, to say that journalism is becoming technologically oriented is to recognize the rise and growth not simply of certain work tools and techniques, but indeed of technologically oriented worlds that give symbolic meaning to the people, practices, and products underlying those developments. As certain social actors, technological actants, and work activities attain greater prestige and position relative to others, the modification of existing and emergence of new worlds come into view, providing an entry point for exploring what a technological orientation means for changing the nature of journalism: its taken-for-granted assumptions, institutional bearings, and normative purposes in society.

A “worlds” perspective thus offers journalism studies scholars a lens through which they can investigate and interpret shifting views on the creative nature and worth of particular actors, actants, and activities once viewed as being predominantly technical and supportive, while highlighting that journalism is comprised of complex networks of labors and laborers, guided by particular conventions, that produce and legitimize works. However, as we have illustrated, there is room to build upon Becker’s insights. For example, while Becker emphasizes that all actors and activities are of equal importance to their worlds—he aptly contends that art simply would not be the same without the contribution of each component in the network—we have argued here that fluctuations in and across worlds, certainly within journalism, are better understood by adopting a broader lens. Specifically, the view that we have outlined suggests that status, more than reputation, matters particularly for understanding how symbolic meanings are interpreted, translated into conventions and value judgments, and ultimately rendered into resource allocations. In effect, to understand worlds, art or otherwise, means unpacking not only their collective activities and conventions but also their forms of give-and-take around status and the positions (real or symbolic) of particular actors, actants, and activities within networks. That is, how worlds accord status to certain people, practices, and products ultimately reveals who, how, and what such worlds deem exceptional and worth emulating; that, in turn, shapes the fundamental orientation of worlds and their implications for interlocking aspects of social life.