Journalism Theory

Authored by: Laura Ahva , Steen Steensen

The Handbook of Journalism Studies

Print publication date:  June  2019
Online publication date:  June  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138052888
eBook ISBN: 9781315167497
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Journalism studies is a multidisciplinary field of academic inquiry. As such, it employs theory from a wide range of academic disciplines and traditions, and—as its object of study changes—is in constant search of new ways of understanding what journalism is. This chapter aims at unmasking the nature of journalism studies through the ways in which it makes use of, and partly develops, theory. The chapter is based on three observations, which are all stated in the two first sentences above: journalism studies is multidisciplinary, it is a field, and it employs new theory when its object of study changes. These observations require an initial discussion for them to be more than just taken-for-granted assumptions.

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Journalism Theory


Journalism studies is a multidisciplinary field of academic inquiry. As such, it employs theory from a wide range of academic disciplines and traditions, and—as its object of study changes—is in constant search of new ways of understanding what journalism is. This chapter aims at unmasking the nature of journalism studies through the ways in which it makes use of, and partly develops, theory. The chapter is based on three observations, which are all stated in the two first sentences above: journalism studies is multidisciplinary, it is a field, and it employs new theory when its object of study changes. These observations require an initial discussion for them to be more than just taken-for-granted assumptions.

First, on multidisciplinarity: journalism covers and shapes all aspects of society, from politics to fashion, from business to everyday life. It influences, articulates, and produces culture. It is the first draft of history, and it is where history can be found. Journalism is language, rhetoric, genres, and discourse. It is legitimized and limited by law. It is in industry, civil society, and the state. It is labor, it is management; it is commercial, nonprofit and idealistic. Journalism is technology. It is media and communication. It is local and global. It is about ethics. Journalism is epistemic, as it produces knowledge about the world. In other words, journalism is so multifaceted that it has been studied from a variety of disciplines and perspectives, including, but not limited to, sociology, political science, cultural studies, history, language studies, philosophy, economics, management, business, science and technology studies, and communication. The four volumes on Journalism edited by Tumber (2008) illustrate this point. They represent a canon of the study of journalism and therefore the legacy upon which journalism studies is built. They are dominated by texts from sociology and political science but also include several classical works from disciplines like philosophy, economics, and language studies. This means that a person interested in delving into the classics of journalism research has to familiarize himself or herself with a diversity of disciplinary traditions and styles.

This multidisciplinarity means that journalism can be either an object of study within a range of fields and disciplines, or an object of study within a field or discipline that integrates perspectives from a variety of other fields and disciplines. Or it can be both. This leads us to our second assumption, which is much more debatable than the first: journalism studies is a field. We will discuss this in more depth in the next section, but for now, let us recognize that the history of journalism in academia is long, while the history of journalism studies as a field is shorter. Since the turn of the millennium, journalism studies has risen as an increasingly autonomous field of academic inquiry, with its own conferences, journals and key publications, which come close to constituting a distinct “epistemic culture” (Cetina, 1999). Several books published since 2005 have been key to this process. The first (and now this second) edition of the Handbook of Journalism Studies (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009a) is an obvious example of such an exercise, as are titles such as Key Concepts in Journalism Studies (Franklin, Hamer, Hanna, Kinsey, & Richardson, 2005); Global Journalism Research (Löffelholz, Weaver, & Schwarz, 2008); Journalism Studies: The Basics (Conboy, 2013); The Routledge Companion to News and Journalism (Allan, 2010); and the two recently published encyclopedias of journalism. In addition, the two handbooks on digital journalism studies (Witschge, Anderson, Domingo, & Hermida, 2016; Franklin & Eldridge, 2017) have contributed to the construction of the field.

Our third assumption, that journalism studies employs new theory when its object of study changes, is based on the many publications we have seen in recent years that specifically address the need to rebuild our fundamental understanding of what journalism is, owing to the many changes mostly related to digitalization that have affected the profession and its practices since the turn of the millennium. This task is named as “rethinking” (Peters & Broersma, 2013); “rebuilding” (Anderson, 2013); “reinventing” (Waisbord, 2013); “reconstructing” (Downie & Schudson, 2009); “reconsidering” (Alexander, Breese, & Luengo, 2016); “remaking” (Boczkowski & Anderson, 2017); and even “rethinking again” (Peters & Broersma, 2016) what news and journalism is. Based on these book titles, it seems as if journalism studies currently is, and historically has been, preoccupied with deconstructing and reconstructing its object of study. As noted by Reese (2016, p. 3): “[U]nlike many other more settled fields, journalism research has been obsessed with the very definition of its core concept—what journalism is.”

These three observations—the multidisciplinary nature of journalism research, the construction of journalism studies as a field, and reconsiderations of the domain of journalism itself—have all affected how theory is currently understood in this area. This chapter will map the various disciplinary traditions and theories that are used and, to a certain extent, developed to understand journalism. We will supplement this mapping with an empirical meta-analysis of the role of theory in articles published in two of the central journals of the field, namely Journalism Studies and Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism. Through this mapping and meta-analysis, the chapter will also address the most common attitude towards theory in journalism studies and discuss the question of what journalism is. The most important understandings of journalism we discuss are journalism as a social system; journalism as a democratic force; journalism as a producer, interpreter, and constructor of culture; journalism as a socio-material practice; and journalism as a postindustrial and commercial endeavor. Finally, we will argue that journalism studies, given its multidisciplinary nature, is in an anarchic state and that this should be viewed as a strength, not a weakness.

On Theory, Discipline, and Field

Two clarifications are necessary to make before we move on: what do we mean by “theory”? And what do we mean by defining journalism studies as a field?

The word “theory” has many connotations. It can mean the opposite of practice. Theory can also be explanatory or mean something that can be tested, verified, or falsified. Theory can be grand or grounded, inductive, deductive, or abductive. It can be rational, critical, pragmatic, or normative. Theory usually means one thing to a natural scientist and something very different to a researcher from the humanities. Social sciences, in turn, can encompass the whole spectrum.

Mjøset (2006) distinguishes between three different attitudes towards theory in the social sciences: (1) the standard attitude, implying an understanding of theory as accumulated knowledge based on regularities as law-like or idealized as possible; (2) the social-philosophical attitude, implying an understanding of theory as something that is a result of investigations into how the human mind organizes knowledge; and (3) the pragmatist-participatory attitude, implying an understanding of theory as knowledge of observable patterns accumulated in “local research frontiers” consisting of previously conducted empirical inquires of similar cases and previously developed grounded theories related to the same topic.

These three attitudes also reflect important methodological distinctions addressing the core question of any research project: what is the purpose of the research and, consequently, the role of theory in it? First, and in line with the standard attitude, testing a theory is a common methodological approach especially in the natural sciences that is also commonly adopted in the social sciences. It involves, in its purest sense, derivation of hypotheses from macro theories and testing them on empirical material. Concepts like validity and reliability are central in this approach. However, the approach has been criticized for treating social life as submitted to laws and ideals existing a priori, and hence treating empirical material merely as facts suited to verify (or falsify) law-like or idealized theories, and therefore ignoring the potential knowledge-producing powers of empirical material (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Abbott, 2004; Mjøset, 2006).

The second methodology of relating theoretical concepts to empirical material is common in the social-philosophical tradition and stems from the humanities. It typically involves generating theoretical concepts suited to frame and interpret aspects of modernity. In the social sciences, popular notions like “risk society” (Beck, 1992) and “network society” (Castells, 1996) are prominent examples of such “diagnostic” social-philosophical theories, which quite often also embed normative evaluations. Therefore, within this approach, theory is also often understood normatively, as a way to assess the state of the empirical world against constructed ideal norms about what a good society should be like (Benson, 2008). Within the socio-philosophical attitude towards theory, empirical data are thus mostly used for the purpose of elaboration and exemplification. Theoretical concepts are generated at a macro level, remote from empirical data, and hence there is a risk of ignoring data that do not fit the concepts, critics claim.

Third, developing theory from empirical data can be perceived as an inductive move from the empirical to theory, and it is typical in the pragmatist-participatory attitude. This approach, also referred to as grounded theory, originates from the Chicago school of sociology (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) and mostly involves generating middle-range theories. Such an attitude towards theory is, however, often criticized for being too naïve, because it might be interpreted as if it is possible to do empirical research without any preconceived concepts or ideas—as if the researcher could reduce herself or himself to a “tabula rasa” (see, e.g., Allan, 2003). It is debatable, however, whether grounded theory is as inductive as often stated; some argue that it is best understood as a hermeneutic, abductive approach in which theory is constantly revised by new empirical material (Mjøset, 2006).

Given the multidisciplinary nature of journalism studies, we can expect to find all the three attitudes towards theory in inquiries into journalism. However, we will argue that this multidisciplinary fluidity disqualifies journalism studies as an academic discipline in the strictest sense. Becher and Trowler (2001) argue that an academic discipline is recognized by the existence of a structural framework that identifies the discipline—such as scholarly organizations and journals—and a specific academic culture with a shared set of theories and methodologies. In journalism studies, the structural framework has come into place (Steensen & Ahva, 2015), but a shared academic culture with distinct theories and methodologies is more difficult to pinpoint precisely because of the multidisciplinarity of the field. However, attempts at determining the disciplinarity of journalism studies have been made. In her book Taking Journalism Seriously, Zelizer (2004) brought together the various disciplinary ways in which journalism has been theorized, and in doing so, she established what can be viewed as an interdisciplinary research program for journalism studies. She identified sociology, cultural studies, political science, history, and language as the backbone of the field.

Zelizer is also one of the three founding editors of the journal Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism. The first issue of the journal, published in April 2000, discussed what journalism studies is and should be, and Zelizer concluded that there was some urgency related to establishing a shared paradigm of knowledge within journalism studies “before journalism itself outruns our capacity to study it” (Zelizer, 2000, p. 60). Such a call for a shared, interdisciplinary knowledge paradigm, thereby establishing journalism studies as a distinct academic discipline of its own, can also be found in the inaugural issue of the journal Journalism Studies, published the same year.

Eighteen years later, Carlson, Robinson, Lewis, and Berkowitz (2018) made a similar attempt at pinpointing the characteristics of journalism studies, but this time as a field, not a discipline. Carlson et al. argue that journalism studies is a field within the discipline of communication and that this field is recognized through a set of shared commitments that make up a distinct academic culture. These commitments are contextual sensitivity, holistic relationality, comparative inclination, normative awareness, embedded communicative power, and methodological pluralism. However, these commitments are not derived from a descriptive analysis of the field. Instead, they constitute a normative framework that identifies the assumptions embedded in journalism research. These commitments are therefore not givens; they constitute a polemical statement on what journalism studies should be. Nevertheless, we agree with Carlson et al. that journalism studies is best viewed as a field, given the shared structural framework and thereby a sense of academic community and epistemic culture, and not as a discipline, because of its lack of agreed upon macro theories of journalism and shared methodological approaches. However, since this question around the degree to which journalism studies is a field or a discipline is, at least to a certain extent, an empirical one, in the following sections, we will not only map and discuss the disciplinary traditions and main theories that constitute journalism studies as a field, but also ground this mapping in an empirical investigation of theory employment within the field.

Our mapping of theories and the roles given to them in journalism studies is therefore based on a review of literature and an empirical investigation of articles published in the journals Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism and Journalism Studies. These two journals have been pivotal in the construction of journalism studies as a field. Hence, they constitute an appropriate avenue for studying the degree to which a shared disciplinary paradigm of knowledge has emerged within this field. In the analysis, we examined how explicit a role theory is given in the abstracts and keywords of the published articles, what types of theories are used, and from which disciplines the publications draw their theoretical frameworks. 1 The rest of this chapter is structured around four arguments based on our analysis of these two journals:

  • Journalism studies is a field dominated by a pragmatist-participatory attitude towards theory.
  • Even though journalism studies is a multidisciplinary field, it is dominated by sociological perspectives.
  • The emerging theories within journalism studies are heavily influenced by a techno-economic discourse.
  • Owing to the vast amount of different theories, journalism studies is developing in a diversified rather than unified direction.

A Field Dominated by a Pragmatist-Participatory Attitude Towards Theory

Our first argument is that journalism studies is dominated by what Mjøset (2006) identified as a pragmatist-participatory attitude towards theory. This implies that theory is not necessarily the starting point of academic inquiry. Even if the field is slowly becoming more theoretically aware, much of journalism research published in journals seeks primarily to find answers to practice-based questions that can be investigated empirically rather than through theorization (see also Löffelholz, 2008; Erjavec & Zajc, 2011).

A pragmatist-participatory attitude towards theory implies that generalization and specification are not seen as a dichotomy (Mjøset, 2006). Generalizations are grounded in specified contexts and specifications are found by comparison. This research attitude typically involves the making of typologies, which are revised as knowledge grows. Examples of such evolving typologies in journalism studies include research on news criteria (from Galtung & Ruge, 1965; Harcup & O’Neill, 2001, 2016 and other studies); media systems (from Hallin & Mancini, 2004; Aalberg, Aelst, & Curran, 2010 and other studies); and journalistic role perceptions and cultures (from Weaver, 1998; Hanitzsch et al., 2011; and other studies).

Researchers who publish their work in Journalism and Journalism Studies prefer to present their research in an empirical manner. This tradition seems to favor an empirical data first and theory last, if at all type of presentation pattern: in about a third of the abstracts, we analyzed, the role of theory remained implicit or hidden in how the study was summarized. In addition, about a quarter of all the examined abstracts throughout the sampled years did not mention any theory at all. We of course recognize that the journal article as a genre does not allow extensive theorization, 2 but we also believe that this empirical orientation is related to a more general adoption of the pragmatist-participatory attitude where theory-building is a bottom-up process that does not have to be explicated as a framework. Such empirical approaches have remained a central form of inquiry in journalism studies (Löffelholz, 2008, p. 18). Historical reviews of research point out that studies of journalism from the 1950s and onwards, especially in the United States, were indeed heavily influenced by empirical rather than theoretical work (Erjavec & Zajc, 2011). Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch (2009b) connect the empirical phase of journalism studies to the ties between journalism research and education: educators with a background in practical newsroom work started to share their knowledge in academic formats.

Furthermore, previous studies from the broader field of mass communication research also indicate an adherence to a pragmatist-participatory attitude. Bryant and Miron (2004) found that in 1,806 randomly sampled articles from Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journal of Communication and Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media published between 1956 and 2000, only 32 percent “included some theory.” Kamhawi and Weaver (2003) found the same to be true in about 31 percent of articles published between 1980 and 1999 in ten major mass communication journals in the United States. This suggests that journalism journals are in line with the research culture of the journals from the broader field of communication research.

The pragmatist-participatory attitude can also be seen as a willingness to stay in touch with the practice that is examined. The relationship between researchers and journalists has been uneasy: journalists have even resisted the study of their work environment (Zelizer, 2009) and interpreted research results as unfair criticism or over-theorization that does not resonate with the realities of the craft (Erjavec & Zajc, 2011). Hence, the tendency to underline the empirical aspects of research can be interpreted as a sign of a field that takes a pragmatic attitude as a starting point in order to better serve the community of journalists.

The empirical data first, theory last tradition is of course also linked to the inherently multidisciplinary nature of the field, which creates a situation where there is a lack of journalism-specific macro-level theories that would require authors to automatically acknowledge them as the starting point of their studies. The well-known models that can be seen as classical journalism theories, such as gatekeeping (White, 1950); agenda-setting (McCombs & Shaw, 1972); and news value (Galtung & Ruge, 1965) theories, are middle-range theories that theorize the individual-organizational level of journalism or explain specific aspects of journalism (Löffelholz, 2008).

However, our investigation of abstracts published in Journalism and Journalism Studies also indicates that there were more direct mentions of theories in the later years than in the early stages of the journals. This implies that researchers of journalism have become more prone to tie their work to theoretical argumentation also in journal articles. It seems fair to assume that the growing number of academic monographs and edited volumes on “rethinking” journalism noted in the introduction of this chapter, have contributed to a theoretical awareness also in journal articles.

Multidisciplinarity With a Sociological Emphasis

Our second argument is that, even though journalism studies is a multidisciplinary field, it is dominated by a sociological emphasis in its theorization. Journalism research has been noted to have strong ties with the social sciences. Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch (2009b, p. 6), for example, point out a clear “sociological turn” in journalism research in the 1970s and 1980s. Likewise, Reese (2016, p. 4) talks about a “shift to a sociology of news,” where the previous research preoccupation with questions of processes of journalistic communication and its effects on the public was abandoned in favor of a focus on journalism as a social practice. The sociological turn brought with it questions of “power, control, structures, institutions, class, and community” (ibid.). In our journal analysis, we find that sociology appeared as the strongest background discipline of journalism studies, followed by political science and cultural as well as language theories. In the following sub-sections, we will address the main theories of journalism stemming from these disciplinary traditions.

Journalism as a Social System

Sociological perspectives imply that journalism is understood as a kind of social system in which certain roles are performed and practices undertaken. Rühl (2008) describes this societal approach to journalism as one that focuses on macro conceptions, such as systems and social roles, and uses these to understand the relationship and difference between journalism and other forms of public communication. A range of social system-related macro theories have been used to explain and explore the role that journalism plays in societies, why it matters, and what makes it different from other forms of communication and other parts of society. Luhmann’s theory of social systems can help explain journalism’s position in a society by how it differentiates itself from other social systems and creates boundaries of meaning (Görke & Scholl, 2006). Bourdieu’s field theory, in which journalism can be understood as a subfield of the field of cultural production, has been used to analyze the connections between journalistic organizations, practices, products, and professionals, on the one side, and larger social systems of power, economy, and politics, on the other (Benson, 1999, 2006). Like field theory, new institutionalism is a social system theory that mediates “the impact of macro-level forces on micro-level actions” (Ryfe, 2006, p. 137). Analyzing journalism as an institution means analyzing the presuppositions and tacit knowledge that guide journalistic practice across newsrooms, news organizations, and other journalistic organizations.

Central to these theories is that they provide explanations and questions from a macro perspective for how an institution/field/system like journalism functions and develops in societies through analysis of how individual behavior coincides with larger, cross-organizational structures. As such, social system theories provide frameworks for analyzing interplays between mental structures (norms, values, and ideals); material structures (economy, and technology); and agency in journalism. We also find ways of analyzing the same interplay in middle-range theories like organizational theory and hierarchy of influences theory. The difference is that such theories do not aim at explaining societies on a macro level. Organizational theory provides a framework for understanding how various kinds of organizations are configured and reconfigured by internal and external structures and by the actions of different kinds of professions and labor that are part of the organization. Organizational theory has been applied in journalism studies to analyses, for example, of how specific beats, like science journalism (Lublinski, 2011), develop. News production studies also take news organizations as their starting point, analyzing how agency and mental and material structures shape how news is produced. Based on extensive ethnographic research, news production studies became a popular way of analyzing journalism as meso- and micro-social systems during the 1970s (see Becker & Vlad, 2009, for an overview). Such studies were important in showing that news is constructed based on certain routines. They produced some of the best-known middle-range theories of journalism, like the theory of news values (see, for instance, Harcup & O’Neill, 2016) and the gatekeeping theory (see Shoemaker & Vos 2009).

Recognizing that journalism has become increasingly independent of news organizations and influenced by all kinds of structures and agency on macro, meso, and micro levels, the hierarchy of influence theory introduced by Shoemaker and Reese (1996) provides a model of the levels that influence journalism: from the macro-social systems, via social institutions and organizations, to the micro levels of routine practices and individuals. Similarly, practice theory (Bourdieu, 1977; Schatzki, 2001) opens up pre-defined conceptions of organizations and delves deeper into the interplay between the mental and material structures, and the agency, that both restrain and facilitate (professional) practice. For example, practice theory has been used to analyze how activities, materiality, and discursive reflexivity connected to participatory journalism shape what journalism is and why it develops as it does, preferably without preconceived ideas on who the key agents are (professionals or amateurs) or within what kind of organizational framework journalism operates (Ahva, 2017).

The increasing uncertainty as to where journalism is to be found, who produces it and how various groups of professionals and amateurs participate and cooperate in its coming into existence has led to the popularity of social system theories that do not take macro-societal perspectives as their starting point. Latour’s actor-network theory is one example of such a social system theory with no preconceived ideas on who and what shapes the social system. This approach has gained significant traction in journalism studies in recent years (see Primo & Zago, 2015 for an overview, and discussion below).

In our journal analysis, we find examples of all the above-mentioned theories. Almost a third of the 20 most popular keywords drew from sociology (keywords like “professionalism,” “globalization,” “practice,” “role,” “news values,” “newsroom,” “community,” “values”). A third of the abstracts referred to professionalism, which makes it the single most popular sociological framework in journal articles. Professionalism has been applied as a theoretical framework in journalism studies in three main ways. First, there are historical analyses of how news work and its forms have professionalized over time and whether this occupational culture can be described as a profession (e.g., Carey, 2007). Second, there are studies that focus on examining the professional ideology or culture of journalism: its core values and norms that mark the value-based boundaries of the field (e.g., Deuze, 2005). This tradition is also typically interested in the sense-making and positioning of journalists themselves: how they view the norms and surroundings that guide and impact their work and roles, also in a comparative fashion (e.g., Hanusch & Hanitzsch, 2017).

Third are the studies that focus on the legitimacy and jurisdiction of professional journalism as a societal agent, its distinct practices and roles in relation to other professions or political, economic, and cultural fields (e.g., Waisbord, 2013). However, the theoretical framework of professionalism has also been criticized for limiting the domain that is seen as a valid information source about journalism and hence potentially omitting the role of participating non-journalists in the construction of journalism (Ahva, 2017).

Journalism as a Democratic Force

The second most common disciplinary framework in journalism studies, according to our journal analysis, is political science. Keywords typical of this framework (like “election,” “democracy,” “public relations,” “politics,” and “public sphere”) dominated at the beginning of the new millennium but declined towards 2016. Overall, these keywords indicate that the political science tradition sees journalism as a democratic force that shapes public discourse.

Democracy theories provide typical starting points for journalism studies and enable us to understand the role that journalism plays as a facilitator of the public sphere and how it covers issues that require public attention. Within this framework, we can identify various approaches. So-called procedural or competitive democracy theories have long framed journalism studies and guided researchers’ attention towards the role that journalism plays in providing information to citizens as voters between the elections and the ways in which politicians compete over power in the public sphere (Strömbäck, 2005). While this tradition is still strong, participatory and deliberative democracy theories (ibid.) became more prominent in the 1990s. These models invite us to examine and assess whether journalism enables or restricts civic agency and reasoning beyond the moment of voting, and the role of public discourse in the formation of the political culture (e.g., Ettema, 2007). As a more middle-range theory developed within communication studies, agenda-setting theory (McCombs & Shaw, 1972) provides a framework for analyzing how journalism shapes the public sphere and consequently the ways in which we, as the public, understand the world. Priming and framing are core concepts within agenda-setting theory and provide tools to analyses what and how issues gain importance in the media and thereby in public and political discourse. Refining agenda-setting theory, theories of second-level agenda setting (Ghanem, 1997) and inter-media agenda setting (Danielian & Reese, 2009) provide frameworks for analyzing, respectively (1) how the media discuss issues that have already made the agenda and (2) how certain media (like elite newspapers) influence what other media should have on their agenda.

There are long, historic ties between journalism and democracy/public sphere theories. A free, independent press which facilitates a public sphere in which ideas and politics can be disseminated, debated, critiqued, and shaped has been considered a cornerstone for democracy ever since the Age of Enlightenment, in which catchphrases like Thomas Jefferson’s “information is the currency of democracy” began to dominate the democracy discourse (Zelizer, 2013, p. 463). Such links between journalism and democracy were directly articulated in the theory of journalism as the “fourth estate,” in which journalism is prescribed a role as a guardian of democracy and as a mediator between public opinion and the governing institutions of a state (Boyce, 2008). The fourth estate theory and similar theoretically assumed links between journalism and democracy are normative theories, which prescribe what role journalism should have in a society and what a democracy should be like. Embedded in such normative theories is the notion that journalism is a prerequisite for democracy, and vice versa; journalism and democracy are so intertwined that the one cannot exist without the other.

Such normative theories of journalism (and democracy) have been criticized for a number of reasons. First, they cannot explain how and why journalism exists in semi- or non-democratic societies. Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm (1956) addressed this problem in their categorization of how journalism functions in various political systems expressed as the four theories of the press: the authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility, and Soviet-totalitarian. However, the four theories of the press did not provide an escape from normative theory, as it was discursively embedded within a libertarian logic that clearly ranked the four categories along an axis from good to bad (Nerone, 1995). Several revisions of the four theories of the press and alternative models have since been suggested, all of which are based on some degrees of normativity (see Christians, Glasser, McQuail, Nordenstreng, & White, 2010, chapter 1, for a review).

Moreover, normative theories linking journalism and democracy tend to disregard the fact that journalism is not the only channel through which trustworthy information can flow in a society and a public sphere marked by a diversity of opinions. Blogs, social media, citizen journalism, and other information channels have democratized public speech, and Zelizer (2013) has therefore, and for other reasons, suggested it is time to put democracy theory to rest in journalism studies. Zelizer (ibid.) also notes that journalism has been as biased, partisan, and connected with governance as it has been free and independent. Furthermore, journalism is much more than hard news about politics and democracy. Commercialization and tabloidization have pushed it towards the entertainment industry while at the same time making it more dependent on market forces, while forms and genres like lifestyle journalism (Hanusch, 2014); sports journalism (Boyle, 2006); and feature journalism (Steensen, 2018) promote other social functions of journalism than those related to politics and democracy.

Journalism as Cultural Production and Discourse

Like social and political theory, cultural theory occupies a position among the top disciplines that influence journalism studies, according to our journal analysis. Reflecting the last point above about the diversity of journalism beyond issues related to politics and democracy, the cultural analysis of journalism argues that it is more fruitful to view journalism as broad-spectrum cultural production.

Analyzing journalism through the lenses of cultural theory implies questioning what is presupposed in journalism, figuring out how journalists view themselves, trying to understand the diversity of journalism and connecting journalistic practices and products to questions of power, ideology, class, ethnicity, gender, identity, and so on. The cultural analysis of journalism is interested in how journalism intersects with everyday life. Audiences’ perceptions of and interactions with journalism are therefore important to cultural studies of journalism. In the words of Hartley (2008, p. 47), the cultural analysis of journalism is interested in the “moment at which media production becomes communication and culture—the moment of the use in the circumstances of everyday life.”

Keywords belonging to cultural theories, such as “identity” and “culture,” were among the most popular especially in 2014–2016 in our journal analysis. The named theories within this framework were also the most diverse in our study. They ranged from feminist theory (discussed and developed, for example, in North, 2009) to cultural or affective public sphere theories (e.g., Papacharissi, 2015) and myth theories (e.g., Eko, 2010). The cultural perspectives underline the role and significance of, for example, emotions (vs. rationality) and storytelling (vs. reporting) in journalism and connect everyday life with structural and power-related questions.

There is a strong connection between the cultural analysis of journalism and critical theory, especially as related to neo-Marxism and the Frankfurt school of thought (for a review, see Kellner, 1993). This implies an ambition to unmask the social and ideological power structures embedded in journalism and to uncover the discrepancies between journalistic self-perception and “metajournalistic discourse” (Carlson, 2016), on the one hand, and the actual expressions and meaning production systems of journalism, on the other. Hence, language-based traditions of studying journalism are closely related to cultural ones. The field of semiotics, in which text is understood as not only written language, but also as still and moving images, body language, and so on, has been important in recognizing journalism as visual culture and discussing the diversity through which journalism produces meaning. Language studies also increasingly emphasize the social and cultural situatedness of journalistic texts, which requires that studies of text be informed by material and contextual dimensions (Richardson, 2008).

The most common frameworks within language-oriented perspectives on journalism are discourse theory (recently discussed and developed, for example, in Kelsey, 2015; see also Chapter 16); narrative theory (e.g., Johnston & Graham, 2012); and genre theories (Marques de Melo & Assis, 2016). Among these, discourse theory is the most popular, according to our journal analysis. There are various approaches within the umbrella of discourse theory, but critical discourse analysis (CDA) is perhaps the most widely used and influential in the field of media and journalism studies. CDA explores the dialectical relationship between discourses and the social systems in which they function to expose how language and meaning are used by the powerful to oppress the dominated, so that the approach could be said to have an emancipatory trajectory (Pöyhtäri, 2014). For example, van Dijk (2009) has underlined that a major dimension in discourse analytical studies of journalism is the ideological nature of news: the approach can help in examining the expression and reproduction of ideology in news, the axiomatic beliefs underlying the social representations shared by a group. He furthermore points out that the role of discourse in reproducing racism, nationalism, and sexism should be more carefully studied in the future.

Thus, taken together, the disciplinary perspectives of culture and language regard journalism as a form of cultural production that shapes us and our world through discourse.

Emerging Theories Take Inspiration From Technology and Economy

If the above-discussed threesome—sociology, political science, and cultural and language studies—provides the relatively stable theoretical backbone to the multidisciplinarity of journalism studies, the perspectives of technology and economy are the booming newcomers. This third argument of ours is no surprise, given the prevalent discourse of crisis in journalism. Discourse surrounding the financial crisis, for example, has centered on the question on how to make journalism a profitable business in the digital age; while discourse of the technological crisis has concerned how the practices, products, and proliferation of news work are dramatically changing due to digitalization. Therefore, techno-economic discourse (Kunelius & Ruusunoksa, 2008) has emerged as a strong sense-making category for newsroom management as well as scholarship.

Our abstract analysis indicates that the share of economics as a background discipline rose from 0 to 5 percent, and technology from 3 to 6 percent in 2000–2016. Therefore, among the smaller disciplines, economics and technology are the perspectives that have increased their share the most. It also seems that such perspectives have a stronger impact than others. Based on analysis of citation metrics, we found that articles framed within a techno-economic discourse were more likely to be cited than articles framed within any other disciplinary traditions. We will now introduce the emerging theories within the traditions of technology and economy.

Journalism as a Socio-Material Practice

The increasing role of technology is reflected in our journal analysis through the emergence of new keywords, such as “computational journalism,” “materiality,” and “visualization.” On the one hand, technology as an underlying approach appears as one that can be adopted in order to reexamine certain traditional aspects of journalism (such as visualization in the form of digital data visualization) or to update popular journalism-related middle-range theories, such as gatekeeping (reworked into gatewatching, see Bruns, 2005). On the other hand, the technological perspective has brought entirely new theoretical input to the field. For example, science and technology studies is one of the most important new fields to have influenced theorization of journalism in the digital age (Ahva & Steensen, 2017). Socio-technical theories, such as Latour’s (2005) actor-network theory, have gained ground in journalism studies, especially since the publication of Boczkowski’s seminal book Digitizing the News (2004), which paved the way for understanding the interplay between technology, materiality, and social practice related to the production of (online) journalism. However, perspectives like actor-network theory are as much methodological approaches as theories, and they have therefore been criticized for their lack of explanatory power (Benson, 2017).

Nevertheless, the use of the keyword “network” has in recent years grown significantly in journalism studies, as have spatial keywords related to “ecosystems” and “landscapes.” Reese (2016, p. 10) refers to “the ecosystem shift” in theories of journalism and connects this to the emergence of digital platforms that have made some of the classical conceptual categorizations invalid. This technological perspective thus seems to regard journalism as a materially defined practice.

Journalism as Post-Industrial Business Endeavor

Our analysis of journal article keywords points to an interesting shift in how economy/business/industry-related perspectives are framed in journalism studies. By 2014–2016, keywords within this branch such as “media industry” and “economic theory,” which were among the most popular in 2000–2013, had been replaced by a variety of more flexible, individual-focused, and business-related conceptualizations, such as “sustainability” or “entrepreneurialism.” This shift is connected to a situation where the journalism industry as a clearly demarcated branch within the media industry needs to be rethought—as proposed by the notion of “post-industrial journalism” (Anderson, Bell, & Shirky, 2012). This rethinking of journalism as industry and business involves journalism’s move from organizational enterprises to individual entrepreneurship.

The emphasis on individuals becomes explicit, for example, in how the notion of entrepreneurial journalism has been recently discussed and theorized. Here, the discourse is centered on how individual journalists can (and should) reinvent themselves as independent entrepreneurs by starting a company outside of legacy news organizations. Hence concepts and theories from management and business studies, such as business model canvas (Singer, 2017), are applied to address how journalists can see change and disruption as business opportunities (Briggs, 2012). This indicates that the perspectives of economics and business perceive journalism as a commercial endeavor that pertains to changing structures as well as individual activities.

The Long Tail of Theories

Our fourth argument is that the story of theory in journalism studies is very much a story of the long tail. This means that, while the field has matured and become more theoretically aware, the sheer number of theories applied has also increased. In our journal analysis, we found 116 different theories mentioned in the abstracts of the three volumes (2002/2003, 2012, and 2016) of Journalism and Journalism Studies. In 2016 alone, we found 58 different theories in the 126 articles.

Only a few theories were clearly more popular than others, like professionalism and democracy theories, but most were mentioned only once. Examples from the long tail include varied frameworks such as ideational theory, cultural chaos theory, cumulative prospect theory, theory of voice, and cartography. This situation resonates with Bryant and Miron’s (2004) analysis of the role of theory in mass communication journals between 1956 and 2000. In the 1,806 articles they analyzed, 604 different theories were identified, most of which were referenced only a few times.

The long tail of theories prompts the following question: is it possible to build a unifying knowledge paradigm for journalism studies, and is such a paradigm necessary? As our analysis reveals, the questions asked by journalism scholars are close to being outnumbered by the theoretical approaches used. From a classical perspective on the nature of disciplines, in which a shared knowledge paradigm is considered important, one might therefor argue that because journalism is described and analyzed through so many different academic languages, it runs the risk of resembling the cacophony at the biblical tower of Babel. Consequently, one might ask: is the shared knowledge paradigm only a distant fata morgana that individual journalism scholars gaze at from the isolation of their own theoretical islands?

For a number of reasons, we would advise against asking such questions. First, a shared knowledge paradigm does not necessarily mean a fixed and stable set of theories. Instead, as proposed by Carlson et al. (2018), it could be understood as a shared set of commitments, which constitute a shared way of knowing as an epistemic culture. Second, the pragmatist-participatory attitude towards theory has a strong foothold in journalism studies, and even though this attitude does not constitute a shared knowledge paradigm, it represents an agreement that empirical material is the center around which theories circle. This does not necessarily mean that theory plays a subordinate role in journalism studies. Rather, if the pragmatist-participatory, grounded theory-inspired attitude is understood as Mjøset (2006) suggests, it means that theoretical knowledge is essential in the construction of a “local research frontier,” meaning the accumulated knowledge established by previous grounded research on the same area. Such an approach implies that theoretical constructs are constantly negotiated by empirical material. Hence, theories emerge, and disciplinary resonance may need to be sought, from various directions, not just from the traditional ones.

Such an attitude towards theory is perhaps a fruitful path for journalism studies, the object of whose study is in a constant flux. Deuze and Witschge (2018, p. 177) argue along these lines, as they observe that journalism is a profession in a “permanent process of becoming,” which requires of journalism studies to have a constantly evolving toolkit of perspectives from which to understand this process.

In fact, instead of resembling the tower of Babel, one could argue that the magnitude of theoretical perspectives and the consequent lack of a shared knowledge paradigm fits well with Feyerabend’s (1993, p. 9) notion of the perfect state of science: “Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.”


In this chapter, we have painted a picture of what theory looks like in journalism studies. We structured our examination along the lines of four arguments based on an analysis of articles published in Journalism and Journalism Studies from 2000 to 2016. This examination pointed at general trends in the use of theory and gave us a backbone along which to map the families of theories in journalism studies more broadly.

As a summary, we can say that journalism studies is a vivid and maturing multidisciplinary field which tries to capture a constantly moving object by asking new, empirical questions guided by an increasingly larger pool of different theories and frameworks. At the same time, theoretical awareness of the field seems to be on the rise.

Journalism studies is strongly rooted in the sociological research tradition and also heavily shaped by the political science and cultural and language studies traditions. It is understood in numerous and sometimes competing ways but is most often viewed as a kind of social system, as a democratic force, as cultural production and discourse, and increasingly also as a socio-material and commercial practice.

Moreover, journalism studies has strong ties to normative and critical theories, and there is a rising awareness around the role of normative theory in the field. For example, Carlson et al. (2018, p. 15) argue (normatively!) that normativity is a key characteristic of both journalism and journalism studies that should be recognized, embraced, critically scrutinized, and made transparent:

A commitment to normative awareness can manifest itself as a form of reflexivity that examines both the explicit and implicit assumptions that show up in the data and analyses of researchers. Such awareness can also result in a critical stance that challenges the effects of journalism’s normative commitments on news.

In the first edition of this handbook, Zelizer (2009, p. 34) argued that journalism studies was “at war with self” and dominated by “a slew of independent academic efforts taking place in a variety of disciplines without the shared knowledge crucial to academic inquiry.” It seems that not much has changed, but we do not necessarily agree with the presupposition embedded in the above quote around the necessity of a shared knowledge paradigm. We believe that journalism studies is well served by a constant search for new approaches and new perspectives from a variety of disciplines. This means that journalism scholars should not lament such theoretical anarchy, but embrace it. Even though most of the innovative theoretical endeavors that come out of this anarchic state might make no mark on the field, the ones that do can push it in new and fruitful directions.

However, continuous search for theoretical innovation may promote new theories over old ones simply because they are new and not necessarily because they are better. There is, therefore, a potential normativity in such theoretical anarchy that favors the new and unknown over the old and familiar. Journalism scholars should be aware of such a potential bias and not disregard the knowledge accumulated by previous intellectual inquiries into the subject. At least, there should be reflexivity in regard to the specific disciplinary traditions within which authors locate themselves.

Even though we salute the current state of theoretical anarchy in journalism studies, we recognize that the field is in almost constant need of shared meeting places, both physically, typically in conferences, and intellectually, in the form of edited volumes and monographs that aim at pulling the various theoretical threads together. This is what makes journalism studies an interpretive community while at the same time revealing what a vibrant, evolving field it is.


The sample included all keywords from articles published in all volumes of the journals Journalism and Journalism Studies during the period 2000–2016, and all abstracts of the volumes of 2002–2003, 2012, and 2016. The results presented in this article are a combination of our previous study (Steensen & Ahva, 2015) and an update of it with data up until 2016. The number of analyzed keywords from Journalism was 4,297, and from Journalism Studies 7,671, so altogether 11,968 keywords. The number of analyzed abstracts from Journalism was 32 (2002–2003), 33 (2012), and 63 (2016), and from Journalism Studies 58 (2002–2003), 50 (2012), and 63 (2016), so altogether 299 abstracts.

We also acknowledge that, with our study based on abstracts and keywords, we can merely make conclusions only about how research is presented. Examining how theories are put to use in the studies would require another review study on full articles.


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