Journalistic activities refer to the routinized practices that help shape both news media messages and the ways they are distributed and consumed.
The phrase “routinized practices” underscores that journalistic activities tend to follow certain routines, or ways of doing things. They’re often deeply influenced by long-standing institutional logics, processes, and cultural values that make it possible for different kinds of social actors and technological actants to not only work together but also work efficiently across the multi-stage process of producing journalism.
Although journalistic activities are influenced by their past, they are not static or unchangeable. In fact, they frequently iterate as new configurations of social actors, technological actants, and audiences emerge as a result of social, political, economic, and technological changes within media industries and society at large.
For example, journalism was historically a more insular practice, with journalists often writing for an audience they knew relatively little about and received relatively little input from. Put another way, after the journalist identified a story they perhaps thought was important, the journalist would report it and write it in a way that would help answer questions they thought their audiences probably had. After the editors and production staff processed the journalist’s story, it would appear on somebody’s doorstep. That was often the end of that story’s lifecycle.
In contrast, that same journalist is today more likely to be looking at social media trends to identify story ideas, put out open calls to solicit help in running down a tip, and even receive frequent audience feedback about their story after it has been published. Moreover, that journalist may go on to respond to questions about the story on social media and later tweet small updates to the story based on audience interest. Journalistic activities today are thus more social and less insular.
We can broadly place many of the most consequential journalistic activities into five distinct stages: access and observation, selection and filtering, processing and editing, distribution, and interpretation.
Access and observation pertains to the information gathering stage of news production. This involves gathering source material, like attending a press conference, being present at a protest, or gaining access to confidential government reports. It also involves identifying patterns in those source materials, like the members of Congress who routinely receive more political donations from certain industries. Regular citizens are now far more likely to participate in this stage than in times past because they can easily serve as observers by streaming events or capturing incidents that professional journalists may not be able to observe first-hand themselves. For example, a Minneapolis teenager received a special citation by the Pulitzer Board in 2021 for filming the murder of George Floyd. That video was crucial to journalistic coverage of that incident, and it helped generate a great deal of media attention to the issue of police violence against people of color in the summer of 2020.
Selection and filtering pertains to the stage wherein gathered information is winnowed down to its most interesting and/or important parts. This involves looking at all potential stories that might emerge from an event, like a protest, and deciding what to include in a news product and where to include it. For example, a journalist may choose to focus the story on the size of the turnout at a protest, on the police response to the protesters, on the history of the issue that is being protested against, on the potential solutions to the issue, and so on. Even if the journalist has the time or space to cover every one of those angles — and they often do not — they still need to decide which aspect of the issue to the lead the news story with.
Processing and editing pertains to the stage wherein the gathered and filtered information is turned into a news product, often by following certain stylistic guidelines. For example, the journalist may be expected to organize the information using the inverted pyramid schema, wherein the most timely and important information is placed near the very top of the story, followed by decreasingly important details until you get to the non-essential background information at the end. The journalist may also be expected to generally use non-emotive language, like claiming a policy proposal was “dismissed” instead of “lambasted” in order to signal their neutrality. Within this stage, there may be multiple individuals (from the supervising editor to a copy editor to the layout or web editor) modifying the news product as it moves through the news production chain.
Distribution pertains to the stage wherein news products are disseminated to audiences, such as by broadcasting a news story on a television show or trying to place it on a user’s social media feed. Historically, newsroom personnel had a limited role to play in this stage as organizations had a dedicated group of people to handle these activities. For example, dedicated print workers would set up the printing press, print thousands of copies, and stash them in bunches at a delivery dock. Delivery workers would then pick up and drop off individual copies at subscribers’ homes. Today, however, newsroom personnel often participate directly in the distribution process by linking to their own stories on social media and sometimes even trying to draw attention to the stories by engaging in online communities where would-be audiences might congregate. Additionally, audiences themselves now play a crucial role in distribution: They’re often the ones driving attention to a story by sharing it, helping some news products go viral.
Interpretation pertains to the discussion around the distributed news product, and more broadly about how it becomes widely understood and accepted by the general population. Journalists can certainly influence the interpretation of a news product based on the specific words and story angles they use in describing an issue or event, and editors can similarly play a major role based on the headline they write for the story and the pictures they choose to accompany it. However, audiences also play a crucial role in this process based on how they talk about the product in associated ‘comments’ sections, the contexts within which they share the stories on social media, and the rebuttals they may choose to issue themselves via blogging platforms and the like.
At the heart of these examples are human actors. This is because journalistic activities have historically been human-led, with technological actants acting largely in a support role to help enact the human-led objectives more efficiently. For example, content management systems made it possible for journalists to quickly write their stories — perhaps with some automated spell- and grammar-checking help — and easily move it up the chain to a human editor. However, human beings were still doing much of the core labor.
This is changing, however. In some instances, the roles are now outright inverted, with the human social actor playing the support role and the technological actant taking the primary journalistic role, and sometimes acting with a remarkable degree of independence. For example, newswriting algorithms are already able to take in large numbers of electronic financial reports, identify the most interesting changes from the previous financial quarter, and write thousands of news stories that look very similar to what a human journalist might have produced. Another algorithm may then take those stories and post them to an organization’s website — with a clever headline and all — and automatically promote it on social media. All of this can be done with limited human intervention, beyond the work that goes into setting up the algorithm.
While algorithmically led user-facing activities are still the exception within the general space of journalism, they have become central in some sectors. For example, The Associated Press publishes tens of thousands of algorithmically written news stories about finance and sports each year, and a major journalistic media chain in Sweden employs algorithms to automatically organize news stories on their homepages using a mixture of personalization and algorithmic editorial judgment.
Thus, while journalistic activities are often organized around predictable routines shaped by history, they’re also continually iterating before our eyes.
Journalistic activities refer to the routinized practices that help shape news messages as well as their distribution and consumption.
Journalistic activities are often governed by long-standing principles, values, and ways of doing things. However, they also evolve to accommodate new arrangements of social actors, technological actants, and audiences.
When it comes to journalism, we can broadly place the most consequential activities within five stages: access and observation, selection and filtering, processing and editing, distribution, and interpretation.
While technological actants have historically been used to support human actors, in some cases they are now able to work fairly independently from them.