Human beings play a central role in journalism, and we can refer to the individuals who help shape the renditions of news we come across (and the organizations those individuals work for) as social actors within the space of “journalism.”
The most obvious social actor in journalism is the journalist. But what constitutes a “journalist” is often debated both within and across societies, and it changes over time. For example, 50 years ago, it may have been enough to say that anyone who was employed to do editorial work for an organization that primarily produced news was effectively a “journalist.” However, news organizations and the journalism ecosystem are simply too complex today for that to be a good definition.
Scholars have traditionally found two particularly helpful approaches for defining who a “journalist” is.
From a sociological approach, one could say that journalists are individuals with particular skills and knowledge who both adhere to the shared ideals of what is recognized as journalism within a given context and believe they are participating in shaping the profession’s standards of proper practice. Put another way, the sociological approach looks at a combination of what the individual does, how they do it, and the role they play in shaping the profession.
From a normative approach, one could say that a journalist is simply someone who reports news while holding certain values associated with journalism in a given society. For example, in the United States, such values might include seeking to report honestly and independently from commercial and social pressures, committing to verifying information before disseminating it, and being responsible, methodical, and transparent in their work. Put another way, the normative approach focuses less on what a person does and more on the values they adopt and try to apply in their work. Those norms, in turn, serve as identity markers for the individual, helping them define who they are as professionals (or semi-professionals). Those norms also serve as boundary markers separating journalists from non-journalists, helping those individuals define who they are not, as well as who is not one of us.
While this distinction may seem strictly academic at first, it has two broad practical implications. First, individuals viewed as journalists by one group of people may not be viewed as journalists by another group because they apply different definitional criteria. Second, journalists often try to present themselves as journalists (or not-journalists) in relation to norms and/or professional standards — which underscores the ‘soft’ power of those cultural constructions.
News organizations have a range of social actors who are typically associated with the label of “journalist” — whom we may call editorial actors. These include reporters and correspondents, who collect and analyze information, and then produce news reports about newsworthy events; photojournalists, who try to capture those events through still and moving images; and anchors and presenters, who serve as the faces and primary interpreters in broadcast news programs.
In addition to those more front-facing social actors, you also have individuals who work behind the scenes but are nevertheless also grouped under the “journalist” umbrella. These include editors, who assign stories to reporters, review their work, and have the ability to make substantial changes to the news reports that reporters produce; copy editors, who review news reports for accuracy, grammar, adherence to the organization’s journalistic style, and often write the headlines; community engagement editors, who help tailor content for social media and build community around stories; and news designers, who employ different aesthetics like fonts and visual hierarchy in order to call attention to certain aspects of a story.
There are also some content producers whose work is regularly featured alongside that of journalists but whose practices, norms, or styles result in their being considered “journalists” only some of the time (if at all). These include columnists, who write regular analyses of news that typically convey an explicit point of view or personal experience; cartoonists, who often seek to convey an explicit point of view on an issue through creative illustration; and a news organization’s editorial board, which may write anonymous editorials that convey the organization’s view on some issue. The work from these individuals is often — but not always — explicitly separated from that of the aforementioned actors, such as by being included in an “Opinion” section.
In addition to those social actors, there are also individuals who are crucial to the operation of a news organization but are less likely to be labeled a “journalist.” Two important groups of such individuals are economic actors and technical actors.
Some of the key economic actors within news organizations are managers and proprietors. Management covers a broad category of social actors who play a role in defining and implementing the organization’s business strategy, including its revenue model, economic targets, budgets and resource allocations, and hiring choices. Proprietors, in turn, refer to the actors who own news organizations. These actors may be hands-off and allow the organization to operate with considerable independence — provided they reach specified economic targets — but they may also actively engage in the day-to-day decision-making by assigning stories of interest to them, shutting down stories that hurt their interests, and serving as the ‘final word’ in different newsroom affairs.
News organizations also require a range of technical actors in order to operate successfully. These include camera operators, who set up and work the cameras for news broadcasts; sound mixers, who record, synchronize, and edit audio for news segments; and web and app developers, who design and operate content management systems and user-facing applications. Simply put, these individuals help design and operate the tools needed to create the news products that an organization wants to put out — and without whom there likely would not be a polished product.
These are just a small sampling of the many social actors involved in journalism, all of whom could easily fall under a single news organization’s umbrella, provided the organization is large enough. However, it is imperative to note that not only are there many different social actors involved in journalism but that these (and related) actors can work either inside or outside of a newsroom.
For example, consider a news organization’s content management system. Such systems are commonplace in modern news organizations. They allow a reporter to easily write their story on a digital platform, pass it on to an editor who reviews it, and then quickly publishes it on the organization’s website. Although commonplace, the software supporting a system like this is often developed by a different organization — and one that likely produces software for businesses in different industries. That software development organization thus generally operates outside the space of journalism. As such, the coders who create that content management system may rarely ever interact with journalists, and they may even produce the software with a different user base in mind, such as food bloggers. Nevertheless, the coder’s decisions partly shape what the reporter can and cannot do. For example, the editor may not be able to use a ‘track changes’ function while editing a story because the coders never considered that need, and thus did not program the system to allow that functionality.
We could call such a software development organization (and the coders who worked on the content management system) an interloper because they would likely be seen as a non-journalistic actor that operates outside of typical journalistic spaces, even though that organization contributes meaningfully to journalism (despite that contribution perhaps being unintentional). While some interlopers stumble onto journalism — perhaps as a result of a job or a passion project — others do intentionally seek to contribute to journalism, even as they may not seek recognition as journalistic actors. An example of this might be an open-data advocate who digitizes records of complaints against police officers so that data journalists can write stories about that issue.
Interlopers are important because they often challenge the orthodoxies of journalism. They may do this by explicitly critiquing those orthodoxies or by implicitly introducing new practices and ways of thinking as a result of their non-journalistic background and training. Those challenges, over time, have the potential to structurally reshape aspects of journalism, allowing it to develop in unforeseen ways.
It is important to note, however, that some outsiders may seek to interlope and gain recognition as journalistic actors — if not as outright “journalists.” An example of this may be a comedian who claims to be a “journalist” because they regularly feature news material in their performances and provide news analysis through the lens of comedy. Another example may be YouTube personalities who claim to be both an “outsider” and a “journalist,” and therefore not subject to the media problems they critique. Such efforts are sometimes successful. However, they are more often unsuccessful because the interloper’s interventions may be deemed too extreme, and instead serve as an example against which a boundary for what does constitute “journalism” is set. Over time, such boundaries do change, though.
Given that there are so many kinds of actors within journalism, it can be helpful to think about journalism through a network lens, wherein different actors are connected to one another. Such an exercise not only helps to make sense of the many different actors involved in journalism but, crucially, helps illustrate that producing news is rarely a solitary endeavor. Instead, it involves interactions, interrelations, and tensions among a range of actors. That, in turn, leads to frequent reshapings of the ideas, norms, and practices that define who is (and is not) a “journalist” and what “journalism” is (and is not).
For example, as web developers became more central to creating interactive data visualizations in some newsrooms, they were physically moved to desks that were closer to the data journalists in that newsroom. That, in turn, gave those coders reputational credit within journalistic spaces — they began being seen less as support staff and more as journalists in their own right — and gave them a greater ability to reshape the journalistic culture within those newsrooms.
Finally, although some actors may be thought of as being central to or on the periphery of that network encompassing “journalism,” it is important to recognize that their positions within the network are often fluid. This means that they can move from the periphery to a more central position over time — or, the network may become re-centered toward certain kinds of actors. Those fluid linkages within the social network can thus grant different actors different forms and amounts of power over time. For example, as U.S. journalism progressed in its digital transformations, actors who were technically proficient with the so-called ‘new media’ began to have a stronger voice within newsrooms. Similarly, individuals whose informal writing styles may have relegated them to the periphery of journalism in the past — they may not have been considered ‘serious’ journalists because of how they wrote — may now find a place closer to the center as a result of the large and engaged online followings they can attract. Journalistic networks thus adapt as the institution of journalism evolves.
The term “social actors” refers to the human individuals (and the organizations they work for) that operate within a given space, like journalism.
There is a wide range of editorial, economic, and technical actors in journalism, and those actors may operate within and outside the newsroom. Examples of these actors include reporters, proprietors, and web developers.
In addition to traditional actors, there are also interlopers, or actors who are not typically recognized as journalistic actors and may operate outside of typical journalistic spaces but nevertheless exert substantial influence on journalism.
Journalistic spaces are shaped in large part through the interactions, interrelations, and tensions within the assemblage of actors in that space.
Over time, actors can move between central and peripheral positions within the network encompassing the space of “journalism” (or some subset of it). Alternatively, the network can also become re-centered in favor of certain kinds of actors.