According to media scholar Mark Deuze, journalism — especially in Western societies in the Global North — is generally made up in part by five central values. Together, those values add up to what Deuze calls the occupational ideology of journalism.
The first value Deuze identifies is that journalists should provide a public service to the citizens of a given country. The second is that journalists should be impartial, fair, and objective. The third is that journalists must be autonomous and independent in their work. The fourth is that journalists must have a sense of immediacy and the ability to be expedient in their reporting. The fifth is that journalists must have a strong sense of ethics that is consistent with broader professional codes of ethics.
It is important to note that just because such an ideology exists does not mean that the way in which journalism is practiced in those places actually reflects those values. Put another way, in some places, journalism is hardly impartial in practice even if journalists in those places consider that value to be important. However, those cultural values are important to how the majority journalists in those places self-identify, how they think about their work, and how they collectively try to legitimize themselves to their society. Such values also come up in popular media about journalism, such as American movies that portray journalists as independent truth-tellers.
What Deuze is effectively suggesting is that although journalism may be performed differently in different places, there is a general journalistic culture that spans many of those places.
However, although useful as a starting point, Deuze’s theorizing is a reflection of Western ideology rooted in the Global North. For example, those values implicitly assume a separation of powers that is accomplished through systems of checks and balances, with journalistic outlets informally serving as one such check. Additionally, those values also assume that journalistic outlets have the ability to remain independent from government. This is obviously not the case in many places.
Scholars have thus sought to move away from trying to find some universal journalistic culture and instead move toward demarcating different aspects of journalistic cultures that allow for comparisons across contexts.
One such model comes from the Worlds of Journalism project, which has examined dozens of countries. The researchers behind the project break journalistic culture into two sets of dimensions: extrinsic and intrinsic.
The extrinsic dimensions of journalistic culture include their perceived influences and editorial autonomy. We refer to these as extrinsic dimensions because they pertain to journalists’ experiences of, and reflections on, the external constraints placed upon them.
Perceived influences refer to journalists’ (or other journalistic actors’) subjective perceptions of the various forces that can shape the news production process. These include the media laws that govern those actors, the feedback they get from their audiences, and the availability of newsgathering resources. The emphasis here is not only on the extent to which journalists are aware of those influences — that is, whether they know about a specific law — but also on the degree to which they think those influences play an important role in their work. For example, a journalist may be aware of what their audience thinks about their work but they may not care a great deal about it.
Journalists’ perceptions serve as a filter through which real, external pressures are translated into consciously experienced influences. Notably, scholars have found that there is often a gap between those real, external pressures and journalists’ perceptions of them. Put another way, journalists sometimes perceive external pressures to be more or less constraining than they actually are, and they act in accordance to those perceptions rather than the reality.
Editorial autonomy pertains to the degree of independence that journalists believe they have when performing essential journalistic acts, such as selecting the stories they want to cover, which aspects of those stories to emphasize, and which sources of information to draw upon. This is closely related to journalists’ perceived influences, but it focuses on the organizational level. That is, this dimension underscores the extent to which journalistic organizations within a culture typically have owners, managers, and editors (as well as organizational structures) that give journalists the necessary freedom to perform their work independently.
The intrinsic dimensions of journalistic culture include journalistic role orientations, ethical considerations, and their trust in institutions. We refer to these as intrinsic dimensions because they represent discourses of professional self-awareness in which journalists internally negotiate the appropriateness of certain journalistic norms, values, and practices.
Role orientations refers to how journalists think about their social purpose within a society, and to whom and how they direct their journalistic ambitions. For example, in the United States, this may involve being a detached observer of events. In contrast, in the United Arab Emirates, this may involve seeking to influence public opinion. Such roles often feel evident, natural, and self-explanatory to the journalists within a given context.
Ethical considerations refers to journalists’ perceptions of the appropriate responses to situations in which their actions can have potentially harmful consequences for individuals, groups, or society as a whole. For example, when covering the murder of a minor, journalists need to weigh the public’s ‘right’ to know against the family’s ‘right’ to privacy. That calculus may be different across contexts. This dimension thus underscores both the degree to which journalists should adhere to professional codes of ethics as well as the extent to which they believe certain controversial journalistic practices — like bribing officials for information — are acceptable.
Trust in institutions refers to the willingness of a journalist to believe the information provided by public institutions, such as the federal government, the judiciary, and political parties. For example, in countries where journalistic media are likely to trust public institutions, journalists are more likely to defer to those institutions’ accounts of events and statistics — especially if the journalist has no way of bearing witness first-hand. Conversely, when that trust is low, journalists are more likely to be critical of such information, or simply choose to ignore it altogether.
Journalistic cultures shape (and are shaped by) how journalists think and, consequently, influence how they act. There is, again, often a disconnect between what journalists think and what they do. Nevertheless, what they do is often influenced — at least initially — by what they think. For example, a journalist may choose to not go undercover or lie about their identity because they believe that would go against a professional code of ethics. They may thus try to get the story through other means first.
Additionally, journalistic cultures impact what is seen as legitimate work among fellow journalistic actors. That, in turn, impacts who and what are symbolically celebrated — that is, who are treated as “good” journalists or what is treated as “good” journalism. This has material implications, such as the kinds of job offers, promotions, awards, and so on that might be extended to a certain kind of journalist or journalism.
Finally, journalistic cultures impact how journalistic actors legitimize their work to society. This, in turn, affects how societies think about journalism and the kinds of access and protections that other institutional actors (e.g., governments or even sports teams) are willing to grant those journalists. For example, in a society where journalists are seen as an unofficial branch of government for the purposes of checks and balances — as is the case in the United States — then that society is likely to support limited government interference in news production and distribution.
It is important to note that such cultures are not static, though. They can and do change over time. For example, the journalistic culture in the United States only generally adopted the journalistic value of neutrality in the early 20th century. More recently, there have been rumblings within that culture to shift away from the value of “balance” and toward a “weight-of-evidence” approach, especially when it comes to scientific issues like climate change.
Similar kinds of transitions have occurred elsewhere in the world. Specifically, as the world has become more interconnected — and journalism from other places has become more easily accessible — there has been some natural blending of journalistic cultures. In some cases, there is pressure to adopt values and practices from other journalistic cultures, as with private media in some countries in the Global South taking a more consumer-oriented approach to journalism from the Global North. Additionally, as the reach of some global journalistic outlets like The New York Times and the BBC increases, so does the cultural influence of their approach to journalism. However, although we find increased interconnection to perhaps promote the formulation of a more homogeneous culture, research has shown us that important distinctions remain.
Different countries have distinct journalistic cultures. There is no single, universal way of doing journalism, though some values and norms are more common than others across contexts.
Scholars have broken journalistic cultures into two sets of dimensions: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic dimensions include journalists’ perceived influences as well as their editorial autonomy.
Intrinsic dimensions include journalists’ role orientations, their ethical considerations, and their trust in institutions.
Journalistic cultures matter because they shape (and are shaped by) how journalists think, act, and legitimize themselves to their peers and to society.