Role Orientations


The concept of role orientation refers to how journalists think about their social purpose within a society, and to whom and how they direct their journalistic ambitions.

It is important to distinguish between role orientation and role performance, though the two are linked. Role orientation refers to how journalistic actors think whereas role performance refers to how they act, which may be limited by a range of structural factors. As such, the role orientations journalists believe most strongly in may not entirely reflect the reality of what those journalists actually do in a given context. Nevertheless, they play a major role in determining how journalism and journalists are legitimized within that context.

Types of Role Orientations

The Worlds of Journalism project has identified four main journalistic role orientations: the monitorial role, the collaborative role, the interventionist role, and the accommodative role. These roles are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they operate on continuums, such that a journalist may adhere strongly to both monitorial and interventionist roles. Additionally, these roles refer to the most prevalent ways of thinking within a country but recognize that there is also a lot of variation within countries and within specific subfields or genres of journalism.

It is also important to note that other scholars have come up with different typologies. However, the Worlds of Journalism typology is particularly useful because of its theoretical rigor and the global scope of that project, which allows for broad comparisons across countries.

Monitorial Role

The monitorial role is broadly grounded in the ideal of journalism acting as a “Fourth Estate” that holds those in power to account, keeps citizens aware of major political and social developments, and strives to foster a critical-minded citizenry. Put another way, the legitimacy of journalists to act in a monitorial role is anchored in journalism’s relationship with political authorities. Journalists may act as critical observers of political decisions and other political conduct, publishing objective stories as they become aware of transgressions. They may also act more proactively to investigate and scrutinize government claims and gather information about issues they consider suspicious. The ‘watchdog’ function of journalism is thus closely associated with this role.

Journalists who subscribe to this role are thus more likely to say that their job is to “provide political information,” to “monitor and scrutinize politics,” to “monitor and scrutinize business,” and to “motivate people to participate in politics.” The countries that tend to subscribe strongly to this role orientation include Denmark, Sweden, and the United States.

Collaborative Role

The collaborative role is quite different from the monitorial role. In this role, journalists act as partners of the government and support it in its efforts to bring about socioeconomic development and social well-being. This role orientation calls on journalists to support authorities in defense of the social order against threats of crime, conflict, and natural emergencies. Put another way, in this role, journalists may (but do not always) actively defend the government and its policies by acting as propagandists. However, they may also serve as simple facilitators by voluntarily assisting the government in its efforts to maintain social harmony, preserve national unity, and promote nation-building. Furthermore, journalists may see it as their responsibility to provide legitimacy to the government by explaining political decisions to citizens and helping guide public opinion. This may involve adopting a ‘mouthpiece’ function, whereby journalists simply aim to improve one-way communication from government officials to citizens.

Journalists who subscribe to this role are thus more likely to say that their job is to “support government policy” and “convey a positive image of political leaders.” The countries that tend to subscribe strongly to this role orientation include China, Qatar, and Singapore.

Interventionist Role

The interventionist role is characterized by a strong inclination toward pursuing a particular mission and promoting certain values. Interventionist journalists are typically involved, socially committed, and motivated to engage in social affairs by thinking of themselves as active participants in political life rather than as neutral scribes. These journalists may thus act as advocates for particular groups and causes, as missionaries for certain values and ideologies, and as agents for social change. This can include thinking of oneself as a spokesperson for the socially disadvantaged but also as active promoters for causes like the preservation of indigenous cultures or for political positions associated with certain political parties. Put another way, journalists who identify with this role orientation seek to move society toward what they think it can become, rather than just trying to mirror a contemporary social reality.

Journalists who subscribe to this role are thus more likely to say that their job is to “advocate for social change,” to “influence public opinion,” to “set the political agenda,” and to “support national development.” The countries that tend to subscribe strongly to this role include Croatia, Cyprus, and Tanzania.

Accommodative Role

The accommodative role is, among all these four role dimensions, the one most strongly oriented toward viewing journalistic audiences as consumers (rather than citizens). Journalists who embrace an accommodative role strive to provide their audiences with the sort of information that appeals most to the public. This role could take the form of consumer journalism, which features reviews of commercial products and evaluations of leisure-time activities, as well as ‘news-you-can-use’ content like advice columns and information about the management of everyday social life. Put another way, this role orientation places less of an emphasis on public service journalism and more emphasis on so-called ‘soft news’ journalism — provided that is what journalistic audiences want.

Journalists who subscribe to this role are thus more likely to say that their job is to “provide entertainment and relaxation,” to “provide news that attracts the largest audience,” and to “provide advice, orientation, and direction for daily life.” The countries that tend to subscribe strongly to this role orientation include Austria, Germany, and Iceland.

Synthesizing Global Roles

The Worlds of Journalism research has found, through their study of 66 countries between 2012 and 2016, that the ideological core of journalism is still linked to journalism’s political obligations. Journalists around the world generally link, at least in their minds, journalism to the promotion of political self-governance by articulating support for such journalistic functions like being an informer, a watchdog, and a disseminator of information. Overall, their results show that journalists around the world generally share a common understanding of how journalism should serve society via an emphasis on values connected to the monitorial role.

However, this does not mean that there is a single, universal understanding of role orientations that permeates all journalistic cultures. While the monitorial role receives the greatest amount of support overall, it is more prevalent in the Western world than the non-Western world. Meanwhile, the collaborative role receives far less support overall but it is valued more in the non-Western world than the Western world. The interventionist and accommodative roles find similar levels of support around the world, but the interventionist role is more strongly supported in countries with lower levels of economic development as well as those that have recently faced disruptive political changes. In contrast, the accommodative role is more likely to garner support in more economically developed and stable countries.

Taken as a whole, the Worlds of Journalism project finds that while there are important commonalities across the globe when it comes to journalistic role orientations, political, economic, social, and cultural factors all influence the extent to which those values are subscribed to within those countries. This lends support to the basic proposition that social systems leave an imprint on journalistic roles even as some roles, like the monitorial role, do transcend local contexts.

Key Takeaways

  • There are four main, overarching role orientations for journalism, according to the Worlds of Journalism project. They are the monitorial role, the collaborative role, the interventionist role, and the accommodative role.

  • Role orientations do not necessarily reflect practice. Instead, they reflect ways of thinking about journalism, which is presumed to have some effect on its practice as well as on how journalism is legitimated within a society.

  • Different countries adhere to distinct role orientations, which are influenced by that country’s political, economic, social, and cultural development. However, the monitorial role of journalism is prevalent in the majority of journalistic cultures around the globe.