Responsibilities of the state: Rethinking the case and possibilities for public support of journalism
First Monday

Responsibilities of the state: Rethinking the case and possibilities for public support of journalism by Daniel Kreiss and Mike Ananny



Abstract
There is general consensus that the press is undergoing a fundamental shift in how it functions as a profession, a business, and a social institution due, in part, to the proliferation and practices of online networked media. But there is still little understanding of exactly how this shift can and should relate to journalism’s role as a public–facing profession that produces and vets information using logics other than those offered by markets. We explore one aspect of this issue here by developing an argument for how and why the state might support online, networked journalism, arguing that the press is a unique guardian of the public interest and presenting ways in which it might help to create a robust online public sphere.

Contents

Introduction
The state and the public sphere
Beyond information: Subsidizing professional autonomy
The limits of market and network optimism
Conclusion: Thinking anew about subsidies

 


 

Introduction

It is now uncontroversial to state that the mainstream, professional media is changing in concert with, and due to, a vast array of social, institutional, economic, political and technological dynamics. If public–oriented journalism is to adapt to, and thrive in, such conditions, we must think expansively, creatively and with nuance about how states can and should protect journalism from markets. The Internet has changed reporting but, from a public–oriented perspective, not necessarily for the better. As a recent U.S. Federal Communications Commission report found: the dramatic increase in the number of media sources has not translated into an abundance of reporting (particularly public–oriented, local accountability reporting); traditional, broadcast media outlets (television stations in particular) still hold considerable agenda–setting power both online and off–line, despite the proliferation of online networked technologies for individual expression; new organizational forms and strategic partnerships for news production are emerging, but few receive or seek government funding; and, most broadly, modern regulatory regimes are “out of sync with the information needs of communities” [1].

Motivated by studies such as these (also see Downie and Schudson, 2009) and consistent with a “public reformism” movement that is “reluctant to allow advertisers’ calculations of promotional efficiency to reconfigure the news system without any reference to the wider public good” [2], we aim here to present historical, normative, and institutional rationales for publicly supported journalism. We argue, contrary to the idea that a free press requires a free market, that U.S. information goods have always been produced with public support and state subsidies. We are now at a critical moment when contemporary journalism requires a recasting of such support in ways that account for the material and organizational features of contemporary networked news production.

First, we argue that nostalgic notions of the press’s independence fail to account for the state’s structural role in constituting the public sphere. We argue that seeing the state as an information provider enables us to conceive of subsidizing journalism that will help citizens hold elected officials accountable and create the conditions for high–quality public discourse. Second, we think broadly about the unique institutional role of the professional press as a custodian of the public interest. We argue that both ‘market’ and ‘network’ optimists fail to adequately consider the kind of journalism democracies need and how they often lack ways to secure the resources necessary to support it. We conclude by briefly outlining some potential forms of state support for the professional press that may create a more robust public sphere.

 

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The state and the public sphere

To date, what little serious debate occurs over government subsidies for journalism tends to feature conceptions of the state that are rather limited. As Michael Schudson [3] argues, while many assume that the press and civil society stand separate and apart from the state, “government must be understood as a part of the public sphere and not as a separate dimension of social life.” The state realizes the public sphere in its design of representative institutions, hearings that organize much of the public agenda, and all the official channels provided for political expression [4]. Meanwhile, sociologist Paul Starr (2004) recounts a long history of subsidies for American journalism that created and fostered a vibrant public sphere, yet did so in ways that largely did not compromise political expression or the press’s ‘watchdog’ role — indeed, the state even provided more resources for journalistic institutions to hold it accountable.

For example, while American professional journalists are often wary of any state involvement in their trade, especially given fears of censorship, these sentiments do not acknowledge the origins and continuing development of the U.S. media industry and its economics. As McChesney and Nichols (2010), among others, chronicle, there is a long history of press reliance on state–sponsored and regulated infrastructure: the Postal Act of 1792 established a system of subsidies that let newspapers be mailed cheaply; there have been tax exemptions for newspapers and magazines; Congress exempted newspapers from minimum wage and child labor laws, subsidizing their labor and distribution costs; the Newspaper Act of 1970 exempted media organizations in the same market from anti–trust laws in authorizing joint operating agreements; Congress established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to rationalize and regulate radio and, eventually, television spectra, creating a reliable technological environment within which broadcast news and entertainment could develop; the Department of Defense sponsored the initial work that led to the development of the Internet’s core infrastructure; and, local municipalities have for well over a century purchased space in local newspapers to make announcements of public concerns [5].

Essentially, the state has created and managed organizational and institutional structures to support the institutions responsible for securing a system of civic expression. A body of affirmative First Amendment theory (developed by scholars such as Emerson [1970] and Fiss [1996a, 1996b]) calls for exactly such policies that require the state to organize and foster conditions in which the public is exposed to more ideas than it would otherwise hear expressed solely through markets. As Robert Post (1995) argues, this involves promoting the rights of both speakers and listeners in the public sphere. Central to these interpretations of the First Amendment is the acknowledgement that expressive, individual freedom is not enough for democratic self–governance — there must also be an additional principle that values a public, collective right to hear. As Meiklejohn [6] argues, an affirmative view holds that the First Amendment’s “point of ultimate interest is not the words of the speakers, but the minds of the hearers ... what is essential is not that everyone shall speak, but that everything worth saying shall be said.” Above and beyond the subsidies detailed above, positive theories of the First Amendment require the state to take an active role to ensure that there are equal opportunities to create and consider diverse viewpoints in the public sphere.

The critical nexus here — and the one underpinning our call for a reexamination of press subsidies — is not between the state and the public but between the state and the press [7]. As such, the central problem is that our democracy has foisted a set of public responsibilities upon a host of private organizations that are ill–equipped to survive in market economies. In other words, democracy requires that a wide range of private speakers hold the state accountable and that these speakers have the wherewithal to ensure that everything worth saying is said. Yet, despite the potential of online speech environments, it seems that the public is losing the forums for debate and representation of its concerns — versus those of self–interested individuals — that the state has delegated to the press.

Negative interpretations of the First Amendment are critical for securing individual speech rights but — alone — they offer few remedies for ensuring the public’s right to hear. In this negative conception, the free functioning of the press, opportunities for democratic speech, and robustness of civic expression are contingent upon freedom from state interference. This is especially the case, scholars argue (Balkin, 2004; Benkler, 2006), when citizens have unprecedented opportunities to express themselves using digital, networked media. For instance, amateur bloggers cheaply and easily create political speech and make it widely available for others to use, often without any financial market for their work. Citizens have new tools that enable them to draw from and remix an extraordinarily diverse range of professional press, political party, non–governmental organization, and interest group content.

Despite the promise of digital media, emerging empirical evidence suggests that the networked public sphere will not, on its own, provide for the quality and diversity of discourse required by the democratic public. Bloggers produce worthwhile political commentary, but frequently rely upon the dwindling resources of the professional press for the raw materials of their expression. For example, while Perlmutter (2008) shows that there are certainly exceptions in which bloggers broke stories or corrected the mainstream media, Leskovec, et al. (2009) demonstrate how blogs still lag behind the mainstream media in coverage (an average of 2.5 hours passes between a meme’s peak appearance in mainstream news sites and the same meme’s peak appearance in blogs). At the same time, Matthew Hindman’s (2009) research shows that while there is undoubtedly more debate and information in the public sphere with advances in digital media, as a group, the voices that are most heard lack demographic and cultural diversity.

Given the state’s continued role in realizing and fostering the public sphere, it is time to move beyond the debate of whether the state should subsidize the press to consider how we can better design supportive policies appropriate for the digital age. This is especially important given the urgency of the crisis and its unique impact on the socio–cultural life of the polity. As Benedict Anderson’s (1991) influential account demonstrates, newspapers, and print culture more generally, were central to fostering the idea of the nation–state, as they enabled citizens to imagine themselves as part of larger collectives. As many mid–market newspapers fold or merge, entire cultural and geographic communities may lose the symbolic institutions that enable them to imagine themselves as a collective, to be represented in public affairs and, indeed, to be democratic citizens.

With the failure of markets to meet the requirements for democratic discourse on their own, the public should conceive of policies that not only shield individuals from unwarranted state intervention in political speech but that also require the state to create conditions in which publics can form and be represented. One way is to recognize the role of the state as an information producer. The state already performs a host of informational functions in which it acts as a direct participant in the public sphere. Government agencies, public universities, state–supported museums and schools, and the executive, legislative and judicial branches all create enormous amounts of public information. This includes everything from research studies and data sets (such as the census and economic tables) to more carefully packaged messages from press offices that signal to journalists what is important or timely — signals that ideally, as Emerson (1981) and Gandy (1982) argue, journalists critically examine. At the same time, these informational functions are distinct from what state agents are generally prohibited from engaging in by statute or constitutional law, such as covert expression in which they do not reveal their identity or direct content interventions into the activities of religious communities.

For example, there is a wide range of information produced by the judicial, executive, and legislative branches in their routine functioning [8]. Legal proceedings require lengthy fact–finding by prosecutors and defense attorneys, cases are matters of public record, and the information produced at trial becomes raw materials for journalists. Executive agencies routinely have press offices that are responsible for gathering and distributing information to journalists, even as they make official spokesmen available to speak as credible sources for journalists. At both the federal and state level, governments spend an enormous amount of resources providing information directly to voters and journalists relating to elections. Voter guides that summarize ballot initiatives, election law, and candidate platforms are but one example. Meanwhile, the executive and legislative branches hold extensive public hearings on matters of concern. The Federal Trade Commission hearings on the future of journalism is one particularly germane example. Government agencies and congressional committees routinely identify issues, summon experts, produce reports, generate public comments, and critique and evaluate testimony — all of which are important sources of information for journalists.

Making more data and information public by default and releasing it in formats that journalists and civil society organizations can easily work with would provide the press with an important subsidy for reporting that is resource intensive and time consuming (Kabat and Syed, 2009). Indeed, we see many examples of more explicitly designed state information policies already taking shape. The aggressive transparency efforts of organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation (http://sunlightfoundation.com/) have lead to many improvements in the government–produced data that is provided to the public (Schacter, 2009). At the federal level, many agencies are producing, organizing, and disseminating public information in a much more accessible fashion. The FCC (2010), for example developed a Web site intended to ensure that “the public will not only have continuously improving access to telecommunications data, but will also be called to participate in reforming the FCC and furthering its open data initiatives.” The Obama administration instructed agencies to presume a favorable response to Freedom of Information Act requests, helping to facilitate what is often a time and resource intensive process for journalists (Obama, 2009). Meanwhile, at all levels of government an increasing amount of public information is being digitized and made accessible to the public, such as Federal Elections Commission and Security and Exchange Commission filings. This means that journalists can more easily and routinely access this information and monitor the activities of political and financial elites.

Once we conceive of the state as an information producer we can better design policies to create more transparency and provide information subsidies at all levels of government. At the same time, we should not only embrace these efforts, but actively bring the professional journalists who will write articles from this data into the conversation about the types of information they want to see and the formats they need it released in. While some pundits claim that journalists are and should be irrelevant to this state production of information (Jarvis, 2009), as we turn to in the next section, the unique institutional role of the profession means that journalists have an important role to play in gathering it, interpreting its significance, and publicizing matters of public concern. With their sustained commitment to the public interest, evidenced in the difficult and resource–intensive work of high–quality daily, routine reporting, professional journalists are well equipped to play this intermediary role. Meanwhile, with a commitment to acting in good faith on this information — as opposed to pursuing private or partisan gain — journalists are ideally well–suited to ensure that it is presented to the public fairly. All of which is backed up by a deeply rooted, professional ethic that, in its ideal form, maintains trust between the press and the public it aims to serve.

 

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Beyond information: Subsidizing professional autonomy

Expanding the state’s role as an information producer is one important way we can improve the quality of public discourse. On their own, however, information subsidies are inadequate. The question for us is: does professional journalism play an important and distinct enough role in the public sphere to provide it with dedicated and direct state support? As we argue here, state–secured autonomy from the market is necessary for a profession that, in its ideal form, views public service as a moral commitment; creates a robust body of public knowledge; and, as Schudson (1988) notes, establishes a system of self–regulation in which it monitors and sanctions members for violations of its ethical relationship with the public.

The state already directly supports and regulates the information and knowledge production of a whole host of social actors such as civil society organizations, scientists, and civic leaders. For example, many civil society organizations that fulfill a public mission, such as those that serve charitable, religious, scientific, and educational purposes, are beneficiaries of the 501(c)3 status in the United States tax code. In exchange for being tax exempt (a federal subsidy that both encourages private support and lowers operating costs), these organizations accept prohibitions on attempting to influence legislation and participating in electoral activities. While they cannot engage in direct campaign activities, they can and do play an important role in the public sphere, communicating both to their members and wider publics, helping to raise awareness of particular issues, and defining perspectives on public affairs. Beyond that, the 501(c)3 status is the doorway to direct government grants and support for activities such as scientific research. Some press entities, in turn, take advantage of these provisions with little debate about whether it compromises their journalistic role. For example, ProPublica (http://www.propublica.org/) is a foundation supported, privately run, non–profit news organization that produces journalistic content that others are free to use for non–commercial purposes (Filloux, 2012), and the Ford Foundation (http://www.fordfoundation.org/) has made substantial grants to both the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times for locally focused and government accountability reporting (Beaujon, 2012). Similarly, the Knight Foundation (http://www.knightfoundation.org/) has, for the past few years, sponsored projects that use open source technologies to create new models for public interest, local news (Lewis, 2012), and the Kaiser Family Foundation (http://www.kff.org/) sponsors the Kaiser Health News network (http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/), a non–profit news wire service that provides health information and has editorial independence from its parent company. Such grants and relationships can provide stability to cash–strapped news organizations, but they can also raise questions about news organizations can maintain independence not only from foundations’ funding priorities, but also craft their own visions of what it means to serve a public interest (Josephi, 2012; Browne, 2010).

While the press can take advantage of the subsidies provided by the tax code — and there are strong recent proposals that historically situate such subsidies (Pickard, 2011) — there is as yet little indication that these forays into non–profit journalism are compensating for the larger shifts in the commercial news industry documented above. This is troubling given that journalists occupy a distinct institutional role in the polity, one worth not only preserving, but actively fostering. This is not to assume that the profession of journalism is static, or that press values are uniform. Indeed, as Schudson [9] shows, there are many competing traditions in journalism and many divergent practices. But there is a professional way of producing information and knowledge that serves an important social function and deserves protection and support, above and beyond general provisions in the tax code. And, while citizen–journalists and amateur producers have an important role to play in democratic discourse, and can certainly emulate professional norms, at present they lack the governing bodies, explicit ethical codes, formal training, apprenticeships, and social sanctions developed over a hundred years that produce and reify professional journalism’s unique values.

What are the values of the profession that underpin the press’s unique role in democracy? Inspired by Deuze’s [10] meta–analysis of the field of journalistic research, we believe there is a relatively well–developed “ideology of journalism” consisting of “values, strategies, and formal codes” that provide meaning for practitioners. What primarily drives professionals is an idea of journalism as a public service, the pursuit of truth in an objective fashion, and the ethical relationship with the public [11]. Professional journalists interpret their own, and each other’s, practices in accordance with these values and in the context of existing professional associations. Again, while citizen journalists certainly can adopt these values, they are produced far more reliability through the professional socialization that occurs in training, the workplace, and engagement with other social actors that come to constitute the identity of the journalist. We discuss each in greater detail below.

Commitment to the public interest: However often journalists have failed to live up to this goal, the profession ideally defines itself in terms of serving general and public interests, as opposed to parochial and private ones. Central to serving the public interest is the journalistic norm of adopting an often adversarial or ‘watchdog’ relationship to the state. This includes all of its many arms, from official government agencies to quasi–state actors such as political parties. Holding the powerful to account also extends beyond the state into much of commercial and civil society, as social actors such as business leaders, advocacy organization executives, and prominent public figures all come under the routine scrutiny of the profession. As James Curran [12] argues, journalists maintain “a critical surveillance of all power centers in society, and expose them to the play of public opinion.”

This deeply held ideal for journalistic practice is continually renewed through a number of institutions of the profession. For example, the entire system of news ‘beats’ encodes this routine, critical surveillance over the power centers in society, from the Presidency to the Pentagon. While organizing the production of news in this way also feeds an economic need to produce information efficiently, it does so in the context of serving this public interest mission. Meanwhile, the repertoire of myths that journalists draw upon to situate their profession — from the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein to the Pentagon Papers — help produce new generations of professionals and provide aspirational ideals that animate and guide their practice. Indeed, this public interest ideal has formed much of the basis for contemporary affirmative theories of the First Amendment–underpinning, e.g., Justice Potter Stewart’s (1975) defense of the post–Watergate press (but in a speech, not a court opinion). The point here is not to defend these norms uncritically or to claim that journalists live up to them in practice. Rather, we suggest here that the profession occupies a unique institutional role as the representative of the public, interpreter of social life, and critical monitor of power.

The pursuit of objective journalism: Objectivity is a deeply troubled and shifting concept, and it is far beyond the scope of this paper to discuss it in detail, except as a journalistic ideal. At the very least, journalists espouse a principle of objectivity as the pursuit of truth by following, as Schudson [13] puts it “rules and procedures” that, in essence, create objectivity in journalistic methods. Taking its cues from the scientific method, the ideal of objectivity here is one of discovering truth through a process that is impartial and neutral with respect to any larger ideological, religious, or political commitments. Of course, journalism, and science, does not proceed according to this ideal in practice; the world can never be known independently of interpretations of it. But as a process for disclosing the world, objectivity articulated in the service of the public interest makes journalism an important democratic institution. Indeed, much of the debate over “objectivity” can be related back to a general concern with “reliability.” The notion that journalists discover evidence fairly is an important part of their claims to legitimacy as information and knowledge producers. It is also part of the ethical compact with the public discussed below; as Bok [14] argues, societies depend upon a certain amount of trust if parties are to relate to each other in good faith.

In the end, while most journalists espouse objectivity, they are invariably always struggling with being, as Carey (1997) writes, “individual interpreters” within the world — explicitly and transparently bringing their own perspectives to stories — and being “professional communicators” — ritualistically signaling their detachment from the world. It is within this core tension, most clearly seen in studies of investigative reporting (e.g., Ettema and Glasser, 1998), that journalists attempt to reconcile their independence from public opinion with their responsibilities to public interests. The most responsible journalism acknowledges this tension and transparently presents it to publics for their edification and critique. Indeed, as a value, objectivity is perhaps better cast in terms of what Michael Schudson [15] refers to as a “mature subjectivity” that is “tempered by encounters with, and regard for, the views of significant others in the profession; and subjectivity aged by encounters with, and regard for, the facts of the world.” Journalists proceed from both being in the world, or what they perceive as fact, and being part of the social world, which necessarily implies a realm of values. Both are ultimately necessary for the practice of journalism. What is significant, what is asked, and the types of accounts we demand of others are rooted in the communities within which journalists act.

The history of objectivity in professional journalism is a deeply complicated one [16]. Like the beat system, it evolved out of both professional aspirations and economic concerns. Objectivity was, Schudson (1987) argues, a tool for professionalization and legitimacy in an age of the emerging norms of scientific practice. It was also linked to changes in the industry of news and the transition from more narrow, ideologically–polarized partisan presses to larger, mass–market subscriber bases (Baker, 2002). That objectivity evolved, in part, out of economic concerns does not in any way diminish it as an animating ideal for professionals, who have traditionally taken great pains to disassociate themselves from the business sides of their enterprises. Indeed, it is best seen as an ideal that journalists pursue as the monitors, not tools, of social power. Meanwhile, objectivity is an ideal against which other social actors routinely hold journalists accountable. It is precisely when journalists appear to violate their professional commitment to objectivity and speak as the mouthpieces of other interests that politicians and the public criticize the media. That other social actors seek to hold professional journalists accountable for objectivity suggests that they occupy a distinct institutional role in democratic life, one that appears distinct from both the emerging norms of citizen journalism and partisan media.

Professional ethics: As Deuze (2005) argues, the ideology of professional journalism has long placed ethics at a place of pride, and it has generally been taken to mean a commitment to these other values: serving the public interest and the objective pursuit of truth. In accordance with this ideology, we believe that, for the journalist, the important part is that this ethical relationship exists with the public — a general community of citizens — and not with the publication, sources, advertisers, or corporate entity that pays the journalist’s salary. The point is that as a profession, this notion of ethics is a compact between journalist and audience. Indeed, much of the notion of journalistic accountability is premised on honoring this ethical relationship.

This ethical relationship between the journalist and the public is encoded and enforced in bodies that explicitly regulate the profession. Professional associations, such as the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ), the largest journalistic association in the United States, are instrumental in articulating professional norms, standards, and ethics. The Society’s (2010) Code of Ethics, for example, makes explicit much of this ethical compact, defining the profession in terms of “seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty.” [17] It calls upon journalists to be accurate, courageous, and give “give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.” [18] Bodies, such as the SPJ, that help secure ethical relationships between professionals and their publics are unique. Despite over a decade of attempts to develop and implement similar ethical codes or rule–based governing associations for citizen journalism, Perlmutter and Schoen (2007) show that they have yet to be significant elements of online citizen journalism.

 

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The limits of market and network optimism

These professional values are still relevant in our networked era. The press is the public’s best institutional chance for hearing what it needs to know for self–governance. The institutional press, with deeply embedded professional values developed over the course of a century, has long played an historically important role as a distinct institution of democratic life. Journalists are active interpreters of the workings of government and other institutions in society. They legitimate social actors and ideas, and they fashion appropriate matters of social and moral concern. Journalists convene forums of public debate and actively produce knowledge of the world. As they do these things, they are guided by an ethos that entails service towards the public good, commitment to an objective method, and an ethical relationship with the public. As a class of professional communicators, journalists are uniquely well suited to create and represent publics. The press is an institution that creates communities across geographic and cultural contexts; it is the institution that helps create the very idea of the public itself.

This is the institutional role for the press that is currently being eroded by failures of the market. As the preceding articles in this volume make clear, the financial crisis has fundamentally undermined the institutional authority of the professional press, particularly its ability to hold other powerful social actors accountable to public interests [19]. There is a dwindling resource base for the kind of public affairs reporting the press has traditionally engaged in. Media firms are closing foreign bureaus, consolidating staffs, closing local editions, scaling back coverage of public and international affairs, and drastically reducing investments in investigative journalism. While the public may be awash in online news, press consolidations driven by financial concerns have created remarkably homogenous styles of journalism. Readers seem to have a great deal of choice among stories, but, as Bagdikian (2004) and McChesney (1999) show, there is actually little diversity in reporting. This is especially the case in regional journalism markets: while a few national outlets thrive, local and mid–market papers are particularly subject to consolidation, budget cuts, and increased reliance on wire services.

One response to the economic and institutional failures of the press is one of ‘market optimism,’ namely the belief that the marketplace will eventually readjust and fix problems in journalism. In these accounts, given enough time and the absence of direct government meddling, new online journalistic business models will compete with and eventually replace those of print, broadcast, and cable media. In this view, the state should facilitate individual expression through restraint, and it should not directly enter into the public sphere.

At the same time, powerful new ‘network optimist’ accounts suggest that the innovations of the “networked public sphere” (Benkler, 2006) will provide the social and structural resources necessary to secure robust democratic expression. This position argues that self–organized information commons will create the conditions for journalism’s endurance. In these accounts, digital information is increasingly produced in lieu of market compensation because individuals require so few resources to contribute to informational projects. Therefore, ordinary citizens can pursue journalistic projects simply based on their own interests and affinities. This is the logic that underlies many projects in citizen journalism, especially collaborations between professionals and amateurs. As Michel’s (2009) study shows, for example, the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project of citizen reporting during the 2008 Presidential election sought to harness the energies of citizens for the production of political news.

New business models will undoubtedly emerge and ordinary citizens will have extraordinary new means of participating in public discourse, but these optimistic accounts suffer from four problems. First, these market and network approaches set no deadline for when citizens might enjoy a robust press. The public may wait a long time for a different kind of press, while democracy and self–government suffer. Second, both accounts implicitly define a democratic press as whatever market or network forces say it means, making it difficult to envision what a different type of press might be and how to hold it accountable if it fails the public. In other words, instead of beginning with thinking about what democracy requires of the press and then working to ensure it, both accounts put mechanisms for producing information first and then justify it on democratic grounds. Third, it ignores evidence that the market and networked public sphere do not routinely produce the kind of diversity, inclusion or dissent that citizens might want and need in public communication cultures [20]. Fourth, they generally fail to account for the state’s structural role in public sphere. They refuse to take seriously the state’s current role as a guarantor of public speech, of both individuals’ rights to speak and publics’ rights to hear, or to think imaginatively about how this might be reinvented in the digital era.

While we embrace experimentation, to date there is little empirical evidence that markets or networks adequately support and foster the professional press’s unique institutional role as a news producer in the public interest. In the meantime, the ideals that animate an institutional, professional press as a core pillar of democratic life are under threat given a pervasive market failure. Michael Schudson [21] best articulates professional journalism’s ideal outcomes in the democratic public sphere:

  1. Information: the news media can provide fair, full, and quality information so citizens can make sound political choices.
  2. Investigation: the news media can investigate concentrated sources of power, particularly government power.
  3. Analysis: the news media can provide coherent frameworks of interpretation to help citizens comprehend a complex world.
  4. Social empathy: journalism can tell people about others in their society and their world so that they can come to appreciate the viewpoints and lives of other people, especially those less advantaged than themselves.
  5. Public forum: journalism can provide a forum for dialogue among citizens and serve as a common carrier for the perspectives of varied groups in society.
  6. Mobilization: the news media can serve as advocates for participatory political programs and perspectives and mobilize people to act in support of these programs.

While these are ideals, they are best served by the institution of the professional press. To be sure, professional journalism is not without its critics who make fair and needed critiques of the professional press. The U.S. news media have a history of too–close relationships with elite sources (e.g., see Bradlee [1975] for a story of how close a reporter can become to a president and Crouse [1972] for an account of how election campaign reporters and candidates relate to each other). Journalists have often narrowly focused their coverage on elite conversations — merely “indexing” them, as Bennett, et al. (2007, 2006) show — or uncritically adopted conservative framings of issues and events, as Gitlin’s (1980) study of protest movements shows. And there is recurring evidence that journalists often care more about the opinions of their friends, editors, and publishers than they do about the public [22].

Far from showing the failures of the professional press, however, these critiques reveal the enduring power of the ideals of the profession. Much of this criticism is premised upon appeals to notions of the press’s role in democratic self–government that emerged with the profession over the last century. Public outcry over journalism appears precisely when the press appears to fail to perform its otherwise taken–for–granted routine work of reporting and holding the powerful accountable for their actions. Indeed, to take these critiques seriously we need to look at the sources of the journalism’s failures and seek to remedy them. As we outline below in our concluding section, the institutional press fails to live up to its ideals most often because it lacks autonomy from the market, and the resources needed to fulfill its public mission.

 

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Conclusion: Thinking anew about subsidies

We are at a conceptually similar moment as when the Commission on Freedom of the Press argued more than 60 years ago that the danger to “freedom of the press”:

is in part the consequence of the economic structure of the press, in part the consequence of the industrial organization of modern society, and in part the result of the failure of the directors of the press to recognize the press needs of a modern nation and to estimate and accept the responsibilities which those needs impose upon them. [23]

The challenges to contemporary press freedom — explicated in terms of both the public’s right to speak and hear — are both economic and institutional. They are also the result of fundamental failures to imagine and realize a new type of professional press that is both rooted in old values and responsive to new conditions.

Given these values and the institutional role of the profession, journalists need professional autonomy from the market. Professional news organizations, especially newspapers, provide much of the informational raw materials for the rest of the networked public sphere. As a distinct institution in democratic life, journalists are uniquely tasked with serving as representatives of the public and holding other powerful social actors to account for their actions. They are the intermediaries between these actors and the public, and provide the forums for general interest public debate and dialogue on issues of social and moral concern. Journalists, meanwhile, strive to produce the reliable information that underpins much of democratic decision–making, and account for their practice through an ethical commitment to the public.

The challenge is to craft new forms of state support for journalism that are both timely and expand the possibilities for and quality of public dialogue. As argued above, a strong role for the state and a vibrant public sphere go hand in hand. Given the indirect and direct subsidies already granted to a number of information and knowledge producers, we should craft more explicit policies that enable journalists to both produce and freely circulate their wares. One idea is to provide financial compensation to journalists and news outlets that allow others in the public sphere to access, use, and remix it as they wish. For example, if the intent of copyright is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts,” we should reverse its specific mechanism of granting creators exclusive rights to control the use, dissemination, and derivations of their work and provide fiscal incentives instead for journalism that is produced for the public domain (Ananny and Kreiss, 2011).

Beyond subsidizing information production for the public domain, we need to correct for the systemic failures of the news marketplace. Just as we do not let other institutions that serve public information and deliberation needs (such as libraries and schools) be subject to the whims of the market, so too should we recognize that the small geographic and cultural communities in danger of losing their newspapers have information needs that must be secured by the state. At a national level, the federal government should strengthen its commitment to national public broadcasting outlets such as National Public Radio and its tiers of affiliates so we support community media. The state should do so in a way that eases pressure on these affiliates to continually fund–raise for their routine news–gathering operations, and that subsidizes experiments in producing news across multimedia platforms. It should make long–term public commitments to efforts such as ProPublica, the organization that produces investigative reports for other news outlets. The state should support young journalists in training, subsidizing internships so as to provide for more diversity in the press and allow non–elite journalistic outlets to train a new generation. At the same time, local municipalities can also provide support for local journalism initiatives. This would include not only information subsidies that make the local workings of government more accessible to journalists, but direct subsidies to local newspapers so they may perform the public function of holding state actors accountable to the public.

Journalism plays far too an important role in democratic life to leave its workings to the market. We need to take seriously the state as an information provider and craft policies that will better support the quality of information in the public sphere. We also need to consider the unique institutional role that journalism plays in society, and ensure, above all else, the autonomy of the press. End of article

 

About the authors

Daniel Kreiss is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in the School for Journalism and Mass Communication, and author of Taking our country back: The crafting of networked politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Web: http://danielkreiss.com/
E–mail: dkreiss [at] email [dot] unc [dot] edu

Mike Ananny is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and a Faculty Associate with Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Web: http://mike.ananny.org/
E–mail: ananny [at] usc [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

The authors made equal contributions to this paper.

 

Notes

1. Waldman, 2011, p. 6.

2. Curran, 2010, p. 472.

3. Schudson, 1994, p. 532.

4. Ibid.

5. For those interested in institutional studies of the press, and how the state has historically played concrete roles in the production of news, see Cook’s Governing with the news: The news media as a political institution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) and Sparrow’s Uncertain guardians: The news media as a political institution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

6. Meiklejohn, 1948, p. 25.

7. Glasser, 1999, p. 15.

8. The authors thank Patrick Kabat for his comments on this section.

9. Schudson, 1978, p. 186.

10. Deuze, 2005, p. 446.

11. Ibid.

12. Curran, 1996, p. 110.

13. Schudson, 1987, p. 7.

14. Bok, 1999, pp. 26–27.

15. Schudson, 1978, p. 192.

16. See Schudson and Anderson (2008) for a good overview.

17. http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.

18. Ibid.

19. See also Fallows (2010), Meyer (2004), Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellent in Journalism (2010), and Starr (2009) for overviews of the contemporary financial instability in journalism and its relationship to the press’s institutional functions.

20. See Ananny and Kreiss (2011), Hindman (2009), and Sunstein (2003; 2001).

21. Schudson, 2008, p. 12.

22. See Chomsky (2006), Gans (1980), Voakes (1997), and Wahl–Jorgensen (2002) for studies of such influences.

23. Commission on Freedom of the Press, 1947, p. 2.

 

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Editorial history

Received 15 January 2013; accepted 13 February 2013.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Responsibilities of the state: Rethinking the case and possibilities for public support of journalism
by Daniel Kreiss and Mike Ananny
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 4 - 1 April 2013
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4323/3427
doi:10.5210/fm.v18i4.4323





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