Journalism: A product of its environment?


When we speak of journalism, it’s easy to sound as if we are talking fondly of a almost homogenous organism. There are a number of underlying implications of this assumed homogeneity, imageincluding shared ethics and values. This, I argue, brings about a false perception. A number of potential problems get inherited along the way.

On a theoretical level, there are a number of assumed societal roles and responsibilities for journalism and journalists. There is a code of conduct as to what acceptable behaviour is and is not. One clear example of this can be found in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s classic book The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. The authors answer their self-posed question, what is journalism for?

    “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing” (page 12)

Two immediate points come to mind. Firstly, that this stated objective of journalism can be met in a number of different ways. Second, that there is a possibility, and in some cases a probability, for political regimes to find that this poses a threat to their very existence. They will react against such a mission.

In the academic world, there has been a gradual theoretical division (in some quarters) of mass media and journalism into Western and non-Western spheres. There seems to be a greater emphasis on this division in those areas deemed as being non-Western, for instance, at the conferences held between Ural State University (Ekaterinburg, Russia), Akdeniz University and Istanbul University (Antalya and Istanbul, Turkey). There is a focus here on the non-Western media, how they cope with non-Western working environments and the development of theories to better understand the situation.

It can even be argued that variation exists within those two arbitrary divisions of the global information sphere. Take the situation of journalism in Sweden as a case in point. imageThere are a number of contentious issues in this Scandinavian state affecting the media industry with regard to ethical issues and the role of journalists. This in spite of a long and established record of a free press. In June, 2005, a Swedish report from the thinktank SNS pointed out a number of serious problems, such as the Swedish media having “power without responsibility and responsibility without power.”

The point being made was that there was no effective definition for who was to take on the responsibility for decisions concerning ethical questions. Consequently, the report argued, “regulatory organisations are characterised as weak, and lacking effective sanctions to deal with those that break the rules”.

A number of criticisms appear periodically on the issue of Swedish journalism’s role in society, specifically in terms of its message and influence. One of the charges that has been made is that Swedish journalists are even more socialist that Swedish society itself. The Swedish thinktank Captus provided a critical look at alleged imbedded prejudices and stereotypes in Swedish journalism. Among the accusations, Swedish journalism has: a leftwing bias and a strong anti-American bias.

Under the conditions of freedom of speech, a pluralism of opinions and ideas are certainly permitted and can be cultivated in the public sphere without fear of persecution by the authorities. It can also be said that journalism should reflect to some extent local social and political realities.

This brings me to an observation from some years ago when I was moderating a talk given by a researcher from the Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, China, who spent some time at Uppsala University. He was about to give his talk on Chinese energy policy in Central Asia to a predominantly Swedish audience when he paused and contemplated the moment. So he began the talk with a personal reflection on his circumstances, said with a certain apparent sense of pleasure. He stated, “It is great to be here, in Sweden, the world’s last truly socialist country.”

His reflection was not exactly enthusiastically received. But it certainly provides one with a moment of reflection. The perception of many worldly matters are greatly coloured from the perspective of where one stands when observing them.

So, it can be said too that there are numerous journalistic environments around the world. Some are more similar to others. But each has its own specific characteristics and flavours which are needed in order to communicate effectively to their audience.
I would argue that it is necessary to separate these out and not to try and lump everything together as one large and ‘faceless’ whole. It certainly makes the world a more interesting place. Attempts to try to ‘transfer’ foreign roles and ethics across these cultural boundaries are often somewhat problematic.

This issue is among those raised in a piece on the role of journalism in conflict by Stephen Ward. He poses a number of difficult issues to resolve.

The ultimate question when broaching the issue of cross-cultural influence is whether we should work with the journalistic frames that exist in the country in question or to try and work with ‘foreign’ ones.

Flickr image from user sixes & sevens