On newswork and journalistic identity construction. 

I’ve spent the past five years (give or take) trying to make sense of the ways journalists construct identity in news texts. This has included exploring reactions to WikiLeaks (my doctoral work [PDF]) as well as other research including with colleagues at Sheffield and  at the University of Groningen that has looked at how journalists position themselves in the context of crisis, in the context of digital change, and in comparison to other disruptions to an boundaries of the journalistic field.

My latest publication, in the journal Digital Journalismfocuses again on questions of journalistic identity and how identity is ‘performed’ in public-facing discourses within news texts, but adapts analytical approaches from structural narrative and literary analysis in an effort to make sense of some of these dynamics through a structural approach that explores semiotics and semantic constructions of identity and newswork. Here is the abstract:

Exploring constructions of journalistic identity in a digital age has been a lively area of scholarship as the field of digital journalism studies has grown. Yet despite many approaches to understanding digital change, key avenues for understanding changing constructions of identity remain underexplored. This paper addresses a conceptual void in research literature by employing semiotic and semantic approaches to analyse performances of journalistic identity in narratives of newswork facilitated by and focused on digital megaleaks. It seeks to aid understanding of the way narratives describe changing practices of newsgathering, and how journalists position themselves within these hybrid traditional/digital stories. Findings show news narratives reinforce the primacy of journalists within traditional boundaries of a journalistic field, and articulate a preferred imagination of journalistic identity. Methodologically, this paper shows how semantic and semiotic approaches lend themselves to studying narratives of newswork within journalistic metadiscourses to understand journalistic identity at the nexus of traditional and digital dynamics. The resultant portrait of journalistic identity channels a socio-historic, romantic notion of the journalist as “the shadowy figure always to be found on the edges of the century’s great events”, updated to accommodate modern, digital dynamics.

It’s an alternative way to build understanding of journalistic identity construction, for sure, and I think it opens new avenues for analysis and in its alternative approaches it, perhaps, points to new ways of sense making, particularly for complex news stories where multiple actors are in focus and when both the ‘news’ and the ‘journalism’ are part of the public conversation. I chose for this piece to apply analysis narratives of newswork in coverage of WikiLeaks and in coverage of the NSA leaks and Edward Snowden in elite newspapers (The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post) to look at the performance of newswork when at its most prominent. Atypical stories, yes, but in their novelty these offer outsized opportunities for exploring the way journalists narrate their newswork and  construct journalistic identity in a way that invokes traditional dynamics amid uniquely digital dynamics. An Author Manuscript version can be found in via the publications link above, or  here.

New work … on Normativity and Journalism

There’s a new article in Journalism Studies titled “Normative Expectations“. My colleague John Steel and I wrote this to document our findings from the first phase of an ongoing research project looking at normativity and local journalism. For this project, we worked with members of two community groups in Sheffield.

Our starting point was an un-directed conversation about what people think about news and information.

We wanted to challenge a prevalent starting point in journalism studies of how journalism positions itself in society, often around lofty and idealised roles – the ‘Fourth Estate’. By seeing what members of our community groups raised when they discussed news and information without any prompting of ‘normative’ values, we were able to develop a more nuanced understanding of their perception of journalism’s role in society. This allowed us to see how members of our community discussed their own views on journalism, and whether this reflects assumptions of what journalism should do for the public, as well as whether they feel journalism does fulfill these roles. Importantly, we asked whether they would change or alter the journalism and news they engage with.

This study was a good starting point to revisit our own normative expectations of journalism, and those community members we worked with have quite different expectations of news and journalism that what is included in  the idealised language of  journalism as the ‘Fourth Estate’. While we found a lowered expectation in terms of the idealised status of journalists and news, we also found that the combination of commercial, sensational, and more serious news offered a good mix of what people wanted. We also found people think about news in different ways – a conversation at the pub or with a neighbour around the corner can be an important source of news and information.