Tag Archives: Social identity theory

What is newsroom culture? And why should anyone care?

During the 20 or so years I spent working as an editor and reporter at two small daily papers in Texas, there was one ritual that seldom varied. One or more reporters and/or editors would gather around the newsroom television to watch the local evening news. The purpose was to make sure the TV stations hadn’t scooped us, that tomorrow’s paper would have all the important news that readers had seen on local TV the night before.

WNBC-TV news anchor Chuck Scarborough, right, with co-anchor Lynda Baquero at NBC Studios in Manhattan.

Well, that was the stated reason we watched the newscasts. However, it was also an opportunity for us to smugly note how many of the stories on those newscasts had been published in that day’s paper. What would the TV reporters do if they didn’t have us to get their stories for them, we’d ask. They just rip their stories from our headlines, we’d say. The irony that we were doing exactly the same thing – watching their news broadcast for any stories we might have missed – escaped us. It was (and probably is) part of the newsroom culture in newspapers to disparage TV reporters and their stations. We were just expressing our cultural solidarity by reaffirming our superiority as print journalists.

This week’s readings focus on newsroom culture and how it can advance or hinder journalists’ innovative use of the Internet and their willingness to work with journalists from other media in a convergent environment.

The Jetsons

Steensen (2009) examines the cultural forces that prevent new Web-based technology from being fully exploited in newsrooms, as well as the factors that influence the development of innovation in online newsrooms. He is concerned with “the firm grounding of theoretical abstractions in empirically based newsroom production studies, rather than the technological determinism and utopian prophesies that marked earlier new media research” (p.821). In other words, despite the amazingly rapid creation and transformation of the Internet – which was almost unknown to the general public until the 1990s – we’re not living in the media equivalent of the world of “The Jetsons.”

How innovations develop

In his review of literature on innovation, Steensen (2009) argues that the way to investigate innovation is by examining “the interaction of structural influences” and the actions of individuals (Slappendale, 1996, p. 109)” (p. 823). He cites work by Boczkowski published in 2004:

(Bockzkowski) identified three factors as important in how such innovations develop – all focusing on the structural characteristics of the organizations: the closeness of the relationship between the print and online newsrooms; whether the online newsroom reproduces editorial gatekeeping or finds alternative work cultures; and whether the intended audience is represented as consumers or producers, as technically savvy or unsavvy (Boczkowski, 2004, pp. 171-172). (p. 824)

Steensen conducted an ethnographic study of dagbladet.no, a Swedish online newspaper that launched an online feature section in 2002. He conducted four months of ethnographic observation of the newsroom – as well as extensive interviews – over a three year period. I was fascinated by his study and his insights about issues of autonomy and democratic leadership. He contends that a theory of innovation in online newspapers has to include “newsroom autonomy, work culture, the role of management, the relevance of new technology and innovative individuals” (2009, p. 821). Steensen says the factors that influence innovation are both integrated and complex, and they often depend on the actions of individuals. Each newsroom work culture is unique, and an approach to innovation that works in one newsroom may not work in another one.

Newspaper newsroom

Filak (2009) discusses newsroom culture and how it has been and continues to be an impediment to change. Eighty percent of newsrooms have a defensive culture, Filak says, citing a 2001 study by the Media Management Center at Northwestern University. “Defensive cultures resist change and eschew collaboration outside of their cultural group” (p. 118). As a thoroughly indoctrinated former member of newsroom culture, I think Filak is mostly correct: journalists tend to be defensive and so they create a defensive culture.

However, there are concrete reasons for this. Many citizens have an “us versus them” attitude about the media and its representatives. They belittle journalists – sometimes to their faces – and disparage the job that they do, while at the same time consuming articles written by the people they profess to despise. Journalists are like cops: many of them grow defensive and cynical because they deal with people every day who they know are lying to them about something. Journalists also tend to be outsiders; they see themselves as observers, not necessarily as active participants in the world around them. And then there are the people who let you know that your story has ruined their lives. Few journalists have been spared this condemnation.

Journalist as ‘confidence man’

Finally, for many journalists, there’s that uncomfortable feeling of guilt that maybe you have ruined someone’s life. In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), Janet Malcolm strips away the platitudes that journalists hide behind, such as their stated dedication to ferreting out the truth and the public’s right to know. She bares the journalist’s soul.

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. (Malcolm, 1990, p. 3)

When the article is published or the story airs, the subject of the story realizes that his story has not been told; the journalist has instead told her interpretation of the subject’s story. Malcolm contends that what really upsets the subject is the deception the journalist uses. The journalist who seemed so sympathetic and supportive while interviewing or shadowing the subject as he went about his daily life was just feigning compassion to get the story.

Filak (2009) discusses several theories that have been used to study newsroom convergence, where print and broadcast reporters and editors are trying to work together to survive and thrive in today’s complex and confusing media world. He describes social identity theory, which argues that each individual is defined by the groups that he or she belongs to or identifies with. Then he outlines three different models that can be applied to newsroom culture:

  • decategorized contact model – individuals’ awareness of their group identity fosters group-based biases;
  • common in-group identity model – previously competing factions are encouraged to create a common in-group; it’s no longer “us” versus “them”; it’s now “we.”
  • mutual intergroup differentiation model – rather than breaking down boundaries between groups, you emphasize the positive aspects of each group and promote interaction to reach a common goal.

Filak favors the mutual intergroup differentiation model because it lets individuals play “to their strengths while advancing a common goal of information gathering and storytelling” (p. 129).

Today journalists in all media are having difficulty finding their footing in the shifting sands of news delivery and consumption. How will news and information be delivered? Who will decide what is news and what information is needed? Who, if anyone, will pay for this information or for the analysis of this information? Answers to these questions remain elusive, and it’s hard to see what the “new normal” will be in this field in five or 10 years. But Steensen and Filak offer insight into how we might be able to figure it out.

References

Filak, V.F. (2009). Culture, conflict, convergence: A theoretical discussion of group-based identity and bias reduction in a converged newsroom. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 117-134. New York: Oxford University Press.

Malcolm, J. (1990). The journalist and the murderer. New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc.

Steensen, S. (2009). What’s stopping them? [Article]. Journalism Studies, 10(6), 821-836. doi: 10.1080/14616700902975087

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