1.1.2 News production and ethnography

9 05 2009

***This is an outdated version. Please do not cite or reproduce in any way.***

In Language and the news media: five facts about the fourth estate, Colleen Cotter (1999: 172) writes:

Behind news stories is a fairly predictable set of rules that affect both text and practices. These rules manifest themselves in genres and subgenres (the weather story, the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping story, and so on) and modes of practice (whom to call, dealing with deadlines, and what to do when). The rules of constructing stories are simple and shared, but because the process of information gathering is multifaceted and stories are compiled by many participants, their output becomes complex.

One of the central goals of my study is to examine how particular journalistic genres and modes of practice pattern in the process of news production. Specifically I will argue that the predictability of news production derives from the highly standardized institutional context in which it occurs. As Cotter points out, since news is unpredictable, news production involves “simple and shared” procedures and structures designed to make the process predictable and thus manageable. I will theorize this process as a linear trajectory (Briggs & Hallin 2007) through time, technology, space, knowledge and agency, starting from the identification of newsworthy events and their selection and negotiation during editorial meetings to their transformation into news texts and their eventual publication.

Note that these trajectories primarily operate at the level of genre. According to Bakhtin (Bakhtin [1986] 2004), genres are relatively stable communicative events which cause normative frames of social action. Let me illustrate this with what has recently become common practice in Belgian newsrooms: live chat sessions between readers and public figures.

A newspaper may invite a government official to the newsroom for a chat session about a controversial tax reform. An in-house editor may moderate the Q&A session by screening the submitted questions for obscenity, incoherence, spelling, topicality and anonymity while another editor may translate the government official’s responses into 150 word forum posts. Yet another editor may publish a summary of the chat session on the newspaper website and finally editorialize it in next day’s paper. As the ‘conversation’ travels from context to context, it is carefully adapted (‘re-entextualized’) to fit the requirements of a specific genre: a forum discussion, an online news article, a newspaper editorial. Each of these generate normative expectations (what is ‘appropriate’?, what is ‘normal’?) and suggest behavioral patterns (interacting vs reading, moderating comments vs editorializing the tax reform).

At another level of abstraction, it is possible to see a link between the trajectories and genres of news production and the institutional and professional routines, norms, and settings of news production that so-called ‘first wave’ ethnographies (inter alia Tuchman 1972; Epstein 1973; Tuchman 1978; Gans 1979; Golding & Elliot 1979; Fishman 1980; Gitlin 1980) first described. The organization of newsrooms into functional roles and topical categories[1] is a case in point.

Following journalists in their daily work and shedding light on newsroom practices, these early formative studies showed how newsroom staff are usually assigned a clear technical role in the production process. Generalizing, reporters produce content which editors review and/or modify and which copy and photo editors format, rearrange, lay-out and publish. Additionally, newsrooms are commonly organized into newsdesks (science, politics, sports, arts and entertainment, business) and newsbeats: particular issues, sectors or institutions that reporters cover over time. This may seem redundant at first blush, but my point is that the traditional division of newsroom labor into relatively stable production roles and newsbeats involves a complex of social practices which can be described as a ‘genre set’ (Smart 2006: 12):

a provisionally stable discursive system for creating, negotiating, circulating, and applying specialized knowledge.

Examining these genre sets or discursive systems requires sustained ethnographic analysis. In doing so, I hope to extend what was originally a sociological conversation between ethnography and news production and contribute empirically to calls for updating newsroom ethnography (Cottle 2000; Zelizer 2004; Boyer & Hannerz 2006; Cottle 2007).

While the first generation of newsroom ethnographers focused attention on the importance of professional routines, norms, and settings of news production, their theories have been outdated by technological innovation. Indeed, with new media technologies (Pavlik 2000) and changing media ecologies (Deuze, Bruns & Neuberger 2007) come new understandings of journalistic practice (Carlson 2007), leading to a questioning of the continued theoretical validity of the first-generation studies. These calls are now slowly but surely being answered (Marchetti & Ruellan 2001; Paterson & Domingo 2008; Ryfe 2009).

This study should be seen as a linguistic ethnographic contribution to this endeavor: by showing what reporters actually do when writing news, I document how journalistic representational practices are negotiated in the immediate situation of news production. The added purchase of linguistic ethnography (cf. Chapters 1.2 and 1.3) is that this perspective not only provides an account of specific moments of social action based on empirical observation, but also maintains a focus on the textuality of news. In keeping with my understanding of news production as a standardized trajectory of institutional communication, it is possible to deconstruct news production as a process of

  1. inception: the discovery and identification of newsworthy events;
  2. enactment: instances of story selection and negotiation between reporters, editors and sources and;
  3. inscription: the interpretive practice of negotiating various input sources, demands and constraints into the process of producing a news text

As such, news writing can be seen as a form of reproductive writing (Jakobs 2003). This crucially involves the transformation of multiple texts (press agency copy, press releases, interview notes, other news stories) into a single narrative, framed as an authoritative account of a news event. Viewed as such, news production becomes a highly intertextual process of talk and text. Having pointed to the centrality of language to journalism and to my understandings of ethnography and news production, I would now like to turn to my final pair of qualifiers: economic journalism and intertextuality.

[1] Obviously, given the changes afoot in the news industry, alternative models of newsroom organization are emerging. For instance, Innovation Journalism (InJo, innovationjournalism.org) offers an alternative to traditional newsbeat journalism. InJo is commonly described as a “horizontal newsbeat” in which innovation is the central concept, instead of a topic within a newsbeat (eg. business, politics, science).




One response

9 05 2009
1.1 Delineating the field and lines of inquiry « Tom Van Hout

[…] I adopt. To this end, I will use three pairs: print journalism and applied linguistics (1.1.1.), news production and ethnography (1.1.2) and lastly, economic journalism and intertextuality (1.1.3). [1] For example, […]

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