Cover Page

What Journalism Could Be

Barbie Zelizer



The author would like to acknowledge the kind permission of publishers to reproduce and rework chapters (listed here under their original titles) from the following publications:

Chapter 2: Definitions of Journalism. In Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Geneva Overholser (eds.), The Press. Oxford University Press, 2005, 66-80. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press,
Adapted from Barbie Zelizer, Taking Journalism Seriously. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2004. Reproduced by permission.

Chapter 3: On “Having Been There”: “Eyewitnessing” as a Journalistic Key Word. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 24(5), December 2007, 408–28. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis.

Chapter 4: On the Shelf Life of Democracy in Journalism Scholarship. Journalism 14(4), June 2013, 459–73. Reproduced by permission of Sage.

Chapter 5: When Practice is Undercut by Ethics. In Nick Couldry, Mirca Madianou and Amit Pinchevsky (eds.), Ethics of Media. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 317–37. Reproduced by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

Chapter 6: Journalism and the Academy. In Karin Wahl Jorgensen and Thomas Hanitzsch (eds.), Handbook of Journalism Studies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2008, 29–41.
Adapted from Barbie Zelizer, Taking Journalism Seriously. Sage, 2004. Reproduced by permission.

Chapter 7: Journalism in the Service of Communication. Journal of Communication, February 2011, 1–27. Reproduced by permission of Wiley.

Chapter 8: When Facts, Truth, and Reality Are God-Terms: On Journalism’s Uneasy Place in Cultural Studies. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 1(1), March 2004, 100–19. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis.

Chapter 9: Journalists as Interpretive Communities. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 10, September 1993, 219–37. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis.

Chapter 10: The Culture of Journalism. In James Curran and Michael Gurevitch (eds.), Mass Media and Society (4th edition). London: Edward Arnold (Bloomsbury Academic), 2005, 198–214. Reproduced by permission of Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.

Chapter 11: When War is Reduced to a Photograph. In Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer (eds.), Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2004, 115–35. Reproduced by permission of Routledge.

Chapter 12: Tools for the Future of Journalism. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, July 2013. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis.

Imagining Journalism

Albert Einstein is rumored to have said that logic can take people from A to B, but imagination will take them everywhere. What Journalism Could Be draws from that sensibility. Imagining journalism into its margins, across its corners and beyond its limitations is an exercise that invites the accommodation of change. It calls on scholars of journalism to interrogate the commonly accepted and generally unchallenged contours of journalism’s practical accomplishment and intellectual conceptualization. And it calls on journalists to consider the possibilities of novelty and transformation, while being mindful that the risks this entails may complicate an already tenuous landscape.

Why should we rethink journalism today? The change in its environment suggests that doing so might be fruitful, but not in any immediately obvious or predictable fashion. From moves into automated news copy, user-generated content, wearables and virtual reality to newspaper closures and layoffs, many presume that journalism is currently at its point of exhaustion. The lines of that reasoning, embraced by many journalists and journalism scholars alike, are clear: they rest upon stress points of many kinds that offer either spirited proclamations of how the news must move with the times or depressed lamentations of what has been irretrievably lost. One side – the enthusiasts – sees change as the omnipotent enabler of all things new, the other – the naysayers – as the elimination of a legacy gone too soon. Neither invokes an incremental understanding of change as reciprocal give and take, adjustment, modification or turn-taking. And yet each of these activities regularly comes to the fore when change is on the horizon.

This book is situated in-between the naysayers and the enthusiasts. I argue that change in journalism can be embraced by considering it as a gradual back-and-forth between positions, where journalism’s practitioners, observers and analysts might imaginatively assess both what change can bring and how it resonates with where journalism has been. By accommodating new ways of understanding tensions in journalism, of thinking disciplinarily about journalism and of conceptualizing journalistic practice, this book thus charts a path toward a more textured environment through which to imagine what journalism could be.

Imagination does not inhabit journalism without qualification. A slew of factors – historical, social, cultural, economic, political, moral, ideological, technological – has separated it from most understandings of the news. An alignment with narrow understandings of modernity and reason, an identity that highlights its preoccupation with realism, an institutional neighborhood whose most proximate residents – politics or the economy – privilege truth-telling over making-up, a university environment that accommodates its relevance for the public good are some of the variables that have pushed imagination aside. Though imaginative thinking invariably slips into theories and discussions of journalism – Adam (1993, 1), for instance, defined journalism “as a product of the imagination,” while Schudson (1996, 96) observed how “making [news] is not faking, not lying, but . . . it cannot be done without play and imagination” – by and large thinking about journalism in conjunction with imagination has been confined to the art of narrative storytelling (Fishkin, 1985).

And yet its relevance in journalism is practically airborne. The very essence of journalism is creating an imagined engagement with events beyond the public’s reach. How that is accomplished is also imagined because journalism operates largely out of the public eye (Zelizer, 1992a). Journalists gather their information in ways and from domains that remain largely invisible. Acting much like shamans who journey to inaccessible worlds and return with some critical insight, journalists act as “stabilizing agents who solidify consensus and reinstate social order on their return” (Zelizer, 1992a, 21). What the journalist knows is valued precisely because no one else shares that knowledge, rendering it necessarily the target of public imagination. Even journalism education, wrote Keeble (2007, 2), “needs to encourage the creative spirit just as practitioners need to acknowledge and further explore its creative possibilities.” There is, then, far more of a connection to imagination in journalism than just narrative craft.

The focus on imagination draws too from beyond journalism. It has long been the focus in social and cultural theory, where multiple scholars have invested efforts in understanding what imagination could bring. Often aligned with the US sociologist C. Wright Mills in his description of the discipline of sociology – as “the capacity to shift from one perspective to another . . . to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self and to see the relations between the two” (Mills, 1959, 7) – or with what Anthony Giddens (2001, 699) later paraphrased as the “application of imaginative thought to the asking and answering of sociological questions [in which someone] . . . thinks oneself away” from what is already known, imagination has been invoked by scholars in wide-ranging disciplines: Benedict Anderson (1983) in history and political science, John Thompson (1984) in sociology, Arjun Appadurai (1996) in anthropology, and Charles Taylor (2002) in philosophy, among others.

More a response to concerns over a particular version of modernity than to other obstacles obstructing its fuller accommodation, the current turn toward imagination constitutes for many a redress to modernity’s impacts and burdens, where it was to be disciplined via an insistence on instrumental reason and rational thought. As Theodor Adorno (1976 [1969], 51) famously said, fantasy – his word for imagination – “is only tolerated when it is reified and set in abstract opposition to reality.” Imagination’s current reclamation is seen instead as an enterprise that can “either be used to compensate for the shortcomings of existing realities or to produce new ones” (Schulte-Sasse, 1986, 25). With that in mind, scholars have elaborated the layers of its presumed use-value: imagination, wrote Appadurai (1996, 31), “has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work (in the sense of both labor and culturally organized practice), and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility.”

So it is with journalism. Though running free with the fields of possibility through which journalism itself can be conceived has always been diminished by the aforementioned obstructions to imagination’s inclusion, this book makes a pitch for thinking anew about the mindset that has unwisely – and, in this view, unproductively – set reason on one side of the fence and imagination on the other. Though surveying the field is always in part reductive, we need to rethink how we can understand their relationship more productively. What has been lost in imagination’s compartmentalization? What might be gained by reviving its centrality?

The chapters in this book aim to address these questions. Though extensively revised, the work assembled here has by and large made claims to imagination before, if less definitively than it does so in these pages. Offering an updated set of articles and book chapters that originally saw the light at some point over the last 25 years, this book engages vigorously with the idea of imagining journalism, focusing on how imaginative thinking – and its prevailing associated concepts and practices – fare in journalism today.

The current moment has been characterized as one of radical uncertainty, but the fields of possibility for thinking it through have been smaller than they need to be. When asked to predict developments for journalism on the eve of 2016, most responses tended to avoid the task’s broader contours and chose to focus almost unilaterally on technology. Headlines such as “Technology Trends Journalists Should Watch in 2016” (Ciobanu, 2015) or “The Most Likely Media and Tech Developments in 2016” (Sutcliffe, 2015) were plentiful. While useful for hedging against technology’s push forward, such efforts nonetheless suggest a paring down of imaginative thinking. Where are the people and texts of journalism? Its craft and culture? Its ideology and mindset? Its labor, workplace politics or relations with other institutions – all products of what C. Wright Mills classified as the stuff derived from the “playfulness of mind” (Mills, 1959, 211)?

Five attributes of the current moment make the essays collected here newly relevant. Because each revisits earlier arguments and applies them to different dimensions of journalism’s contemporary environment, each asks us to reconsider journalism today through the prism of imaginative thinking. Each suggests new vantage points through which to reenergize the exhausted quality of much of journalism’s current discussion.

A first reason to accommodate imagination has to do with craft. Because so much of journalism takes place out of the public eye, much of the initial drive toward journalistic activity has never been codified sufficiently for academics in search of repeatable results. What G. Stuart Adam (1976, 3) called “the journalistic imagination” is overloaded with individualized doses of curiosity, autonomy, improvisation, adventure and exploration that are central to newsmaking. Though other modes of thinking about journalism have been developed in academe – and are engaged in the pages that follow – the best one can hope for in understanding the idiosyncrasies of journalistic craft is to consider them against their many fields of possibility. Thus, for instance, how journalists scramble to cover politics when its contours are aggressively shifting – as seen in the US presidential race or the UK’s decision to exit the European Union – or how journalists improvise the disconnect between their visions of journalistic activity and a diminishing institutional landscape for its practice are examples of journalistic craft rising to the fore. Imaginative thinking lays open the potential for assessing its relevance.

A second reason to reconsider imaginative thinking is political – the evolving nature of what journalism must necessarily address in the current political environment. Though journalism has always adapted to evolving topics of newsworthy interest, many of today’s political news stories are bigger, more widespread and more broadly impactful than much of what passed as news in earlier time periods: the global refugee crisis and its diminution of human dignity in scores of nations around the world is a powerful and much more challenging follow-up to the local, regional or even national political stories of earlier times that tended to reflect more precisely the jurisdiction of conventional news outlets. Thus, an older scandal like Watergate – US-centric, involving US politics and US legacy journalism – was more directly and readily covered by journalism of the time than was the more recent scandal involving the Murdoch news empire. As the latter’s authority spread in nondescript ways across institutional, generic, technological and geographic arenas, when its underside surfaced with the 2011 News of the World scandal, it impacted politics, the police, technology and journalism across multiple continents, revealing institutional collusion writ large. Here, too, imaginative thinking helps clarify the contours of a previously unforeseen environment.

A third element relevant to inviting imagination into considerations of journalism is technological. Data repeatedly confirm that the old/ new media split is more complicated than either the naysayers or enthusiasts of change proclaim. Over half of all newspaper readers in the US retrieve their news from print only (Barthel, 2015), while social media serve as the main source of political information for the Millennial generation in a way that resembles what local TV did for Baby Boomers (Mitchell, Gottfried & Matsa, 2015). Old and new media remain mixed, mutually adaptive, with boundaries often blurred. Thus, embracing “the new” does not necessitate abandoning “the old,” emblematized by a proclamation by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos following his 2015 buy-out of the Washington Post that he intended to make it the “new paper of record” (Owen, 2015b), or Twitter’s development of a feature that could accommodate tweets 10,000 characters in length (Wagner, 2016). Understanding the shape of the fusion between old and new needs more inventiveness than shown till now: while an early governmental fall-out like McCarthyism was covered in identifiable – though problematic – ways by the then-existing conventional news media, the new pan-national entity of Islamic State expertly uses a sophisticated mix of conventional and social media to ensure that its message is distributed successfully, regardless of who helms the controls of conventional news outlets. Imagining an amalgamation of what has long been with what is already resting ahead – more fully understanding the bridge of new and old media, rather than pushing one aside at the expense of the other – might force both the naysayers and enthusiasts of change to consider each other’s vantage point more fully.

A fourth reason to reconsider imagination is economic. Most reports of contemporary journalism note that journalists recognize that their environment is changing and are on board to accommodate it (Picard, 2015; State of the News Media, 2015). Trends include an orientation toward entrepreneurial modes of newsgathering, more attention to branding techniques and greater adaptation to multi-tasking and multiple sources of part-time employment. There are surprises in this landscape: the Philadelphia Inquirer and its sister publications – Philadelphia Daily News and – were donated in January 2016 to a newly formed non-profit media institute in a move “designed to ensure that quality journalism endures in Philadelphia for generations” (Gammage, 2016). Though it is too early to predict how much its innovative linkage of news company, media institute and foundation will impact public-interest journalism, the move nonetheless burst with imaginative ways to ease economic pressures on news outlets. But there is sobering evidence too: Nieman Journalism Labs predicts that there will soon be half as many local daily journalists as existed in 1990 (Doctor, 2015). As Rottwilm (2014, 6) observed, we are seeing “evidence of a decoupling of acts of journalism (work) and journalistic employment (labor).” Reflective of larger social transformations that favor temporary, specialized work, multi-tasking, outsourcing and a service economy, today’s economic circumstances suggest a need to rethink how journalism sees itself and articulates its creed. Thus, the eyewitnessing activity that was prevalent in journalism’s early days and so central to its sense of self today depends more on disembodied technology and user-generated content than on journalists per se, a development born mainly – though not exclusively – of economic pressures. A global reliance on live-streaming in covering the Paris attacks of November 2015 and the Brussels attacks of March 2016 showed how tenuous current journalistic claims to being an eyewitness have become. But applying imaginative thinking to these transforming parameters might engender more creative alternatives that continue to qualify as journalism, as the recent change in Philadelphia media ownership suggests.

A fifth variable that foments imaginative thinking consists of moral considerations. The twenty-first century is filled with difficult events that seem to endure forever and encompass more of the world than ever before – often in unpredictable and intertwined ways. Spanning national, racial, religious and ethnic boundaries, they raise questions of who is responsible for recurrent indignities and violence and what might be a responsible response to them, especially when they stretch across widespread territory. Though we are only a bit short of two decades into the twenty-first century, even a handful of such events is far-reaching: the first and second Intifada, 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the 2003 Iraq War, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Arab Spring, the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, the Syrian conflict and the current refugee crisis, none of which has been easily identified by burgeoning and differentiated publics as moral, or its opposite. The difficulty with taking a moral position has intensified in the 2010s, as vigorous activity in the digital media environment has made clear that having just one moral stance is a thing of the past. Thus, coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement was both hailed as a Twitter Revolution and denigrated for affixing a racial prism to its ensuing activity. Videos of people about to be beheaded by Islamic State were spread across social media, but when conventional news outlets considered their display, decisions were splayed across the spectrum of possibilities. Each instance calls stridently for new, less binary, more nuanced ways of envisioning the moral charter connecting the news and its multiple publics.

Thus, on craft, political, technological, economic and moral grounds, the current environment lays bare circumstances that push journalism to accommodate change, but in a thoughtful fashion. Each of the events mentioned above inhabits the pages that follow, though not necessarily demarcated in the ways just suggested. Rather, journalism in the current landscape wrestles continuously with all of the aforementioned challenges, as different combinations of craft, politics, technology, economics and morality impact its viability. The texture of that landscape – its instability, internal contradictions and resistance to resolution – overflows with evidence that marks the need to take journalism’s centrality seriously. It challenges both the naysayers and champions of change to speak to each other more so than they have done until now.

Considering journalism through its field of possibilities thus has a value-for dimension that extends to knowledge acquisition, writ large. In the ensuing chapters, I highlight multiple characteristics that align with imagination in the journalistic context – contingency, flux, noise, contradictions, the emotions, inclusiveness, interdisciplinary sharing, multiple vantage points – while urging for the reduction of those attributes that have prevented imagination from taking flight – didacticism, insularity, binaries, absolutism, linearity. While recognizing that these qualities by definition always coexist in some fashion, I argue that journalism needs imagination to survive. I also believe that journalism offers a clear harbinger of the richness that might ensue when practical and theoretical knowledge complement rather than constrain each other. Imagination is central to both.

Though many of the following chapters argue for a more fluid and unstable embrace of the categories that comprise journalism’s environment, I usher us into this volume by embracing one final binary: the flip side of the exhaustion of a phenomenon is its triumph. This book makes the argument that, with journalism’s exhaustion, comes the potential for journalism’s height and rebirth, not as a phenomenon markedly different from earlier days but as a complex and nuanced enterprise that forces us to stretch beyond reason into the imagination so as to better understand and appreciate its trappings. John Dewey (1929, 294) noted how “knowledge falters when imagination clips its wings or fears to use them. Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination.” I hope that what follows resonates with that thought in mind.