chapter  4
13 Pages

The postmodern challenge to journalism: strategies for constructing a trustworthy identity

ByJo Bogaerts, Nico Carpentier

The first decades of the twentieth century led to a period of high modernism1 in (American) journalism because of the increasing professionalization of journalists and the consolidation of a shared occupational ideology, as authors such as Hallin (1992; 2006) and Zelizer (2004a) have argued. Hallin shows that both political and economic factors contributed to the virtually uncontested status of journalism in providing what was accepted as truthful and direct access to reality. Even though journalism remained ‘caught between the competing imperatives of “freedom of the press” and the “laws of the market”’ (Champagne, 2009: 48), these tensions did not seem to affect the truth claims of high-modernist journalism. Indeed, characteristic of journalists’ attitudes towards their work during the era of high modernism were an apparent self-confidence and an ‘absence of a sense of doubt or contradiction’ (Hallin, 1992: 14). However, in subsequent decades this ‘sense of wholeness and seamlessness’ (ibid.)

in journalists’ self-image has been thoroughly shaken. By taking a cue from the field of tension between its modernist legacy and contemporary developments in journalism, this chapter wishes to address journalistic identity politics in the face of threat. Departing from the challenges that have confronted journalism in the last few decades and the dwindling trust of audiences, we will first discuss the building blocks of the mainstream professional journalistic identity, and a number of strategies that journalists deploy in order to protect their professional identity, to maintain trust in the profession, and to reaffirm themselves as ‘society’s truth-teller[s]’ (McNair, 1998: 65). This focus on journalistic identity is aligned with a still underdeveloped ‘cultural turn’ within journalism studies, showing how collective identities (and their rigidities and fluidities) structure the journalistic field. The theoretical backbone of our analysis is provided by a discourse-theoretical

perspective, which allows us to focus on the discursive building blocks (or nodal points) of the modernist journalistic identity, and then to analyze how these elements

have become threatened in the contemporary era of liquid modernism. This will allow us to foreground a series of discursive coping strategies, which show how journalism attempts to protect its position as a vital societal field. Given the broadness of the journalistic field, we will focus on one specific location,

namely, online journalism, as this is one of the sites where these truth claims are both maintained and contested, which in turn renders professional identities and the coping mechanisms to protect them visible. Without aiming to create a clear-cut dichotomy between online and traditional journalism, we would nevertheless argue that online journalism is a useful object of investigation, evinced by the fact that ‘professional consciousness emerges at least in part round ruptures where the borders of appropriate practice need renegotiation’ (Zelizer, 1993b: 223; cf. Matheson, 2004: 446).