Stephen J. A. Ward

4Epistemologies of Journalism

Abstract: This chapter takes the pulse of contemporary journalism epistemology in light of a fundamental shift from realist to social constructivist epistemologies in the mid-20th century. The first section sketches, historically, how journalists have tended to adopt a common sense realism and empiricism, consistent with realist epistemology. In the early 1900s, this informal approach evolved into a formal, dominant doctrine – professional news objectivity. This flawed epistemology became a doctrine to be overcome. The second section outlines the emergence of several kinds of constructivist epistemologies for journalism, as alternatives to news objectivity. The final and third section re-imagines the idea of epistemology of journalism by incorporating insights from both the realist and constructionist models.

Keywords: epistemology, realism, empiricism, constructionism, social constructionism, globalism, digital epistemologies, truth, fact, knowledge


This chapter takes the pulse of contemporary journalism epistemology in light of a fundamental shift from realist to social constructivist epistemologies in the mid-20th century.

Realists stress how knowledge is a strict correspondence of belief to objective facts, or what is real. Facts are worldly states of affairs that exist apart from human conceptions and interpretations, the way that wateris made of hydrogen and oxygen, and Mount Everest is so many meters high. Truth and knowledge amount to knowing these facts, knowing the way the world is apart from how humans think of it. Constructivists view knowledge and truth as a human construction using concepts, beliefs, perspectives, values, and socially approved methods. In this view, we never get beyond our ways of viewing the world to grasp the world as it is.

The chapter proceeds as follows:

The first section sketches, historically, how journalists have tended to adopt a specific form of realism – a common sense realism and empiricism, consistent with realist epistemology. In the early 1900s, this informal approach evolved into a formal, dominant doctrine: professional news objectivity. This flawed epistemology became a doctrine to be overcome. The second section outlines the emergence, in the middle of the 20th century, of several kinds of constructivist epistemologies for journalism, as alternatives to news objectivity. The third section surveys the options for future development of journalism epistemology.

The chapter argues that one lesson from this historical study is that an epistemology of journalism today should be a nuanced, theory-informed conception of how journalists obtain and justify their claims to knowledge. The conception should incorporate notions from general epistemology, the psychology of cognition, and cultural studies of knowledge formation in social practices. This complexity should be included in the teaching of journalism.

Another lesson is that, at present, both common sense realism and social constructionism, as competing approaches, are incomplete and inadequate. We should construct an epistemology of journalism that incorporates insights from both the realism and constructionist models. Both approaches have valid insights that need to worked into a new theoretical synthesis. There is a need, then, for a holistic approach that shows how construction and truth, invention and knowledge, can co-exist in one and the same epistemology.

1.1What is epistemology?

Epistemology, traditionally defined, is philosophy of human knowledge, as a whole and in its many kinds – empirical, scientific, mathematical, ethical, religious, and humanistic. As a leading reference has stated, it is “that branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, its possibility, scope and general basis” (Honderich 2005: 260).

Epistemology has both a theoretical and a practical component. Theoretically, epistemology studies how humans seek knowledge and justify their claims to knowledge. Practically, epistemology refers to the norms that people actually use to evaluate beliefs and methods of inquiry for truth and evidence.

Originally, epistemology was a concern of philosophers seeking knowledge of reality. In Plato’s Dialogues, Socrates goes about Athens asking people for the grounds of their firm beliefs about piety, justice, the soul and the good republic. Knowledge was usually defined as true and justified belief. Therefore, since Socrates, philosophers have constructed many theories of truth and theories of justification or how we reach knowledge and truth. Theories of truth include realism, with its idea of correspondence of thought to object; pragmatism, with its stress on ideas that “work” and have good consequences; and coherentism – the notion that truth is the coherence of a belief system as a whole (Kunne 2005). Theories of justification include notions of rationality (Rescher 1988), rationally acceptable or “warranted” belief, rigorous methods of inquiry, notions of proper evidence and criteria for the justification of belief. In addition, philosophers and scientists have argued over the best sources of knowledge. Empiricists, like John Locke, claimed knowledge was based on the senses. Rationalists, such as Descartes, stressed the role of reason and innate ideas in the mind. Others, like Galileo, argued that science was a combination of rational, mathematical understanding and empirical experiment.

Across the history of philosophy, we can divide theorists of truth and knowledge as realists or constructivists. Realist epistemology runs from Plato, René Descartes and John Locke to Bertrand Russell and, most recently, William Alston (1996). Realists think the goal of inquiry, and methods of inquiry, is to arrive at truth about what is real. Realist epistemology sees knowledge as knowledge of reality as true propositions correctly describing an external world as it is – a correspondence of belief and world, apart from human bias and perspectives. Epistemic standards help us discover (not construct) how that world is. The world makes beliefs true, not human constructions. Realists, therefore, make truth their primary concept, and separate it from theories of how truth is constructed by humans. Realists can endorse a variety of “source of knowledge” positions such as empiricism or rationalists, and they can differ on what they think the real is, e.g., a world that is entirely material and described by science, or a world that is divinely and spiritually created and directed.

Constructivists are interested in the human construction of knowledge and truth claims. There no way to say what truth is other than to state the findings of our best methods and forms of inquiry. We only know the world via our conceptual schemes and standards of evidence. Justification and rationality are more primary than a philosophical search for absolute truth of reality. For some constructionists, truth is defined (or reduced) to rational justification. That is, to say a belief is true is to say it is the result of a rational and reliable method of construction. Putnam (1981) argued against realists by defining truth as rationally acceptable belief. Many constructivists stress the role of society in the acceptance of norms of belief. For example, the sophists in ancient Athens claimed that moral and social norms were constructed by, and therefore relative to, particular societies. Realists reply that justification is not truth. There are many truths that humans may never know, and justified beliefs can turn out to be false. To reduce truth to accepted norms is to fall into an unacceptable relativism – that truth is only what some group of people say it is.

All forms of philosophical epistemology, realist or constructivist, is normative in seeking to identify those beliefs we ought to affirm. But constructivist epistemologies tend to be more empirical and “position-relative” than realistic epistemologies because they focus on how people actually form and apply epistemic norms in different situations. Realist epistemology, for much of its history, has been universalist (or “non-positional”) since it presumes that there are general correct norms for rational inquiry not relative to the inquirer’s gender, nationality, or situation in life. Descartes’s method of doubt was a universal method for acquiring knowledge. Locke’s empirical psychology formulated principles of inquiry in general.

This tension between realism and constructivism has largely defined the history of epistemology in philosophy and journalism. Recently, epistemology has taken on a strong constructivist meaning in the social sciences, in cultural studies, and in media epistemology. It views epistemology as a social construction where people make claims to knowledge while pursuing various practices and goals. Here, researchers talk of “epistemologies” that prompt people to make claims to knowledge in different “knowledge production” areas, from the laboratory to the newsroom. In focus are the practices, routines, social values, political aims, and institutional structures that shape such claims. This approach does not seek a logic of inquiry that discerns ultimate reality or applies to all rational beings. Social constructivism places epistemic questions about journalism in a broad, cultural context. It calls attention to ethnic, gender, and power relations, as well as differences among media cultures.

2Realist epistemology and journalism

2.1Common sense

Early journalism epistemology was a common sense approach. Yet “common sense” is a term that needs to be used with caution. It does not imply that common sense beliefs are true, even if widely accepted. Common sense is often false or lags behind the leading edges of science. Nor is common sense limited to ordinary experience and observation. In any era, common sense includes religious, theoretical, and scientific beliefs that have made their way into popular culture.1 Furthermore, common sense simplifies theoretical beliefs for handy reference – the way people refer to Einstein’s theory of relativity but lack knowledge of its physics. Therefore, “common sense” refers to beliefs held by many people in a culture, and expressed in a non-theoretical manner. Philosophical principles operate as implicit premises.

To say that journalists use common sense in epistemology means they adopt epistemic beliefs generally held to be plausible and expressed plainly, avoiding complexities. Such beliefs may be based, implicitly, on philosophical assumptions and scientific beliefs. For centuries, journalism epistemology did not consist of theoretical treatises or the application of social science methods, such as content analysis and ethnographic studies. It consisted in informal, practical discussions of good practice and how to use norms to make newsroom decisions. The norms evolved as journalism took on new forms and new social roles. The serious, theoretical study of journalism did not get much traction until the growth of schools of journalism and communication at universities in the previous century.

2.2Realism and empiricism

From the rise of the modern press in the 17th century to the mid-1900s, journalists followed an epistemology that was a common sense realism about truth and a common sense empiricism of method. They believed, like most people, that there was a real, external world that journalists could report on truthfully. They described the world as it is. They believed that empirical observation and the facts of experience justified reports and underwrote journalists’ claims to knowledge. A journalist’s main path to truth is through the senses. Empiricism was a natural method for journalists since they chronicle the observable world about us.

The common sense approach presumed that journalism was a very practical, skills-based craft that did not require nuanced theories to support its self-understanding or its practice. Journalism, it was believed, did not need a formal epistemology any more than the craft of glass blowing needs a formal epistemology. For most of its history, Western journalism has explained itself to others (and to journalism students) by using a narrative that helps itself to a minimum of theory and philosophical complexity. In essence, the narrative appeals to our common sense, not to philosophy. Ideally, journalists go out into the world, they observe events, conduct interviews with eye-witnesses, and verify claims by checking facts in official documents. Then, they factually report, without bias, what they experienced in an objective news story. This view is plausible to the extent that it appeals to common sense’s confidence in the non-complicated nature of observation, the direct manner in which we apparently know facts (and separate them from nonfacts), and our ordinary empirical ways of belief formation. Journalism epistemology was a naïve and robust empiricism, or positivism of fact.

Over the centuries, this realist-empiricist attitude developed an epistemology that consisted of two kinds of norms for evaluating two kinds of journalism: a) norms of reportage for chronicling events objectivity, with a minimum of interpretation. This is the objectivist strain in journalism. The norms included careful observations, eye-witness accounts, the testimony of unbiased and informed sources, official documentation, scientific matters of fact and so on; b) norms of opinion journalism for discussing public affairs and pushing for reform. This is the reformist strain in journalism. For objectivism, the journalist is (or should be) an impartial observer of the world and a fact-based reporter. For reformism, the journalist is (or should be) an interpreter and actor in the world. Although applying to different journalistic functions, the two sets of norms are not unrelated. One and the same journalist (and newsroom) can report and opine; and an epistemically sound opinion is based on facts. As the social role of journalism evolved, so did the two sets of norms, becoming more sophisticated in concept and re-defined by new tools of investigation.

Before we begin our history, one thing to note: Journalism epistemology is a rich debate among many types of thinkers and practitioners on many levels of thought.

Epistemology is so closely associated with intellectual disciplines such as science, philosophy, and social science methodology, that it might be presumed the history of journalism epistemology is an academic argument among theorists, a contest among abstract theories. But journalism’s public role does not allow the confinement of journalism’s methods to a purely intellectual level. Journalists, from the 17th century onward, have had to engage in discussions with a skeptical public and critics about the verification and justification of their stories. These debates raise larger questions of epistemology – of how journalists in general can claim to know things. For example, at the turn of the 20th century, journalists engaged in epistemic questions when they began to write codes of ethics. Code writings required some treatment, no matter how rudimentary, of the epistemic notions of truth, accuracy, verification, and justified belief. Moreover, there have been theoretically inclined journalists, such as Walter Lippmann, who felt compelled to construct theories of the press and theories of journalistic knowledge.

Meanwhile, historically, theorists in other disciplines have played an important part in journalism epistemology. Leadings thinkers, from Milton and Locke to John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, have developed ideas that have influenced journalism ethics, from freedom of expression and notions of justice to the public use of reason. Intellectual movements have provided models of justification and knowledge. For instance, scientific positivists in the 19th century and beyond argued for a conception of knowledge as “just the facts”, a view that journalists used to develop their ideal of objective reporting.

2.3Five eras

The history of journalism epistemology, from the 1600s to the present, can be understood as the development of these two sets of norms over five eras. This chapter does not have space for a full examination. I highlight the norms in each era and provide a few examples.2 The five eras are:

Era 1:17th Century: Epistemology of Partisan “Truth” and Matters of Fact

Era 2:18th century: Epistemology for Public Enlightenment

Era 3:19th Century: Libertarian epistemology and News as Fact

Era 4:20th Century (1900–1960): Epistemology of News Objectivity

Era 5:20th century (1960–present): Alternate Epistemologies

Era 1: Partisan “Truth” and Matters of Fact: The first era is the emergence of the modern news press in the 16th and 17th centuries. Publishers of “newsbooks” and “broadsheets” in Western Europe sought to interest readers with primitive compilations of news and political opinion. Working under censors, editors defended their reports and opinions by claiming impartial truth. But, in such partisan times, their editorials were partisan “truths” to support the king or his opponents. When the first newsbooks appeared on the streets of London between the 1620s and 1640s, they were called A True and Perfect Informer, or the Impartial Intelligencer or the Faithful Scout, Impartially Communicating. Daniel Border opened the Faithful Scout in 1651 with a flourish: “Having put on the Armour of Resolution, I intend … to encounter falsehood with the sword of truth.” In 1643, Henry Walley, editor of the True Informer, said: “Truth is the daughter of time … the truth doth not so conspicuoulsy appeare till a second or third relation.” Compare Walley’s view with a passage from a popular book by Kovach and Rosenstiel (2007: 41–42) on today’s journalism: “The individual reporter may not be able to move much beyond a surface level of accuracy in a first story. But the first story builds to a second … and … to a third story. This practical truth is a protean thing that, like learning, grows like a stalactite in a cave, drop by drop, over time.”

The norms of reportage incorporated the emerging idea of a matter of fact. Every editor said their correspondents reported only matters of fact. As Shapiro (2000) showed, journalism was part of a growing “culture of fact” in Europe that began with the practices of law, with its need to determine unbiased fact; travel literature, stimulated by the age of discovery; and an experimental empirical science that sought the facts of nature.

Era 2: Epistemology for Public Enlightenment: The norms of opinion and reportage journalism evolved as newspapers grew in number and power during the 18th-century Enlightenment (Briggs & Burke 2002: 74–105). Newspapers became the communication channels of the public sphere. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1983) argued that representative government depended on this “publicity” from the press. The press espoused a “public ethics” (Ward 2015a: 153–196) that redefined the 17th-century norm of partisan truths in terms of truths for a public. The press was to inform and represent a public through informed opinion based on scientific fact and public-based reasoning. In the 1720s, London editor Nathaniel Mist portrayed his Weekly Journal as a moral educator. It is a “History of the present Times” guided by “a love of truth”. Pierre-Louis Roederer, French revolutionary politician and journalist, said in 1796 that newspapers reached more readers than books and taught the same truth “every day, at the same time … in all public places.” By the end of the century, Edmund Burke called the press a Fourth Estate, one of the governing institutions of society (Ward 2015a: 193).

Meanwhile, many newspapers made money by providing facts to a news-hungry public. Not surprisingly, they embraced factual reporting and dismissed the opinion journals. England’s first daily paper, London’s Daily Courant promised “to give news, give it daily and impartially”. The Daily Courant said it would not comment on news “but will relate only Matter of Fact, supposing other people to have Sense enough to make reflections for themselves.” In 1785, John Walters I said the Times of London would be a “faithful recorder of every species of intelligence” (Ward 2015a: 174). The paper was a great “register” of events, and the reporter its recording instrument.

Era 3: Market Place of Opinion and News as Fact: The third era, the 19th century, developed the public ethic into a libertarian theory of the press (Siebert 1956: 39–71) for opinion journalism, and an active empiricism for a popular press devoted to news. In the first half of the century, journalism was led by an elite, liberal, opinion press such as the Times of London. The libertarian theory was expressed by John Stuart Mill and journalists such as Walter Bagehot, and it developed from the earlier writings of John Milton, John Locke, and Thomas Paine. Libertarianism meant society should allow a maximally free marketplace of ideas, similar to a free marketplace for goods. The marketplace metaphor presumed that public deliberation would consist mainly in a clash or competition of ideas. In the long run, true reports and correct views would win out (Ward 2014a).

The second half of the century saw the emergence of a liberal popular press or “news for all” – from the penny presses of America to the tabloids of London. By the late 1800s, the popular press was the first mass medium – an inexpensive commercial press based on circulation and advertisements and owned by press barons such as Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Journalism was now the business of news. Reporters were sent out to gather news, to interview people, and to use new technology, such as the telegraph, to transmit and circulate news.

The norms of reportage for the commercial press were: 1. factuality: the impartial reporting of facts through a concise writing style suitable for timely publication and transmission over the telegraph; 2. political independence: newspapers, less dependent on political patronage, began calling themselves “independent” in their reporting and in their editorial opinions. In 1866, Lawrence Gobright of the Associated Press in Washington, DC, explained his factual style: “My business is merely to communicate facts. My instructions do not allow me to make any comments upon the facts which I communicate. … My dispatches are merely dry matters of fact and detail” (Mindich 1998: 109). Meanwhile, editors claimed that the advent of news photography proved that reporting represented the world as it was. Charles Dana claimed that the New York Sun would offer a “daily photograph of the whole world’s doings”.

The new neutral reporting had its critics. W. T. Stead, editor of London’s Pall Mall Gazette, railed against it: “An extraordinary idea seems to prevail with the eunuchs of the craft, that leadership, guidance, governance, are alien to the calling of a journalist … Their ideal is to grind out a column of more or less well-balanced sentences … Before I was an editor and a journalist I was a citizen and a man.” Theodore Dreiser, author and realist, recalled learning the style at the Chicago Globe in 1892. “News is information,” explained his copy editor. “People want it quick, sharp, clear – do you hear?” But in England, C. P. Scott asserted, “comment is free but facts are sacred”. Mass journalism, with its “veneration of the fact” (Stephens 1977: 244) was a rough-and-ready, active empiricism. But in explaining its approach, editors chose to use metaphors which implied that reporters were passive stenographers of fact. One reason was that editors borrowed ideas from the prevailing philosophy of science – a positivism that explained scientific objectivity as generalizing only over facts (Passmore 1966: 15–17).

Era 4: Traditional News Objectivity: By the early 20th century, the epistemology of journalism came to be dominated by an epistemology of news objectivity. Journalists transformed their informal 19th-century empiricism of fact into a strict methodological empiricism based on dualisms of fact and value, fact and interpretation. News objectivity was an explicit, rule-bound, and firmly enforced ideal and method of story construction. It was developed by American print journalists (Ward 2015a) followed by broadcast journalists. Associations, local and national, developed codes of ethics which stated that journalists serve the public by following the principles of truth-telling, objectivity, and editorial independence. Journalists drew up the codes to reassure the public that they put the public interest first, ahead of their own self-interest.

News objectivity demanded much more from reporters than an informal, active empiricism. It was a disciplined empiricism, objectivity with a capital O, calling for the elimination of the reporter’s interpretation and perspective. Objective reporters were completely detached; eliminated all of their opinion; reported just the facts. Objectivity was a policing action against reformist values – the desire to interpret or campaign. Objectivity was operationalized in newsrooms through rules of story construction such as carefully attributing all opinion and giving equal weight or “balance” to rival views. Some news outlets would not use reporter bylines since a byline suggested the report came from a point of view.

News objectivity was never without its dissenters and rival frameworks, such as the interpretative journalism of Time magazine, or the guerrilla journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. Muckraker Lincoln Steffens complained about the objective reporting style of Godkin’s New York Evening Post: “Reporters were to report the news as it happened, like machines, without prejudice, color, and without style; all alike.” Traditional objectivity had its heyday from the 1920s to 1960s and then gradually fell out of favor. Notions of impartiality and sticking to the facts continue to influence public debate on news media, and influence practice. In a recent study of how journalists and academics define objectivity, Post (2015) found that journalists and academics define objectivity in different terms. Journalists think objectivity demands “trying to let the facts speak for themselves”, and academics think it requires systematic methods and transparent accounts. We can hear the lingering echo of common sense empiricism in journalism.

Objectivity, as a neutrality of opinion and an empiricism of fact, bequeathed to journalism epistemology the problem of how to develop an alternative model for reportage. The positivism that grounded news objectivity came and went. Philosophers and others argued that our facts, values, and perspectives travel together, influencing the facts we choose and the frame we bring to events. The reporter as a passive stenographer of fact was false to a practice that was increasingly active and purposive. At the same time, post-modern constructivism questioned objectivity tout court. In practice, a more interpretive and avocational journalism emerged online. Traditional new objectivity had little to say about such journalism other than it was subjective, and advocacy was not the job of professional journalists. News objectivity was now outdated, philosophically discredited, and unhelpful as a guide for new journalism. The door was open to new and alternate approaches to epistemology. The fifth era of journalism epistemology was underway.

3Alternate epistemologies

3.1The shift to social constructivism

The fifth era consists of constructionist, context-specific epistemologies, as described earlier. Realist and common sense notions of truth continued to exist and to be defended but they had to contend with a growing number of explicitly constructivist views about epistemology. Although constructivist epistemologies are of ancient origin, this new wave of constructionism was prompted by the growth of social and cultural sciences. They were, and are, a part of a broader post-modern (and post-colonial) movement of thought that gathered critical mass in the mid-1900s (Connor 1989). The movement challenged two things: One, writers questioned what they saw as Western-centric Enlightenment ideas about uniquely correct and universal standards of reason, truth, and objectivity, despite a pluralism of ways of knowing globally. But worse, they claimed the West (mainly the United States and Western Europe) used such notions to engage in cultural imperialism for political purposes, imposing Western values on non-Western cultures. Moreover, they claimed that this Western epistemology supported unethical practices and dubious structures, from the subjection of women to male-dominated science. Two, the writers objected to the fact that epistemology was identified with the methods of the presumed “hard” and objective natural sciences. Epistemology thereby became political and entangled in reform movements. The point of calling something a construct, whether it be gender or science, was to question prevailing ideas about the phenomenon and to suggest a better conception. To say x is a social construction is to say that our way of thinking about it was not inevitable (Hacking 2000: 6). And, the point of a different conception was to reform social attitudes and practices.

To undermine this dominant epistemology, writers asserted that all knowledge, even science, was theory-laden and redolent with values; all knowledge, socially constructed and historical. Forms of thinking, including the standards of objectivity, were valid only in specific contexts and disciplines. Epistemology did not give you a uniquely correct insight into reality; rather it supported some view of the world or society, supported some practice.

Postmodernists such as Lyotard (2013) and Baudrillard (1981) questioned the ideas of detached truth and philosophical “metanarratives” – large historical narratives that make sense of human experience. The Frankfurt school of sociology decried the influence of both Enlightenment ideas and mass culture (Horkheimer & Adorno 1992). In history, constructionists pointed to historians, such as Thomas Kuhn, as showing that scientific change was a non-rational “conversion” to a new set of beliefs (Kuhn 1962).

In the late 1970s, leading sociologists put forward a relativistic sociology of knowledge that explained claims to knowledge by reference to social causes (Barnes & Bloor 1982). In science, social constructionism became, by the 1980s, the discipline of social epistemology as developed by Steve Fuller (1988). These varying perspectives were called “epistemic cultures” (Cetina 1999). Meanwhile, philosopher Richard Rorty attacked a “Platonism” that believed in absolute, transcendent truth and saw objective knowledge as a “mirror” of nature (Rorty 1979). Rorty thought that what was rationally acceptable was what we, as a culture, said it was and what solved our problems. Questions about logic and evidence gave way to political questions about who controls science and who defines truth, rationality, and objectivity.

In summary, the epistemologies were “naturalized” and empirical in spirit. They studied the norms that people affirm and use, as a natural, social process. They were pluralistic in not being motivated to develop one, uniquely correct epistemology. They were positional in being more interested in the norms of localized practices, situated inquirers, and specific disciplines, than in developing universal, philosophical precepts for rationality. They were constructionist. They studied the psychological and sociological processes by which people construct and defend beliefs. They did not share the realist’s concern for knowledge in some absolute sense. Their unit of analysis was the psycho-sociological category of “claims to knowledge” (or claims to justified belief) as affirmed by a group or practice.

Since this approach begs philosophical questions, such as whether these epistemologies imply a relativist view of truth, it prompted three responses from philosophers. Some philosophers, like Rorty, were sympathetic to the approach’s antirealism and anti-universalism. Some philosophers who were constructivists, like Putnam (1981), criticized post-modernists such as Foucault for endorsing a self-refuting, extreme relativism. Other philosophers (Lynch 1998) defined a pluralist epistemology that was both realist in truth and constructivist in recognizing the existence of plural conceptual schemes.

3.2Six kinds of theory

Theorists applied constructionism to journalism epistemology. For example, Ekstrom (2002) sketched a constructionist framework for the study of television news. He said epistemology, in his writing, did not refer to philosophical inquiries into the nature of true knowledge but to the study of knowledge-producing practices and the communication of knowledge claims. Lazaroiu (2012) talked about constructing an epistemology for the online “mediascape”. Recently, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen (2015: 170) distinguished her constructivist approach from the more traditional approach of Ettema and Glasser (1985) when the latter developed the epistemology of investigative journalism. They asked how journalists know what they know (e.g., what counts as empirical evidence). In contrast, Wahl-Jorgensen defined epistemology “more broadly” as the rules, routines, and institutional procedures in a social setting that decides what form of knowledge is produced and what knowledge claims are to be expressed or implied. Knowledge claims, she added, are shaped by ideological, sociological forces, and power relations. Journalists’ processes of justification involve a construction of narratives that operate within conventions established by institutional forms of knowledge.

Six kinds of constructionist theories were developed: 1. Political economy critiques; 2. Dissenting epistemologies; 3. Conceptual scheme models; 4. Knowledgeinfusion models; 5. Digital epistemologies for new media and new methods; and 6. Global epistemologies. I briefly note their main features.

Political economy theories: These theories explain how journalists’ claims to knowledge are shaped (and sometimes discredited or biased) by the political and economic forces that control mainstream news media. Among the chief concerns is the influence of media ownership on what journalists report and how they report, bias in reporting due to commercial pressures to attract large audiences, and the editorial influence of advertisers and political elites. Much of the theorizing came from the left wing of the political spectrum. Noted linguist Noam Chomsky (1989) has argued that mainstream news coverage, especially in the United States, is not objective and independent but propaganda for the political agendas and interests of large corporations and government. The notion that the press is objective and fact-based is an “illusion”. In a similar vein, media scholar Robert McChesney (1999) has argued that democracy is being undermined by a global concentration of media corporations.

Dissenting epistemologies: A dissenting epistemology is an epistemology that dissents from a realist Western approach to epistemology, characterized above. This dissent is usually motivated by a desire for social, institutional, or political reform of practices and attitudes. One major example comes from feminist discourse – feminist media epistemologies and feminist media ethics. Feminists have constructed several “waves” of feminist thinking. Today, feminist theory is a vast and rich domain of contending theories that cannot be adequately described here. However, it is important to note, for our purposes, that the feminists of the mid-1900s were among the first to effectively employ the social constructivist idea. The central target was dominant male-defined concepts of gender and male–female hierarchies in society. As noted above, calling gender a social construct was a first step to reforming attitudes and power structures. Hawkesworth (1994), for example, argued that the scientific construct of objectivity led to objectification. Women were treated as objects, not as persons. Some theorists advance standpoint epistemology (Harding 2004) which began from women’s absence from, or marginalized position in, social science. It argued that female experience was distinct and crucial.

When feminists theorized about journalism they noted male bias in news coverage, especially of issues surrounding women and gender. But their thinking went deeper than that. Feminist media scholars argued that the epistemology of news objectivity supported macho notions of individualism that privileged individual rights over communal values. Journalism epistemology supported an uncaring, socially divisive journalism that reflected the male-centric cultures of the West and of the newsroom. One result was the construction of a feminist ethics of care (Koehn 1998) that preferred a communitarian approach to journalism (Keeble 2005). Feminists thought journalism should promote caring human relationships. An ethics of care would restrain a news media that is often insensitive to story subjects and sources. Some studies contended that a non-feminist approach to crime treats crime as an individual matter, downplaying systemic causes, and treating alleged criminals as inhuman.

After feminism, other types of dissenting journalistic epistemologies appeared, such as epistemologies that took into account the influence of race and racism in journalism, or examined how journalists treated citizens in foreign cultures as an “Other” that could be demonized.

Conceptual scheme models: Other epistemologies arose that were not motivated by social reform and political causes but by a practical desire to develop a more self-conscious approach to constructing stories. They made explicit the influence of our conceptual schemes and perspectives. The models corrected the simplistic, common sense notion, evident in news objectivity, that journalists can construct adequate reports simply by making observations and reporting uninterpreted, individual facts.

Conceptual scheme models hold that when journalists report, what they observe and decide to report is influenced by their conceptual schemes. A conceptual scheme is a set of concepts we use to understand the world we live in, or some part of it. We make sense of any particular fact by interpreting it though a conceptual scheme, e.g., a conceptual scheme for interpreting political events, for understanding crime, and so on. The reporter’s mind is not a passive blank slate or tabula rasa upon which objects in the world imprint their image. Rather the mind is an active, organizing entity that tries to fit what it experiences into a coherent grid of concepts (Pinker 2003). Frame theory has explored how journalists frame stories, where a frame is an organizing perspective on some topic. Journalists may frame a drug addiction as a criminal story rather than a health issue, or frame a war as a noble fight for freedom rather than a war for economic supremacy in a region (Entman, Matthes & Pellicano 2009). Other studies show how the way that journalists define news – their news values – influences story selection (O’Neill & Harcup 2009). Also, epistemological studies have delved into how ideology affects journalists’ approach to war and other stories, and how the phenomenon needs to be studied as “socially situated text or talk” (van Dijk 2009: 191). Also, how journalists build a news agenda is another factor in shaping and selecting reports (Coleman et al. 2009).

For epistemology, the lesson is that journalists need to be aware of, and sensitive to, conceptual and interpretive factors as they attempt to construct justified and reasonably complete stories. The message is: Journalists should realize that such factors are operating even where they think they are sticking to “just the facts”.

Knowledge-infusion models: Another non-dissenting form of journalism epistemology is the effort to improve the knowledge and critical skills of journalists so they avoid manipulation and report more deeply about complex events. I call this area “knowledge infusion” since its promoters want to infuse content and skills into the work of journalists. One promoter is Thomas Patterson whose Informing the News stressed the need for “knowledge-based journalism”. Journalists cannot properly seek the truth or serve democracy unless they become knowledge professionals (Patterson 2013: xv). Journalism needs to develop a body of knowledge, or a knowledge base, from which it makes sense of a complex world. Journalists need knowledge to create accurate interpretations of what is observed or factually recorded. Patterson uses “knowledge” in the conceptual scheme sense explained above. Knowledge, he says, is systematic. It is “established patterns and regularities organized around conceptual frameworks and theories” (Patterson 2013: 65).

Knowledge infusion is an aim of journalism education. Many schools of journalism, especially at the graduate level, organize much of their program around creating journalists with high-level knowledge and expertise in such areas as environmental science and health issues.

With regard to skills, journalism educators recognize that reporters are not just fact recorders but also active, critical analyzers of sources of information and political statements. For example, the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University in New York State has pioneered the idea of teaching “news literacy” as a set of skills for determining the reliability of sources of information ( The notion of critical skills can be extended to include media literacy as a whole, logical skills for analyzing argumentation in the public sphere, and scientific literacy.

Digital epistemologies: Digital media has created new forms of journalism created by new participants using new media platforms. As noted, much of online journalism is personal, interpretive, and advocational. It revives the reformist strain in journalists, after decades of dominance by new objectivity. Moreover, journalism is now participatory (Singer & Domingo 2011) as journalists and citizens work together to gather information and construct reports. These trends raise new issues for journalism epistemology and ethics (Ward 2014b). Conceptually, old distinctions and boundaries blur (Carlson & Lewis 2015). Definitions of who is a journalist and what is journalism are contested. Hardly a principle or concept, from objectivity to verification, goes unchallenged.

Yet amid this disorientating media revolution, new epistemic standards and methods are beginning to develop, forming an interdisciplinary digital epistemology (Zion & Craig 2015). Many news organizations, such as the BBC in Britain and the Society of Professional Journalists in the United States, are revising their codes of ethics. The new standards guide journalists in the use of information from social media, in partnering with community groups, in opining on their social media accounts, and in verifying information – text or image – provided by citizens and alleged eye-witnesses to events.

Journalists and ethicists are even making progress on what seemed to be an insoluble problem: how to maintain the central ideals of verification and accuracy (Hermida 2015) in an age of instant updates, live blogging of events, and the swift moving conversation on social media? The traditional notion of verification insisted on time-consuming checks prior to publication. New works in journalistic epistemology explain how to verify after posting by using the knowledge of the “crowd” online. Researchers (Silverman 2014) have begun to develop methods of verification for online images and other materials. For instance, sophisticated software can discern if an image was altered and where the image was taken.

Similar creative work is being done to explain how to use powerful new research tools and story-telling technology, such as software that analyses “big data” – finding interesting stories in large data bases. Other work shows how to adapt virtual reality to a truth-seeking journalism and how to employ drones for covering breaking news.

Journalism epistemology in this new media age is participatory in who makes the journalism, conceptually radical in rethinking the principles of journalism (Ward 2015b), and anticipatory in looking ahead to ever new forms of journalism innovation.

Global theories: The globalization of news media has stimulated epistemological and ethical thinking about how journalism norms should change to guide a journalism that is global in reach and impact. Scholars and journalists have begun to construct a global media ethics with implications for epistemology (Ward 2013). This global movement regards existing journalism standards and aims as too parochial for a global media world. Historically, codes of ethics considered journalistic duties to be owed to citizens within the boundary of a nation. In a global, Internet world, any story can cross borders and spark violence. How should journalists assess these transnational effects?

Globalists typically take universal principles as their starting point, e.g., human rights principles. They make a cosmopolitan commitment to a global humanity their moral priority and then seek to incorporate parochial values, such as patriotism, into their global system. Their theories have implications for how journalists should cover global issues and important areas of journalism. For example, Tumber (2013) has argued that the basic norm for war reporters today is not a neutral objectivity but a “responsible engagement” with events and issues. Dunwoody and Konieczna (2013) recommended that journalists covering climate change and other scientific issues should use the “weight of evidence” principle to decide how much emphasis sources should be given in stories. The news objectivity notion of an equal balancing of viewpoints is incorrect or of limited value. Also, Wahl-Jorgensen and Pantti (2013) have promoted a cosmopolitan approach to the coverage of natural disasters, which includes journalists showing empathy and compassion for victims. This epistemology dissents from news objectivity which insists that reporters should be detached observers.

Finally, a global approach has led scholars, especially from the Global South, to call for a “de-Westernization” of journalism studies and theories of journalism epistemology (and ethics). Wasserman and de Beer (2009), for example, call for the inclusion of non-Western values, into textbooks, teaching, and theory. One question is the appropriateness of the Western model of an aggressive free press which treats government with suspicion for struggling, transitional democracies such as South Africa. Perhaps a better model is that of journalists as partners with government.

4Conclusion: re-imagining journalism epistemology

We have sought an overview of journalism epistemology by following the realistconstructivist shift. We charted the path of journalism epistemology beginning with common sense versions of realism and empiricism. As we moved along the five eras of journalism epistemology, we saw how two sets of norms from the objectivist and reformist traditions – norms of reportage and opinion in journalism – took on new meanings and new standards. The apex of realist-empiricist journalism epistemology was the doctrine of news objectivity in the early 1900s. But conceptual and practical difficulties with the doctrine and emergent post-modern attitudes combined to undermine its plausibility. In response, six kinds of constructivist epistemologies arose.

Where does this leave the future of journalism epistemology? From one perspective, the constructivist theories have enriched journalism epistemology with concrete and diverse studies. The studies took account of political, social, conceptual, technological, and cultural factors that needed to be incorporated into journalism epistemology. It undermined the implausible view of journalistic claims to knowledge as based on simply reporting the facts. It brought journalism epistemology into the 21st century and aligned it with developments in the humanities and sciences.

From another perspective, these developments have created problems. The theorizing makes journalism epistemology, theoretically and practically, more complicated and difficult. The notions of good method and a justified story now include an awareness of conceptual schemes and concerns about biasing factors.

Also, the multiplicity of epistemologies can leave the impression that epistemology of journalism is a fragmented field of rival views – or views that don’t easily fit together into a coherent philosophy. Nor have the insights from the theories been brought together and translated into clear and practical norms for doing good journalism. The relevancy to practice varies with the type of theory. In some areas, such as digital epistemology, practitioners can see clear applications for the new guidelines about verification and other practices. But, in other areas, such as theories of press propaganda, it is not clear what if any practical implications follow, other than to wait for (or work toward) a political revolution.

Moreover, the movement of alternate theories still lacks a sound philosophical foundation which shows that locating epistemology in specific cultures and practices is not a form of relativism about truth and knowledge. Or, if it is a form of relativism, how does this view fit with the fundamental principle of truth-seeking in journalism? Often, it is not clear how the theories are using the words “knowledge” and “truth” when they speak of “knowledge production” and “claims to truth”? Do they mean that such practices actually do reach knowledge and truth (or come close to it)? Or, do they mean that people only like to “claim” they have knowledge of truth for various social and political reasons but, in actual fact, there is no such thing as knowledge and truth? If the latter, then they should talk instead, and with more modesty, about “belief production” and claims to have reliable opinions. Such frank questions cannot be avoided, especially if such theories are going to help themselves to the central and difficult epistemic terms of truth, rationality, objectivity, and knowledge. The current state of journalism epistemology needs a new philosophical epistemology.

My own view is that neo-pragmatic philosophy is an approach to inquiry that could help journalists articulate these philosophical foundations, bringing together realist and constructivist notions into a hybrid theory of journalistic truth-seeking. I have used the notion of pragmatic inquiry as a basis for redefining objectivity as “pragmatic objectivity” (Ward 2015b). Objectivity becomes a complex testing of journalists’ stories – all of which are regarded as interpretations – by a holistic set of norms from factuality to coherence. The aim of pragmatic objectivity is not, as news objectivity demanded, to eliminate all interpretation from stories. The goal is to find ways to test journalistic interpretations.

The goal of a future journalism epistemology is to create journalists who are sophisticated knowledge workers and sense makers. Ideally, they would be aware of their craft’s complex role in society, and they would be aware of the political, social and other factors that influence their conceptual schemes. To enrich their work, they would incorporate insights from a wide range of epistemological theory. Also, these journalists would have knowledge and critical skills that allow for rigorous interpretations of events. And, they would be busy developing epistemic guidelines for an era of innovative, engaged, and digital journalism.

Finally, they would regard their epistemic norms as part of a broader new ethics for global journalism, where epistemology serves the moral aims of journalism and of humanity.

Further reading

To grasp the historical development of journalism, and its epistemology, a good place to start is Briggs and Burke’s accessible A social history of the media (2002), Stephens’A history of the news (1977) and Chapters 4–6 of my The invention of journalism ethics, 2nd edn. (2015a). Allan Megill’s Re-thinking objectivity (1994) is an excellent selection of articles on key issues. For the history of news objectivity, read Mindich’s Just the facts (1998) and Chapters 7–8 of The invention of journalism ethics.

A formulation of realism is Alston’s A realist theory of truth (1996). An example of philosophical constructionism is Putnam’s Reason, truth and history (1981). The best analysis of social constructionism is Hacking’s The social construction of what? Zion and Craig’s Ethics for digital journalists: Emerging best practices (2015) is a good introduction to the issues of digital journalism, while my Global media ethics (2013) explores the issues of global models.


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