Wilson Lowrey

7Journalism as Institution

Abstract: Journalism has been theorized as an institution in multiple ways. Two prominent conceptualizations include journalism as an organizationally bound enterprise with routinized practices, subject to varying factors and forces in the environment; and journalism as a meso-level collective field, shaped by external forces but also capable of agency within a collective space that has negotiated boundaries, legitimacy, and an internal logic. Both represent attempts to accommodate agency and structure, and autonomy and constraint, in our explanations of news production. This chapter examines these perspectives and the literature in each area, exploring key concepts such as routines, agency and structure, bounded rationality, isomorphism, path dependence and loose coupling. The chapter also examines the role of power and social control in journalism’s institutional situation, as well as the argument that journalism is now post-institutional, particularly in an era of open and flexible digital networks. Finally the chapter takes up a third approach to conceptualizing institutions, one rooted in anthropological research – that institutions are grounded in a society’s foundational beliefs. According to this approach, a society’s meaningful “big thinking” must take place at the institutional level, for better or for worse. Thus, working on our institutions may be preferable to overturning them.

Keywords: field theory, institution, new institutionalism, path dependence, routines

In “The Nature of News” Walter Lippmann cited Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that people tend to categorize each new experience as “a new version of our familiar experience” and translate it “at once into our parallel facts” (1922: 221). A concerned Lippmann thought this was how journalists behaved, falling back on routines and conventions to interpret events as they tried to accomplish work within challenging environments. He again cited Emerson, about the human tendency “to make facts and men [sic] obey our present humor or belief” (Emerson 1904). If facts can be made to obey, then news must be a constructed product and not a mirror on reality. Here is the start of an important thread in our thinking about journalism as an institution.

The idea of a constructed news concerned Lippmann, an objectivist, but he mainly worried that journalism was failing in its higher calling to inform democratic society accurately. Journalism was “too frail to carry the whole burden of popular sovereignty” (1922: 228). However, if we turn the prism, we may see that journalism offers a less reckonable service: The mere presence of journalism at an institutional level reinforces a society’s collective faith in its institutions, regardless of journalism’s day-to-day inaccuracies, missteps and shallowness. This latent purpose differs from the manifest and popularly embraced mandate that journalists accurately and meaningfully represent the world out there, helping people as they govern themselves, or as they seek inspiration and understanding.

Communication scholar James Carey recognized journalism’s role in reinforcing this faith, viewing news as ritual through which a society reaffirms and repositions shared beliefs and norms. Carey influenced other scholars, some of whom applied his ideas to the political-economic realm and emphasized journalism’s support of shared consensus about national systems, for better and for worse (Cohen & Young 1973; Elliott 1980; Lule 2001). In democracies with liberal media systems, this is consensus about the viability of democratic governance; in authoritarian regimes it is consensus about the viability of rule by a wise monarch; in democratic corporatist systems, it is consensus about the viability of governance through interest-group negotiation (Hallin & Mancini 2004). Journalism’s accord with higher-order, widely legitimated institutions would not be possible if news washed up from some “ocean of possible truth” (Lippmann 1922: 215), reflecting only the minute-to-minute happenings of the world out there. It is possible if news is a social construction.

Lippmann perceived that news is found in those places “where people’s affairs touch public authority” (1922: 215). From an institutional perspective, the machinery of officialdom, with its widely recognized phases and events, provides journalists with a framework for decision-making about news coverage, one that tends to be unquestioned and taken for granted. Further, news and journalistic practice are shaped by path-dependent assumptions born of past institutional contexts that also go unquestioned (Lowrey 2012, 2015; Ryfe & Kemmelmeier 2011). This institutional machinery can have dysfunctional consequences, rendering news surprisingly unsurprising and homogeneous (Boczkowski 2010; Lowrey 2015; Ryfe 2006), and frequently supportive of the status quo and society’s elites (Gitlin 2003 [1980]; Golding & Murdock 2005).

Despite journalism’s institutional grounding, the literature offers no generally accepted definition of “institutions”, though several prevalent definitions portray them as widely legitimated, governing, and enduring. Cook (2005) calls institutions “social patterns of behavior identifiable across the organizations that are generally seen within a society to preside over a particular social sphere” (p. 70). For Sparrow (1999), institutions provide “a regular and persisting framework by which and within which other political actors operate” (p. 10) and are guided and limited. Clemens and Cook’s (1999) definition from political sociology transcends politics and power: Institutions are enduring, taken-for-granted models of “relations and exchanges [that] are reliably reproduced through the actions of individuals and groups without requiring either repeated authoritative intervention or collective mobilization” (pp. 444–445 ). Within this view, a political system is an institution, but so is marriage. “Taken-for-grantedness” is a key component in defining institutions, suggesting that value derives more from widespread legitimacy and shared understanding than from instrumental benefit (Selznick 1992). Finally, journalism researchers often conflate institutions with organizations, but they are conceptually distinct: Organizations, by one common definition, are social entities with authoritatively enforced rules, role assignments, and defined boundaries (Tolbert & Hall 2009). In fact, the similarity of practices, norms, and content across news organizations suggests the need for a distinct, higher-order institutional level of analysis, as discussed later (see, e.g., Ryfe 2006).

Institutional approaches have been criticized for overemphasizing structure, stasis, and functionalist assumptions (e.g., Greenwood et al. 2008; Thornton et al. 2012). Increasingly institutional scholars are recognizing agency, change, and dysfunction. An institutional field such as journalism is not a collection of “cultural dopes”, who merely reflect the times they live in or reproduce “the stable features of society by acting in compliance with pre-established and legitimate alternatives of action” (Garfinkel 1967: 68). “Actual social actors” are involved in historical processes (Vos 2013: 38). Outcomes of institutional decisions are not “fore-ordained,” (Pickard 2010: 392) and they often result from political wrangling among real people. To varying degrees across political-economic systems, actors within journalism have carved out spaces with negotiable boundaries that allow for some agency and autonomy. These actors can construct their own shared meaning as they struggle for agreement about how to reposition their practices, their roles, and their field in response to uncertain environments. Sometimes they do this with success, and sometimes they don’t.

Looking across past and current media sociology scholarship, journalism has been conceptualized as an institution in multiple ways: 1. as an organizationally bound enterprise with routinized practices, subject to an environment of varying factors and forces; and 2. as a meso-level collective field, shaped by external factors and forces but shaped too within its own bounded and somewhat autonomous and legitimated space, and guided by its own negotiated logic. The first perspective emerged from early case studies of news production within organizations, and evolved in later decades in systematic studies of news production’s variable political, economic, and social environments (e.g., Bennett 1990; Lacy, Coulson & Martin 2004; Jeffres, Atkin & Neuendorf 2002; Shoemaker et al. 2001). The second perspective is found in meso-level theories adopted by news production scholars in recent years, as well as scholarship on journalism as a profession. These represent attempts to accommodate both agency and structure, as well as autonomy and constraint, in our explanations of news production.

An additional institutional perspective will also be discussed. This perspective, from anthropology, is consistent with the view of communication as ritual and ceremony (Carey 1975; Dewey 1916), and with Emil Durkheim’s ideas about ritual and collective consciousness. Durkheimian Mary Douglas (1986) holds that legitimacy based only on “common interest in there being a rule to insure coordination” is not sufficient for the establishment of an institution. Rather, true institutions must be grounded in a society’s foundational beliefs, resting “claims to legitimacy on fit with the nature of the universe” (p. 46):

In reply to the question “Why do you do it like this?” although the first answer may be framed in terms of mutual convenience, in response to further questioning, the final answer refers to the way the planets are fixed in the sky … (p. 47).

Allegorically, journalism’s “fixed planets” would seem to be the dominant political-economic system and ideology. To the degree that journalism is an institution, it is a player with other institutions at this fundamental level, where, Douglas says, a society’s truly important and lasting decisions are made.

This chapter details the first two perspectives on journalism as an institution – as an organizational entity in a wider field of forces, and as a meso-level collective field – and discusses literature in each area. The chapter also explores the role of power and social control, as well as the argument that in an era of open and flexible digital networks, our society is post-institutional. Finally, Douglas’ argument – that a society’s meaningful “big thinking” takes place at the institutional level – is explored. From this perspective, a journalism that matters must interact meaningfully at the institutional level, and each society must cultivate and develop its institutions.

1Early conceptualizations: news organizations within a field of forces

Some of the earliest scholarship on journalism as an institution assumed an ecological context. Lippmann observed that news was created within a field of exogenous forces, subject to “the working of [other] institutions” (p. 228). University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park’s work on the symbiosis between news and urban environments (e.g., 1922, 1940) would help lay a foundation for later studies of the ecology of news production and consumption, especially at the community level (e.g., Janowitz 1967; Jeffres et al. 2002; Stamm 1985; Tichenor, Donohue & Olien 1980). Social scientist Kurt Lewin’s (1947) gatekeeping research provided another ecological approach. Lewin’s spatial metaphor of the “field” afforded the interconnection of human behavior and human environment as “one constellation of interdependent factors” (p. 338). His gatekeeping approach provided a broad framework for many of the multivariate, large-sample studies of news and editorial selection that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, and are common today. In these studies, news practices, and content are dependent variables, situated within a field of potentially influential forces organized along hierarchical levels of analysis (e.g., Dimmick & Coit 1982; McQuail 2011; Preston 2009; Shoemaker & Reese 1996; Shoemaker & Vos 2009).

Apart from this ecological research, much early study of news production conceptualized journalism’s institutional environment as a mostly contained system, with the news organization as the primary level of analysis. News was viewed as a product rather than a mirror on reality, and the most relevant factors shaping this product were internal – for example, organizational rules and norms, and workers’ perceptions (e.g., Bantz, McCorkle & Baade 1981; Breed 1955; Epstein 1973; Gieber 1960; Roshco 1975; White 1950). David Manning White (1950) portrayed the news gatekeeping process as largely internal, a consequence of editors’ personal preconceptions. In his 1956 gatekeeping study, Gieber found key causal factors to be the “goals of production, bureaucratic routine and interpersonal relations within the newsroom” (Gieber 1964: 175). A later study by Whitney and Becker (1982) would reveal subtler influences: Wire editors uncritically selected news according to systemically predetermined categories.

Whitney and Becker’s findings are not inconsistent with phenomenological assumptions in studies by sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harvey Molotch, who proposed that journalists typified events as news. Tuchman and Molotch were among a group of young sociologists who came of age during the 1960s and ’70s, a time of disillusionment with news and its relationship with powerful political and economic institutions. Motivated by a “quasi-revolt in sociology against the cult of value-free social science” and perceived reinforcement of the status quo (Zelizer 2004: 60), these scholars questioned journalism’s claims of authority and objectivity. A potent brew of emerging approaches informed their brand of social constructivism: the phenomenology of Alfred Schutz and his students Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967), Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology (in which “there is no such thing as news – only events constructed as news” [Pascal 2011: 123]), and Erving Goffman’s framing research (Tuchman 2014). An indirect influence was research in the sociology of work, organizations, and occupations, which examined the ways workers make meaning of, and craft status from, everyday tasks (e.g., the interactionist perspective of Everett Hughes [1958] and other Chicago School scholars) and investigated latent functions within organizations and institutions (March & Simon 1958; Selznick 1949).

Scholars deriving from these traditions focused on news as an organizationally generated product, while accounting for journalists’ demanding environment. Like Lippmann, they saw that news workers faced the task of representing an impossibly complex reality within severe time and resource constraints (Epstein 1973; Fishman 1982), amid internal political wrangling (Sigal 1973) – all while they worked within operations that sought profits and acceptance by political and economic elite (Gitlin 2003 [1980]; Sigal 1973), and avoidance of external criticism (Tuchman 1978). Also like Lippmann, these scholars drew normative implications of these conditions for news and for society. However, they were also interested in how and why journalists socially constructed reality within these conditions – a constructed reality that was so often homogeneous and consistent with the status quo.

1.1Routines, organizations and institutions

A growing number of scholars embraced the perspective that journalists typified events as news, managed typifications strategically, and that news selection and production are shaped by taken-for-granted rules and conventions (Epstein 1973; Gans 1979; Tuchman 1978). Journalists tend to follow routines – “patterned, routinized, repeated practices and forms that media workers use to do their jobs” (Shoemaker & Reese 1996: 105). Important to the institutional view of journalism, these routinized decision patterns are similar across news outlets (Gitlin 2003 [1980]; Ryfe 2006). In much of the news construction literature, routines are viewed as functional for the news organization, industry, and profession, and dysfunctional for news quality and society (e.g., Bantz, McCorkle & Baade 1981; Epstein 1973), as they may discourage plurality of viewpoints and help prop up the status quo, and thereby support elites (e.g., Fishman 1982; Gitlin 2003 [1980]).

The organization studies literature also views routines as double-edged, though from the standpoint of the organization’s well-being. On one hand, routines buffer organizations from disruptive environments that can destroy new organizations, and they reduce uncertainty that can paralyze decision-making (Baum 2001: 100). On the other hand, organizations may blindly routinize practices that just happened to correlate with – but not necessarily contribute to – success at the organization’s birth, becoming “imprinted” by their original environment, and growing dysfunctionally irrelevant over time (Aldrich & Ruef 2007; Stinchcombe 1965). Ryfe (2006) notes this potential dysfunction in journalism, at the institutional level:

[I]t is perfectly possible for an inefficient set of routines to take hold very early on in an institutional order. Over time, these routines generate identities, behaviors, roles and values that are seen as appropriate. These norms may crowd out alternative ways of practicing journalism – even if these alternatives might respond more efficiently to exogenous pressures. (p. 140)

Routines tend to be similar across news outlets, and researchers attribute this similarity to a variety of causes. Both classical and political economy researchers argue that making safe decisions that are consistent with industry and professional norms reduces financial risk for the news organization, owners, and investors, even as it impoverishes the public sphere (Picard 2011; Hardy 2010). News outlets and journalists that go their own way when selecting news can appear professionally incompetent, as “pack journalism” research has found (Crouse 2003 [1972]; Dunwoody 1997). Boczkowski (2010) found that technology can encourage homogeneity, as the Internet may serve as a “scopic” device that affords mimicry across news outlets. However, he pointed to journalists’ need for public and professional legitimacy as a deeper motivation for this behavior. Cook (2005) argues that the similarity of journalism practices across news outlets requires a trans-organizational explanation: Journalists behave collectively and in sync with political institutions. They display an “inter-institutional news coherence” (Schudson 2003: 109).

Routinization and institutionalization tend to go hand in hand, but they are not the same things. Berger and Luckmann, in their influential The Social Construction of Reality (1967), distinguish the two. Routines emerge at the interpersonal level, as interacting individuals “typify” one another’s actions in a reciprocal way, and then fall into habitualized roles vis-à-vis one another. It isn’t until third parties observe this routine interaction that routines gain an institutional aura of objectivity and inevitability: “Since [the third parties] had no part in shaping it, it confronts them as a given reality that, like nature, is opaque” (1967: 59). Again, we see the importance of “taken-for-grantedness” as a characteristic of institutions.

The idea that institutions emerge suggests they are not static: Institutions emerge and erode and re-emerge, if only slowly. This informs our understanding of organizational and institutional journalism in an unpredictable environment. Independent online operations (like blogs) that gain popularity and legitimacy may take on organizational attributes, as well as growth in size and revenue, and may then produce less personal, more formalized news (Lowrey, Parrott & Meade 2011). Huffington Post, Bleacher Report and Politico.com are examples. Also, best practices for starting new journalism ventures emerge, spread, and may eventually routinize and institutionalize, with later entrepreneurs – as Berger and Luckmann’s “third parties” – perceiving these practices as a given, objective reality (Lowrey 2012, 2015). From this perspective, future taken-for-granted practices are breeding now, and the field’s new ventures are currently being imprinted with tomorrow’s anachronisms.

1.2News and higher-order institutions

In searching for explanations for routinization and homogeneity, journalism scholars continued to “broaden their analytical locus” to the wider institutional environment (Zelizer 2004: 70). Political economists and political communication researchers (e.g., Golding & Murdock 2005; Hardy 2010) have always been at home on the institutional level, and this literature offered new approaches. Political economy scholarship focuses on the interplay between economic organization and political and social life, and its impact “on the range and diversity of public cultural expression, and on its availability to different social groups”. From this viewpoint, news producers have the agency to choose, but choices are restricted within “limits set by wider structures” (Golding & Murdock 2005: 62).

Political communication scholars have prioritized the institutional level, finding that official sources lend legitimacy to stories (McLeod & Hertog 1999), use of official sources saves reporters’ time, and straying from official sources jeopardizes the journalist–official relationship (Hickerson, Moy & Dunsmore 2011). A primary interest in political communication scholarship is the relationship between institutional/official control and journalistic autonomy. Conflict among the elite is a common explanation for varying autonomy. Bennett’s indexing hypothesis predicts that disagreement among elites will correspond with greater diversity of viewpoints, though “news coverage will fall more or less within the contours of their disagreement” (Lawrence 2012). According to Entman’s (2008, 2003) cascading network activation model, journalists, elites, and publics unify behind a common interpretation when the facts of an event are culturally consonant; however, conflict is likely when multiple interpretations of an issue resonate culturally. Scholars examining community “structural pluralism” have found that in pluralistic communities with more institutions, power is diffuse, news is more diverse, and journalists are more likely to “watchdog” the powerful (e.g., Dunwoody & Griffin 1999; Tichenor, Donohue & Olien 1980).

What influence is our pluralistic, digital, social-media environment having on journalists’ institutionalized practices? Are source selection and news content becoming more varied and egalitarian, and are journalism’s traditional relationships and practices eroding? Research findings are mixed. According to recent studies of news in a social media context, sourcing is more diverse during politically contentious events such as protests (e.g., Bastos, Raimundo & Travitzki 2013; Hermida, Lewis & Zamith 2014; Meraz & Papacharissi 2013). Also, during political unrest, individual journalists from news outlets make greater use of non-elite sources (Hermida, Lewis & Zamith 2014; Harlow & Johnson 2011), and politically active individuals serve as key gatekeepers (Bastos, Raimundo & Travitzki 2013). However, during relatively stable times, mainstream media have continued to adopt institutional controls over the gatekeeping of information (Coddington & Holton 2014; Sherwood & Nicholson 2013), and at the organizational level, traditional news outlets have continued to rely, uncritically, on official sources (Knight 2012; Livingston & Bennett 2003). Some research finds that user-generated content is rarely used, journalists follow traditional/mainstream norms and routines, and audiences lack interest in participatory journalism (e.g., Ali & Fahmy 2013; Karlsson et al. 2015). Some change is evident, but it is not at all clear that the digital era is post-institutional.

2News and collective fields

2.1New institutionalism

Persistence of journalistic routines in the face of digital disruption is consistent with “new institutional theory”. The new institutional approach assumes that under certain conditions, organizations will pursue public legitimacy via accord with their wider institutional environment (e.g., government, big business) more than they will instrumentally analyze changes in their immediate environments and optimize their behavior. In recent years, a handful of journalism scholars have adopted this approach to explain routinization, homogeneity, and stasis in the news industry (Cook 2005; Kaplan 2006; Lowrey 2011, 2012; Ryfe 2006; Sparrow 1999). According to this perspective, if similar news routines are found across news organizations, then logically, the explanation must lie at a higher-order institutional level. Organizations exist within a common field, and so they respond similarly to wider governmental and political institutions. Scholars take different perspectives on the strength of the field’s boundaries and the degree of journalistic autonomy relative to institutional environments. For Kaplan (2006), the news media are minimally autonomous, “thoroughly embedded in political culture (Ryfe 2006: 139). Alternatively, for Cook, the news is a “coproduction of sources [usually officials] and journalists”, and officials must “anticipate the needs of the news in designing what they will say and do” (Cook 2005: 114).

New institutional theory takes varying forms across a number of scholarly disciplines, including political science, organization studies, and economics. The approach has roots in Max Weber’s observations about the importance of legitimacy for social control, as well as neo-Weberian findings that organizational actors behave with limited, or bounded, rationality. They follow well-worn paths, take cognitive shortcuts (MacCrimmon & Taylor 1976), follow prevailing models or mimic other organizations (Mintzberg & Waters 1985), and they settle for “good enough” decisions and after-the-fact rationalizations (March & Simon 1958; Weick 1976). The new institutional approach suggests that, contrary to rational-choice assumptions, organizational actors often fall in line with their field’s legitimated, safe, institutionalized structures and processes, even when they face disruptive environments. They may not respond to disruption by seeking information, pursuing cost-benefit calculus, and responding instrumentally. Immediate external pressures are buffered from organizational decisions, allowing organizational actors to maintain a preferred, legitimated public image. Behavior may be more ceremonial than instrumentally functional (Meyer & Rowan 1977).

To explain this less-than-rational behavior, new institutionalists point to latent functions that institutional organizations serve for other institutions and for society. Schools are an example: Though schools’ overt function is to educate, they also provide a conventional, widely agreed-upon means for stratifying society. This latent purpose is not dependent on teaching quality, which helps explain lack of rigor in monitoring teachers (Meyer, Scott & Deal 1983). Journalism in a democracy serves latent functions of its own. Without an institution that informs citizens about public issues, decisions, and events, the idea that a nation is a democracy cannot be taken seriously, at least from the perspective of “information-based citizenship”, which has become a dominant perspective (there are others) (Schudson 1998). Ultimately, the institution must exist, regardless of the quality of its performance (Lowrey 2009). Alexander (1981) proposed journalism’s latent function as the legitimating of a wide range of normative perspectives, thereby giving an unpredictable democratic society the flexibility needed to accommodate change and pluralism.

There are a number of common conceptual components in new institutional research, including isomorphism, loose coupling (or decoupling), and path dependence, each of which is consistent with the idea of a “field” of entities that “in the aggregate, constitute a recognized area of institutional life” (DiMaggio & Powell 1983: 148). These are detailed below.

2.2Isomorphism

Scholars debate the key causes of isomorphism, the process by which organizations or other social entities become similar to one another over time. Two motivations are commonly cited: 1. Organizations seek optimal fit with a common field for the sake of efficiency, and 2. Organizations mirror dominant practices and forms within a common field to avoid charges of negligence and gain public legitimacy (Boxenbaum & Jonsson 2008). The first suggests cost-benefit calculus, and instrumental response. The second – “institutional isomorphism” – assumes conformity to societal expectations in order to achieve legitimacy. Legitimacy, in turn, “is fundamentally homogenizing, producing herd-like conformity” (Deephouse & Suchman 2008: 61). Institutional isomorphism takes three forms: 1. normative isomorphism, which derives from transfer of knowledge among fellow professionals (e.g., at conventions, via job transfers); 2. mimetic isomorphism, which derives from mimicry of similar organizations; and 3. coercive isomorphism, resulting from government or corporate policies (DiMaggio & Powell 1983).

A handful of studies have examined mimetic isomorphism in journalism, finding evidence that it corresponds with efforts to increase legitimacy. Isomorphic mimicry has been found in newspaper–TV partnerships (Lowrey & Woo 2010), the practices and forms among emerging media forms (Lowrey 2012, 2015), the choice of photos in the Trayvon Martin story (McLemore 2015), and the use of QR codes (Roberts & Saint 2015).

2.3Loose coupling

Loose coupling, or decoupling, allows an organization to achieve institutional accord and legitimacy by enacting superficial action or change while continuing to pursue core practices. Loose coupling may be adopted in response to a challenging environment (e.g., market or government pressure) when a core practice is inconsistent with political-economic needs, but is socially legitimated (e.g., investigative news). It may also be adopted in the case of dueling institutional environments, such as the desire to be seen as in accord with digital progressives while still maintaining traditional journalistic norms (Lowrey 2012, 2015). Loosely coupled systems tend to avoid or control scrutiny and evaluation (Boxenbaum & Jonsson 2008).

In the journalism literature, Tweissi et al. (2015) found a gap between Jordanian journalists’ professionalism standards and news institutions’ applications of those standards. A perceived solution was to decouple editorial practice from ownership. Lowrey and Erzikova (2010) found that local Russian news outlets, which still embraced a (partly) legitimated Western journalism logic, conducted superficial news investigations even as they accepted local government subsidies.

2.4Path dependence

A tenet of institutional theory is that decisions made early on in a process govern the path of later choices and events, as investments in this process accrue. Processes become taken-for-granted, and change becomes unimaginable. Paul Starr discusses path dependence in media history:

Initial choices in design … develop into more elaborate systems as individuals and firms pursue complementary innovations. Things that work satisfactorily come to be thought of as right: Laws, methods and systems that appear to be successful become the basis of standards, often gradually appearing to be natural and inevitable, as if there could be no other way. (Starr 2004: 5).

Both Ryfe and Kemmelmeier (2011) and Vos (2013) argue for careful tracing of the timing and sequence of historical events in the study of journalism, as the course of previous events narrows possibilities for future decisions. According to Örnebring, journalists’ roles and routines emerge and persist in response to “historical inertia”: The “‘reporter’ ideal remains strong in Britain, whereas Germany has a more ‘editorial’ journalistic ideal” (2013: 404).

Consistent with the idea of path dependence, organizational scholars conceptualize routines as DNA “code”, passed down from organization to organization, as employees leave and start new ventures, and companies merge with others. In this view, routines not only shape present decisions, but they become institutionalized and shape future decisions, even across different organizations (Aldrich & Ruef 2007; Baum & Singh 1994).

3Meso-level institutional approaches

The notion that journalists inhabit a boundaried collective space has gained traction. This may be a field, order, sphere, jurisdictional area, or population that allows journalists to develop a shared logic, to maintain some measure of independence, and to negotiate boundaries. Within such a space, journalists and their organizations are still influenced by external factors and forces, and they seek accord with society’s other dominant institutions. But they also have agency and can enact change. They have autonomy to reposition themselves, and to reach shared agreement and meaning about acceptable ways forward (Fligstein & McAdam 2012). A meso-level collective tends toward an “internal homogeneity” that “cannot be understood by looking only at external factors” (Bourdieu 1998: 39). It “refracts, much like a prism, external determinants in terms of its own logic” (Johnson 1993: 14), and it mediates “macro-level forces on the behavior of individual journalists” (Ryfe 2006: 138).

The idea that journalists have both structure and agency within a collective, bounded space is not new. Alexander (1981) saw journalists as inhabiting a fairly autonomous space within which they legitimated a normative spectrum for a volatile society. He also said journalists may be pushed beyond their boundaries into less familiar areas, which suggests a systemic model with multiple collective spaces – consistent with other meso-level institutional approaches, discussed below. These approaches derive from sociology but each makes inroads into, and holds promise for, journalism scholarship. Collectives in each approach have an internal logic that shapes the impact of external forces. With a partly buffered internal logic, there are tendencies toward isomorphism, loose coupling and path dependence; however, there are also the possibilities of agency, repositioning, change, and difference, all of which are increasingly important in a digital era.

3.1Institutional logics

The institutional logics approach is a theoretical response to a concern that institutional scholarship has over-emphasized stability and homogeneity and lost sight of agency and diversity (Greenwood et al. 2008). Plurality is central to the institutional logics approach, which embraces the idea of multiple institutions or “institutional orders”. Examples of orders include the state, religion, the market, but also occupational fields such as journalism. Each order possesses an institutional logic: a “socially constructed, historical pattern of cultural symbols and material practices … by which individuals and organizations provide meaning to their daily activity, organize time and space, and reproduce their lives and experiences” (Thornton, Ocasio & Lounsbury 2012: 2). In short, institutional logics serve as sense-making frameworks for daily activity.

The institutional logics perspective accounts for both agency and structure, and therefore accounts for change in an institutional context (Reay & Hinings 2005). Turbulence in the environment can result in conflict across institutional orders, encouraging individuals and organizations within these orders to shift logics. This creates ambiguity and uncertainty for agents, who need their practices, assumptions, values, and beliefs to be grounded in some widely legitimated institutional order. It also creates opportunity for agency. Hughes discusses modern Mexico as an example, in which conflicting institutional logics opened up avenues for journalists as “change agents” (2006: 19) to practice civic journalism within a traditionally authoritarian environment. Such changes are negotiated by journalists and managers as they try to make sense of wider conflict and change (Thornton, Ocasio & Lounsbury 2012). While stability and isomorphism tend to re-emerge, this is not inevitable (Greenwood et al. 2008; Reay & Hinings 2005).

However, loose coupling rather than actual change may result from these institution-level clashes. For example, in journalism, managers may deal with clashing traditional logic and digital logics by making only skin-deep changes: Efforts to track online audiences may shape conversations in meetings, but then have a limited impact on daily decision-making (Lowrey & Woo 2010).

3.2System of Professions

Andrew Abbott’s System of Professions approach incorporates both structure and agency in the analysis of professional institutions. Within this approach, professionals inhabit meso-level “jurisdictional” spaces, and while they are shaped by these spaces, they also struggle to adapt to external environments. A profession such as journalism changes not only because it is shaped by external constraints and changes, but because decision-makers within journalism’s professional jurisdiction negotiate these exogenous factors and reposition in the face of them.

According to Abbott, the links between tasks to be performed on behalf of others and the professions that claim these tasks (“jurisdictional claims”, 1988: 2) are pressured, reshaped, strengthened and sometimes broken by both “objective” qualities of the environment and “subjective” qualities of the professional process. Objective qualities are external to the profession. They include changes in technology, market fluctuation, characteristics of the community, government regulations, and encroachment efforts by rival occupations. Subjective qualities are internal to the profession, and they reflect the internal logic of the profession’s claim of jurisdiction. Examples include the ways occupations define problems and client needs, and claims of efficacy of solutions. In the face of objective changes, occupational members may adjust subjective qualities in order to maintain jurisdiction over areas of work (Abbott 1988; Adams 2007; Kellogg 2014; Lowrey 2006; van Dalen 2012).

Abbott’s jurisdictional approach has been used with some frequency by journalism scholars in recent years to explore boundaries of journalistic autonomy in challenging political and economic climates across a wide variety of national contexts (e.g., Morieson 2012; Erzikova & Lowrey 2010; Sjovaag 2013). Waisbord’s definition of professional journalism is consistent with this systems approach: “the ability of journalism to define boundaries in relation to other professions and social fields, and to the strategies, practices and norms used to define those boundaries” (p. 222). Scholars have also applied the systems approach to journalism’s response to the challenges of emerging media (e.g., Lewis & Usher 2016; Lowrey 2006).

3.3Field theory

Within Bourdieu’s “field”, individuals have agency but are constrained by the “habitus” or “rules of the game” to which they have been socialized throughout their life trajectories. The “habitus,” or “set of dispositions which generates practices and perceptions” (Johnson 1993: 5), accounts for similarity in the decisions and practices of individuals within the same field. Agents also alter structural conditions, even as these altered structural conditions – new normative environments, new distribution of resources, and new power arrangements – shape and reshape agents. As with the other institutional approaches, it is not assumed that individuals always calculate costs and benefits and seek to optimize, though they certainly can, depending on context. Rather, individuals’ reality is “relational”, and they position and reposition with an eye on their environment, seeking to appear proper, legitimate, and non-negligent, guided by a second sense of conditions to which they have been socialized (Benson & Neveu 2005; Johnson 1993).

Fields themselves are comparatively stable, but they can be reshaped by the relative positions of agents and organizations within them, as individuals reposition themselves to gain cultural and economic capital, and to adapt to external changes. External changes are “refracted” at the field’s boundaries, as the logic of the field constitutes “an internal law through which the law of external necessities … is constantly exerted” (Johnson 1993: 6). Bourdieu (2005) defined journalism as a relatively weak field, caught between the external forces of politics and the market. Still, journalism obeys ‘‘its own laws, its own nomos’’ (Bourdieu 2005: 32) and possesses some autonomy. Bourdieu’s landscape of multiple, malleable, overlapping, and constraining fields lends itself to explanation of journalistic change amid both disruptive environments and restrictive institutional orders. Accordingly, journalism scholars have used field theory to explain shifts in journalistic practices, norms, and discourse (e.g., Helmueller, Vos & Poepsel 2013; Moller Hartley 2013; Wahl-Jorgensen 2013). Benson (2013) altered and further specified Bourdieu’s field into three components: position, or the relationship to external logics in the “broader field of power”, mainly market and civic (nonmarket); and two components internal to the journalism field – the internal logic, or the field’s historical trajectories and the way the field internally “refracts” its societal position; and structure, or class hierarchies that shape relations between journalists and sources, and between and within news organizations. Through this nuanced approach, Benson seeks “new ways of thinking about journalistic practices as they relate to diverse democratic aspirations”, which could change “the rules of the game” (p. 213).

In addition to these three, other meso-level collective approaches have made their way into the literature. Population ecology (Lowrey 2012) helps explain the emergence and institutionalization of media entities over time, as they coalesce into “populations” of similar entities with similar practices that seek endogenous and exogenous legitimacy. The “repertoires” approach assumes social groups collect common repertoires or “tool kits” of behaviors, which are “both enabling and constraining” (Silber 2003: 431). Repertoires can be switched in order to reposition for changing environments.

4Are we now post-institutional?

Scholarship exploring journalism’s digital network context has questioned the relevance of institutionalized journalism as an idea. In an era in which all individuals can easily produce and share commentary and information, with unlimited space to do so, do the old socially constructed and institutionalized definitions of news matter? According to Actor Network Theory, a strongly instrumental and agency-oriented approach that has gained recent popularity among journalism scholars, higher-order structures such as institutions and organizations are irrelevant, and may even obscure our understanding of social behavior. For ANT theorists, the meaningful phenomenon is the “actor-network”: the process of connection-making, of a network being redefined and “translated” by its actors. Abstract concepts like “power” and “institution” exist and have meaning only through ongoing interaction, negotiation, and translation. Once such interaction ceases or changes, so do these phenomena (Law 1992).

ANT theorists don’t deny the existence of institutions, organizations, or routines as much as they challenge the notion that they have stability or singularity. An organization or a routine is a “punctualized” or black boxed” network within another network, and punctualized networks are precarious. They must be continuously performed by actors in order to have a relevant existence (Law 1992). Recently, ANT has gained a following among researchers who study emerging forms of journalism, largely due to the proposition by ANT scholars that material objects, such as artifacts of digital technology, “act” within networks.

ANT’s unique linkage of agency and structure is helpful, as is its attention to the role of mundane materiality in social life and the need to study it (Kreiss 2015). But ANT scholars have been criticized for ignoring the importance of social construction in the way we conceive of, and attend to, our relevant reality, thereby offering an impoverished view of social behavior (Radder 1992). The agency of material shapes journalists’ norms, but “normativities shape these actions the moment that actors invoke them to justify … their practices” (Domingo 2015: 72). There’s merit to this critique. Also, socially constructed phenomena such as routines and organizations can live on long after any technical purpose is served (if it was ever served), and long after anyone has instrumentally worked to maintain them (Selznick 1949). As Schudson (2015) and Kreiss (2015) note, what’s most helpful is to examine the conditions within which material objects matter, more or less.

Both the instrumental and the institutional, agency and structure, activity and stability, rational and non-rational, have their place in the study of society. Media sociologists understand this. But too often, questions asked about the structure/agency dichotomy are purely descriptive: Is journalism a profession of practice or an institution? Is journalism’s institutional or professional status eroding? What matters more – hands-on practice and materiality, or institutionalized categories? These questions don’t really move us forward. As with the question of the relevance of objects, it’s more helpful to ask about underlying mechanisms: Under what conditions are journalism and news production more or less routinized, institutional, or taken for granted? Why, and with what impact? Conversely, under what conditions are journalism and news production more or less instrumental, open to change, transactional, or entrepreneurial? Why and with what impact?

5Power, institutions and meso-levels

We need to bring in power when discussing institutions and institutional tendencies. Political economy and other neo-Marxist approaches assume the presence of mechanisms that rob human labor of its intrinsic worth, commodify production, and deskill labor, and delimit occupational autonomy, prop up economic and political elites, and blind us to alternative processes and practices. The routinized, path dependent processes of institutions seem consistent with these mechanisms, as routinized behavior based on taken-for-granted premises tends to support the status quo, hold change at bay, and benefit the powerful. However, meso-level collectives – fields, orders, jurisdictions, repertoires – nurture autonomy and allow for negotiation among actors. This space is variably buffered from exogenous influences from the powerful and variably subject to its own endogenous influences. It has its own unique history, its own internal logic and assumptions, imprinted long ago – its own “universe of … tacit presuppositions”, in the terminology of Bourdieu’s field theory (Bourdieu 2005: 37).

This is not to imply that agents within a collective are impervious to outside power. According to Bourdieu, actors strive for economic capital, which is linked to wider markets and is strongly influenced by exogenous power. But journalists do have autonomy to rethink and reposition themselves and their fields in the face of exogenous influences, particularly when such influences are pluralistic and/or not clearly distinct, as noted in political communication literature, and as suggested in Benson’s (2013) recent field-level analysis of immigration news. This rethinking and repositioning may reflect innovation born of active cognition at the individual level. Or, it may reflect practices, norms, and historical trajectories that are unique to journalism’s meso-level collective, and which challenge the tendencies of the economically and politically powerful. Schudson points to these possibilities, noting that news outlets may maintain a measure of autonomy by educating audiences about the worth of quality journalism, by confronting corporate owners with the journalistic tradition of independent investigation, and by diversifying revenue sources and offerings for audiences: “None of these strategies separately or together will end the threat that dollars pose to news, but the evidence shows that they have helped, even in recent years, to contain it” (2003: 133).

6Fearing and nurturing institutions

Three different cognitive levels are relevant to the meso-level collective space. One is the internal cognition of individual actors; a second is social cognition enacted and maintained through shared interaction, which may become routinized. A third is “institutional thinking”. Rarely discussed, this cognition lies at the institutional level, having grown “past the initial difficulties of collective action.” As Douglas puts it: “For better or worse, individuals … to some extent harmonize their preferences, and they have no other way to make the big decisions except within the scope of institutions they build” (1986: 128). The implication is that we need to do more than fear and check the power of our institutions. Our institutions require rethinking and cultivation:

Preaching against wife battering and child abuse is not more likely to be effective than preaching against alcohol and drug abuse, racism or sexism. Only changing institutions can help. We should address them, not individuals, and address them continuously, not only in crises (Douglas 1986: 126).

Douglas urges attention to our institutions, but she also recognizes that institutional change is inherently difficult. Institutions are taken for granted, and so they persist. They are consonant with an unquestioned view of the world – “the way the planets are fixed” (Douglas 1986: 47). They serve fundamental, often latent, functions for society and other institutions (e.g., Alexander 1981), and in the case of journalism (or other public institutions like schools), they are consistent with the culture of public life (e.g., Carey 1975).

Some who worry about journalism’s ongoing troubles have called for journalists to remake themselves institutionally – to “burn the boats and commit” to sweeping, egalitarian change that would be consistent with the ethic of a new networked, interactive world. But journalists – restless searchlights of the day-to-day, as Lippmann said (1922: 229) – seem unlikely to plan so far ahead. Likewise, meso-level approaches suggest journalists, buffered by their own internal, collective logic, may decouple their decision-making from their disruptive environment. They may choose to follow the planets they understand, and continue doing things as they’ve always done them.

Douglas’ perspective suggests that other institutional entities also play an important role in journalism’s institutional endurance. Government, political parties, the military, sports leagues, religious institutions, the medical profession, etc. – these all account, predict and plan for journalism in its current form, despite journalism’s ongoing troubles. The taken-for-granted, institutional-level “big ideas” of journalism – that there is a public agenda of news issues, that there is a legitimated system by which leaders convey messages to the public, and that there is a legitimate entity out there with the clout to hold the powerful accountable – these structure public conversation and shape the actions of other institutions, and vice versa.

Despite all of these obstacles to change, change does happen. Institutions are created and sustained by people, who have agency. But institutional-level change does require more than just shared interest in a set of new rules (Douglas 1986). It requires a careful reordering of the way things are “fixed in the sky”, and therefore a new basis for legitimacy.

Digital progressives might argue that such a new order is emerging, one in which enormous amounts of data may be obtained, processed, and shared instantly; anyone may provide these data; and algorithmic analysis shapes or determines news selection. The completeness, scope, speed, density, inclusiveness, and personal interconnectivity afforded by network structures may provide new bases for legitimacy. These “big ideas” stand in contrast to the traditional big ideas of journalism. But whatever ideas emerge and are embraced, to be meaningful and lasting, they must be grounded in “institutional thinking” – i.e. they must be based on exogenous realities, and emerge from meaningful, thorough negotiation with other institutions and within the journalism field (or order, sphere or jurisdiction).

We also need to keep meso-level models in mind: A society’s journalism has a collective structure that refracts rather than merely reflects the culture of public life. This means institutional change will not be seamless. In times of institutional disruption, journalistic practices may be decoupled with external imperatives, allowing only partial conformity to a new institutional order. We see evidence of this today, in the limited ways many news outlets adopt digital online technologies and practices.

Ultimately, however, a society’s journalism will be consistent with its wider culture and also be guided by built-in premises and conventions. This is the way new institutions emerge and develop, and we need to be aware that journalism’s changing field is even now being imprinted with new assumptions, based on new latent functions. Cutting-edge thinking today becomes sacrosanct tomorrow, and then our new institutions will keep doing the big thinking for us.

Further reading

Cook’s (2005) Governing with the News and two special journal issues – a 2006 issue of Political Communication (Ryfe, ed.) and a 2011 issue of Journalism Studies (Ryfe & Orenbring, eds.) – offer helpful overviews of the application of institutional theory to journalism. Ryfe’s (2017) recent Journalism and the Public revisits this application and its relationship to Bourdieu’s field theory. More general overviews of institutional theory can be found in Powell and DiMaggio’s foundational edited volume The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, Scott’s Institutions and Organizations (2013), and the SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism (2008), which emphasizes the recent turn toward agency and change in institutional theory. Douglas’ How Institutions Think (1986) offers a thought-provoking anthropological perspective on the study of institutions. A comparative overview of meso-level field approaches is found in Fligstein and McAdam’s (2012) A Theory of Fields, while Liu and Emirbayer (2016) provide a broader look, comparing various meso-level spatial approaches in research on both fields and ecologies.

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