Archive | 2019

Epistemology and Journalism



Epistemology is a central issue in journalism research. Journalism is among the most influential knowledge-producing institutions in modern society, associated with high claims of providing relevant, accurate, and verified public knowledge on a daily basis. More specifically, epistemology is the study of how, in this case, journalists and news organizations know what they know and how the knowledge claims are articulated and justified. Practices related to justification have been studied in (a) text and discourse; (b) journalist practices, norms, and routines within and outside the newsroom; and (c) audience assessment of news items and acceptance or rejection of the knowledge claims of journalism. Epistemology also includes the study of news and journalism as particular forms of knowledge. In journalism research, sociological approaches on epistemology have been developed to understand the institutionalized norms and practices in the processing of information and in socially shared and variable standards of justification, as well as in the authority of journalism in providing exclusive forms of knowledge in society. In recent years, epistemology has received increased scholarly interest in response to transformations within journalism: digitalization, emerging forms of data journalism, the acceleration of the news cycle, diminished human resources and financial pressure, and forms of audience participation. The Centrality and Complexity of Epistemology Epistemology is the study of knowledge: what we know, how we know, and how knowledge is justified. Thus, it comes as no surprise that epistemology is a central issue in journalism research. Journalism is among the most influential knowledge-producing institutions in modern society. The norms and claims of contemporary journalism are shifting with respect to aspects of epistemology (such as neutrality, objectivity, fact-checking, and transparency). Journalism is nevertheless often associated with high claims of providing authoritative, accurate, and verified knowledge about current events on a daily basis (Barnhurst, 2015; Carlson, 2017; Ekström; Hermida, 2012). From early research on news and journalism to the current day, questions about news as a particular form of knowledge, and the norms and methods applied in the processing and justification of information, have occasionally been on the agenda (Ekström, 2002; Ettema & Glasser, 1987; Godler & Reich, 2017b; Park, 1940; Schudson, 1989; Tuchman, 1978; Zelizer, 2004). In recent years scholarly interest in epistemology has increased, much in response to a diverse set of ongoing transformations affecting journalism, including the intersections of journalism and social media, analytics and data-driven processes, automation, forms of audience participation, acceleration of the news cycle, diminished human resources, and financial pressure. Knowledge claims and standards in journalism have been refashioned (Karlsson, 2011; Thurman & Walters, 2013). There are concerns about journalists having difficulties sustaining basic requirements of accuracy in their everyday newswork (Compton & Benedetti, 2010; McChesney, 2012). There are intensified discussions about the processing of sources (van Leuven et al, 2018), new forms of fact-checking (Graves, 2017), processes of justification (Hermida, 2012), and the shifting contexts in which news is assessed as valid knowledge (Tandoc et al., 8a). As indicated, “journalism and epistemology” relates to a broad spectrum of issues. There is a risk that the concept of epistemology is used so broadly that most aspects of journalism are included and that the concept this way loses its analytical sharpness and power. This article offers an overview of the field structured around the definition of two principal objects in the study of epistemology and journalism. First, epistemology is the study of how journalists know what they know and how knowledge claims are articulated and justified. Practices related to the justification of news (truth, accuracy, etc.) have been extensively explored in three interrelated contexts: (a) in textual practices and the discursive articulation of knowledge claims; (b) in journalist practices, norms, and routines within and outside the newsroom; and (c) in the context of audience activities, assessment of news items, and acceptance or rejection of journalist’s knowledge claims. The second object of inquiry in the epistemology of journalism is about journalism and news as form of knowledge. What form of knowledge is news? What knowledge of the world do people get as news audiences and through journalism? Important to note, the form of knowledge and the practices of justification are interrelated. News is a form of knowledge associated with particular expectations and standards of justification, distinct from, for example, how knowledge is produced and justified in scientific discourse. These two interrelated aspects of epistemology have, in turn, been related to larger questions about the authority of professional journalism and the power and legitimacy of particular forms of knowledge (Anderson, 2017; Carlson, 2018a). The authority of professional journalism is dependent on its role in providing valuable and relatively unique public knowledge. This authority is unstable and sometimes disputed with respect to both the quality of the knowledge produced and the control of the particular domain of knowledge (Carlson, 2018a; Deuze & Witschge, 2017). Theories of professionalism have been applied to understand the struggles in journalism to achieve epistemic authority (Schudson & Anderson, 2009). The centrality of epistemology in journalistic authority was thoroughly analyzed by Carlson (2017), and the power of the knowledge distributed in news media has been extensively researched in, for example, sociology and critical discourse studies. Another circumstance contributing to the complexity in the study of epistemology is that epistemology belongs to the main areas of philosophy, where theories of the nature of knowledge, truth, and justification have been intensively discussed for centuries. How should research on the epistemology of journalism relate to the philosophical discourse? The literature shows two clear strands of research. On the one hand, journalism studies have mainly defined epistemology sociologically, rather than philosophically, in focusing on the institutionalized norms, roles, and practices in the processing of information and justification of knowledge in different social contexts (Ekström 2002; Ettema & Glasser, 1987; Carlson, 2017; Örnebring, 2017). However, the empiricist, constructivist, and realist accounts of truth developed in philosophy, have, on the other hand, informed and enriched the study of norms and practices in journalism (Godler, Reich, & Miller, 2019; Munoz-Torres, 2012; Ward, 2018). This article discusses research on a selection of key topics and is organized as follows. First it sets the context by briefly presenting the sociology of epistemology and a meta-theoretical (philosophical) account on epistemology. Next follows a close discussion on the nexus of journalism and epistemology, focusing on forms of knowledge. Thereafter follow three sections focusing on knowledge claims, production of knowledge and justification of knowledge in journalism and audience activities. The concluding section suggests directions for future research. The Sociology of Epistemology In the sociology of epistemology, knowledge is studied as a social phenomenon (different from approaches analyzing cognitive processes or logical principles). In this context, “sociology” does not refer to a particular theory, but to the general sociological accounts of knowledge, that is, how knowledge is produced and used, and how knowledge claims are articulated and justified, in social contexts and institutions such as news journalism (Ekström, 2002; Ettema & Glasser, 1987). Sociological approaches have long been common in journalism studies. They were developed most explicitly in the classical newsroom studies in the 1970s, drawing on organizational theories and social constructivism (Schudson, 1989; Tuchman, 1978). As Schudson (1989, p. 263) notes, this research, in which news is explained as an output of organization and routines, challenged a professional self-understanding. To some extent the analyses were misunderstood within the profession, understanding “the making” as a criticism of “faking.” Some research within the social constructivist approach might have overemphasized the determining routines (Cottle, 2000) and even dismissed “the possibility that reality could be depicted or that truth could be established” (Godler & Reich, 2013, p. 674). Truly, there are arguments in the classical newsroom research indicating a radical form constructivism. However, it is important not to confuse the objects of inquiry. In her seminal study, Tuchman (1972) suggests that objectivity is a strategic ritual applied to cope with strict deadlines and minimizing the risk of criticism, and she identifies different practices through which objectivity is constructed in news discourse. She is not studying the level of objectivity or the extent to which news refers to actual state of affairs, nor is she questioning a possible rational evaluation of the fallibility of news. From Tuchman’s seminal study up to today, scholars have had the ambition to understand news production in a social context, without falling into the dead end of radical constructivism. The next section elaborates on this from a metatheoretical perspective. Critical Realism: A Meta-Theoretical Account In recent years, the meta-theoretical accounts of truth and truth seeking in journalism have been critically discussed in several studies (Godler et al., 2019; Munoz-Torres, 2012; Ward, 2018). What they have in common is the questioning of the dualism of positivism/empiricism and constructivism/relativism that

Volume None
Pages None
DOI 10.1093/ACREFORE/9780190228613.013.806
Language English
Journal None

Full Text