Book Review: The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered: Democratic Culture, Professional Codes, Digital Futures

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2017. Vol. 29 Issue 3, pp 21-22.

Ian Sheinheit,
University at Albany, SUNY

The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered (edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Elizabeth Butler Breese, Maria Luengo) is an important and necessary addition to cultural sociology. Continuing the call for a more focused and institutionalized media sociology, this volume demonstrates the utility of cultural sociology for media analysis. The wide-ranging pieces in this volume all consider (or reconsider, as the title suggests) the “crisis” of journalism. As Matt Carlson points out in this volume, crises are communicated and processed through narrative. Thus, according to the themes in this book, thickly analyzing the structures of crisis narratives, which allow journalists to set boundaries, define journalism, and re-entrench their sacred values, engenders a more nuanced, complex, and accurate understanding of the current state of journalism.

Unsurprisingly, Jeffrey Alexander, in his programmatic call for a theoretical reorientation to understanding the “crisis” in journalism, argues for culture and meaning to be brought to the fore. The profusion of arguments lamenting the decimation of journalism over the the past fifteen years, Alexander argues, is reductionistic. The causes of the “crisis” and its consequences in these arguments are almost always twofold. First, the advent and proliferation of digital communication technologies have shattered the advertisement based economic model that print journalism has relied on for decades. And, second, democratized information dissemination creates the conditions for a decrease in journalisms’ epistemic authority. A core problem with this assessment, as this book illuminates, is reducing journalism to its material capacity and/or the medium in which is it disseminated. That is to say, that journalism does not simply bend its knee to technological change. Rather, there are deep-seated cultural codes, which are connected to professional ethics, civil morals and democratic norms, which guide, ballast, and activate journalism. These autonomous cultural codes impact journalism-in-action. Further, through performances and narratives, the sacred values of the journalistic profession can be reinforced.

The authors in this volume represent top journalism scholars worldwide. This international representation helps to deal with the problem of US centricity in discussions surrounding the crisis in journalism. The international empirical focus of the chapters ranges from the United States, Germany, Scandinavia, Norway, and Western Europe in general. The volume also succeeds at creating a cohesive thread. While detailing the exemplar work in this volume cannot be accomplished in such a small space, some highlights can be mentioned. Elizabeth Butler Breese asks the pertinent question, what is new about the current crisis? This piece navigates the similarities between narratives engulfing past and current crises. Daniel Kreiss uses democratic theory to argue that journalism needs to move beyond a purely information-based conception of journalism and toward what he calls, “civic skepticism.” Carlson’s analysis of meta-journalistic discourse surrounding the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times illuminates the performances of “normative reassurance.” Maria Luengo highlights the binary codes immanent in the backlash of the New Orleans community to the shutdown of the Times-Picayune. Similarly, Stephen Ostertag finds that there was a moral and emotional impetus to blog, post Katrina in New Orleans. Matthias Revers, comparing the state house press corps in New York and Bavaria, succinctly underlines the problem of reductionism as cultural code and media system specificity in Germany and the US garnered different responses and interpretations of digital media performances.

Though the majority of the studies in this volume demonstrate the reinforcement of perennial journalistic values in the face of dramatic shifts, Michael Schudson and Nikki Usher are not as optimistic. Schudson asks if we can “whistle a happy tune,” and after reading his ten transitions I am still not sure of the answer. Frequently applying the “hamster wheel” metaphor, Usher makes things quite clear and argues that this is indeed a moment of “technologically induced crisis that threatens the future of professional journalism” (p. 283). These chapters strengthen the discussion and highlight the importance of a comprehensive analysis of journalism that recognizes the empirical overlap between meaning and the material.

Being attuned to the deep grooves of cultural structure is a welcome remedy to the reductionism of many arguments concerning the crisis of journalism. It elucidates the inextricable link of journalism to professional ethics and civil moral as well as its importance to democratic norms and processes. Journalisms’ autonomy, however, is always precarious. Current changes in technology and the resulting economic upheaval have been, and continue to be, drastic. Further, as political actors and institutions test the capacity and boundaries of journalism’s capacity to check their power, journalism has a lot on its shoulders. If we follow the logic of this work, it is possible the global rise of illiberal democracies can be the trauma that reinforces and fortifies the professional codes of journalism and its import to democracy. This crucial empirical question has yet to be answered. It is clear, however, as cultural sociologists, we would do best to avoid reductionism. Accomplishing this requires understanding the connecting tissue and symbiotic relationship between journalistic performance— and all the codes and narratives that that entails— with technological, economic, and political transformations. While more needs to be done, this book is a welcome step in this direction.