Journalistic Autonomy – Wall or Membrane?

In this month’s guest blog, Henrik Örnebring and Michael Karlsson, authors of Journalistic Autonomy: The Genealogy of a Concept, discuss one of the informal rules that journalism follows known as “the wall,” or the idea that the editorial and advertising departments of a news organization should be independent from each other.

Both Örnebring and Karlsson are Professors in the Department of Geography, Media, and Communication at Karlstad University, Sweden. Dr. Örnebring’s most recent book is Newsworkers: Comparing Journalists in Six European Countries. Dr. Karlsson is co-editor of Rethinking Research Methods in an Age of Digital Journalism.

One of the most central normative principles of contemporary journalism is that journalism should be independent: no-one but journalists themselves should be able to dictate or control what journalists report on or how they report it. Looking at how journalists are treated in authoritarian political systems (i.e. as enemies of the regime unless they act as cheerleaders), this seems to be not only a reasonable but in fact fundamental principle. Yet independence – or autonomy – is fraught with philosophical and practical difficulties. Journalists often define independence in a unidirectional, negative fashion where the institutions seen as potentially threatening journalistic independence should be kept away from any kind of influence of journalistic decision-making, hermetically sealing the newsroom from outside, autonomy-reducing influences. At the same time, journalists have to deal with all these potential threatening influences – government, market forces, sources, to take just a few of the many possible examples – every day. No newsroom is hermetically sealed. Government should obviously have no say over journalism, but journalists are still dependent on government collating and organizing information on their behalf (e.g. official statistics, agendas for public meetings, background information on political decisions). Journalists should make news decisions unburdened by the commercial considerations of the news organizations that actually pay their salaries. Journalists could not make news without sources, who often want to push their own agenda.

To navigate this interplay between dependence and independence, journalism has evolved a number of practices, routines and informal rules. One of them is what journalists know as “the wall”, or the division between “church and state”, i.e. the idea that the editorial and advertising departments of a news organization should be independent from each other (in practice, the emphasis has been on editorial being independent from advertising rather than the other way around) and that journalists, as noted, should make news decisions independent of advertisers’ needs and desires. The paradigmatic example of journalistic independence in this area is of course journalists writing a critical exposé of a major advertiser – reporting without fear or favor. Yet in an increasingly competitive media environment, where online advertising eats away at the revenue streams of legacy news organizations, this “wall” is becoming increasingly porous. Today, an important source of income for most legacy news organizations is so-called native advertising, where advertising is made to look like news items and may be produced by the same journalists who are also expected to critically cover local business. Many media organization managers even see “the wall” as a relic of the past and an impediment to sound business practice.

Yet it is wrong to see the rise of native advertising as a straightforward decline of journalistic principles, for as we show in our book, there are numerous historical examples of the wall being ignored when convenient to the commercial interests of news organizations. “Native advertising” in fact has a history going back to the 19th century. It is rather the case that the independence of journalism is constantly negotiable – some things are seen as serious threats to journalistic autonomy, whereas other, very similar things come to be defined as acceptable. An advertiser trying to pressure a journalist to cover their client favorably is unacceptable, but an advertiser paying a news organization to have journalists write a native advertising puff piece is acceptable. Going beyond the specific case of advertiser and commercial influences we can find more examples: journalists becoming the active mouthpieces of government is unacceptable, but journalists becoming implicit mouthpieces of government by publishing press releases verbatim (common when reporting on policing issues, for example) is acceptable. Having the algorithms of tech companies to take over journalists’ news decisions is unacceptable, but news organizations using AI technologies to automate news production is acceptable. And so on. Thus in reality, the interface between journalism and all the different other institutions potentially threatening journalism’s autonomy is more like a membrane than a wall. A membrane stops some things but lets other things pass through. And one of the central themes of our book is that journalism’s membrane historically has been very unequal – it has stopped or hindered for example women, Black people and Indigenous people from reporting honestly and independently on issues affecting them, whereas it has let cavalier or even distorted treatments of societal inequality pass through.

Journalistic Autonomy

The Genealogy of a Concept

Henrik Örnebring and Michael Karlsson

$40 | Hardcover | 370 pp.

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