Journalism: Critical Issues

Allan, Stuart (Editor)
Open University Press, Buckingham
, 0335214843 (hb), 0335214754 (pb)

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Cover of book Stuart Allan presents this collection of 27 specially commissioned essays, many by leading scholars in their field, as something more than an undergraduate introduction to journalism as a field of study which it nonetheless remains. His introduction sets the stage for a debate between contributors on a perceived crisis in contemporary journalism and invites readers to explore for themselves the 'new dialogues' that emerge. Symptoms of this crisis include: the New York Times' uncritical reproduction of claims about Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and the Daily Mirror's faked photographs of prisoner abuse by British troops in Iraq; and a growing consensus, as revealed by a recent survey of US journalists, that commercial pressures are undermining journalistic standards.

With the theme of crisis as guide, the reader can see a debate emerging between contributors who argue for a renewal of professional standards and those who locate contemporary failures as evidence of longstanding problems. As Allan explains, the New York Times' own review of its WMD coverage identified failures in reporting and editorial practices, and reasserted its commitment to an 'aggressive' scrutiny of government policy. Hackett, however, challenges the implied belief in journalism's ability to function as democracy's 'fourth estate', by stressing the 'systemic' bonds of contemporary news media with corporate and political power. Reform in the US media, he argues, requires the creation of a 'structurally pluralistic' news system with a strong public service sector, capable of guaranteeing access for community and advocacy groups.

Other contributions assess the scope for oppositional journalism within existing media. Keeble argues that the radical journalist should follow Orwell's example by writing for small-scale leftist publications and breaking with mainstream 'objective' reporting to develop a committed, personal voice. Cottle, on the other hand, analyses recent Australian TV coverage of government policy on 'asylum seekers' to show that a 'thick journalism', which aims to reveal the 'deep structures, contending perspectives and lived experiences' underpinning news stories, can still counter 'the politics and dehumanising depictions of the 'other'.'

These essays feed into one of the collection's main concerns, the state of investigative reporting, often seen by journalists as the core of their professional commitment to the public interest. At one end of the spectrum, Franklin argues that the cost-cutting associated with concentration of ownership in the UK local press means that journalists are increasingly reduced to processing received information. On a wider scale, Bromley focuses on the growing difficulty of distinguishing 'between serious-minded investigative news and sensation-minded tabloid news'. He shows how contradictory public perceptions of investigative journalism which can often seem 'uncomfortably close to either prurient peering or secret police investigations' - exemplify the broader contestation around the meaning and purpose of journalism as a whole. Barnett, however, provides a more encouraging analysis, arguing that the BBC's reporting of the WMD issue was good investigative reporting, despite an acknowledged overstatement by Gilligan and an over-defensive reaction by the corporation to government attacks. Now that the immediate crisis has subsided, it can be seen that the BBC's role as upholder of the public interest has been maintained.

Two substantial strands of the collection argue that contemporary journalism still reproduces the biases of the dominant culture in relation to gender and ethnicity. For Ross, whose title is 'Women in the boyzone', the increasing entry of women into the profession has done little to change its established identification of the public sphere as male. Women journalists find themselves allocated roles that reflect or exploit conventional gender differences. Similarly Sonwalkar argues that mainstream journalism systematically reproduces differences between 'us' and 'them', which reinforce hierarchies within society as well as xenophobic attitudes towards outsiders. Both these overviews are supported by more detailed studies: Mahtani reporting interviews with women journalists across three continents; and Bailey and Harindranath commenting on the negative framing of stories relating to refugees and asylum seekers on Australian and UK television news.

Two more optimistic contributions argue in different ways that transnational flows of information work against traditional hierarchies centred in the nation-state. According to McNair, the speed of transnational communications makes it increasingly difficult for elites to control the media. Alastair Campbell's relationship to the BBC, on this view, illustrates how hard the political elite has to work through PR, spin and 'flak' for control of news. 'Quality' news organisations such as the New York Times, McNair suggests, cannot afford to follow an official line that may rapidly be exposed as false in a globalised news market. Volkmer argues that the increasing diversity of transnational news flows, particularly through satellite television, is producing a 'global public sphere', which cannot be understood simply in terms of media imperialism. Transnational media that address diasporic or subnational audiences particularise and fragment global public space by acting as 'support systems' for identity formation and communication. In a development comparable to the eighteenth-century emergence of national public spheres, new media institutions are now facilitating the emergence of transnational publics.

The collection thus offers rich materials to readers who engage with the theme of crisis in relation to the notion of journalism as the 'fourth estate', and the concept of the public sphere. The quality of many contributions means that readers should be well-rewarded for the effort of thinking through the connections between them, and the collection will no doubt be widely used on the media and journalism degrees at which it is targeted.

Frank McMahon
Thames Valley University