Between Text and Social Practice: Balancing Linguistics and Ethnography in Journalism Studies

Tom Van Hout


Digital media technologies have given (and continue to give) way to new genres, forms and practices of public communication. These include mobile news consumption, digitally mediated social protest, data journalism, machine-written news, massive databases such as Wikileaks and NSA leaks, and the metajournalism of linking, modifying, reposting and commenting on news stories. The promise and potential of these new technologies stand in sharp contrast to the moribund discourses surrounding traditional news media, in particular print and broadcast media. Their political economy is fraught with declining numbers: circulation, advertising revenue, staff count and market capitalization. In addition, there is widespread concern about the future, quality and diversity of journalism in the face of industrial concentration, precarious labour conditions, increased productivity demands, news aggregation and saturation. Taken together, these changes in news production, content and consumption have sparked public and academic interest in journalism.

Journalism studies is a fast-growing interdisciplinary project that spans journalism theory, practice and education. Four phases can be distinguished in its historical development (Wahl-Jorgensen and Hanitzsch, 2009). While the field's prehistory dates back to mid-19th century German social theory, the empirical study of journalism began after the Second World War with the foundation of journalism schools in the United States. A first generation of news scholars produced groundbreaking work on news values, agenda setting and gatekeeping in the 1950s (for instance, White, 1950). A wave of very productive and influential sociological studies then followed in the 1970s and 1980s (for a review, see Cottle, 2007), yielding important insights into news production at Anglo-American elite news organisations. The past two decades have witnessed a global-comparative turn in the study of journalism, with multinational research projects such as the Worlds of Journalism Study (Reich and Hanitzsch, 2013) or Journalistic Role Performance around the Globe (Mellado and Van Dalen, 2014).

This burgeoning field of journalism studies has drawn substantially from work in the two constituent domains of linguistic ethnography. However, work that combines linguistics and ethnography is rare in journalism studies. And yet, linguistic ethnography has much to offer to journalism studies. And vice versa. Linguistic ethnography offers journalism studies useful analytical frameworks for studying the shifting sands of contemporary news journalism. Journalism offers linguistic ethnography fertile ground for examining the representational practices which normalise ways of speaking about culture, ideology and identity (Spitulnik, 1993).

In this chapter I describe how my research on business journalism gradually appropriated the epistemology of linguistic ethnography. My ethnographic site is the business newsdesk of a Belgian newspaper. Here I analyse how a news story about government research funding makes its way into the newsroom, onto the reporter's computer screen, and into the newspaper. Before describing this case study in detail, I begin with a brief review of past and present work on the linguistics and ethnography of journalism.

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