What is Journalism? Reflections and Provocations

By Richard Keeble
September 26, 2006

The Journalism Problematic

Firstly I need to stress how impossible it is to talk of journalism as a single entity. As I say at the start of my Newspapers Handbook: there are many journalisms. [1] Too often the focus within the dominant discourse (in the academy as elsewhere) is on the mainstream media sectors – with the alternative media (ethnic, religious, leftist, environmental, peace movement, feminist, community, blogging) ignored. But while I may promote the alternative media I appreciate the mainstream/alternative duality can over-simplify matters — for instance, in which camp do such hybrid publications such as Private Eye and the Big Issue fall?

The Mysteries of Media Consumption

I’m now going to do what comes natural. I’ll talk about myself as a consumer of journalisms. The growing research into audience reception of media – on the impacts, influences, effects on or uses made of mass media outputs – is fascinating. Here the focus has shifted from debates about consumption within the context of media imperialism and the erosion of natural or indigenous culture and from an emphasis on the media as part of a system of domination to an emphasis on the individual, drawing heavily on the theoretical perspectives of social psychology. But despite the vast literature on audience studies, much of it of course influenced by McQuail’s uses and gratifications model, how I or we actually consume the media remains a mystery to me.

Indeed, student consumption of media never ceases to amaze. I’m teaching a unit at the University of Lincoln titled “International Human Rights for Journalists” and once showed in a seminar a video of a Panorama programme “Deep down and dirty” which looked at the CIA’s alleged human rights abuses in central America. The programme, according to my analysis, basically spun the official CIA line: the agency had been severely compromised by a scandal in Guatemala in the mid 1990s. As a result it had been forced by what was called the “Scrub order” to clean up its act. Loads of ex-CIA blokes were on hand to say how this had destroyed the agency’s abilities to act against its enemies: hence the intelligence failure that led to 9/11. But most of my students just didn’t see it like that. For them it was a critique of the CIA totally unacceptable in the post 9/11 period of terrorist threat.

Breaking the Taboo: My Journalistic Obsessions

What is journalism? Well, for me it’s an obsession. And has been since I was around 13. It was then, in the early 60s, when I began religiously copying out reports from the Nottingham Evening Post’s Pink-Un – the football paper you could pick up in the Market Square as you walked home from the match – the production process was so rapid in those days. One team fanaticism has never afflicted me. My father had a season ticket for Nottingham Forest and I would occasionally attend their reserve games. On alternate weeks Notts County were at home so my father would take me there. I supported both Forest and Notts and always have.

I studied history at university and through that got interested in politics. At that time politics was of a very conventional kind – involving political parties and parliament and so on (politics to me now is something very different: it’s difficult to separate politics from life, in fact). I attended Nottingham Playhouse (at its peak with folk such as Judi Dench, Jonathan Pryce, John Shrapnel, Harold Innocent, Jonathan Eyre, John Neville, Barbara Jefford, Jonathan Miller passing over its stage) and became addicted to films like all youths, so came to consume the culture pages avidly. The newspaper was so symbolically powerful to me: it represented the big wide world out there beyond the narrow confines of my lower middle class life in Nottingham. I remember admiring my history teacher Mr Friar simply because he carried around a copy of a newspaper. It was proof that he was a real man of the world concerned about the important issues of the day.

At Oxford I spent time on Cherwell newspaper: I wrote features and was the resident reporter of Student Union debates for a year. And my first job in newspapers was on the Nottingham Guardian Journal, a morning paper owned by the local royalist big wig T Bailey Forman. I remain addicted to newspapers. Whenever I go anywhere, in England or abroad I always have to buy a rag. I’m fascinated by the ephemeral nature of newspaper copy. There is all that blood sweat and tears invested in the production of the beast and in the end there is this strangely static object. It should be jumping out at me I feel. It all happens so quickly. Benedict Anderson in his seminal text Imagined Communities describes the newspaper as the “one-day best-seller” [2] And Fred Inglis comments: “Nobody reads last week’s newspaper unless it is wrapped round potatoes in the kitchen. But every day it sells out in millions because it tells an intelligible story with a plot, heroes, villains, actions and direction about the way of the world. It settles us in a sufficiently ‘knowable community’ while placing those who are known in a believable nearness to those who are not.” [3]

So many important decisions (is it £2,000 pounds or £20,000?) are made in split seconds at such strange times – I used to edit The Teacher (the newspaper of the National Union of Teachers) up to 3 in the morning, for instance. And then all that work is forgotten as the concerns over the next issue take over. It is ephemeral and yet that text on the page also has an extraordinary permanence. Those words, written at such speed, can inspire, hurt, libel, move, irritate, amuse.

There is enormous pleasure in language, the sound of words, their rhythms – and in reading (I like gossip and the news media are rooted in the primitive need for gossip) But there is also anxiety. Another day comes and there is yet more reading to be done. How many hours of my life have I devoted to reading the media – and how much have I digested/retained? I might spend an hour reading everyday and then up to six hours at the weekend reading, catching up. But then I don’t just read, I cut up sections and put them on piles and eventually file them. I love my files (though they are too chaotic): on journalism ethics, of course, on the intelligence services (my thickest paradoxically!), on American military policy, on UK military policy, on Africa, on human rights, on Libya and on Chad, on George Orwell. I’ve an “Odds and Sods” file. I make notes from newspapers – preparing for the new editions of my books, for the courses I teach. But I also cut up and store, just as I keep a regular diary: to protect myself against the anxieties around the passing of time. It’s all too transient.

And is this reading all work or pleasure? Perhaps it’s best to call it “plork” But while I do so much reading I’m aware that I’m missing so much. And there is some considerable guilt attached to that. Should I be reading the finance pages? This story about AIDS in Africa? I should read it but I’ve just not the time. I’d like to spend more time in the sports pages but alas (in any case, Forest have lost again – and so too Notts, damn it). And as the old newspapers and magazines pile up at home (ready for the recyling bin) I think of all those forests destroyed.

But I consume not just the dailies (with a smattering of tabloids) and Sundays: I’ve become a big fan of Private Eye; Press Gazette is unmissable; Q News, the Muslim monthly is fascinating as is Lobster, which focuses on the intelligence services; the London Review of Books is one of the best publications around; I like the Socialist Worker; Peace News with its revolutionary pacifism, is a favourite; and I, like Orwell, find all the publications of the many left wing sects (I devour when on any demo) great reading fodder. And my reading habits change. When I’m preparing for a new edition of my handbook, for instance, I will read far more tabloids and local papers than at other times.

I explore the web sites of a range of organisations: the NUJ, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Liberty, Privacy International, Human Rights Watch. I both read and contribute to the media monitoring websites MediaLens.com and anti-spin.com. Too much media research focuses on the mainstream. In writing on the coverage of the Middle East/Iraq I constantly refer to alternative publications such as Dissent, Lobster, Covert Action Quarterly, Middle East Report, www.counterpunch.org (the investigative website run by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair), www.dahrjamailiraq.com (excellent site of an independent journalist in Iraq), www.tomdispatch.com (website of American historian Tom Engelhardt), www.zmag.org, www.coldtype.net (a regularly updated compilation of radical writing). I don’t read the educational press, the travel sections, the personal finance sections.

There is pleasure but there is also distaste. So much of the mainstream media (even the heavies) I find slightly ridiculous, too obsessed with the trivia of consumerist society, too keen to promote the myths surrounding democracy, the free press, the public interest. Much of the red top tabloids I find insulting with their rabid sexism, jingoism, racism and militarism. Too often the mainstream media are quick to back military adventures. I contend that until the time comes when the government proposes military action and the vast bulk of Fleet Street denounces the strategy as a crime and an appalling waste of crucial human and material resources (at a time of mass global poverty and environmental degradation) then we have no right to call ourselves civilised. Within this context whenever I read something which I really admire – a piece by Arundhati Roy, a humorous piece by Mark Steel in the Independent – the pleasure is very special.

So I’ve broken the big taboo – I’ve revealed some of the intimate details about my newspaper reading habits. I wonder what yours are…

The Objective Straitjacket and the ‘Crisis of Journalism’

Moreover, the range of genres in newspapers has always intrigued me: such as hard news, soft news, features of many kinds – profiles, news features, reviews, eye-witness reportage, participatory features, investigative reports, columns, editorials, diaries, human interest and so on. I’m fascinated by the different tones, writing styles, sourcing conventions applicable to each. But the more I consider these genres the more it occurs to me that they are broadly static. Journalism as a specific literary form appears to be at some dead end. There is no sense of experimentation with the form. The New Journalism of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe was incredibly innovative in the way it transformed journalists’ relations to their sources and resorted to fictional strategies to give a heightened rendering of reality. But it never really caught on in this country.

Why is this? Could it be that journalists’ stubborn reliance on professional notions of objectivity in our postmodern era is acting as a conservative, regressive influence on the development of the genre? In all the other arts and disciplines (painting, sculpture, architecture, novels, theatre and so on) there is enormous experimentation in both form and content – and along with it the ready acceptance of a range of radical epistemologies and ideologies. And yet journalists so often remain immune to the post modernist onslaught – too obsessed with the who what where when why and the how.

Philip Schlesinger and Graham Murdoch’s Televising ‘Terrorism’: Popular Violence in Popular Culture is still relevant today in that it argues that the discourse in mainstream news and documentaries is closed around stereotypical definitions of terrorisms. [4] Yet alongside those representations they are able to show how far more open discourse on terrorism appears in drama productions which are able to explore more deeply the complexities of the issue and which can be built around even subversive frames. In other words, the dominant discourse viewed overall is complex and contradictory – yet given its proximity to political and economic power and its crucial propaganda role for the state, the news sector serves to articulate the most regressive ideological elements.

Postmodernism reflects a decline of absolutes – no longer does following the correct method guarantee true results. Instead of only one truth and one certainty, postmodernism encourages us to accept that there are many truths and that the only certainty is uncertainty. The questioning of what scientific, rigorous research is and what its effects are, is part of a contemporary condition which Habermas refers to as a “crisis of legitimation” and others have called “postmodernity”. The formerly secure foundations of knowledge and understanding are no more. We are no longer certain about our ways of knowing and what is known. What we are left with is not an alternative and more secure foundation but an awareness of the complexity, historical contingency and fragility of the practices through which knowledge is constructed about ourselves and the world.

Yet still journalists so often remain unproblematically committed to conventional notions about truth. For instance, The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (Guardian Books, 2001), has been promoted by Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, as a model primer for journalists – rather as Observer editor David Astor promoted Orwell’s Politics and the English Language as a sort of style book for his journalists. “In this life we want nothing but facts, sir, nothing but facts”, Thomas Gradgrind, described by Dickens as “a man of realities. A man of fact and calculations” storms at the start of Hard Times. And this same devotion to facts dominates The Elements. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, they say. 100 per cent of journalists interviewed for a survey by the Pew research centre for the People and the Press and the Committee of Concerned Journalists said “getting the facts right” was journalists’ major responsibility. They speak alarmingly of “an epistemological scepticism which has pervaded every aspect of our intellectual life from art, literature, law, physics to even history.” And of a “new journalism of assertion which is overwhelming the old journalism of verification”.

Time and time again, as I invite practising journalists to give talks to my students I’m amazed at how this belief in objective fact/information is proclaimed – as a sort of professional mantra. I remember John Simpson speaking of the “pure objectivity” of the BBC. David Loyn, foreign correspondent, said he “worshipped at the altar of objectivity” in the same speech in which he denounced peace journalism as the most serious threat to media standards. Mark Nicholls, embedded with the military during the Iraq invasion, told students at Lincoln University: “Our duty as journalists is to let the facts speak for themselves.” Similarly Ian Hargreaves, formerly Independent and New Statesman editor now of Ofcom, in his somewhat disappointing Journalism: Truth or Dare? argues along with Reith lecturer Onora O’Neill that the ethic of truthfulness lies at the heart of journalism. [5] But there is a certain hesitation as he adds “even if one accepts that neither quality is capable of incontestable definition”.

Again, the US media guru Everette E Dennis, in Of Media and People expresses concern over what he describes as the traditional “just the facts ma’am” school of journalism. He wants a new emphasis on objectivity but an interpretative objectivity “in which central facts can be verified but in which matters of interpretation and analysis are identified as such and left to reader and viewer direction. There are descriptive details and facts that can be sorted out and identified in virtually every news situation ranging from a simple police matter to a complex international controversy. Events arise, people are involved and situations can be observed. This is and ought to be descriptive, verified journalism at its best.” [6]

The history of mainstream journalists’ commitment to the ideology of objectivity, a philosophical concept running through Aristotle, Plato, Locke, Bentham, John Stuart Mill that found perhaps its greatest expression in the Enlightenment project of rationality and the pursuit of scientific knowledge, has been well charted by Schudson, Stuart Allan and others. Indeed, the development of the notion of objectivity, the separation of fact from opinion, has been so central to the manufacture of mainstream journalists’ sense of professionalism.

But Can Subjectivity Offer a Solution?

Mainstream journalists’ stubborn commitment to objectivity and the belief that “fact” can be separated from “comment” not only flies in the face of the postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment dualities – which prioritised the intellect over emotion, mind over body, head over heart, the objective over the subjective. By suggesting the pursuit of information can be value-free, the ideology of objectivity also serves to marginalize the ethical and political dimensions within the dominant journalistic culture.

Significantly, some mainstream journalists become outspoken advocates of subjectivity as a way of challenging the myths of objectivity. For instance, James Cameron, the anti-nuclear peace campaigner who during the Vietnam war dared to portray the North Vietnamese as humans rather than communist monsters, commented: “It never occurred to me, in such a situation, to be other than subjective. I have always tended to argue that objectivity was of less importance than the truth.” But the notion of ‘subjective truth’ needs to be radically challenged too. As Myra Macdonald argues there can be both positives – such as Cameron’s reporting — and negatives in subjectivity: “Subjectivity can take very different forms, however, and some of these may aid knowledge formation. Self-reflexivity on the part of reporters and presenters enables better understanding of the discursive constitution of their account and dispels the myth of objectivity whereas a more egotistical presentation of the investigating self encourages an absorption in personality that is more akin to celebrity adulation.” [7]

She usefully suggests a discourse on tabloidisation or infotainment built around constructed oppositions between information and entertainment confuses the issues. “Because of its association with categories and forms of classification that are themselves ideologically weighted in favour of Enlightenment principles, it can blind us to problems with conventional methods of communicating information and to opportunities in some of the movements away from these. Personalisation, in particular, is worthy of closer inspection as a multi-dimensional rather than a singular process.” [8]

Thus journalists’ engagement with the issues they are confronting and their participation in the events they are recording can end up appearing self-indulgent. For instance, Donal MacIntyre’s televised investigations tended to over-glamorize his role as the “heroic, brave” celebrity sleuth and, in the process, marginalize the social issues under review. But handled sensitively and creatively (and with an awareness of the profound political and economic factors impacting on the formation of personality) journalistic reflexivity can give new meaning and authenticity to their reporting.

But while I may wince at the extravagant claims of the objectifiers, I’m not in response going to assert similar claims for subjectivity. A common theme running through the current liberal, moral panic over allegedly dumbed down mainstream media standards is a concern over the rise and rise of the New Punditry/the New Subjectifiers with their often under-researched columns mixing emotionalism, confession, extremist views, speculation, innuendo and abuse. The dumbing down argument is dubious – not least because it subtly eliminates the alternative media from the dominant discourse, fails to distinguish between spectacular emotion and authentic emotion — and at the same time prioritises moral outrage above the political problematic.

I would like to suggest we need to break away from the old Cartesian dualities: emotion and reason, objectivity and subjectivity, head and heart, thought and action, man and beast, culture and nature – and seek a new paradigm. Just as objectivity needs to be radically problematised – so too do our subjectivities.


1. Richard Keeble, Newspapers Handbook (Routledge, fourth edition, 2005).

2. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).

3. Fred Inglis, Media Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 29.

4. Philip Schlesinger & Graham Murdoch, Televising ‘Terrorism’: Popular Violence in Popular Culture (Comedia, 1983).

5. Ian Hargreaves, Journalism: Truth or Dare? (Oxford University Press, 2003).

6. Everette E Dennis, Of Media and People (Sage, 1992), 30-31.

7. Myra Macdonald, Exploring Media Discourse (Sage, 2003), 75.

8. Macdonald, Exploring Media Discourse, 78.

Richard Keeble is professor of journalism at the University of Lincoln. He previously taught in the journalism department at City University, London, for 19 years. His publications include The Newspapers Handbook (London, Routledge 2005 fourth edition) and Ethics for Journalists (London, Routledge 2001) He recently edited Print Journalism: A Critical Introduction for Routledge and Communication Ethics Today for Troubador. He is also the editor of Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics. Email: rkeeble@lincoln.ac.uk.