Journalism and Media

Journalism, Media, Communications

by Barbie Zelizer

How did communication take on a disciplinary identity? Which impulses helped shape that identity, and what has happened to them over time? The codification of knowledge into disciplines works in systematic but curious ways, and the evolution of communication into a recognized field of study reveals as much about what has been strategically important to the field's development as about what has been overlooked. This article takes one subfield of communication studies—the study of journalism—and traces its originating role in the establishment of the communication field.1 Considering how journalism, so central to the field's inception, has diminished in importance as communication studies has matured over time, it uses journalism as a prototype for other similarly overlooked parts of the field and raises critical questions about how scholars make sense of their origins in the academy, and what they often lose in developing consensual narratives about their journeys from then to now, there to here.

Looking back on the establishment of the field of communication

Disciplines evolve in an incremental fashion, spurring and halting knowledge's codification around unexpected issues. Although disciplines can provide continuity, imply stability, and offer a recognizable venue for sharing knowledge, they can also diminish innovation, offset a sense of discovery, and reify the familiar as canonical, overstating those subfields or areas of research that prove strategically useful to the discipline's maturation.

The field of communication is no exception to these trends, and its historiography has generated multiple waves of reevaluation in the years since the field first developed. As communication studies has aged and gained legitimacy, its history has increasingly occupied attention, producing scores of books and articles debating its proper legacy, timing, development, priorities, and impact (i.e., Czitrom, 1982; Delia, 1987; Dennis & Wartella, 1996; Hardt, 1992; Robinson, 1988; Rogers, 1994; Schiller, 1996). The separate works of Christopher Simpson (1999) and Timothy Glander (2000), for instance, pushed a rethinking of the givens in the U.S. communication historiography by linking the field's development to the Cold War, with Glander (2000, p. ix) suggesting a “deliberate obfuscation about the origins of the field.” The widely accepted “four founders” narrative, commonly applied to the evolution of the U.S. mass communication scholarship, only later came to be “understood for what it was: A strategic vision for developing media research rather than a faithful rendering of its history” (Curry Jansen, 2010, p. 127). In many areas of interest and geographic regions, the field developed earlier and in more diverse ways than had been generally assumed (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2004). In John Durham Peters' (1986, p. 537) view, such repeated looks backward, and the interpretations they engendered, reflected larger anxieties associated with legitimating the study of communication and its transformation from “an intellectual to an institutional entity.” Over time, the same anxieties—rent asunder by ascending economic and political pressures in many parts of the world—generated additional attention as the field's legitimation continued apace (i.e., Park & Pooley, 2008; Simonson, 2010).

The study of collective memory modifies the authority of historiography by asserting that tales of the past are routinely and systematically altered to fit the agendas of those recycling them into the present. According to Maurice Halbwachs (1992 [1925]), a fundamental reordering of the past underlies all projects of the present: “Not only do we forget the past but we manage to see a past that fits our preoccupations” (Lang, 1996, p. 3). In this regard, the historiographic accounts developed by members of a discipline, seen here as a community of memory favoring shared interpretations of the past, reflect the sentiments of those who are particularly invested in shaping certain versions of the community's past.

Such an “invention of tradition” (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1985) gains legitimacy over time by being repeatedly recycled by members of the community. Privileging particular accounts of the past through acts of both remembering and forgetting, collective memories give the community both a “history of” the discipline, delineating its past, and a “history for” the discipline, articulating how it should develop. In crafting tales of the past for the purpose of consolidating group identity across time, they thus involve the work of reconstruction, not recall, foregrounding the issues, events, personalities, and impulses that resonate with the greatest number of influential members of a discipline and allowing those of least concern to fade to the background.

Although communication studies, in its contemporary form roughly half a century old, remains temporally out of synch with the earlier institutionalization of many more traditional academic fields of inquiry (Zelizer, in press), it has been subject to the broader mnemonic strategies at stake in stabilizing a disciplinary past. While the field's relative youth, disagreements over its canonical literature, and degrees of intellectual incoherence (Park & Pooley, 2008; Peters, 1986) have complicated the historiographer's task, which tales have prevailed about communication's development as a disciplinary field, why and at what cost to the discipline's multiple subfields and research areas are developments that have taken shape in patterned ways. As key members of the field have voiced and acted on particular notions of what the field needed to look like and what kind of past was necessary to support their vision, it is no wonder that today communication studies “needs memory more than it wants history” (Pooley & Park, 2008, p. 5).

This article addresses these developments and the role of journalism as it has been remembered and misremembered in the service of communication's evolution. It focuses on four related topics: how the study of journalism played in the establishment of the field of communication, where it went over time in some of communication's key subfields, how the global variations of journalism today force a rethinking of some of the longstanding assumptions about communication, and why there is need to reposition the study of journalism—critically and urgently—in the service of communication.

How journalism played in the establishment of the field of communication

The centrality of journalism to communication—its practice, personnel, management, organization, ownership, impact, and effects—is embedded in the very origin narratives by which the field came to be. Remarkably, this is the case wherever the study of communication positioned itself on the academic landscape. This is not to say that the main strokes of its affinity are not offset by a number of interpretive sidelines: For instance, some of communication's roots date back thousands of years to rhetoric; multiple subfields of communication, such as interpersonal communication or organizational communication, developed alongside journalism without any discernible interaction between them; and by and large journalism positioned itself more squarely within the embrace of mass communication than alongside other disciplinary subfields. But those qualifications notwithstanding, an alliance between the study of journalism and communication was for the most part initially a given, providing a critical developmental foothold for communication studies.

What did that alliance look like? In practice and study, both projects had many attributes that endeared them to the other. Both were born in and of a certain kind of modernity: Journalism, richly implicated in the quest for truth, saw rationality, objectivity, impartiality, and reason as the modes of engagement, which its model of professionalism could offer those wanting to know more about the larger world, in much the same way that communication provided a set of reasoned and predictable operations by which the drums of free choice, consent, progress, science, democracy, and individualism could best stifle those of inequality, ignorance, and injustice (i.e., Downing, 1996; McQuail, 2000). All this occurred alongside an idealized understanding of social orders and standardized conditions of knowledge and production (Kumar, 1995). Journalism, like other areas of practice-oriented scholarship—marketing and advertising, public relations, organizational communication, for example—could thus offer the field of communication a place in the real world, a reminder of why its scholarship mattered, with the media in particular seen as a useful vehicle for modernity's dissemination. This meant that even if the set of assumptions that fueled an association between journalism and communication envisioned only a particular kind of modernity, it proliferated nonetheless.

Thus, it was no surprise that in nearly every place that communication research took hold, journalism lurked somewhere nearby—in humanities curricula focusing on writing, language, and history; in social sciences inquiry about political, economic, and social effects; and in apprenticeships drawn from journalism education. Helping to shape communication's disciplinary objectives—“to define the field's boundaries, legitimate its authority, identify its problems, and influence its paradigmatic assumptions” (Curry Jansen, 2010, p. 127)—the field and its core alliance with journalism worked in a symbiotic fashion.

Narratives of that initial alliance differed by place, as their details were shaped by surrounding assumptions about the field's development in different geographic regions. In the United States, journalism's study took shape at first at the turn of the 20th century in the humanities, but as political and social developments—first during World War I and then during World War II—drew public attention to the social sciences, the news became an instrumental setting across the curriculum for considering the making of public sentiment (Glander, 2000). As observers discerned the negative and positive workings and effects of the mass media, seen as propaganda in unfriendly regimes and as persuasion and development in friendly ones, this period, largely seen as the ascent of the U.S. communication study, relied largely on journalists and journalism.

Such a reliance had multiple sightings in the U.S. academy. Initially, the Bleyer tradition of early journalism education was said to have made possible the hospitable welcome that journalism schools gave communication (Rogers & Chaffee, 1994), and some saw the field's early forefathers as firmly ensconced within journalism; Simonson (2010), for instance, identified Walt Whitman and David Sarnoff, both of whom worked in journalism—one as a reporter and editor, the other as a radio telegrapher—among the field's originators. Journalism also dominated the early days of the Chicago School of Sociology, whose early work highlighted journalism as a necessary ingredient of urban life (Carey, 1996; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2000, 2004). Largely under the helm of former reporter Robert Park, ethnography was likened to journalistic practice and the ill-fated but creatively conceived organ Thought News tried to outfit journalism in academic clothes. Encouraged by journalist Franklin Ford to address the social dimensions of news, Park followed Ford's lead in rendering academic the world of news making. John Dewey, writing to Williams James in 1891, characterized Ford as driven “by his newspaper experience to study as a practical question the social bearings of intelligence and its distribution” (cited in Perry, 1935, p. 518). The administrative model of inquiry that came to dominate the field midcentury and its adjacent governmental settings also relied on journalists and journalism; for instance, the propagandistic activities of the Committee for Public Information, set up during World War I, depended so heavily on its Division of News that after the war John Dewey would ask whether the “word ‘news’ [was] not destined to be replaced by the word ‘propaganda”’ (Dewey, 1918, p. 216). Former journalists—such as Walter Lippmann, Wilbur Schramm, and Ralph Casey (Rogers, 1994)—and those who studied them—such as Paul Lazarsfeld and Harold Lasswell (who himself became a journalist for a time after he left the University of Chicago, Rogers, 1994)—filled the landscape. Lippman was consulted for advice in setting up the Social Science Research Council around issues related to journalism (Curry Jansen, 2010), whereas Schramm, the oft-proclaimed originator of the field, required many of his doctoral students to have had practical experience in the media, preferably the press (Rogers, 1994). The history of mass communication in the United States is thus filled with anecdotal and associative information about journalism—that it was central, that it connected practice and theory, that it spanned the humanities and social sciences, and that it provided the case studies for theories about media effects, organization, production, and institutions (Dennis & Wartella, 1996). In each case, the development of communication studies took cues from journalism. No wonder, then, that in the United States many schools, departments, an association, and its journal continue to bear the name journalism and mass communication.

It is too simple, however, to claim the U.S. master narrative for communication's development as a field. Although Hanno Hardt (2002) argued that both international communication research and critical media studies developed in the United States from the journalistic efforts of Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz on coverage of the Russian revolution, elsewhere journalism proved as central to the field but in different ways. In Europe, scholars in sociology and political science developed concepts straight from observing journalism that would only later in the 20th century prove central to the nascent field of communication.

In Germany and Austria, thinkers such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Siegfried Kracauer, Albert Schaeffle, Karl Buecher, and Emil Loebl had journalistic experience, whereas others such as Ludwig Salomon and Ferdinand Toennies used the news to address the structure of the press and public opinion (Lang, 1996). The first academic institute to study the press was established already by 1916—the so-called newspaper science or Zeitungswissenschaft—and Weber detailed the parameters of its study to the first meeting of the German Sociological Society in 1924 (Frohlich & Holtz-Bacha, 2003; Lang, 1996). Although that study was halted during the Third Reich, it was reignited in the 1970s, by then newly incorporated into schools of communication (Pietila, 2008). In France, the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and Gabriel Tarde demanded journalism's recognition early on so as to understand political and public life, although journalism itself only emerged in the curriculum later in the century (Charon, 2003; Mattelart, 2006). Countries of the then-Soviet bloc established institutes for journalism's study midcentury, developing a so-called press science combining journalism theory and history, but once the wall came down, the same countries followed different modes of incorporating the study of journalism into communication (Hiebert & Gross, 2003; Jacubowicz, 2007). In the United Kingdom, journalism apprenticeship remained high and journalism schools robust throughout the latter half of the 20th century, while first sociology and then media studies programs adopted journalism as a laboratory for theory development (Bromley, 2006). At the same time, programs bridging communication and journalism—largely along the political dimensions of the topics they highlighted—were set up in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Scandinavia (Meerbach, 2003). Thus, although taking varied paths, journalism in Europe was connected to communication in multiple ways—as an early testing ground for theories, as an empirical and historical venue for addressing social, economic, political, and cultural life, and as a source of content about public issues and sentiment.

Beyond Europe, communication's development drew squarely from journalism training programs. Australia followed close on the British apprenticeship model, although the media wars later separated those who studied journalism from those who practiced it (Henningham, 1985; Turner, 2000). In East Asia, particularly South Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Japan, journalism education was key. Journalism departments were set up in China and Hong Kong already in the 1920s and in South Korea in the 1950s, later offering a rich and hospitable venue from which to launch communication research (Kang, 1991; Wu, 2006). The link was symbiotic: Journalism grounded communication theories, while communication pushed “reform in journalism research, education and industry” (Zhang, 2006, p. 105). In Latin America, the establishment of journalism schools in both Argentina and Brazil by 1934 was accompanied by a rejection of the U.S. communication models and a turn to the French (Mattelart, 2006). Largely initiated by Paulo Freire and followed up by Juan Diaz Bordenave, this turn led Chilean journalist Fernando Reyes Matta and others to resist conventional understandings of journalism and develop instead a participatory model of alternative communication. It resulted in rural cassette forums in Uruguay, a so-called midget press in Brazil, and radio broadcasts and mediated distance education in Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador (Beltran, 2004 [1993]). In Africa, where journalism remained relevant to the on-site challenges of nation building and familiarizing publics accustomed to colonialism and authoritarianism with transitional regimes, journalism also lent a support beam for communication research. In some sites, journalism remained the core of communication curricula (Barratt & Berger, 2007; Tomaselli, 2003), whereas in others, it paved the way for the development of African communication research by local scholars, replacing the so-called parachute field workers from Europe and America (Boafo & George, 1992; Eribo & Tanjong, 2002, p. vii).

In each region, the fact that journalism study preceded communication studies gave the latter a launching pad from which to develop. Significantly, these different early positions of journalism required some navigation across the humanities and social sciences in addressing communication studies' emergence, and in retrospect they highlighted the signal blending of the two in consolidating communication as a disciplinary field. In France, the importance of interpretive inquiry, structural linguistics, and semiotics kept the humanities primary in linking journalism to the emerging communication field (Charon, 2003; Mattelart, 2006). In the United States, journalism study's emergence in the humanities gave way over time to communication's ascent in the social sciences (Czitrom, 1982). Although early research was primarily humanities driven, already by the late 1950s, Schramm (1957) pointed to an equal number of research projects on journalism drawing from both parts of the curriculum, and over the following years, that percentage weighed heavily toward the social sciences. A similar pattern emerged in China, Hong Kong, and Africa (Leung, Kenny, & Lee, 2006; Wu, 2006). Tensions across the humanities and social sciences were prescient, because they underscored how both journalism and communication could be seen from across the curriculum. But they also heralded a cautionary note. As communication in many places became more aligned with the social sciences over time, journalism was thrown increasingly to the background.

Journalism thus had a use value that forecast some of communication's most enduring traits as its own field—a real-world relevance; a setting that repeatedly and systematically engaged with other environments such as politics, economics, culture, religion, and the law; a set of patterned and somewhat predictable routines for analysis; a phenomenon that combined language and people, practices, values, and mindsets related to public expression and discovery; organizational structures and institutions of power and authority. Those attributes are worth remembering, for they populated the various subfields that did not yet exist but that later came to internally mark the field of communication and subdivide it from itself. In this regard, journalism could be seen across the field's own distinctions between interpersonal, group, organizational, and institutional modes of interaction, across the humanities and social sciences, across quantitative and qualitative methodologies, and across empirical and critical schools of thought. As publishers participated in the field's development in varying ways—funding journalism and communication schools, creating jobs, and shaping recruitment, among them—journalism was thought to underscore that connection to a certain kind of modernity and related notions of rationality and progress, consent, freedom of information, democracy, and civil society. As an impetus for communication research, then, journalism promised to be useful to the field in multiple ways.

Where did journalism go over time in some of communication's key subfields

Where, however, did journalism go over time? Journalism shrunk in importance and centrality, and in some places, it disappeared altogether from the discipline. It is telling that even in ICA, it was for many years subsumed by one of the association's largest divisions—mass communication—where a primary focus on effects and institutions drove a certain take on journalism's use value that did not push the recognition of all the traits mentioned above. Only after nearly a half-century of ICA's existence was an interest group devoted to journalism studies introduced onto the association's landscape.

Three kinds of scholarships within the field of communication are useful in illuminating how the marginalization of journalism took shape. Selected because together they exemplify the range of the problematic being identified here, scholarship on politics, scholarship on technology, and scholarship on culture each show how knowledge that proved useful to the discipline's maturation over time pushed aside that which was perceived as less useful. Although not necessarily more responsible for journalism's shrinkage than other scholarly subfields, in each of these three cases, journalism's diminishment can be seen as an exercise in collective memory, where a past was created that was most valuable to the field moving forward. Each subfield within communication study thus acted as a separate interpretive community of memory and pulled from the past those aspects that fit its present day interests (Zelizer, 1993, 2004). The result is that each subfield developed a limited but highly strategic and internally useful accounting of what mattered about journalism—and hence communication—over time.

Politics and journalism

The subfield of political communication has long been motivated by normativity in its approach to journalism, querying how the news “ought” to operate under optimum conditions (i.e., Entman, 1989). Assuming that journalism has a vested interest in the political world, usually one involving a Western notion of democracy and civil society, much of the work in this subfield sees politics and journalism as interdependent, where the conditions for journalism to better serve its publics and the polity remain front and center (i.e., Cook, 1998; Hallin & Mancini, 2004). Exemplified most explicitly in the Four Theories of the Press (Siebert et al., 1956), the interdependency between the government and the news media has been postulated so often that it has become a naturalized dimension of this subfield of inquiry.

The emphasis on the linkage between politics and journalism minimizes those aspects of journalism that do not fit that assumption. For instance, although the debate over the New World Information and Communication Order from the 1970s to 1990s was touted as a debate about the free flow of information, it remained at heart a conversation about how free one's journalists could be or what their freedom actually meant. Resting on a distinction between first an East/West and then a North/South struggle, its response to normative assumptions about political communication suggested that one kind of journalism could and should prevail. It is no surprise that these same assumptions are now being replayed in debates over the censorship of Google searches in China.

Other examples populate the landscape, with Frances Fukuyama's (1992) stunningly erroneous claim that liberal democracy constituted the “end of history” offering perhaps the most cited example of what amounted to missing the trees for the forest. For instance, the present period of partisan news offers clear indicators of how much journalism on the ground complicates the picture that political communication and political science have tried to draw about journalism. It suggests, despite claims to the contrary (i.e., Zaller, 1992), that the so-called objective journalism—central to Western notions of democracy, modernity, and civil society—is an anomaly. In other words, in political communication's push for largely one version of the aspired, desired, and subjunctive—the normatively hoped for—much of the focus on the multiple journalisms evident on the ground has been lost. They have become denigrated, relativized, and reduced in value alongside aspirations for something better. Those aspirations, often American in origin, are made even less satisfying because political priorities differ in different regions (i.e., Jacubowicz, 2007; Waisbord, 2000) and because even across the United States, these aspirations cannot always be found.

Technology and journalism

Technological studies within communication have been similarly myopic about journalism. In the push for the faster, the more mobile, the easier to access, and the more personalized, multiple dimensions of journalism have been outsourced, generalized, and made incidental. Although consonant with the project of a certain kind of modernity, the growing focus on technology within communication studies has made it difficult to remember the social relations and systems of power underlying its use in journalism, the historical contexts by which technology gets accepted (or not), and the craft dimensions of journalism that distinguish it from other modes of public expression. Creating a bias toward those modes of journalism that jump on the bandwagon of “faster is better,” much of this work (i.e., Gillmor, 2006; Shirky, 2008, 2009) has pushed the new and fast over the old and slow, and it is often used to support dire predictions about the death of journalism, particularly in its print form.

Although the technological crisis facing journalism is a necessary part of any appraisal of its future, there is also a need to be mindful of the various ways in which new and old, slow and fast come together in today's multiplatform information environment. As Carolyn Marvin (1988) established years ago, new technologies tend to coexist with older ones, not wipe their antecedents from existence. It is no surprise, then, that grounded conditions in the world of news still display a multiplicity of relations to technology (Atton, 2002; Boczkowski, 2010; Deuze, 2007). Even in the United States, a majority of Americans (59%) still get their news from a combination of offline and online sources, whereas over a third (38%) remain offline altogether (State of the Media, 2010). Moreover, although an emphasis on technology suits a larger interest in globalization because it suggests that distant individuals can be better connected, the state of technological development differs by locale, priority, and context. Print journalism continues to flourish in many places around the globe, due to the digital divide, as in India, and due to state-imposed access, as in China. And the range of communication technologies—not just the Internet—helps people challenge repression in the global south, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere (Khiabany, 2010; Romano & Bromley, 2005).

Moreover, the infancy stage of this latest technology of the Internet remains open to multiple trajectories. In this regard, it might be useful to remember what journalism looked like 15 years into radio or television, when the spectrum of practices yet to evolve in each case was far from clear. So it is today. Predictions about the demise of journalism thus seem not only premature but decidedly Western.

Culture and journalism

Cultural scholarship in communication has displayed much of the same narrowed understanding of journalism. Although journalism offered the original impulses for much of the development of cultural research in communication, with the early work by much of the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies a case in point (i.e., Hall, 1973; Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts, 1978), it is almost nowhere to be found today in a shape that recalls that early centrality. The cultural analysis of journalism has tended to position itself as the “bad boy” in the house, focusing on the sides of journalism left unaddressed elsewhere. Although this scholarship usefully addresses problems of meaning, group identity, power, and patterns of domination and marginalization (i.e., Dahlgren & Sparks, 1992; Hartley, 1982, 1992), its broader embrace of relativity and subjectivity has produced too a fundamental ambivalence about journalism's reverence for facts, truth, and reality.

In this light, much cultural scholarship in communication pushes for the odd, the outrageous, the different, and the marginal (i.e., Lumby, 1999), leaving relatively unaddressed the central venues of journalism. For instance, the New York Times and the BBC do not merit as much attention as does Comedy Central or reality television. This is problematic, for journalism has always embraced both the curious and the mainstream (Carey, 1986; Schudson, 1978), and today, it continues to do so in inventive ways (Williams & Delli-Carpini, in press). Although by definition work in this area broadens the Eurocentric lens that remains prominent elsewhere, voices from the Global South have reminded culturalists too of a soft Westernism to their research (i.e., Stratton & Ang, 1996).

In each of these three cases, journalism has survived in communication studies but primarily in ways that match the contemporary interests of the subfield invoking it. Such subdisciplinary nearsightedness means that political studies of journalism diminish what we have for what we hope for, technological studies offset the old and slow with the new and fast, and cultural studies sidestep the mainstream and mundane so as to engage the odd and outrageous. As Theodor Adorno (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972, p. 230) noted long ago, “all reification is a forgetting.” Not only does this mean that the field of communication has lost part of its ground but that no one subfield reflects anymore what all of journalism is. Admittedly, this has taken shape in different ways in different regions, but the trend toward a shrinkage of conceptualization, despite journalism's own robust presence, prevails across the board.

How journalism challenges the longstanding assumptions about communication

The subdisciplinary nearsightedness of communication studies is exacerbated by the fact that it is paralleled by a geographic nearsightedness. In much the same way that conceptual subfields provide only part of the picture, so too does the discipline's geographic spread constitute only part of the environments from which scholars tackle communication.

Globalization has made it easier to connect quickly, widely, and across vast distances and so has played a part in broadening the field in fundamental ways. As various scholars—among them Anthony Giddens (1991), John Thompson (1996), and John Tomlinson (1999)—have argued, globalization itself was built through modernity. Although communication as a field now boasts researchers in every continent—ICA alone has members from 80 countries—it has also facilitated an either/or stance among those trying to address who succeeds in shaping the field's original narrative moving forward. Claims of intellectual imperialism, Eurocentrism, Orientalism, academic dependency—and then as a response, Occidentalism, Asiacentrism (Miike, 2006), Afrocentrism (Asante, 2005), Islamicism (Ayish, 2003), and other regionally exceptionalist responses from numerous non-Eurocentric positions—have created an as-yet unresolved and unsustainable foundation for the field to realize the full dimensions of its global spread. This regional myopia, noted separately years ago by Graham Murdock (1993), Arturo Escobar (1995), and John Downing (1996), is fundamentally counterproductive for multiple reasons.

The uneven exchange of academic knowledge, which tends time and again to privilege the haves over the have-nots, has created two very real camps, whose distance from each other is often reflected in some spatial metaphor—between the West and the rest, the center and periphery, the North and South, and the First World and Third World. As noted earlier, there is a history to these either/or positions, and it draws from the field's very linkage with a particular form of modernity and its associated concepts.

But the gravitation toward Western-driven universals and an uneven recognition of what complicates them is far flung. For example, the notion of the “ivory tower” has persevered as a metaphor for thinking about university engagement globally despite the fact, as Argentine scholar Elizabeth Jelin (in press) argued, that its decidedly Western tenor presupposes a model of disengagement that was never the grounded practice for academic life in Latin America. Similarly, Denis McQuail (2000) noted that a lack of specificity about what was meant by “non-Western” has produced a fundamental deficiency of inquiry for the field, writ broadly, that has yet to be corrected.

Multiple scholars, among them C. C. Lee (2001), Guo-Ming Chen (2006), and Georgette Wang (in press), have argued for strategies to move beyond the either/or dichotomy, noting that the discipline of communication is undermined by scholars focusing so stridently on its internal geographic divide. They maintain that in the struggle to clarify the distinction between the West and the rest, the variances that exist within each of those two camps have been lost. Although globalization has helped spread communication, it has also simultaneously pushed the recognition of certain kinds of difference while rendering invisible other differences that reside within the so-called accepted commonalities. James Curran and Myung-Jin Park (2000) were among the first to anthologize the impacts of such errors, whereas Graham Murdock (in press) stipulated that the West/rest distinction has blinded attention to the ramifications of consumerism, religious and national fundamentalism, and new forms of citizenship. On the other side of the global continuum, Gholam Khiabany (2007, p. 119) noted that the responding move to set forth an Islamic theory of communication pays little heed to the “struggle for control for interpretation of culture, for communication resources and for the system of social stratification.”

This geographic nearsightedness is crucial, because scholarship in collective memory stipulates that when variance disappears in the narratives that ensue, it is difficult to reinstate it (Halbwachs, 1992 [1925]; Nora, 1996). Additionally, as Paul Connerton (2009) noted more broadly of memory and modernity, settings that align their evolution with notions of progress, reason, and democracy also exhibit a particular affinity with practices of forgetting. Forgetting, in this regard, is a useful mnemonic practice for those attempting to narrow the past to what they think matters.

It is here that journalism has a role to play, for it provides a fruitful starting point to remember differently the evolution of communication studies. Suggesting that communication scholars might have been misguided in their initial attempts to align the disciplinary ethos with a particular form of modernity, journalism demonstrates how necessarily divergent and internally contradictory the ground of communication must continue to be. Although locale-specific studies are important in offsetting the academic dependency on the West, a focus on journalism could spark the creation of an alternative mnemonic narrative.

Why is journalism useful in this regard? It provides a litmus test for thinking about how to move beyond the divides that separate parts of the field from each other. Although certain privileged forms of journalism—the very notion of a free and independent press; the idea of a fourth estate or the public's right to know; and the embrace of neutrality, facticity, and objectivity—were never the practice in much of the world, their wide and somewhat uncritical adoption as the ground for communication studies, writ broadly, has meant, to extend the words of Elizabeth Jelin (in press), that “specialized expertise (at times under the cover of ‘neutral’ technical skills) has [had] to share and establish a dialogue with broad politicized intellectual concerns.” That affiliation has not always been a happy endeavor. Unlike early perspectives on journalism that insisted on its relationship with a certain kind of modernity, universalism, rationality, and progress, today multiple modes of journalistic practice underscore how divergent and open-ended the field needs to remain, how sensitive to different and often contradictory cores, values, and contingencies, how relative and particularistic.

Examples abound. In India, for instance, the coming of modernity was mediated by caste and communal affiliations that themselves formed the journalisms of the time into a kind of print communalism and petition journalism, operating in direct and voluntary engagement with the state (Udupa, in press). Similar circumstances characterize much of South America, where an orientation to state over market, elimination of basic democratic rights, tradition of terrorism and military juntas, strict control of newsrooms and persecution of journalists all continue to challenge Eurocentric notions of what modern journalism should look like (Waisbord, 2000). The possibility of adhering to universal journalistic principles in East Africa is offset by media intimidation, information suppression, and government propaganda, all further exacerbated by low literacy rates, high poverty, and transitional governmental structures (Kalyango & Eckler, 2010), so much so that “the more African journalism strives to implant liberal democracy, the less the successes it has had to report” (Nyamnjoh, 2005, p. 1). The former Soviet bloc displays a transition from totalitarian to democratic societies, which rests on journalism, that began to take shape a full 20 years ago but still does not readily offer a full or coherent picture of what those regimes or their media look like (Jacubowicz, 2007; Krasnoboka, 2010): In Russia, journalists are being murdered from left and right, while other nations labor with degrees of democratization and a gravitation toward pre-Communist totalitarian modes of information relay (Hiebert & Gross, 2003). In Iran, despotism and a journalism rigidly linked to the state reflect little of the much-expressed hopes in the West for a civil society in that country (Khiabany, 2010). Today's multiple modes of journalism in Asia do not provide the same expected—and desired—connectors to individualism, democracy, and freedom, as defined in the West (Gunaratne, 2005; Lee, 2000), and in various places, modernity (from which contemporary journalism was presumably born) has instead been tied to repression and a respect for consensus, order, and authority that comes at the expense of freedom of expression.

In each of these locations, journalism is not marginal to the developments noted above, and even when satiric or ironic venues such as Comedy Central or The Onion allow the public to be “in” on the joke, violations of Western expectations continue to occur. The question is whether the discipline of communication can afford to leave journalism as a side show. As Nestor Garcia-Canclini (1995) noted, modernity invites multiple routes to and through engagement, various strategies for “entering and leaving.” But instead of recognizing them all as alternatives, Western expectations repeatedly cut short the ability to see fully what lies on the ground because an aspect of what surfaces ruffles the default disciplinary sensibility. An array of cultural and political situational particularities is seen instead as barriers to the mindset on which the field was set in place.

Can the field of communication not do better than its default tale of the past has privileged thus far? The list of what much of the field is missing in maintaining its either/or positions—on both sides of the continuum—is breathtaking. Journalism today exists in multiple situations of contingency with no clear beginning, end or obvious trajectory, providing ample evidence of soft authoritarianism, odd mixes of colonialism and postcolonialism, multiple kinds of neo-authoritarian systems and their altered journalistic values, increased self-censorship and government interference, collectivism, new modes of identity such as hybridity or marginality, tensions between the nation-state and pan-regionalism, corruption, transitional governments with no obvious or consensual before and after points, spaces intertwining local and global, traditional and modern, religious and political in complicated and nonlinear ways. This is an instructive list for the field. For embracing primarily Western expectations that engender more projects similar to “ourselves” fails to address the situated nature of communication in non-Western environments. It also obscures the fact that communication has at its core—and at its origin—multiple journalisms. Those journalisms could be used to rethink existing theories from anew, not position scholars in enclaves across from those who think differently, and could facilitate an updating of the notions that communication originally put in place as part of its own disciplinary ground.

On repositioning journalism at the center of communication

In an era where disciplines and the university face perhaps greater economic and political challenges than ever before, it is useful to remind ourselves that scholars in communication, like those inhabiting other disciplinary fields in the academy, have shared their past in certain ways because doing so has helped position the field consonant with larger interests about self-presentation. In such a light, the field has been likened to a Rorschach test: “It is whatever you see in it and make of it,” its poorly defined disciplinary boundaries ensuring that “the choices we make … are profoundly political” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2000, p. 94).

This article has argued that in the discipline's memory, journalism has become a shorthand for a very constrained set of practices among communication scholars who no longer recognize how strategically localized and narrow those practices remain. This is critical because journalism remains a valuable platform for thinking about the grounded parameters of communication study. The world includes populations less free than desired, journalisms more repressed than existing models have allowed for, governments and media systems invested in different ways of piecing together the puzzle than expected, and communication environments that are unable to access the tools, research methods, or technologies that underpin the very logic of existing thought processes in places that have more.

The conceptual and geographic foundationalism discussed thus far—by which scholars reduce those who are different or think differently to simplified versions of who they are—is an error which the discipline of communication cannot afford. Although this article has focused on journalism, journalism is not the only room in the house of communication to have been closed off. Other formerly central venues—speech, rhetoric, performance, and visuality come to mind (i.e., Benson, 1985; Sproule, 2008)—have been detoured around on the way to cementing a unified epistemological vision. The fundamentalism evident here thus challenges the field in its broadest strokes to redirect where communication studies is going by reacquainting itself more fully with where the field has been.

It is no accident that journalism exists in some form everywhere in the world where communication strives to make its disciplinary name. Bringing journalism back to its former centrality and recognizing it as a useful ground for thinking about communication, writ broadly, depends on a fuller consideration of the different terrains of that ground with more contemplation, regard, and respect than ever before. The data that result—of diversity, discontinuity, noise, instability, tentativeness, transversality, multiple universalisms, fluidity, and globalizing influences—underscore the possibility that journalism can again reflect the multiple ways in which communication as a discipline matters, even if many earlier expectations connected to the field's evolution go unrequited. This is possible, however, only if that multiplicity of pathways is brought together within one shared academic conversation, where contemporary scholars in the field of communication can together build a collective memory from anew, tweaking and adjusting the notions that initial thinkers in the field seem to have gotten wrong half a century ago.

It is useful to end this article with a personal anecdote. A few years ago, when considering Singapore as a conference venue for the International Communication Association (ICA), ICA members discussed widely and passionately as to whether the venue worked for the association. Many opposed the choice, and I was among them. As a former journalist and a journalism scholar, I wondered how we could take the association to a venue where freedom of information was not assured. As the mother of a gay son, I was discomfited by the fact that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered rights were not a given. I still hold those views. They are part of who I am in the concentric circles of identity that drive my intellectual choices.

But I understand too—perhaps in a way I did not then—that for us to survive as a disciplinary field, we need a better way of navigating our differences. Although the institutionalization of communication studies requires setting aside differences so as to embrace commonalities, as Peters (1986, 1999), Craig (1989, 1999), and Wahl-Jorgensen (2000, 2004) have separately shown, it is possible that the latter has taken place at the expense of the former.

It is journalism's multiple attributes, so useful in the field's early days, that make it a rich candidate for retweaking our collective memory. This article has suggested that remembering and reinstating its centrality can do much to stead communication into its future. Doing so involves recognizing that journalism lays bare the limited value of an attachment to a certain form of modernity, rationalism, universalism, and progress. Journalism can remind the field of its disciplinary attachment not only to ideas but to the ground—to the messiness of practice, to the hesitations of the real world, and to the inconsistencies and brutalities of social, economic, political, cultural, and public life. Most importantly, using journalism to guide the future of communication studies suggests that it is still possible to imagine a field of communication without a center.

This is not to suggest that such a path forward is free of complications; rather, the opportunities it raises outweigh them. As members of a discipline that repeatedly faces questions from the outside about its viability, we might do well to reassess how our disciplinary identity might look through a different prism. Not only might this help us more equitably recognize many rooms in the house of communication, but it might also help us understand how and in which ways varied approaches to normativity might coexist within the field, and how the variance that grounds communication studies might model different disciplinary contours for the academy at large.

The relationship between communication studies and journalism was a given when the field of communication first evolved. This article voices the hope that such a linkage can retake its place on the disciplinary mantle—with new moves, new inhabitants, new directions, and new understandings. The scholarship in our field needs to reflect the wide breadth and diversity that characterize its on-site practice. Otherwise, what makes communication distinct from other disciplines with no such ground? Accommodating such a move offers the hope that the house of communication might become more of a home for all of its members, not just the few who strategically guided the field at some point in its past.


The author thanks Michael Bromley, Joseph Cappella, Larry Gross, Monroe Price, Howard Tumber, Silvio Waisbord, and Karin Wilkins for reading earlier drafts of this article and Le Han for research assistance.

Note 1

I focus on journalism because it is a subfield of communication that I know best and that reflects my own professional trajectory as a former journalist. I also sidestep the multiple scholarly attempts to distinguish between communication as a discipline and as a field. In that both notions signal shared collectivity and standardized knowledge production and maintenance, the distinction does not significantly complicate the relationship of communication to journalism, which remains the same in each case.

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