An Interview With Rod Benson on Journalism and Democracy

Journalism is at a major crossroads. The digital revolution has turned print and broadcast upside down and although the media are more successful than ever on many levels, the traditional role of journalism as democracy’s watchdog is at risk. Rodney Benson is a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University who has studied the interaction between journalism and democracy. I asked him to comment on where journalism stands today based on his study of how the media cover immigration and explain why some of the best journalism in the U.S. is that with the most civic-cultural capital and what American journalism can learn from the French practice of debate ensemble journalism. (This interview was conducted via email.)

Max Benavidez: Your book about journalism and democracy, Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison, is now out in paperback from Cambridge. We’ve seen the media industry change quite a lot in the last decade or so. There’s greater concentration of ownership, the ongoing disruption of legacy media especially newspapers by the rise of digital media, and tremendous pressure on the basic practice of journalism. Are we at a tipping point?

Rodney Benson: I’m not sure we are there yet, but we may be close. There are one-third fewer full-time journalists today in the U.S. than there were a decade ago. So, it’s a tough time for professional journalists, that’s for sure. And, it seems clear that in terms of market-supported journalism, the field is going to be downsized for the foreseeable future.

The important thing, I think, is to see journalism as one crucial part of a vibrant public sphere, but not the only part. As a democracy, we need to think strategically about the kinds of voices and vehicles best equipped to provide the information, critique, and deliberation we need. In many instances, it won’t be journalists who provide this – yet journalists, broadly defined, will still be crucial as the ones who translate, package, and circulate ideas and information to non-specialist publics.

MB: You refer to journalism as a “field” — as you put it, an “organizational and professional space inside of which external constraints are mediated.” Can you explain why you use this term and the related notion of “habitus”? How do these concepts help explain the character of contemporary media and civil society?

RB: Journalism is a field, in the same way that art, law, medicine, science, and a range of other professional and creative endeavors constitute fields. They are specialized worlds with their own rules and traditions. They have some “autonomy” from outside pressures, that is, they have some capacity to determine what it is that they do and how they do it based on their own professional principles.

In the journalistic field, news articles may be shaped, indirectly, by the ads that surround them. But they aren’t the same thing as advertisements — at least as long as journalism has some autonomy as a field, they aren’t. I draw on the sociological term “field” rather than industry or market, because it captures these aspects of creative endeavors that aren’t reducible to purely economic logics.

Habitus brings structural influences down to the individual level and helps explain the differences we find within and across fields. Each of us has a habitual way of thinking and acting based on our family, class, and educational backgrounds. And the media we produce or consume closely reflect these backgrounds: we tend to spend time with media that reflect or reinforce our habitus-shaped worldviews — and this tendency seems to be only increasing with sophisticated Internet target marketing. The only way out of this loop is to become more “reflexive” about this process, to see how we are shaped by these structural forces, and, in so doing, try to self-consciously overcome them.

In sum, field and habitus help us see that what we take for granted as our freely chosen actions are in fact deeply structured and patterned. At the same time, these concepts help us get beyond talking about the “media” as if it were one thing. What I find is that media tend to differ systematically depending on, first, the level of autonomy they have in the field from external economic pressures and second, the kind of class-based habitus of the people who produce (and consume) their content.

MB: Your book is about the shaping of immigration news. Clearly, immigration reform is not going to pass in the U.S. Congress this year. You write about the way that news on immigration in the U.S. and France is shaped by many forces. Can you talk about the frames within which immigration news, specifically, is reported and why frames are so important?

RB: Immigration is this incredibly complex, multifaceted issue. So when journalists write about immigration, they have to make choices about which aspects they are going to select and emphasize. And those choices — shaped by the structural factors I’ve just discussed – in turn shape the ways that the public will think about immigration. That’s what I mean by frame. The news we receive is in fact like the frame around a window: what you see of the world “outside” is limited by the size and orientation of that window frame.

What I found in systematically studying U.S. and French news coverage of immigration from the early 1970s through the 2000s is that the coverage has increasingly narrowed so that just two frames have come to dominate: the “public order” and the “humanitarian” frames. In other words, immigrants tend to be portrayed either as criminals or victims. These are dramatic and emotional frames that make for good stories. And this simple binary pushes aside coverage that might attempt to sort out the complex causes and benefits of immigration. At the same time, much of the political coverage just traces the back-and-forth of whether legislation is moving forward or not, without providing any new information about what the problem actually is and what might actually work to address it.

MB: What other kinds of frames do you think are missing from the immigration debate?

RB: Well, for one, there is an almost total disconnect between the journalistic and political discourse on the one hand and the robust social scientific research on the other. Migration is a global phenomenon that encompasses both emigration and immigration, yet we hear far, far more in the news about the latter than the former. Why are people leaving their home countries? What is the role of U.S. military, diplomatic, and trade policies in unsettling the sending country economies and societies, thus creating “push” factors that increase migration?

This “global economy” frame doesn’t show up much in the public debate, especially in the U.S., and as a result the public doesn’t have a full understanding of why immigration levels have been near historic-high levels in recent years. Greater understanding could help lessen anti-immigrant attitudes and shift the policy debate beyond the dead-end of enforcement vs. amnesty. These policies treat the symptoms instead of the causes of the problem. (For a more complete elaboration of this argument, see my recent op-ed in Al Jazeera.)

MB: You talk about news curation and “the ideals of in-depth, multiperspectival, and critical news” in your book. How does this relate to the coverage and shaping of immigration news?

RB: Well, why do we care about how immigration — or any other issue =- is covered? Because we have certain democratic expectations for media performance: background context, diversity of voices and viewpoints, and a critical stance toward those in power, among others. We need to keep these goals clearly in mind when evaluating journalistic practices.

The value of the French comparison is that it shows a different way of achieving these ideals that just might be worth trying in the U.S. Curating the news in a way that self-consciously makes room for the in-depth expression of multiple voices and viewpoints is a big part of this distinctive French approach. A greater use of this “form of news” could help correct some of the deficiencies in U.S. immigration coverage that I’ve just noted.

MB: Is this related to your rather surprising critique of “narrative” long-form journalism in the U.S., the kind of reporting that often receives Pulitzer Prizes?

RB: Absolutely. This focus on narrative is much more pronounced in the U.S. than in France. It has its advantages. At its best, American journalism excels at providing a window on the lives of ordinary immigrants and their travails. Story-telling journalism also can serve a critical function when it takes the form of investigative reporting of individual abuses of power (as in the heavy coverage of Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona). But not everything you need to know about immigration can be captured in these kinds of melodramatic tales.
French “debate ensemble” journalism, in contrast, is less about telling stories than about promoting a debate of ideas. Newspapers pick a “topic of the day” and give over two or three pages to a mix of news, background features, interview transcripts with experts or activists, and the official editorial. News, opinion, and analysis are brought together in a way that makes the news more “multiperspectival” (to use the term first coined by Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans) but also more substantively critical. In recent years, I’ve noticed an increase in debate ensemble journalism in the U.S., especially online where news and other genres are mixed more closely. That seems to me to be a positive trend.

MB: One of the reforms you touch on in your book is the need to expand and strengthen public media. In fact, you say that what you learned from your study is “that the best journalism tends to be that with the most civic-cultural capital.” Can you expand on that?

RB: This relates to my earlier point about the importance of defending journalistic professional “autonomy” from external, especially economic, pressures. The journalistic field is structured around an opposition between those media outlets highest in economic capital and those highest in civic-cultural capital. Public funding — either from public taxpayer or philanthropic support — is what underpins civic-cultural capital. And what I found consistently is that those media outlets with more public funding tended to be among those offering the most critical and multiperspectival news: for example, the newspapers L’Humanité and Libération in France, the Christian Science Monitor in the U.S., and the TV news programs on PBS and the French-German cultural channel Arte. I’d definitely say that this also holds for NPR, though it was not directly part of this study.

But let’s be clear, the amount of public funding that media receive from philanthropy in the U.S. is a drop in the bucket compared to the kind of public license fee support common across most western European democracies. And the overwhelming weight of the research supports my finding of the superior democratic qualities of public media (see my report with Matthew Powers for Free Press, “Public Media and Political Independence”).

MB: Finally, you close your book by saying that it’s not enough to just change individual practices in the media and in journalism but “to change the rules of the game.” What do you mean?

RB: It’s just a way of saying that all of us act within a social context. Our freedom is constrained by that context. And that the first step toward any change is to become aware that society is ultimately a kind of game with rules — not some “natural” expression of the way of the world — but rather a choice that has been made by us or for us and one that we can change. This lucid coming to awareness is what I mean by reflexivity.

So unless we change the context — or the game — it will be hard to start acting differently on a consistent basis. What I found in my historical, comparative study is that the styles of writing and the ideas expressed in news tend to vary consistently according to the policy regulatory environment, the funding model, and the kind of audience it is being produced for. The question is how do we create the material and symbolic support for new forms of public expression — not only journalistic — that could make room for greater reflexivity, ideological diversity, and critique.

Sure, markets and new technologies can help — after all, we’re having this conversation through the market-driven Internet outlet of the Huffington Post. But clearly we need strong, widely accessible public and non-profit media too. Rather than leaving it to chance or under-funded good intentions or the machinations of the most powerful market actors, I’m just saying that professionals, activists, academics, and public officials ought to think clearly about what’s really needed: how can we mobilize the amount of civic-cultural capital necessary to support a large-scale improvement in the quality of our media system?

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