The postmodern challenge to journalism: Strategies for constructing a trustworthy identity

Jo Bogaerts, Nico Carpentier

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Journalism scholars have noted a steady rise of skepticism among the public in the latter half of the past century. "The passing of the 'High Modernism'" of journalism as Daniel Hallin (1992: 14) famously put it, shows in a loss of faith in journalists (Kovach & Rosenstiel: 41) and a seeming dissolution of journalists' covenant with the public (Cappella and Jamieson, 1997). But the era of 'postmodernism' (McQuail, 1994) or 'liquid modernity' (Bauman, 2000) in journalism also fundamentally impacted upon journalists' self-perception - or the trust they have in their profession and their own practices. The "absence of a sense of doubt or contradiction," (Hallin: idem) on the part of journalists has in the past decades been challenged in the face of such developments as commercialization, cross-media mergers and the rise of new media that deprive the journalist of his/her privileged position as "society's truth-teller" (McNair 1998: 71). Since the above mentioned developments have contributed to the erosion of the status (and thus legitimation) of journalists (Hallin, 2006) and have evoked the claim of 'the end of journalism' in a traditional sense, we may expect journalists to invest more effort in generating trust in their profession both for the audience and themselves. In order to analyze these strategies we will take a discourse-theoretical perspective on journalism that regards the latter as a discourse centered on a number of privileged signifiers that are connected up in a hegemonic discursive formation. This theoretical model -mainly opened up by Foucault, Laclau and Mouffe and ?i?ek - allows us to analyze how this journalistic hegemonic discursive formation deals with so-called dislocations, i.e. events that destabilize and de-legitimize the dominant discourse by introducing elements that cannot be domesticated within its framework. More in particular we will be looking at how a number of the core journalistic values are being discredited in the era of 'liquid modernity'. Examples are the broad changes in the possibilities for circulating news (that challenge journalist's autonomy), in the attitude towards the representation of reality (that contest journalist's modernist bias towards truth (Zelizer 2004:112)) and the introduction of commercial imperatives in news production (that delegitimize journalist's claims on bringing service to the public). The actions journalists engage in as a means to deal with these changes and reaffirm their own status and professionalism in the face of challenge have been researched in a number of ways. These have, for instance, been investigated from a macro-perspective as actions of 'paradigmatic repair' (Reese 1990) that are directed at reaffirming the ideological model(s) of journalism (see Carpentier 2008 en 2009). Tightly interlinked with this are studies that address the meso-level of the newspaper institution (see Reese 1990; Tuchman 1972). This article proposes to look at the normalizing strategies that are at work at the level of the journalistic identity. In order to analyze these strategies we will turn to a specific field, namely that of online news, as this is one of the sites where the threats sketched out above have forcefully come to the surface. It is exactly at such moments of threat that the truth-claims and strategies of generating trust are most clearly at work. By investigating online journalism, we wish to shed light on three discursive strategies employed in reaction to these threats: A first strategy is the marginalization of rivaling media (through the logics of the constitutive outside) which disarticulates online journalists from the discourse of 'good' and 'professional' journalism. Secondly, mainstream journalism has tried to maintain its professional identity by normalizing the mainstream online environment which entails limiting the possibilities offered by the online environment and incorporating alternative voices in the mainstream model. Thirdly, we witness a rearticulation of the nodal points embedded in the mainstream discourse. We may here think of a tendency towards foregrounding the journalist as individual and thus of reinforcing his claims on trustworthiness. Of importance here is also the increasingly interpretative role taken on by the journalist (Hallin 1992: 19) and the growing importance of the public image of journalists in blogs and other writings of an autobiographical nature. We will contend that these all link up with a reinforcement of journalistic myths that (re)surface in the face of 'the end of journalism'.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCommunication and Discourse Theory
Subtitle of host publicationCollected works of the Brussels Discourse Theory Group
EditorsLeen Van Brussel, Benjamin De Cleen, Nico Carpentier
Place of PublicationBristol
PublisherIntellect Publishers
ISBN (Print)9781789380545
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • identity
  • journalism
  • professionalism


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