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The social relevance of journalism

There is an old idea that journalism has an important role to play in a healthy democracy. I mostly believe this. Some would even argue that the press is a necessary prerequisite for democracy. But there are roughly two big challenges to understanding this principle. The first difficulty is that journalism is a big and important concept. The second difficulty is that democracy is an even bigger and more important concept.

I’m not prepared today to tackle both of these.

For the purposes of my exploration today, I want to distinguish between two very different approaches to conceptualizing journalism and the press. Let’s call the first approach, the maximal view of journalism. The maximal view asks the question, “what does good journalism do?” and then declares that anything that accomplishes this is journalism. The maximal view acknowledges good blogging as a variety of journalism. The maximal view recognizes that nonprofits, authors, businesses, writers and scientific organizations are doing more and more of their own journalism. This view also recognizes that anyone can have a journalistic moment. This is an inclusive approach that cares less about traditional institutions and more about how good journalism functions.

A very different way of looking at journalism is much less inclusive. For this reason, let’s call this view the minimal view of journalism. It scorns bloggers and amateurs. This minimal view claims that nonprofits and scientific agencies don’t understand reporting or are too biased by their mandates to really be properly journalistic. This views puts a lot of emphasis on the tradition of the press, the newsroom, and the professional credentials of the news media. On this view, journalists are journalists if they get paid to be journalists. Communications professionals, bloggers, authors and podcasters are not journalists, nor do they ever have journalistic moments. The minimal view doesn’t really understand the concept of a journalistic moment. It exercises a more stringent, or more generously a more disciplined, view of what counts as journalism and who counts as a journalist.

Implications for the minimal and maximal views of journalism

Now you might think that I’m more inclined towards one of these views. Well, truthfully, I might be more inclined to the maximal view. But really I’m not sure, and I have no intention today of defending one of these views over the other. I do think that the minimal view is more popular and that it is winning in the minds of traditional journalists and publishers.1

But the idea that I’m trying out today is a conditional claim: if you subscribe to the minimal view of journalism, then you are committed to a shrinking role for journalism in democracy. Put more strongly, if you do not subscribe to the maximal view, then you are committed to a shrinking role for journalism in democracy. Put more precisely: the dimension and degree to which you maintain a minimal view of journalism, commits you to a similarly diminished role of journalism in democracy.2 So this is really three versions of one idea. Let’s call this triumvirate of claims the Social Relevance of Journalism Effect, or SRJE. In short, the social relevance of journalism depends on how we conceptualize it.

Who cares about SRJE?

I care. But also, I have a hunch that journalists and publishers care. A lot.

See, this is a conundrum created, in part, by the old guard of journalism. After all, journalism is a business. And journalists and their various news oriented institutions rely on their brand to make that business tick. As more and more individuals and institutions are using press-like technologies many publishers and journalists have, rightly or wrongly, seen this as an encroachment on their turf and in their market share. In response, news media have had to reposition themselves in the marketplace of purveyor’s of ideas. To do this, they have articulated at length, why they are special. This is the point of brand repositioning. In order to reposition the brand, journalists and publishers have, by and large, taken up the minimal view. But if I’m right about SRJE, this move has a negative longterm effect on the social relevance of the brand enjoyed by journalists.

The argument from market share

Non-traditional media are contributing meaningfully to our democracies, and increasingly so. Take TED conferences, for example. TED presenters talk on a wide range of important issues. In the last couple of years, remarkable numbers of people have grown accustom to watching TED talks, sharing them, letting them change their views and broaden their interests. TED has grown into TEDX and these talks have grown to play a valuable role in our public discourse and contribute real value to our social and, yes, democratic practices.

On the minimal view, TED talks are not journalistic.

But TED talks have grown in popularity and social relevance. And they are not alone. There are an increasing number of places that people go to get information necessary to democratic functioning. NASA, for example, has its own news. Universities increasingly publish and archive their press releases directly to their website – and people simply read them. Blogs and blog readers continue to grow in number. I’m not saying that every blog is journalistic. I don’t have to. I’m arguing that if we never count these kinds of media as journalism, and given their increase in market share, it follows that journalism, and the brand of journalism, will have a decreasing social relevance.3

The argument from failed journalism #1

There is another argument for the idea that the minimal view of journalism is killing the role of journalism in democracy. Actually, this argument is the one that got me to thinking about this issue. This argument starts with an instance of failed journalism. Remember SOPA? SOPA was a threat to democratic functioning. The press should have had something to say about it.

But journalistic institutions, en masse, failed to say enough about SOPA. At the end of the day, American citizens woke up to SOPA and the American Government made the correct decision about SOPA. But not, according to Aaron Swartz, because of anything that the press did. The following is a talk by Aaron Swartz about SOPA. He gave this address in May of 2012 – Democracy Now published it in the days following his passing. In it, Swartz points out that the press were remarkably and tragically absent in the public discourse surrounding SOPA.


The people rose up and they caused a sea change in Washington. Not the press which refused to cover the story. Just coincidentally, their parent companies all happened to be lobbying for the bill. Not the politicians who were pretty much unanimously in favour of it. And not the companies who had all but given up trying to stop it, and decided it was inevitable. It [SOPA] was really stopped by the people, the people themselves.
– Aaron Swartz

The thing is, we care about journalism because we care about democracy. As people discover that there are other kinds of media that are working effectively in the service of democracy, people will learn to care less and less about journalism.

The argument from failed journalism #2

Premise: traditional journalistic institutions have largely failed on climate change. Decades of incompetence by the Calgary Herald, the National Post and other newspapers have resulted in a predominant and generalized ignorance of climate change in  North America. This is a failure of journalism by the very same folks that uphold the minimal view.

The result is that we will care less and less about journalism. We will read Wikipedia articles whose footnotes are scientific articles. We will read the reports and articles by NGOs, think tanks and magazines whose biases and values are explicit and transparent. As long as these kinds of institutions are not considered journalistic, the social relevance of journalism will fade.

Recap of SRJE

A quandary for modern journalism is that so much of what gets identified as journalism, does not aid the interest of democracy. On the flip side, the minimal view of journalism holds that many publications, that do aid the interests of democracy, do not count as journalism.4 The press would have us believe that their role in democracy is unique; that they are the fourth estate. But as long as a minimal view of journalism continues to exclude the media we care about as citizens, the less relevance journalism will have.

A more maximal view of journalism, however, could allow journalism to have continued social relevance.5

  1. It should be noted that these are not the only two views of journalism. Yes, this distinction may be better represented as a continuum. No, these concerns do not stop this distinction from being helpful.
  2. I’m assuming for the purposes of trying out this idea, that democracy is constant. I know this is a big assumption, but I don’t think it damns the idea, so much as simplifies it. I don’t think democracy is actually a constant. In fact, this is precisely why I care about these issues. But for now, let’s just set aside that democracy is not a static, or simple, entity.
  3. Yes, this is an instance where we see more explicitly that I am assuming no substantive change in the amount or quality of democracy.
  4. I considered writing that on the minimal view, journalism is only a contingent feature of the fourth estate. As well, an earlier title for this post was “The Fourth Estate.”
  5. “There are many impulses at work here, including ego and a not altogether unjustified paranoia. A free, well-funded press is essential to a free and functioning democracy, which can lead some journalists to imagine themselves inestimably more important than plumbers (to say nothing of bloggers). Alas, free presses were, until recently, funded to an alarming degree by classified advertisements, and nobody’s found a surefire model for replacing that income in the Craigslist era. No job in journalism these days is particularly safe.” This quote by Chris Selley seems important but couldn’t fit it in.

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  1. Branding and journalism seem a little bit like mixing oil and water. Branding seems like oil. And journalism wants to be like is water.

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