U.S. Journalistic Culture


According to media scholar Mark Deuze, journalism — namely, journalism in Western societies in the Global North — is generally comprised of five central values, which together make up what he calls the occupational ideology of journalism.

The first value is that journalists should provide a public service to the citizens of a given country. The second is that journalists should be impartial, fair, and objective. The third is that journalists must be independent in their work. The fourth is that journalists must have a sense of immediacy and the ability to quickly report emerging developments. The fifth is that journalists must have a strong sense of ethics that is consistent with a broader professional code of ethics.

Just because such a value system exists does not mean that the way journalism is practiced in those places actually reflects those values. Put another way, in some places, journalism is hardly impartial or independent in practice. However, those cultural values are important to how the majority journalists in those places develop their sense of identity, how they think about their work, and how they collectively try to legitimize themselves to society. Such values also often come up in popular media about journalism, such as American movies that portray journalists as independent truth-tellers.

Breaking Down Journalistic Cultures

What Deuze is effectively suggesting is that although journalism may be practiced differently in different places, there is a general journalism culture that spans many of those places. However, although useful as a starting point, Deuze’s theorizing is a reflection of Western ideology. For example, those values implicitly assume a separation of powers accomplished through systems of checks and balances, with journalistic media informally serving as one such check. Additionally, they also assume that journalistic outlets have the ability to remain independent from government. This is obviously not the case in many places.

Scholars have thus sought to move away from trying to find some universal journalistic culture and instead toward demarcating different aspects of journalistic cultures that allow for comparison across contexts (e.g., countries or regions). One such model comes from the Worlds of Journalism project, which has examined dozens of countries across five dimensions: journalists’ sense of editorial autonomy, their perceived influences, their role orientations, their ethical considerations, and their trust in institutions.

U.S. Journalistic Culture

Based on interviews conducted in 2013 by the Worlds of Journalism team, journalists in the U.S. tend to report a consistently high degree of editorial autonomy (independence), particularly in how they report news. For example, more than 90% of the U.S. journalists they interviewed said they had “complete” or a “great deal” of freedom in deciding what aspects of a story to emphasize, and almost 90% said they had freedom in selecting which news stories to report. This puts the U.S. on the high end of editorial autonomy globally, as journalists in other countries typically report having less independence in choosing what to cover and how to cover it.

Although journalists in the U.S. report high levels of autonomy, they also recognize a range of different things that influence their ability to do their work. For example, almost 70% of U.S. journalists said that time limits were “extremely” or “very influential” to their journalistic work, suggesting a pressure to publish quickly. Similarly, almost 70% reported that their editorial supervisors and the organization’s editorial policy were highly influential to their work — although far fewer reported feeling very influenced by the managers or owners of their news organizations. Moreover, U.S. journalists generally do not perceive government censorship, advertising pressures, or pressure groups (such as industry trade associations and lobbyists) to have great influence on their work.

With regard to their role orientations, nearly all journalists in the U.S. said that it was “extremely” or “very important” to report things as they are — that is, to never fabricate information even if such fabrications would supposedly tell a ‘broader truth.’ The vast majority also believed it was important for them to educate their audiences and provide the information people need to make political decisions. Put another way, journalists in the U.S. generally believe that producing information that allows citizens to participate in civic and political processes is an important part of their (or their industry’s) job. In fact, U.S. journalists perceive acts of monitoring and scrutinizing political leaders to be among the most important functions of their job.

Notably, journalists in the U.S. generally believe they should be detached observers of events and should focus on allowing people to express their views in stories. (In contrast, few report believing in advocating for social change or striving to influence public opinion.) Relative to journalists around the world, this makes U.S. journalists more likely to value (and prioritize) the values of neutrality and offering balanced reporting. Additionally, U.S. journalists almost never see supporting national development or supporting government policies as important roles — a stark contrast to countries like China, Ethiopia, and Thailand, where journalists are far more likely to show support for government officials and their policies in their reporting.

The idea that journalists should always adhere to professional codes of ethics, such as the one from the Society of Professional Journalists, received almost unanimous agreement among journalists in the U.S. (In contrast, the notion that ethics are a matter of personal judgment received support from only one in ten journalists.) Additionally, a situational approach to ethics was rejected by nearly two-thirds of the journalists, and an even larger majority said that even extraordinary circumstances were not enough to warrant setting moral standards aside. Put another way, journalists in the U.S. believe a strong professional sense of ethics is paramount to doing journalism, and they believe they should defer to the dominant set of ethical values promoted within the profession (rather than relying on their own personal ethics). Moreover, there are some practices that journalists widely reject. For example, most journalists in the U.S. considered publishing unverified content, altering photographs, claiming to be someone else, and paying people for confidential information to be unacceptable practices.

Finally, journalists in the U.S. have little trust in political and societal institutions. While they trust news media (their fellow journalists) more than any other institution measured, fewer than 40% of journalists said they had “complete” or “a great deal” of trust in news media. Other institutions that received relatively high levels of trust were the military, the judiciary, and police. However, just over 1% of U.S. journalists had a great deal of trust in politicians and political parties in general, with 4% trusting the institution of the U.S. Congress and 11% trusting the Executive Branch. In general, this makes journalists in the U.S. far more skeptical of political and societal institutions than journalists in other countries. (Skepticism is, after all, a cherished value among U.S. journalists.)

Why Journalistic Cultures Matter

Journalistic cultures shape (and are shaped by) how journalists think and, consequently, impact how they act. There is, again, often a disconnect between what journalists think and what they do. Nevertheless, what they do is often influenced — at least initially — by what they think. For example, a journalist may choose to not go undercover or lie about their identity because they believe that violates a professional code of ethics — and they may thus try to get the story another way.

Additionally, journalistic cultures impact what is seen as legitimate work among fellow journalistic actors. That, in turn, impacts who and what are symbolically celebrated — that is, who gets treated as a “good” journalist by their peers or what gets treated as “good” journalism. Those symbolic rewards have material implications, such as increased job offers, job security, promotions, awards, and so on for those individuals who are seen as “good” journalists by their fellow journalists, and for the journalistic products that journalistic actors perceive as being “good.”

Finally, journalistic cultures impact how journalistic actors legitimize their work to society. This, in turn, affects how societies think about journalism and the kinds of access and protections that other institutional actors (e.g., governments or sports teams) are willing to grant those journalists. For example, in a society where journalists are believed to provide important checks and balances to governmental authorities — as is the case in the United States — then that society is likely to support limited government intervention in news production and distribution.

It is important to note that journalistic cultures are not static, however. They can and do change over time. For example, the journalistic culture in the United States only adopted the journalistic value of neutrality as a central tenet in the 20th century. More recently, there have been rumblings within that culture to shift away from the value of “balance” and toward a “weight-of-evidence” approach, especially when it comes to covering scientific issues like climate change.

Key Takeaways

  • Different countries have distinct journalistic cultures. There is no single, universal way of doing journalism, though some values and norms are more common than others across contexts (e.g., countries and regions).

  • Journalists in the U.S. express having a great deal of editorial autonomy, and say they can generally select what to cover and how to cover it.

  • Journalists in the U.S. believe their primary role is to educate the public about civic affairs, and they believe professional codes of ethics should be closely adhered to.

  • Journalists in the U.S. are very skeptical of the political and social institutions they cover.

  • Journalistic cultures matter because they shape (and are shaped by) how journalists think, act, and legitimize themselves to their peers and to society.