Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Sept. 26, 2019, 12:25 p.m.

“Glory and honor”: How professional identity shapes the way journalists do their work

“In an era in which trust in news is fractured and employment is precarious, we need to look more closely at the ways that journalists’ sense of their own professional value — or lack thereof — influences the work they do and the environment in which they do it.”

Editor’s note: For nearly five years, Mark Coddington was a weekly presence here at Nieman Lab, writing the This Week in Review column on Fridays. He went off to grad school, became a journalism professor doing important work, and has now published his first book: Aggregating the News: Secondhand Knowledge and the Erosion of Journalistic Authority. I’m pleased to have him back on these pages writing about some of the book’s most important takeaways.

I’ve never met an editor who was as eager as Jennifer was to show me one of her organization’s worst stories.

Jennifer (not her real name) was the senior editor of VidNews, my pseudonym for a news organization that, at the time of my visit in 2015, was largely producing short, aggregated videos on daily news events using brief third-party video clips, motion graphics, and original narration.

Jennifer was trying to demonstrate to me how much VidNews had grown by showing me a hastily produced video from 2013, about a baby accidentally flushed down a toilet in China. She pulled up the video on a desktop computer and breathlessly talked me through it, pausing every few seconds to annotate it disparagingly. The video was a haphazard mashup of lengthy excerpts from American local TV news stations and English-language Chinese publications, devoid of context. The source material served as a “backdoor way to show someone else’s pictures,” in Jennifer’s words, and the video cribbed from its sources so extensively as to render them superfluous.

Jennifer turned to me after the video ended. “We would never do anything like that again,” she said. “Ever. One, there’s no glory or honor in it. But two, it’s not a legally viable business strategy.” There was nothing specifically illegal about it, though it skirted the edges of what’s considered fair use of copyrighted material.

I was intrigued, though, by the invocation of “glory or honor.” We might not think of glory and honor as important elements in understanding news aggregation. Aggregation — the work of assembling and repackaging news from content that has already been published — is routine desk work, recycling the material of other journalists to fulfill a company’s economic goals that might feel distant and exploitative. Where, one might wonder, is the glory and honor in that, whether it’s done well or poorly?

But in my research on news aggregation for my book, Aggregating the News: Secondhand Knowledge and the Erosion of Journalistic Authority (Columbia University Press), I found that the professional status encoded in this idea of “glory and honor” is central to who aggregators are and how they do their work — precisely because it’s in such short supply. Without that sense of identity, work tended to become rote, cynicism ruled, and burnout was high. In organizations that cultivated it, aggregators produced stronger work and showed more satisfaction. But the importance of professional identity isn’t limited to aggregators. In an era in which trust in news is fractured and employment is precarious, we need to look more closely at the ways that journalists’ sense of their own professional value — or lack thereof — influences the work they do and the environment in which they do it.

What makes journalists feel like journalists

The notion of professionalism has for decades been central for scholars seeking to understand the role journalists play in society and why they do what they do. As the sociologist Max Weber conceived of it, professionalism is about controlling knowledge and converting it into authority. Journalists lack many of the classic traits of a profession — they aren’t licensed (in America), they have no required education, and the primary skills they claim aren’t exclusive. But their social utility hinges on their ability to produce a certain kind of knowledge — timely, understandable explanation of important public events — and have that knowledge taken to be authoritative.

Since journalists don’t check many of the traditional professional boxes, scholars have often examined professionalism’s significance to journalism by determining the ways journalists think of themselves as — and seek to become — professionals. This approach puts professional identity at the forefront of what it means to practice journalism. Journalists have a very strong sense of this identity; they conceive of themselves as being oriented around a high calling of public service. They believe this gives their work great social value, and they fight fiercely to maintain their autonomy over it.

This professional identity holds a lot of value for journalists. In the absence of formal enforcement, it provides a central motivation for upholding ethical norms and standards. It reinforces a sense of community that helps sustain journalists’ commitment and strengthens their standing when interacting with other social groups, like politicians. And, most relevant to news aggregators, journalists’ image of themselves as savvy and noble (if unruly) guardians of democracy helps them cope with the increasingly routine, constrained nature of their work.

Professional identity comes from several places — socialization through journalism school and news organizations, discussion about journalism on Twitter and in publications like this one, and ideological values of the idealized roles journalism should play in society. But what I found in my research on news aggregators is that a primary wellspring of professional identity is the work of journalism itself — and when that work becomes more monotonous and less reliable as a source of knowledge, journalists’ identity is fractured with it.

Monotony and marginalization

I interviewed more than 80 aggregators and their editors in 2015 and 2016 and observed journalists doing aggregation in five news organizations. Most were under 30, and almost all of them spent their days at a desk, processing a torrent of information from TweetDeck, Slack, and various browser tabs at a bewildering pace to keep up with the demands of continuous publication. One told me that at the end of the workday: “You just walk away like a zombie, because you’re just focused, straight-on.”

That intense informational stimulation often produces more of a sense of monotony than a rush, in part because aggregators are working with other people’s information, not their own. Editors recognize this, and they see its effects in high turnover and low morale. Many of them adjust for it by building in on-location reporting assignments to function in part as “breaks” from aggregation. “If that was your full-time job, then I think you’d get real bored,” said one journalist who alternated shifts of reporting and aggregation. “I’d feel like I wasn’t using enough skills, almost.”

The work of aggregation is defined by a relentless pace and a juxtaposition between the constant activity and immobility of what one scholar calls “screenwork.” It tends to be exhausting, but without many of the psychic rewards of reporting — visiting new places, talking to people, observing important events, finding out things that no journalist has found out before.

This stultifying work fed a sense of inferiority that was compounded by the way aggregators knew they were viewed within their profession, and sometimes, within their own organization. Aggregation has long been derided in the news industry as cheap and ethically dubious and only marginally considered journalism, if at all. While many organizations have worked to ensure that all of their journalists feel their work is valued, that root sense of marginality continues to seep through in the way aggregators are talked to by their colleagues and the way they perceive themselves.

Consider one journalist’s contrast of the way his good aggregated and reported work was talked about in his organization:

“You’re going to get kudos for a really well-reported, smart, and well-read story. For a story that does really, really well [in drawing traffic] that you just aggregated, the most you’ll maybe get, if it’s really getting a lot of attention, is like, ‘Ha ha, hey, that story is doing really well.'”

That journalist didn’t resent the condescension toward aggregation; he shared it too. “Nobody graduates from journalism school and wants to do aggregation,” he told me. Even if he did aggregation well, it simply wasn’t fully “real” journalism, in his mind or in those of his colleagues.

Reporting and journalistic identity

So what did they consider real journalism? The answer, both to many aggregators and to the broader journalistic profession, is reporting. For decades, journalists have elevated reporting as journalism’s purest and most crucial form of work, a central part of their professional identity. “Good Old Fashioned Shoe Leather Reporting is the one god an American journalist can officially pray to,” media critic Jay Rosen observed in 2015. “There can never be enough of it. Only good derives from it. Anything that eclipses it is bad. Anything that eludes it is suspect. Anything that permits more of it is holy.”

Many of the aggregators in this study seemed to believe this, too — even as it relegated them to the margins of their own profession. “You look at people who are reporting from the ground in Syria or are doing really in-depth stories about Detroit or something, and you think, ‘Wow, that’s real journalism,'” said the editor of one social news site.

Sentiments such as this evoked two main reasons that reporting has such a hold on journalists’ professional identity — and that aggregation is such a weak foundation for that identity. This editor’s statement evokes a powerful cultural myth of the intrepid reporter risking his or her safety in far-off locales. But it also expresses a wistfulness for a type of knowledge based on direct observation rather than reading others’ reports and the authority that comes with that knowledge. In journalists’ minds, reporting allows them to know and tell stories that no one has told before, something that’s central to their sense of their own social value. Aggregation deprives journalists of this sense of professional confidence. The result, especially when combined with the monotony of the work itself, is a mixture of boredom, inferiority, and even shame in some cases — a cocktail that can poison efforts to improve aggregation as a practice.

The inferiority cycle

That’s not to say aggregation is doomed to apathetic decay. Many of the aggregators I observed and talked to believed their work had substantial value, did that work the best they could, and had strong opinions about what they considered the responsible and irresponsible ways of doing it. But because of their lack of cachet within the profession and the lack of professional infrastructure built up around their work — how many j-school classes in aggregation have you heard of? — the norms they espoused had little ability to serve as a foundation for authority and professional status.

The aggregation I observed and heard about seemed stuck in a stagnant cycle. The monotonous and derivative work fed a professional ennui, and coupled with the disdain for that work in the news industry, formed a weak professional identity that led aggregators to see the avenues to fulfillment and status lying elsewhere. This, in turn, led people out of aggregation work, so that they never invested enough in it to see its standards and status improved. Which, of course, will leave it ensconced as derivative, second-class work, as the cycle continues.

This cycle is broken when news organizations make an effort to invest more value in the work and the people doing it — give it recognition, talk together about how to make it better, make it a path through which journalists can gain status in the newsroom and the profession. That starts with recognizing the importance of professional identity and its inherent connection to the work journalists do. Especially as the forms of work journalists do multiply and evolve, it’s important to consider the “glory and honor” we attach (or don’t attach) to that work, and how that esteem might influence the future of the practice itself.

Photo of a newspaper jigsaw puzzle being assembled by Liza under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 26, 2019, 12:25 p.m.
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