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“Journalism” and “the media” are not synonymous.
December 21, 2009

Journalism, the practice, is not “the media,” although for many years most of the journalism that got done was done inside the media industry. Now that industry is in trouble, but not because people no longer want to be informed or entertained (they still do). Rather, the social pattern that sustained the media industry has been disrupted by technology (see Briefing).

The media used to work in a one-to-many pattern–that is, by broadcasting. The Internet, though it can be used for one-to-many transmission, is just as well suited for few-to-few, one-to-one, and many-to-many patterns. Traditionally, the media connected audiences “up” to centers of power, people of influence, and national spectacles. The Internet does all that, but it is equally good at connecting us laterally–to peers, to colleagues, and to strangers who share our interests. When experts and power players had something to communicate to the attentive publics they wished to address, they once had to go through the media. Now they can go direct.

Because for a long time the media industry was relatively stable and was the setting in which journalism was practiced, we got into the habit of calling journalism the “news media,” and then just “the media.” Journalism and the system that carries it became equated.

In the 1970s and ’80s, a number of classics in press scholarship were written by social scientists who went into newsrooms to study how decisions were made. They all observed that “routines” drive what happens in journalism, and that these routines ultimately served the demands of a particular production cycle: the daily newspaper, the 6 p.m. broadcast, the monthly magazine.

Ideas about what journalism is–and even what it can be–get trapped within these routines as they become second nature. What happens when the production routine shifts radically, as with the Web, and news producers confront a different social pattern? Journalists insist that their habitual practices are not artifacts of a technological era but the essence of good journalism. They shouldn’t do that, and they wouldn’t, if they understood what I said at the start: journalism is not the media.

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University.

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