Toward a field theory of journalism

By Andrew R. Cline, Ph.D.

This text was originally published in a series of posts on the Rhetorica: Press-Politics Journal weblog. I have edited it for continuity in this format.

To begin understanding the influence of journalism on culture I think it's important to consider the concept of noetic field. A noetic field (as defined by James A. Berlin in Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges) is a "closed system defining what can, and cannot, be known; the nature of the knower; the nature of the relationship between the knower, the known, and the audience; and the nature of language." Berlin concludes from this (and I agree) that rhetoric "is thus ultimately implicated in all a society attempts. It is at the center of a culture's activities."

At any given time there is a dominant noetic field and, therefore, a dominant rhetoric.

I notice that changes in the noetic field can be mapped to changes in writing/rhetoric instruction in American universities (I am not suggesting cause). I also notice that changes in journalism map to these changes in writing instruction and the noetic field. For example, objectivity as a value in discourse arose in journalism and writing instruction during the same era.

Also at any given time, alternative rhetorics fight for dominance on the margins of the culture. These alternative noetic fields also map to changes in writing instruction and journalism. For example, the expressivist movement (emphasis on personal voice) arose in the universities in the 1960s at the same time writers began practicing the so-called New Journalism. Today, we see civic journalism fighting in margins to influence professional practice at the same time that the classical concerns of rhetoric (taught by professors with PhDs in rhetoric rather than English literature) are returning to academia.

I contend that journalism is the most important discoursive practice in our culture. As such, it reflects and drives the noetic field. And this means that it has a profound, even establishing, effect on the dominant rhetoric. Journalism tells us who the knower is, what he can know, how he can know it, his relationship to an audience, and the nature of language as a medium of thought and expression. When I say that journalism is an under-theorized practice (as I have many times), one of the things I mean to suggest is that most journalists practice their profession without understanding their role in the noetic field.

In civic journalism, I see the possibility for a change in the noetic field--something that hasn't happened, to any great extent, for about 100 years.

UPDATE: Although he doesn't use the term, Jay Rosen's latest essay concerns the concept of noetic field.

Why a "field" metaphor...

To "theorize" something is to say how and why it "works." A proper theory should then be predictive.

I have maintained that journalism is an under-theorized practice. This is not to say that we do not have some effective theories of journalism. As a complex practice, it may be classified by many discreet sets of skills, purposes, and outcomes--some of which may have separate theories already well articulated.

To search for a "field" theory of journalism is to search for a theory that explains the entire practice in all of its complexity. In this sense I'm using "field" as a metaphor indicating the kind of search currently underway to discover a theory of "everything" in physics.

I have asserted two sub-theories on Rhetorica: 1) a structural bias theory, and 2) a narrative theory. The structural bias theory asserts that the structure of journalistic practice in the socio-political context of late 20th-and early 21st-century America determines journalistic outcomes, i.e. the product produced by journalistic behavior. The narrative theory asserts that journalists apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

The narrative theory is rather weak because we could apply it to nearly every discoursive practice. Isn't this exactly what we do when we create myths, tell lies, and woo lovers? I think it's certainly important to understand the role of story-telling in journalism, especially because so much of what goes wrong in journalism may be traced to the automatic, or uncritical, practice of telling stories.

The structural bias theory works well as a practical predictor of journalistic behavior and outcomes, but it is bound in a particular socio-political context. This theory is nearly worthless when applied to practice prior to the 20th century. In other words, biases change because contexts and values change.

And this is what has led me to think about the concept of noetic field and the role of journalism within it. As an important discoursive practice (the most important, I would argue) in our culture, journalism is both bound by, and foundational to, the current noetic field. And that means that current journalistic practice is bound by, and foundational to, the dominant rhetoric of our age.

To describe the rhetoric of journalism is, then, to describe a the noetic field and rhetoric of our culture. To change journalistic practice is, then, to change the noetic field and rhetoric of our culture.

Such change, however, does not happen by sheer human volition. In other words, we can't just will change to happen. Something has to be ripe in the culture before we can pick that fruit and take a bite.

Parts of the noetic field...

A noetic field is a closed system in the sense that any change to the field changes the system. Again, a noetic field is an epistemological system defining: 1) what can and cannot be known, 2) the nature of the knower, 3) the nature of the relationships among the knower, the known, and the audience, and 4) the nature of language.

At any given time there is a dominant noetic field and, therefore, a dominant rhetoric.

Because journalism is an important discoursive practice in our culture, it necessarily fits the dominant noetic field. Journalistic practice conforms to and establishes the dominant noetic field.

I will now offer a quick examination of how journalism fits the noetic field in terms of the four points listed above. In other words, for journalism: 1) What can be known and how do we know it? 2) Who is the knower and why? 3) What is the relationship among the journalist, the "facts," the source, and the audience. 4) How does journalistic language create this relationship and deliver the news?

I am bracketing punditry and editorializing out of this analysis. Pundits and editorialists operate within the dominant noetic field. But there is an aspect of the field that I do not wish to consider at this point: Our dominant noetic field treats opinion as a personal possession.

For example: Op-ed editors will often defend an obnoxious columnist by claiming that an outrageous statement is "his opinion." In our dominant noetic field, opinions are personal, not communal, property. By claiming such, the editor lets readers know that what the columnist says does not constitute journalistic knowledge. And, because our culture values individualism, the columnist has a "right" to "his" opinion. The columnist's work falls outside of the process of "objective" reporting, which creates journalistic knowledge. Their ideas belong to themselves and the reader must decide what to believe. This is why crackpots keep their jobs.

You can begin to see those four points working in that hypothetical example. In this series, however, I want to deal only with that product that comes from the objective process of reporting and editing. Readers are also left to decide about such a product. But the type of information, and the journalist's relationship to it, are quite different compared to the pundit or editorialist.

The epistemology of journalism...

What can and cannot be known according to journalism and our noetic field, or what is the epistemology of journalism? That's obviously a big question, and any answer I offer here is necessarily general and incomplete.

That said, we may observe that journalism operates with an objectivist epistemology (i.e. objective idealism): What is real is located in the material world and human actions within that world. What can be known are empirically verifiable phenomena. We are connected to the world by our senses and certain faculties of the mind, which are capable of perceiving the world through the senses and then thinking about, and acting upon, these impressions.

Journalism's challenge in this epistemology is to perceive the world correctly and then represent perceptions correctly through language.

What we cannot perceive through our senses cannot be known (the subjective). For example, journalistic epistemology tells us we cannot know the minds of people without verifiable data collected by, or told to, an objective observer.

In journalism we arrive at truth through a method of induction by collecting data from our senses and reasoning from these data to generalizations about the world. Truth comes before language. Language is a sign system for transcribing truth as it is witnessed or experienced by the reporter and/or the source.

The objective process of reporting and editing fits this epistemology. Reporters observe events and other physical data and/or speak to those who have. The meaning of events (a concept slipping dangerously close to the subjective) is limited to a narrow range of contemporary issues and relationships.

Because it is empirically verifiable that humans disagree about events (our opinions), reporters collect data from "both sides" and present these data without comment, allowing readers to apply their own reasoning to discover the incorrect opinion versus the correct representation of events.

Who is the knower?...

Now that we've discussed the epistemology of journalism (how we know what we know), we now must consider the second part of the noetic field: Who is the knower and why?

This is a particularly interesting question in regard to journalism because the knower has a curious split personality. The knower (in this case a reporter) claims to be an objective observer, and the knower claims to be an expert in the given subject by virtue of his status as observer.

But, even more interesting, the knower privileges a even greater knower: the source.

It is the curious relationship between the reporter as knower and the source as knower that creates much of what we understand as journalism. The reporter shifts between the roles of knower and conduit of the known.

The reporter as observer must have something to observe. Reporters are rarely on the scene when events transpire that are subsequently defined as news. So much of the reporter's knowledge comes second hand through the source--the one who has observed first hand.

Knowing that humans disagree about what is known and what the known means, reporters are obligated by the inductive nature of the current noetic field (influenced by our cultural privileging of scientific thinking) to seek as much data and opinion from as many sources as possible. It is this characteristic of the noetic field that creates (and is created by) the fairness bias--one the the structural biases I mentioned earlier..

The choice of source on the part of the reporter is crucially important to the message of the news article and how that message fits the noetic field and socio-political expectations.

The status quo bias of journalism indicates that reporters seek information from culturally approved authorities, i.e. sources with a high degree of legitimacy in the context of American socio-political institutions. Such sources are considered to know by definition by virtue of their authority in a recognized institution. Those outside such institutions--and, therefore, outside such authority--are not believed to know to the same extent as the authorities.

Outsiders, however, do have experiences that bring them to the temporary attention of reporters. Contributions by such sources, however, rarely carry the same weight as "official" sources.

The journalist, the facts, the source, and the audience...

The next question to consider is: What is the relationship among the journalist, the facts, the source, and the audience?

As I discussed earlier, we may observe that journalism operates with an objectivist epistemology. Journalism's challenge in this epistemology is to perceive the world correctly and then represent perceptions correctly through language.

We may begin to describe these relationships this way:

1- The journalist, as objectivist observer, is capable of discovering facts in the world or capable of accurately recording the fact-observations of sources. 2- The journalist is able to discern meaning in the observations of the source as the source understands that meaning. 3- The journalist is able to put these facts and observations into language that avoids distortion of the original observations and may even reproduce the original observations as a mental-emotional experience for the audience. 4- The facts and truth exist independently of the journalist, the source, and the audience. 5- The source is an authority capable of discovering facts and accurately reproducing them in language for the journalist. 6- The audience is capable of unpacking the journalist's language and finding meaning that corresponds to the facts.

Changes in the culture's noetic field happen slowly. I think a change began to occur in the 1970s as indicated, by one measure, in the popularity of the New Journalism, which took a decidedly personal and subjective approach to reporting and writing. The reporter as observer morphed into writer as experiencer. I believe this change on the fringes of the profession helped make the slow movement toward civic journalism possible by opening minds to the idea that reporters are connected to events in far more intimate and complex ways than suggested by objective idealism. The old role of impartial observer is falling away as journalism both drives and responds to changes in the noetic field.

(Hypothesis: The shift in the noetic field fits a generational cycle (re: Strauss and Howe). I note that the initial shift (New Journalism), which also corresponds to the so-called "paradigm shift" of composition studies in academia (expressivism, and process-over-product pedagogy), happened as the current idealist generation--Baby Boomers--moved through the "spiritual awakening" of the 1970s. Will this shift then be complete by the time we reach the "secular crisis" of 2020--also known as the Boomer Apocalypse? I note that the beginning of the movement from the last noetic field to the current one appears similarly to correspond with the "Missionary Awakening" of the 1880s--the earliest movement in journalism to an objective model of reporting (re: The New York Times) and the movement in academia to the German model of the research university.)

These changes challenge much that we see in the old objectivist relationships. Next, I'll discuss the last of the four questions about how journalism fits the current noetic field: How does journalistic language create these relationships and deliver the news? I'll conclude this essay by examining the rhetorical changes I see in journalism and the prime, non-academic indicator of what I believe to be the leading edge of change in the culture's noetic field: civic journalism.

Journalistic language and the rhetorical situation...

I have briefly discussed the how journalism conforms to and creates the noetic field of our age. And I've shown how journalism creates various relationships among the elements of the rhetorical situation. Now, let's briefly consider the last of the questions I raised: How does journalistic language create the relationships of the rhetorical situation and deliver the news?

As previously discussed, journalism operates with an objectivist epistemology. Journalism's challenge in this epistemology is to perceive the world correctly and then represent perceptions correctly through language. You may be thinking that this description is inadequate because, quite often, journalists delve into subjective worlds that cannot be known through empirical methods or inexpert observation. For example, political reporters today are prone to discussing subjective assessments of politicians as if these were observations of verifiable facts. The reason is simple (and terribly complex): The noetic field is changing.

For now, it is important to understand that the dominant noetic field, as described by the epistemology of journalism, still undergirds most journalistic practice.

The language of journalism creates and maintains the relationships of the rhetorical situation by using language that treats these relationships as self-evident. Journalists rarely engage in the kind of qualifying that calls into question their observations and experiences or the observations and experiences of sources. Further, the ethos of journalism leaves such assessments for the reader to make and, by default, assumes that such assessments are possible given the information that's available.

It works this way: A news consumer reads an account of reality that considers two points of view and/or other actions or events chosen by the reporter/editor as newsworthy. Because the reporter recreates reality as it is, the reader may then apply a process of rational thought to the issues and make a decision about which of the two points of view are true or best represent the socio-political values of the culture. The implication is that one correct interpretation exists. The reporter, however, is barred by professional practice from making that assessment (pundits and editorialists, however, may).

If we consider the last major change in the noetic field, that began in the 1880s and was complete by about 1920, we see that the ethic of objectivity takes a strong hold on professional practice. Good journalists used adjectives sparingly (these are subjective assessments). They used specific nouns and active verbs for the sake of clarity and a direct correspondence with reality. And they followed almost religiously the inverted pyramid scheme of arrangement, in which answers to the six journalist's questions are presented first (who, what, when, where, why, and how) followed, in descending order importance (as judged by the reporter), by supporting details. And the sources of these details were eye witnesses and experts whose testimony was recorded and relayed in ways thought to ensure accuracy and fairness, i.e. a reproduction of reality that allows the reader's rational faculty to sort out the truth.

The serious challenge to this noetic field first began in the 1970s. I will now consider the evolution of the noetic field and what it might mean to journalism as we may practice it in the early years of this century.

Change in the field...

I began this essay with a definition of "noetic field":

To begin understanding the influence of journalism on culture I think it's important to consider the concept of noetic field. A noetic field (as defined by James A. Berlin in Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges) is a "closed system defining what can, and cannot, be known; the nature of the knower; the nature of the relationship between the knower, the known, and the audience; and the nature of language." Berlin concludes from this (and I agree) that rhetoric "is thus ultimately implicated in all a society attempts. It is at the center of a culture's activities."

At any given time there is a dominant noetic field and, therefore, a dominant rhetoric.

This concept is important because, I would argue, journalism is a central cultural practice in the formation and perpetuation of the noetic field. Shifts in the field affect the practice of journalism; shifts in journalism affect the characteristics of the field. One might even argue (although I'm not prepared to go there yet) that journalism (broadly defined) is the noetic field by virtue of being our culture's most important discoursive practice. (There are also interesting historical forces at work here that include the evolution of American civic life and socio-political participation in the public sphere. For a cogent analysis of this, I refer you to The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, by Michael Schudson.)

A quick consideration of generational history, as described by William Strauss and Neil Howe, demonstrates that known shifts in the noetic field map rather neatly onto their 4-part cycle of generational personality. The noetic shifts, and, therefore, changes in journalism and rhetoric education, appear to occur to varying degrees during the "secular crisis" and "spiritual awakening" parts of the cycle. And these shifts in journalism and rhetoric education have some interesting commonalities.

For example, at the last "spiritual awakening" during the 60s and 70s, English composition shifted from product-centered to process-centered methods of the teaching (pedagogy). And expressivist models and methods of writing became popular. These models and methods promoted the idea that what was important to write about came from within the student. A student's experience of the world should be the central focus of writing, and the student should be encouraged to deal personally and vividly with these experiences. What came before (and still rules English composition in the academy) is a model we call "current-traditional rhetoric"--characterized by an objective stance, expository style, and writing formulas based on certain modes or essay types.

At the same moment, the so-called "New Journalism" and "gonzo" journalism became popular. These forms showed the same concern for personal experience and vivid style being promoted in the academy.

As you may know, both the new journalism and process pedagogy have been appropriated by the more traditional paradigm. A noetic field, it seems, changes slowly and, perhaps, by appropriation. But I believe the seeds of permanent change did sprout. And I believe they are taking root now and will flower at the next "secular crisis," slated to begin, according to Strauss and Howe, in just a few years.

I believe we will see the profession-wide adoption of civic or public journalism within the next 15 years. In English composition, and the academy in general, we will see a greater move toward more public essayism, civic participation/service learning, and public engagement through writing.

I've only been able to hint at the "whys" and "hows" in this essay. And, really, the work to nail all this down--or to discover that I'm thoroughly mistaken--is still in its earliest stages. At the moment, I believe these three points to be true (i.e. statements that have an understanding-based fit to the world):

1- Journalism is the most important discoursive practice in our culture.
2- As such, it is crucially important that journalists understand the power of their craft and the structure of their profession beyond mere grammatical competence and simplistic notions of "objectivity."
3- Civic journalism is not a fad; it is the leading edge of a new rhetorical paradigm and, thus, a new noetic field for us all.

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