Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field/Taking Journalism Seriously: News and the Academy

Article excerpt

* Benson, Rodney and Erik Neveu (2005). Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field. Cambridge, UK, and Maiden, MA: Polity Press, pp. 267.

* Zelizer, Barbie (2004). Taking Journalism Seriously: News and the Academy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 286.

These two books represent attempts to examine journalism through interdisciplinary lenses, the Benson and Neveu book by drawing together a group of contributors to apply sociologist Bourdieu's field theory to journalism, and the Zelizer book through a literature review of scholarship on journalism in disciplines other than mass communication. They aim at two very different goals, and their results are equally varying.

The Bourdieu book attempts to build on the late French sociologist's book On Television with essays mostly laying out factors influencing journalists being more or less autonomous in their work from media's corporate owners, their own educational and professional backgrounds, political allegiances, and more. Its cover also promises that it "discuss[es] the similarities and differences between field theory, new institutionalism, hegemony and differentiation theory." After an introductory chapter, the editors have included a previously unpublished essay by Bourdieu, "The Political Field, the Social Science Field, and the Journalistic Field"; Patrick Champagne on journalism caught between politics and economics; and Dominique Marchetti on journalism specialties (beats, etc.). These chapters are followed by case studies of sorts: Benson on comparing and contrasting French with U.S. journalism; Champagne and Marchetti on French medical news coverage of contaminated blood; Julien Duval on French economic journalism; Eric Darras on which politicians get covered the most in the United States and France; and Eric Klinenberg on teenagers' involvement in the U.S. "media justice movement." Neveu, Michael Schudson, and Daniel C. Hallin end the book with more theoretical pieces.

The book shows field theory as a "work in progress," and certainly there is value in putting a "work in progress" out there to provoke interest, stir debate, and so on. Parts of the book are more devoted to explaining what field theory is not than what it is. Field theory is never defined clearly-apparently because it is a "work in progress." But to the extent that it is defined, it seems to be partly gatekeeping theory (the media decide what stories to cover more, less, or not at all, and which sources to interview), partly agendasetting (if some news media cover-somewhere between vigorously and sensationalistically-a story such as tainted blood, other media will follow and it will catch the attention of politicians and the public), partly sociology of journalism (educational and employment backgrounds and conditions affect news content), partly political economy and ethics (journalists are answerable to their capitalist bosses and even nonprofit journalists are answerable to their underwriters), and so on. Overall, then, this book shows field theory making a very small contribution, if any-certainly nothing new.

In fact, as one reads this book, one increasingly realizes that it offers nothing authentically original, whether or not one has heard of "field theory" and "differentiation theory." Moreover, the comparisons of journalism between the United States and France show only that journalism in the United States and journalism in France are different, no surprise even if each one's notable features are predictably framed as possibilities (at least historically) for the other. Comparative international studies of journalism between two countries are helpful only when the two countries have much in common to begin with, by the same token that one learns more concrete and specific information by comparing/contrasting chimpanzees and bonobos than one does by comparing/contrasting cats and elephants. We should compare/ contrast news media in the United States and Canada, or Germany and Austria, not the United States and France (or, as is now frequently done, South Korea). …