Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Getting to the Story: Unwriteable Discourse and Interpretive Practice in American Journalism

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Getting to the Story: Unwriteable Discourse and Interpretive Practice in American Journalism

Article excerpt

The mandate for journalists is to "get" the story from sources with diverse, sometime inimical interests. Most news stories are negotiated in defined social contexts among many different actors, including sources, journalists, editors and press agents. Much of this negotiation occurs in an unwriteable register. Such discourse is thus a key site for looking at interpretive agency in newswriting. Speech labeled "off-the-record" is but one of several modes of discourse that are unwriteable in journalistic practice. In this article I examine a case study of journalistic practice, and the efforts 1, as a journalist, engaged in to "get" the story from political actors who shift on and off the record while seeking to further their own practical agendas. I follow the conversations with situated political actors, both on and off the record, as the journalist attempts to move, both socially and textually, from unwriteable speech to a writeable story. [discourse, interpretive practice, journalism, knowledge, United States]

There is a well-established tradition of ethnography of the press (Tuchman 1972, 1978a, 1978b; Rosenblum 1979; Fishman 1980; Gans 1980; Gitlin 1983; Pedelty 1995) but it is to a large extent embedded in a particular critique of the American mediaindustrial complex' which treats journalism primarily as an institutionally structured activity. In most of this literature journalists serve either as channels through which interested institutions speak or as agents whose actions are overdetermined by institutional constraints. Whether one regards them as vehicles which provide "officials a place to elaborate interpretive webs as part of a negotiating and signaling process" (Schudson 1987: 97) or as relatively unconscious agents of the "everyday practices of domination" (Gregory 1994: 44), analysts taking such views effectively erase the agency of journalists as social actors and interpreters (but see Coutin and Chock 1995).

Journalistic accounts of journalism, on the other hand, portray journalists as almost entirely free agents. In its most extreme articulations this journalistic self-representation takes the form of reports of often epic proportions, in which journalists draw from an American cultural metanarrative of "the fiercely independent, intelligent, and brave male, who by virtue of those qualities is able to overcome insurmountable obstacles" (Pedelty 1995: 129) to construct themselves as flawed but persistent heroes (or, alternatively, as trickster figures) on a quest for truth in a landscape of obstructions, illusions and dangers? A phenomenological account of journalists, describing the world from "the native's point of view" would describe journalists are relatively free agents who struggle against institutional authority, sometimes reluctantly compromising with but never giving in to, hegemony.3

One of the ways to deal with this structure/ agency problem is to see journalism as a form of language-in-use. To the understanding of journalism as a socially structured practice and a view of journalism as a struggle to represent social dynamics existing "out there," a structure-in-use approach adds a further insight: journalism embodies social creativity. It is an interpretive practice. Journalists interpret the social world in the act of representing it and they do this by interpreting the social contexts through which they apprehend the world they are representing. Furthermore, this interpretive creativity is not random but both constituted by and constitufive of social epistemologies. Finally, it is out of these interpretive practices that the regularities perceived by media sociology as structures, emerge.4

Journalism as interpretive practice can be viewed as supplementing or, perhaps, even bridging, other perspectives on the press as a social institution. Certainly there are social dynamics that structure the ways in which the work of journalism is done and which thus contribute to the reproduction of social formations. …

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