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Hierarchy of Influences Perspective in Journalism

Hierarchy of Influences Perspective in Journalism

Although ethnographies provide a nuanced, insider view of a social setting, they can privilege the immediate context of the newsmaking experience and work toward organizational functionalism. That is, everything observed is easily assumed to be there for a good reason, and selecting one organizational site elevates it as the key player in news gatekeeping decisions. Thus, beyond the first-hand observation of newswork, primarily within an organizational setting, a broader conception of the sociology of news is needed that incorporates the ethnographic perspective but includes other levels of analysis, including individual professional issues and larger macro social structures impinging on journalism. A hierarchy of influences model, developed by Shoemaker and Reese (20141996), does this by considering factors at multiple levels of analysis that shape media content, the journalistic message system, from the micro to the macro: individual characteristics of specific newsworkers, their routines of work, organizational-level concerns, institutional issues, and larger social-systems. The model “takes into account the multiple forces that simultaneously impinge on the media and suggest how influence at one level may interact with that at another” (2014, p. 1). At each level, one can identify the main factors that shape the symbolic reality constituted and produced by journalism, how these factors interact across levels and compare across different contexts (e.g., national, technological).

This approach raises, especially at the individual level, the notion of structure and agency. As a human activity, journalism naturally involves the agency of individuals, which is both constrained and enabled by the structures surrounding them. Ascribing relatively more agency to individuals leads to a greater emphasis on the personal characteristics that guide them (the crusading journalist myth and biographical tradition underscore this tendency); an emphasis on macro structures, on the other hand, tends to de-emphasize this personal agency. A political economic perspective, for example, has the effect of rendering journalists as mere tools of class and other interests. Taking these issues into account, journalism research can be organized by these hierarchical levels as reviewed below, with examples of new conceptual issues.


On the most micro level, we assume that individual creative, professional practitioners matter and knowing who they are helps understand the larger journalistic project—who is being drawn to the profession, how adequately they reflect society, and what professional values they support. The individual level of analysis considers the personal traits of newsworkers, news values they adhere to, professional roles they take on, and other demographic features (e.g., gender, race, class). In spite of the traditional notion of professional “objective” detachment, we assume these characteristics matter in their work. Journalists make decisions based on psychological-level attributes, but they operate within a web of constraints.

Thus, this level of analysis considers the relative autonomy of individuals, how they are both shaped by, contribute to, and identity with their surrounding organizations. Defining news professionals as those working in major decision-making capacities for media organizations, Weaver and colleagues (e.g., Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2007) have tracked the composition of that group over several years, along with how they perceive their roles. Surveying journalists working for traditional news organizations shows perceptions by those individuals most invested in the shrinking professional core. They see journalism heading in the wrong direction, have declining job satisfaction, but give greater importance to their role in analyzing complex problems and investigating official claims (Wilnat & Weaver, 2014).

Although many such studies seek to capture a description of the profession as a whole, the individual level certainly draws attention to the fact that there is no single professional type, not even within national cultures. As professional environments are shifting rapidly, analysis at this level helps understand how professional roles relate to larger structures, serving as a means of adaptation and survival. In the dynamic Chinese media context, for example, Hassid (2011) has identified four types of journalists: American style professionals, communist professionals (“throat and tongue” of the Communist Party), workaday journalists (corrupt, anything for a price), and advocate professionals, who push the envelope and are committed to ideals of transparency, openness, and public participation. Geall (2013) argues that these are the professionals especially equipped for survival, who can exploit the openings provided by the chaotic aspects and contradictions of the Chinese media environment.


The routines level is concerned with those patterns of behavior that form the immediate structures of newswork. If journalism is primarily a social practice, routines are the ways of working that constitute that practice. They may include those unstated rules and ritualized enactments that are not always made explicit. In studying these routines, we assume that power is exercised within organizations—not always by idiosyncratic dictates by leaders but through establishing a pattern of practices that serve the needs of the organization, adapt to requirements of news sources, control the workflow, and give it a meaningful structure. These range from deadline and space requirements to pack journalism and the strategically enacted procedures (e.g., using quotations and balancing) designed to invoke “objectivity” itself. News routines serve the needs of journalists and the organization, but they also have come to embody considerations about the audience, what it will find acceptable and interesting in the forms of news values.

But these routines have been unsettled, as news media adapt to digital flows and metrics, affording the ability to present information that allows greater user participation. From a time when journalists had only a vague conception of their audience, reading and viewing now can be monitored in real time, leading to new value being placed on what is trending, shared, and endorsed. News aggregators, for example, both within and outside traditional news organizations, have had to develop new routines of screenwork, continually checking the incoming streams of information, monitoring what types of stories drive audience traffic, and finding ways to appropriately verify and advance what Coddington (2015) calls “second-hand story-telling,” with routines that support transparency. They help to reconcile the tension between the professional imperative of control and a more open participatory news space online. This “second-order” newswork still maintains a professional ethos, distant from the eyewitness field reporting professionals have always valorized, yet still holding that ethos as an aspiration.


Associated with the organizational level in particular, the ethnographic approach to journalism contributed the insight, now well accepted, that news is an organizational product. Edward Epstein’s News from nowhere did that for television news, showing its organizational constraints and structure in how the location of bureaus dictated what events were available to be translated into daily news flow. Now the walls of these organizations have become more fluid as they enter into collaborative relationships to produce news, and they take on a range of new emerging forms from the large-scale enterprise of daily news gathering to the small-staff, minimalist blogging operation. The key question at this level is “how does it work?” In that respect, the early analysis of Breed (1955) of social control in the newsroom continues to be relevant today in considering how the different parts of the organization work together to maintain itself and accomplish its goals.

These tensions are particularly revealed during times of social change. Lee and Chan (2008) show, for example, that although Hong Kong has a strong tradition of journalistic professionalism, self-censorship has increased following the handover to the mainland government, bringing greater political pressure on local media. News managers try to minimize conflicts by assigning sensitive stories to less experienced journalists, warning them ambiguously to “be smart,” or justifying their instructions with a professional rationale (“be objective”). Since the so-called “Umbrella Revolution,” news organizations there have faced greater challenges in smoothing over these conflicts with owners, many of whom have business ties to the mainland.


At the next, more macro, socio-institutional level is concerned with the “inter-organizational field,” how the various organizations doing news work cohere into a larger institution. The media institution in turn enters into structured dependency relationships with other major systemic players: including the state, public relations, and advertising. Benson (2004) has advocated bringing the sociology of media (systems) back into the analysis, by emphasizing the journalistic institutional field, deconstructing the media system (especially cross-nationally) into its institutional components. This represents the meso-level environment for media—the interplay of economic, political, and cultural factors—lying between organization and society as a whole.

The new institutionalism perspective imported from political science treats the “media” as a political actor in relationship with others (e.g., Ryfe, 2006). This approach includes a historical dimension, which helps explain the emergence of practices and norms as a contingent outcome. In showing how the news media have in common their goals of seeking legitimacy, access to information, and making money, institutionalist analysis helps explain their homogeneity (Cook, 1998; Sparrow, 1999). Bourdieu’s (2005) field theory is similar to institutionalism in identifying spheres of action, which must be understood in relation to each other, and which in the case of the journalistic field implies autonomy, homogeneity, and is a result of a path dependent historical trajectory. We understand the journalistic field to be structured by combinations of economic and cultural capital, and although there is individual agency the field conditions the actions of its members.

Both fields and institutions bring up questions of where the boundaries lie among these institutions as they jockey for power and how these interdependencies shape the news product. Power flows not only from the state to the media, but the other way around in a process of mutual adaptation. Fox News, for example, has dictated to the Republican Party as it seeks to manage the presidential campaign by creating a debate forum for aspiring candidates, some of whom had contracts with Fox for on-air appearances. At the institutional level we can better recognize the even more complex nature of mediatization: a distinctive stage in the long-term development of contemporary mass democracies in which political processes have grown more or less dependent on the mass media and shaped themselves accordingly.

Social System

The most macro, social system level is concerned with traditional theories of society and power as they relate to journalism. Much of early U.S. communication research was predicated on a benign, functional pluralism view of power in democratic society that assumed a self-righting balance of interests. But when journalism decision-making becomes problematic, powerful interests become directly implicated, and more critical political economic explanations consider journalism to be an extension of class and corporate power. Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) propaganda model, for example, gives journalists relatively little autonomy as they work to uphold the interests of their sources, advertisers, and other elites. In a more subtle elaboration, long pre-dating the propaganda model, hegemony theory takes Antonio Gramsci’s extension of Marx to explain how power relations become naturalized, even while granting media some relative autonomy from class power and interests. Ideology explains how the social system hangs together as the media project ideas and meaning in the service of power and interests. Violations of paradigmatic boundaries in a society require repair work and help explain media representations of deviance and marginalization of dissent.

One doesn’t need to take a Marxian perspective to recognize that journalism and media institutions function within a larger social system, and these systems increasingly span national boundaries. The most direct way to address factors at the social system level is through cross-national comparison, an important theoretical development at this level. This comparative approach applied to professional journalism is exemplified by Hanitzsch et al. (2011), who mounted a survey across 18 countries from a mix of news organizations on their role perceptions, epistemological orientations and ethical views, a design that allowed them to directly assess the influence of national context on the perceptions of journalists themselves. Their research raises the question: To what extent is there a global journalistic culture? They found three major clusters of similar countries classified as Western, peripheral-Western, and developing/transitional, but generally shared is a sense of detachment and non-involvement in their perceived professional roles, and in being a watchdog of government (and to some extent business). They differ on the value of interventionism, the promotion of certain goals of social change, but in general there is evidence for a universal ideology and professional identity.




To read:

A Media Sociology for the Networked Public Sphere: The Hierarchy of Influences Model

We have promoted a hierarchy of influences model for understanding the complex factors shaping media—particularly news—content: from the individual to socialsystem level. Meanwhile, technology-enabled changes in the media eco-system have shifted old boundaries and encouraged new, more spatially oriented concepts, such as fields and networks. In this essay we revisit our levels-of-analysis perspective, which in the historical context of communication research was a response to the media effects paradigm, and incorporate within the model examples from recent research. We argue that the hierarchical of influences can still take into account new realignments of media and other forces. Emerging spaces in the network public sphere may not fit as easily into the once familiar professional, organizational, and institutional containers, but the new media configurations supporting these spaces must still be understood with reference to a larger framework of power. Download full article


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