Are Journalists Elites?
In one way or another, society has always been divided into two basic groups: the elite and the general population. Having fallen somewhat out of view, this fact has once again become a subject of intense concern and debate. Extreme concentration of wealth, technocratic politics of necessity and not least a surge of populist parties and movements across the Western hemisphere have once again made the elite-mass-divide one of the most pertinent issues in public and academic debate.
"The populist alignment of the media with the elite does to some degree hit a nerve."
This rediscovery of elites brings new urgency to the central question of elite studies: who are the members of the societal elite – the people who wield influence over society as a whole rather than over a specific domain or sector such as sport, culture or science? One of the groups that has often been denied the status of societal elite is high-ranking journalists and editors - and not without reason. From a theoretical point of view, the elite status of journalists can and has been questioned based on the fact that they are not in direct possession of coercive, physical or economic means of power and influence. An equally or even more important reason for the absence of journalistic elite membership is that journalists themselves (and many journalism and communication researchers with them) have been very reluctant to accept elite status in any shape and form because of a perceived conflict with an essential part of the journalistic DNA: to control and keep check on those in power.
The question of whether journalists and editors are part of the broader elite circles in society has certainly caught the eye of populist parties and movements. Indeed, the populist claim to incarnate the people against a distant, arrogant or even corrupt elite routinely includes a critique of ‘mainstream’ media. Although there is precious little reason to mistake populist rhetoric for facts, the populist alignment of the media with the elite does to some degree hit a nerve: perhaps high-ranking journalists and editors should not merely be seen as influential within media organizations, but also as members of the broader elite circles in society? Indeed they should: journalists are (also) elites, and the fact that they (or at least some of them) form part of societal elite circles and entertain relations with other elites will have consequences not only for the public debate of political issues but also for policy making, political culture and citizens’ take on politics.
High-ranking journalists and editors do indeed hold not only a vital position in the media sector, but are what has been coined strategic elites: elites that possess the resources to influence major development in society and thus to exert political influence and power in a broader sense (Keller 1963). This is not to say that journalists and editors have simply become part of the political elite in terms of their institutional position or overall logic of action. Just as other sectoral elites (such as business or judicial elites), they potentially have significant impact on political outcomes from within their respective societal sector. To cite a well-established definition of political elites, they are ‘persons who are able, by virtue of their strategic positions in powerful organizations and movements, to affect political outcomes regularly and substantially’ (Higley and Burton 2006: 7).
"The media may affect politics by directly influencing the minds and actions of politicians."
The notion that journalists should be seen as members of the strategic elite is premised on the assumption that the power to shape media content eventually transfers into political power. This idea of control of media content as a source of political power has largely been missing from the traditional understanding of journalists and editors as elites that wield power only in the sense of a normative control function of the press as a fourth estate. In effect, elite research has not paid much attention to the highly developed debate on the indirect and direct political influence of the media within communication studies and political communication research (which in turn has not tied the issue of media power back to a societal elite status).
Traditionally, the political power of the media has been associated with indirect effects, that is, the notion that media affect political decisions via their influence over public opinion and citizens and the subsequent impact on election outcomes. Research suggests that these indirect effects take place primarily through cognitive processes (such as agenda setting and framing) that affect how citizens prioritize and evaluate certain political issues. These cognitive effects may both have short-term implications on citizens’ take on individual political parties and candidates (so-called priming), as well long-term effects on political trust, interest and participation.
In addition to such indirect effects, it has increasingly come into view how the media may affect politics by directly influencing the minds and actions of politicians. The fact that political actors alter their behaviour as a reaction to actual or presumed media reporting rather than as a reaction to changes in public opinion is generally assumed to become more pronounced with the mediatization of politics, in which politics ‘has become dependent in its central functions on mass media, and is continuously shaped by interactions with mass media’ (Mazzoleni and Schulz 1999: 250). Mediatization implies an adaptation of politicians to the media logic (Altheide and Snow 1979) embedded in the criteria for selection and presentation of news in different types of media outlets. At the same time, it lends increased importance to the principal resource held by high-ranking journalistic actors: control of access to the principal channels of public communication.
"The process of mediatization links political elites and journalistic elites closer together in the production of political messages."
However, mediatization is not simply putting more power in the hands of journalistic elites. Mediatization also changes the nature of politics, providing political elites with new challenges and opportunities. Rather than producing a clear winner in a zero-sum power game, the process of mediatization links political elites and journalistic elites closer together in the production of political messages. The result is the emergence of a distinct elite, operating at the intersection of media and politics: the political communication elite. Together, high-ranking journalists, politicians and political communication professionals exercise significant control over publicly communicated political messages and thus influence collectively binding decisions regularly and substantially.
In academic as well as popular discussion, this intermingling of elites at the intersection of media and politics is frequently critically addressed for its potential self-referentiality. As British scholar Aeron Davis already pointed in out in 2003, the ‘development of small elite communication networks which include top journalists’ creates a situation in which ‘elites are simultaneously the main sources, main targets and some of the most influenced recipients of news’ (Davis 2003: 673). However, as instructive as it is to study the networks and direct interactions between political and journalistic members of the political communication elite, the crucial nexus between them might be found elsewhere. The main question is rather whether politicians and journalists start to share a common mind-set or world view that potentially detaches them from the reality of ordinary citizens.
In theoretical terms, this question taps into the notion that elites often display a shared belief system that, when highly developed and consolidated, leads to a high degree of elite cohesion. Such cohesion can be understood in two distinct ways: as a high degree of similarity of attitudes and as a lack of differentiation in attitudes between groups of actors that are otherwise distinct. Taking the latter point a bit further, journalistic elites and political elites need not necessarily be in full agreement on everything to display elite cohesion. If political actors and media actors can no longer can be distinguished based on their attitudes, usual assumptions about their distinct roles, positions and functions in society are fundamentally called into question. This is particularly the case if these commonalities in attitudes do not refer to basic values and orientations, but go to the very heart of the working relationship between politics and journalism: the production and communication of political messages and news that form the basis of how we as a citizenry learn about and debate issues of collective concern.
In order not to run the risk of accommodating populist-induced media skepticism, however, it is of utmost importance not to demonize the observation that political and journalistic elites may be increasingly on the same wavelengths. Indeed, a system of political communication in which the media and the political side of the table lack a common understanding of the roles, routines and expectations undergirding the production of political messages would leave the political public sphere and mediated democracy in utter disarray. The answer, as always lies in the detail, and in the art of ‘getting along, neither too much nor too little’.
In any case, the linkages between journalists and political elites – in the world of daily interaction, as much as in their minds and beliefs - make it critical for both elite and political communication research to approach journalistic actors as what they (also) are: a strategic elite in their own right, positioned at the heart of modern-day mediatized politics, and not just a political outsider keeping checks on the use and abuse of power.
Altheide, David L. and Robert P. Snow. 1979. Media Logic. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.
Davis, Aeron. 2003. ‘Whither Mass Media and Power? Evidence for a Critical Elite Theory Alternative’. Media, Culture & Society 25 (5):669–690.
Higley, John and Michael Burton. 2006. Elite Foundations of Liberal Democracy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Keller, Suzanne. 1963. Beyond the Ruling Class: Strategic Elites in Modern Society. New York, NY: Random House.
Mazzoleni, Gianpietro and Winfried Schulz. 1999. ‘“Mediatization” of Politics: A Challenge for Democracy?’ Political Communication 16:247–261.
Elite Cohesion in Mediatized Politics
Eva Mayerhöffer is Assistant Professor of Journalism at the Department of Communication and Arts, University of Roskilde. Elite Cohesion in Mediatized Politics, published by ECPR Press in partnership with Rowman & Littlefield International, is available now.