‘Britney Spears stumbles, nearly drops baby’: practice-informed reflections on political economy’s intangible meso-level of analysis


A weakness of a political-economic perspective on the news media is its relative neglect of the meso-level of analysis. For instance, in Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model (Manufacturing Consent, 1988) the meso-level is little more than a black box. Herman and Chomsky have their reasons: “…deliberate intent (‘conspiracy’) and unconscious hegemony (‘professional ideology’) are for the most part unknowable and unmeasurable” (cited in J. O. Hearns-Branaman, The Propaganda Model Today, 2018: 26). Indeed, for the purposes of a first-order critical analysis of a hierarchical, commercial media system and its output, the intent of the individual journalist is mostly irrelevant, as are the specific mechanisms by which hegemony is maintained.

Yet, though analytically justifiable for certain purposes, the neglect of the meso-level of analysis constitutes an omission to be addressed. Media scholars should aim to advance understanding of all aspects of the media, as much as possible, including at the level of the newsroom. Therefore this paper tries to clarify and expand on three perennial issues related to journalistic practices, with revealing references to the author’s own time working as a global news editor, including with one of the two biggest news agencies in the world. These issues are: journalists’ responsibility for the product they produce; their intent; and their conformity to organizational imperatives.

The value of this paper consists of its frank insider account of what happens in the newsroom. Aside from critical self-reflection, it includes an examination of how ‘objectivity’ is employed in practice as an ideological tool to enforce content that conforms to mainstream values, and a critical discussion of the detrimental effects of the focus on entertainment news, to the extent that a stumble by a pop star (Britney Spears) in Los Angeles could result in sending out a global news alert to editors worldwide.

Political economists tend to downplay the agency of individual journalists, but this paper argues that, in fact, journalists on the ground have quite some leeway to make decisions, including producing content that challenges widely held beliefs. The paper points out the contradiction that leading political economists of the media often call out other intellectuals for conforming to authority, but tend to not blame individual journalists for their conformity to authority.

Another of this paper’s contributions consists of introducing and explicating an ignored reason for the fact, well-established by research done by sociologists of news (e.g. H. J. Gans, Deciding What’s News, 1979), that journalists usually stringently comply with the rules set by the organization they work for. This ignored factor is identified as the ‘day-to-day-ness’ of the social and material context in which work takes place, in concrete terms, the office environment. The paper argues that journalists conform in part because of the utter normalcy of their immediate work environment. In other words, journalists conform in part because their immediate environment constantly gives off clues that all is normal.